A few weeks ago I was commuting home via ferry from my job in Seattle. After a long day, I decided to walk to the back of the ferry and take in the beautiful Seattle skyline. Not one minute into my relaxation, I noticed something in the water. At first it looked like a seal, but upon further inspection it was a dog. Within seconds, a man comes running to me asking if I’ve seen his dog. Apparently the dog jumped from the guys car and he couldn’t find it. I told him where it was in our wake. So he takes the life ring from the boat, throws it in the water and promptly proceeds to dive in. He’s probably 1500 yards from the dog. I heard his shocked reaction to the very cold waters of Puget Sound. It was obvious he wasn’t going to be able to swim to the dog. The ferry stops of course and a rescue ensues. Rescue went fine, but I gathered a few insights for that experience which were good reminders for us sea kayakers. Some are related, some are just my own reflections thinking about different situation responses on the water.
- After about 500 yards, it became very hard to spot the man. The dog was totally invisible in the water at about 1500 yards. Lesson learned, flares would be critical if reentry wasn’t possible. Unless a boat happens to sail very close to someone in the water, it’s next to impossible to be seen without visiual aid - a white paddle, flares of various types, a kayak color visible from a distance, etc.
- VHF radios are a critical piece of back-up emergency gear should self-rescue attempts fail. I’m sure all the boaters in the area heard the ferry’s channel 16 call as within minutes probably 10 boats began to circle the area for back-up assistance. Granted, this was a sunny afternoon just off the shore of West Seattle. If this was on the coast or elsewhere remote, the wet/dry suit would be critical if you had to wait any length of time for rescue. Again, this assumes you have the radio on your person and it is working.
- The water is cold. The man was in the water no longer than 20 minutes, but when got back to the boat it was obvious he was cold! It doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in. I’m stating the obvious here, but I am amazed how many sea kayakers I see in the Puget Sound area who kayak without any kind of neoprene or dry gear. It’s all fun until you go over and can’t get in the boat. I recently landed on a remote beach off the west coast of Vacnouver Island. It was about 80 degrees and sunny that day. So I get out of the boat and some other folks on the beach laugh at my farmer john wetsuit. They can’t understand why I’m wearing such “extreme gear” on a warm sunny afternoon. Ignorance to the fullest extent. I recently learned about a long-time, well respected sea kayaker in the area who decides just one time to go solo without his wetsuit. Turns out he somehow got himself into a pickle on the water and his body washes up on shore two days later. Cause of death: hypothermia.
In the end, this was just a reminder to never take for granted the safety precautions that could save our lives. After much thought and personal anguish, I recently decided to purchase (with a friend) a small Portable Locator Beacon. Darned expensive, but the last resort option is important should I ever find myself completely screwed out on the open water. Man, I hope that never happens, but the idea of floating in the water - knowing my life is ending - and thinking about my wife and kids made the purchase an easy decision. I guess this is what happens when you get older…