Reflections on "Lost Kayakers"

The loss of the novice boaters previously discussed in the “Lost Kayakers” thread was indeed tragic. Never turn your back on the sea. We can argue over whether or not the outfitter and leaders should have been on the water that day, or whether dress was proper etc etc.

But in reading the accounts I thought back to something I learned while canoeing with my High School Whitewater club many years ago: The advisors had one hard and fast rule regarding river safety. We were told not to get ahead of the designated lead boat and not to lose sight of the boat behind you.

Consider that last part. In the days before cheap 2-way radios, if a boat fell behind for ANY reason, the boat immediately in front would hold back. That would cause the next boat to hold back and so forth until the lead boat held up. Admittingly, this was not foolproof (getting a bunch of teens to actually be responsible is like herding felines) but the alternative is to allow the group to become strung out and to have less chance to deal with an emergency if one arises. This worked on trips with over 20 canoes.

While this technique was used on rivers (class I sections, we scouted more difficult ones) it would work well on lakes and coasts as well. Change the “out of sight” portion to “out of hailing distance”.

I have some friends who are the proverbial jackrabbits - Bill and Mary bolt out of the gate and disappear into the distance. If one of the rest of the group was in trouble, they wouldn’t realize it until it was too late.

Hindsite is 20/20, but I cannot help believing that if the group involved in the deaths had been closer together they might have had a fighting chance.


I think you are right
That’s a good rule. From the accounts that I took the time to read, it doesn’t sound like the weather was so rough that a bit of assistance from other paddlers wouldn’t have prevented the tragedy. Of all the second-guessing and “should-haves” that were posted, some good and some not so (as extreme as ‘should have packed a spare outboard motor for the pontoon boat’), yours is one bit of logic that is so simple and makes sense.

Group Splitting
Even with multiple leaders and in the woods, the 2-3 times we split up lead to trouble of one kind or another. None serious, but the risk became obviously higher.

One subgroup took the wrong trail in bad winter conditions for 20-30 minutes before finding the right trail.

Another time we sent one group ahead while waiting for all to cross a portage, and with two boats left, realized one scout was missing behind us. He had retraced a 1 mile portage looking for his dads lost flashlight. He basically vanished without a word or trace until I found him walking back to us 30 minutes later.

A third time our paddling group split up so the faster ones could get to camp while the slower ones regrouped, rested, and continued. No problems in the quiet swamp area, but the open waters of Lake Saranac blew both groups every which way. It was every boat for themselves in the rough lake conditions. We all made it but separating when the conditions ahead were unknown got us one step closer to disaster.

I talked to a friend who just got back
from FL and she said the boys were in site and seemed to be ok. The catamaran quit and the rest of the boats regrouped. They could still see the boys. At dark, they could see a light. They thought the boys would be able to paddle to the group.

Considering this info, I would have sent the 2 experienced kayakers in the group (there were at least 2)out to the boys to tow them in before dark. I would have also called for help, because the safety backup wasn’t functioning. At this point, the waves were 1-2’.

Very sad situation. We weren’t there, so we may not have the whole story.

Lots to rue
The other thread on this is getting pretty polarized, and I have to admit to having jumped in myself. One thing that seemed to come out from the first story is that the tools they had to solve problems were closer to what would be expected for an expedition on a fairly friendly inland body of water than the ocean. The above suggestion may have promoted nearness, maybe the most straightforward fix given the mixed makeup of the group.

What is unclear is how much of the separation between the main group and the lost canoe was due to managing speed, and how much was due to their being blown more sideways or crabbing due to the wind. I don’t know how much that would affect the usefulness of the “fall behind” approach.

Fresh Ways to Think about Risk !!!
My outdoor life was dramatically changed years ago by a gruesome skating accident that almost killed or paralyzed me. I escaped it.

It led me to reexamine old ideas about risk. Rick Curtis of Princeton’s Outdoor Program, with thousands of outings developed a new and creative way of thinking about risk.

Check out this link and have an open mind. Here are some very very illuminating ideas that may change your ways of thinking and acting in the outdoors. Be prepared to think outside the usual it is a tragedy or we can just manage risk polarized ways of reacting that I see in so many posts here.

National news if someone dies in a kayak or plane but so many die from diabetic coma at mcdonalds that it is not news that young people die from junk food. It is natioanal news when someone dies outdoors.

there is allot to what you say

Yes, that is some of what the Rick Curtis article tests us to look at. There are different types of risk, and in much of the third world, having adequate protein and illness and death are the major risks. Choosing to seek risk on the Maslow hierarchy of needs is not even thought of! Sometimes it is good for me to get off my priveledged rear and look at things from how most of the world has to deal with things. It helps me appreciate what I have and so on.

risk article

Having problems printing Evan’s article-it reformats and is cutting off the right side of paragraphs and at the bottom of each page. Looks like a great article.

Any hints?


I believe you are right
AND know how difficult is to keep a group together with the varying strengths and skills of each boat.

Unfortunetly the oceans, gulfs, large lakes and Bays haven’t got surrounding seawalls to contain the paddlers.



The Differences Are Amazing To Me
I’ve often volunteered to be a parent chaperone for a number of NYC public high school trips and it’s amazing how different the view of risk is here. Last trip, we went to Disney World with the high school chorus to sing at Epcot. We were instructed not to let the kids go on any rides or even swim in the motel swimming pool!


Essential to know and respect parents
Yep, parents differ widely about what risk is, OK letting their adolescents drive but kayaking is “unnecessary” risk, may have very different ideas than the group or group leader! The extent of the difference is risk to you should something happen, even if not your fault.

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