March and April are the New November out here on the West Coast. Again.
“Caught the group off guard…”
“We weren’t ready for it…”
It was a nice spring morning when they left the launch, then nice when they picnicked at the Lighthouse, then when they tried to return, a sudden rain squall came up. The water temperature was 49ºF. The group of seven became separated. 3 kayaks overturned. Although they were using sea kayaks, none of the victims had on dry suits or wetsuits.
“Rescuers reported the weather on scene as 35 mph winds and 3 foot high seas.”
Before you all start wondering “how could anyone possibly do that?” I found some pictures of this sort of kayak trip (taken in July) where the conditions at the start show an extremely gentle looking, smooth as glass surface on Dungeness Bay on a cloudy day, being paddled by someone wearing a… tee shirt and a pfd. On the return route back from the lighthouse, they discover it takes twice as long because the wind picks up in the afternoon.
It doesn’t matter how warmly you dress in street clothes, if you fall in water that is too cold for humans to swim in, you can’t swim in it, you lock up quickly, go numb, and freeze to death, even with a pfd. The problem with the Pacific Ocean off of Seattle, Washington is that it is generally always too cold to swim in, even on a “nice” day. So are most of the bay waters north of Southern California, for most of the year, except for very shallow areas on very warm summer/early fall days.
The take-away from this: (besides proper clothes for immersion in the water temperatures you have, not the spring air you’re feeling)
- Check the weather report updates for your area from the National Weather Service even if you think you understood the forecast from the nice TV weatherperson the night before. You can even bookmark this stuff on your cell phones, the local NWS loves issuing storm warnings on their regional Twitter feeds. Be aware of general patterns for your time of year - if it clouds up and a windy front comes thru because the sun shines longer every afternoon, because it’s spring, then the temperature suddenly drops, that is likely to happen on a weekend excursion too.
- Check tides tables/charts. Which way is it going to be on the return journey? Tides going one way, sudden strong wind going the other way, you in the kayak or worse, in the ice water, trying to get to the nearest shoreline, not going to happen. You are going to bob around like a cork in a glass of ice cubes bouncing around in a washing machine in the back of a pickup truck going down a gravel road.
- If you misplace someone(s) on your group outing in a storm, that is an emergency and call for help.
- Put a whistle on your life jacket, so maybe the person ahead of you notices when you fall in, remember, like that scene from “Titanic.”
The most controversial thing anyone could think, I will say here, if you cannot do anything, can’t use a phone, wet, no signal, no radio, don’t have a beacon, no choice - but die yourself or go get help, then try to go quickly and GET HELP.
The 3rd victim plucked from the cold water, hospitalized in intensive care, is doing better, now awake and responsive:
Anybody who survives an hour or more in water at that temperature without protective clothing for immersion can be said to have experienced some sort of miracle.