Sudden Spring Weatherturn Takes 2 Lives

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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. If you misplace someone(s) on your group outing in a storm, that is an emergency and call for help.
  4. 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.

the weather didnt turn
The water likely stayed 49°. No business paddling in that unprotected out of easy reach of land.

The weather did turn

– Last Updated: Apr-14-15 4:31 PM EST – the article, the weather did turn nasty. And yes, the water was no doubt 49 F the whole time. But I'm guessing they wouldn't have wound up in the cold water without the 35 mph winds and 3 foot seas.

It's a shame they didn't / weren't able to paddle back to the Dungeness spit and walk out. If they started from the point where the spit connects to land, it would have been close. If they were crossing Dungeness Bay they might have been farther from land.

I wonder?

– Last Updated: Apr-14-15 4:59 PM EST –

What person associated with the church organized this "adventure"? Did they have the expertise, experience, and training necessary to organize group paddling on the Pacific Ocean in April?

Were they along for the fun?

Sounds to me like the group was out of it's element; was not prepared for changing weather conditions, or an emergency situation.

what could happen?
Some suffered the natural consequences of poor decision making.


invariably when these threads appear
…and I’m not blaming the OP, because these threads always appear,

but they make me feel like I need to bathe after reading them, because of all of the armchair quarterbacking and second-guessing. People just died and their surviving friends or family members may actually read this forum.

Yes, they should have been dressed for immersion. no question. Beyond that there’s not much to judge with any precision.

They didn’t know…

– Last Updated: Apr-15-15 9:40 PM EST –

what they didn't know. Fancy as it gets. This is a group that did outings together including walks and kayak trips that they had gotten away with until last week. The two folks that were in wet suits also did not take a swim, so it is safe to figure they had a bit more seat time to aid in staying upright. But they are/were no more kayakers than long trail hikers or any other type of adventurer. They are a bunch of friends who got together for outings and, since they lived (oops, correction here) within reach of bigger water, the outings often happened there.

I am sure there is much discussion between the families that is covering all the coulda and shoulda been stuff. But the first part is knowing what it is you need to learn.

Honestly, I have no idea what is to be done about this. I expect that some people have read the news story and are looking at their neighborhood bay with more caution. But long term, until someone understands the risks of an activity they are not going to prepare for them. The guys who rescue people from the tops of mountains in the Adirondacks in the late fall and early spring aren't getting any less busy, and the stories of near tragedies are annual events.

The article in Seattle times
Did a good job of quoting a coast guard spokesman who pretty well nailed everything they did wrong. As he should have, that will probably save as a many lives as anything he could do on the water.

We had two men die locally last year who made several fundamental errors but all the paper had was quotes from friends about what a great kayaker one of them was.

I think many beginner’s need that experience they can reflect on and think “that could have went bad” before they take some things to heart.

the couple wearing wetsuits…
were paddling a tandem. That probably had something to do with their ability to make it to shore.

accident reporting
This sort of tragedy is exactly why the American Alpine Club has for years published their “Accidents in North American Mountaineering”, a description and detailed analysis of every major reported climbing and mountaineering mishap and fatality. I used to read every one, and sometimes thought “wow, that could have been me!” These reports were instructive and the realizations they prompted changed many of my behaviors and presuppositions in my early years as a wilderness adventurers. Unfortunately at least a dozen of those reports over the years involved individuals that I knew personally, including several dear friends. About half of those tragedies were completely acts of random Nature that could not have been avoided despite best practices, but others occurred due to hubris or carelessness.

The construction trade I have been involved in for many decades also publishes an annual deconstruction of fatal and disabling accidents, promoting awareness of what can happen in a lapse of due diligence. My state Fish and Boat commission also publishes and annual list of fatal boating accidents with details (virtually all occur to boaters without PFD’s, yet the state still refuses to mandate them.)

Therefore I don’t object to having these incidents posted on here. We constantly get inquiries on the forum from people who express intentions to venture out into very cold waters despite being clearly unaware of the critical dangers they pose. Anything that reminds them (and us) of the preventable tragedies that can arise from such situations is valuable.

I can’t help but be reminded of the report a couple years ago of the relative novice who capsized and lost his boat and communication with his more experienced companion after dark in the chilly waters of the San Juan Islands (which are 50 to 55 even in midSummer). Despite spending the better part of 36 hours in the water, drifting or swimming, he survived. Why? Because he was wearing a borrowed drysuit. Amazing that people who would never drive a car without putting on their seatbelt, or ride a bike without a helmet, will so often jump into a kayak without minimally appropriate clothing for conditions.

The turn in the weather…
…was forecasted. It happened pretty much on schedule. Some experienced local paddlers didn’t go out because of that forecast. Very sad.


tough stuff for sure,
keeping it real, a true tragedy for all involved, risk management is something we all need to think about every time we go out. Mistakes were made and the ultimate price was paid and for those who survived their grief swallows them up.

I love paddling but I’m not blind to the hurt it can cause. Each time I go out my wife says “come back alive.”

It’s a simple goal but by far the most important goal to have. I like “adventure” but I like coming home even better. Even more important than our pfds, drysuits, and state of the art boats is our own judgement and ability to make good decisions. Things can go bad in a hurry so “let’s be careful out there.” Let’s use this tragedy as a reminder of what can happen.

Which brings up one of my points
… that we don’t know “where” the participants got their weather forecast from, and that what the inland city type forecasters will say on TV for the weekend will be more optimistic and cheery, and can be totally different than what you need for going out on the water or for a hike or whatnot. I have seen this enough with my own eyes for decades. I experienced this a few weekends ago when I got up at 5:30 am and was trying to figure out what to wear 30 miles away at 8am considering the elevation change. I checked the usually good weather website I bookmarked and it claimed it was 10ºF warmer there than it was on my back porch deck… and THAT was a LOT colder than it was forecast, I thought, nope, and hit refresh several times and it finally coughed up the real temperature.

Also, we don’t know if they looked at a regular weather type of forecast on the internet, or the more detailed stuff from marine sites.

The purpose here is not to cast blame. The purpose here is to point out that we need to tell people to use the best tools we’ve been given - we have the internet, we have phones, we can pull up animated satellite feeds, we can pull up the National Weather Service alerts, etc, so we can prepare ourselves to survive our mistakes and have a safe time.

I heard the same

– Last Updated: Apr-15-15 11:22 AM EST –

I heard the same. From an SF Bay Area club member is currently staying up in WA, and was thinking of going paddling that day. He checked the weather and saw that even though it was dead calm that morning, there was a call for a small craft warning in the afternoon. He decided not to go out. Wish these folks had checked the weather and made the same decision.

marine forecasts are on the internet

Open water kayakers - sea, Great Lakes - look for the marine forecast because they know that is where the information they really need will be, also things like buoy readings. And sea kayakers know that there will almost always be a turn in the wind in the early afternoon once the warmer weather starts coming in.

But again, you need to know to look for this stuff. I have seen some TV shows near the coast that touch on the marine forecast, but the report is usually a pretty gross level of information and it often doesn’t happen until the tourist season is on. For the most part, if someone is a person in a kayak rather than a kayaker, they will not have the right habits to get this information.

meditation on danger
When my dad was teaching me to drive a car at 16, part of it was a 30 second meditation that I was required to do before putting the key in the ignition. He told me to close my eyes and imagine being in a crash, with glass breaking and the car collapsing around me, and all the terror and pain.

It may sound perverse on the surface, but that moment of consideration stuck with me and I believe it made me a good driver. It’s as if there is a nagging little elf sitting on my shoulder reminding me that it only takes a split second of error in a hurtling 2 ton chunk of metal to change your life forever. After 48 years and probably half a million miles of attentive defensive driving I’ve never been in an accident (except twice when distracted drivers behind me rear-ended me at low speeds).

I carried that habit into my years as a wilderness outfitter guide and trip leader. Often got teased for the amount of safety, comfort and first aid gear I would take even on day hikes, and the times I made the group turn back due to evidence of weather shifts. But the incidents when my judgement and “bag of tricks” did turn out to be the right option were well worth it.

I do the same instinctive mental check before launching a boat: “what might go wrong today and am I prepared for it?”

What a Powerful Post!
If more folks were like you and your father the road would be a safer place! Thank you for “Sharing” that; I will use that on my nephews when they arrive at driving age in a few years.

I too always have extra clothes, 1st Aid kit, throw bag, etc. I check water levels and weather reports. You can’t guard against every situation, but I try to be prepared as I can. Funny, but it seems like every time I considered leaving the throw bag behind because it was a short, warm weather paddle we ended up in a rescue situation?

Thanks again for a “Tip” that will help not only on the water, but on the way to and from!

lessons from this

– Last Updated: Apr-15-15 11:42 AM EST –

I have been following this as I do other accidents to see what we can learn, and basing just on news reports (so I have incomplete info) below are a few of the lessons I take from this. The long timers here likely have similar, or maybe others, but I figured summarizing this may be good for newer p.netters.

- Wear PFDs - I am pretty sure having the PFD on saved the 3rd person. Almost saved a second, who was rescued alive but died in the hospital.

- Check weather reports - with the report calling for a small craft warning that afternoon, hopefully they would have seen that and either decided to stay inside the protected water (looks like they went outside the bay) or not gone out at all.

- have more experience getting back into your kayak, and not just in flat water, so you can get yourself back in. Funny thing is that learning to get back in also teaches you more about boat balance and makes you more comfortable, so helps reduce the chance you need to get back in.

- Dress for immersion - this would give you more time in the water should you find there, so more time ton get back in or for a rescuer to find you.

- Have a way to communicate with shore that is accessible (so not in a hatch) - VHF, cell phone in waterproof bag/life proof case, etc. This could have gotten help out faster than waiting for someone to see them, perhaps allowing the 3 in the water to be pulled earlier before their core temps dropped to far.

What to me is that any one of these items after the PFD possibly could have been enough to save them. In classes, we teach that rescues/deaths are due to a series of mistakes, and this supports it.

Not sure about whether skirts would have helped (a video showed 2 people without skirts in day-touring type boats), and also not clear if the people who ended up in the water were skirtless. From the video, I don't think the waves were so big that the boats would fill with water without skirts, but the paddler would be getting wet and cooling off, which could be disconcerting.

Dungeness Spit
Sad story but we all can take something away from this. It’s not always the other guy and it can happen to us if we don’t plan properly and know our limits. Prayers go out to the family and friends. Second the Pacific Ocean is 3 hours to the west of Seattle not off of Seattle. That is Puget Sound, though the water is extremely cold and weather can get treacherous. The Dungeness Spit is located on the Straights of Juan De Fuca Approx 1.5 hours from the ocean. The spit is a very popular place to paddle and the Dungeness Lighthouse is a fun place to visit along with its beauty.

the weather that matters
Is the soup underneath.