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UPDATE: Missing Kayakers in Casco Bay found dead

I'm not sure if many of you have been following this story but it is one that happens all too often. This time it hits closer to home and makes headlines here in Atlanta because one of the kayakers, an eighteen-year-old woman, is from Georgia.

Two young women, trying to paddle in conditions they could not handle and conditions their kayaks were not designed for, were pulled out of the water three and a half miles offshore on Casco Bay, Maine.

Both were “unresponsive” when found, airlifted to Maine Medical Center and later pronounced dead.

From current reports, the two women were doing a short, one-mile, paddle from Peaks Island to Ram Island. They were spotted making land on Ram Island but became missed later that day.

The reason I want to write about this story is because I see and hear about this kind of thing all the time. As a trainer, it is also something I have done many seminars about with local paddling clubs and Atlanta based R.E.I co-ops.

I get enthusiastic novice paddlers, all the time, wanting to paddle their ten and twelve foot kayaks to some of my most challenging offshore locations.

When I talk about rescue skills and open water training, folks eye’s glaze over and the response I get is; “Ah, I don’t need to learn that kind of stuff!” 

So, the warning I give is simple: Do not overstep the boundaries of your kayaking skills or the limits of your kayaking gear. Unless, of course, you are a fish! This applies just as much to short, hour-long trips as it does to multi day adventures.

It also applies to paddling on local lakes as much as offshore kayaking. If you cannot swim back to the shoreline, consider it “open water” and open water skills are required.

The two women died from hypothermia because they probably did not plan accordingly for the weather conditions and the limits of their kayaking gear. They were paddling in 46 to 48-degree water temperatures with out the proper clothing and they took off in kayaks that were not designed for unprotected conditions.  The marine forecast called 20 mph winds and a small craft advisory had been issued.

I do not know these women, so I can’t tell you what their current level of open water experience was but I can venture to guess that they had no proper open water training. I say this because those with proper training and experience would not have done this paddle with out the appropriate paddling gear to prevent hypothermia - neoprene, dry top and pants or even a layer of heavy fleece.

As well, to be paddling 12-foot kayaks (most kayaks this size are designed to be paddled in protected water only), in weather conditions that warrant a small craft advisory is suicide. But, it happens all the time.

Just because you bought a kayak that "looks" sea worthy or the sales person has told you that they paddle this kayak at the beach all the time, does not mean it can handle conditions like the two women found themselves facing.

A sea kayak you will not find at Wal-Mart, BJ’s, Bass Pro Shops or even some R.E.I co-ops. Just because it says, “Ocean Kayak” on the side, does not mean it is designed to be paddled on open ocean.

The adventure of paddling open water is one of exhilaration, pleasure and respect. And with the proper skill set, a sea kayak can be easily paddled and controlled in the conditions that the two women found themselves in.

Understanding wind and tides are a part of the training. My best guess would be that, as they left Ram Island, to return home, they found the wind and the tides taking them in the wrong direction and could not control their kayaks. They became tired, panic set in, then one of them probably capsized and they did not have the rescue skills to get her back into her kayak and the second woman capsized.

Both were found floating in the water about one mile apart. They were over three miles off shore from Cape Elizabeth and had drifted over five miles from Ram Island. The kayaks had been found the previous day.

When enjoying the fun and adventure of kayaking, it’s all too easy to be lulled into a state of self-assuredness when the distance to be paddled is not very far. The distance to Ram Island from their launching point was one mile. They may have understood the risk they took, being in 48-degree water or paddling in strong winds, “But…” they probably said to themselves; “…it’s only a mile!”

Now, my question to every kayaker out there, how many times have you said the same thing?



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