Where to Find Books on Kayaking (Finding the Rare Gems )

Many of the great kayaking yarns are no longer in print, but if you are willing to search a bit, you should be able to find a few gems, many of which are well worth tracking down.

For some, owning the original edition of a book is nirvana. While it is fun to browse in your local antique bookstore for these books, finding original editions is a rare occurrence. The Internet provides a quick and easy, although not always cheap, way to find a particular book.

There are a number of online “book aggregators” that offer easy-to-use, customizable, fast and searchable interfaces for finding books for sale from multiple booksellers. Thus you can then decide whether you want that pristine copy with a dust jacket for $100 or whether you’ll settle for that well-worn ex-library edition for $10.

Abebooks (www.abebooks.com) includes a simple search engine that allows you to input the author, the title of the book and/or a keyword. It’s best to jump directly to the “Advanced Search,” which provides greater search flexibility. The Abebooks search engine is streamlined with features permitting flexibility of search results.

For example, use “Trailing Wildcards”—the asterisk symbol (*)—when you’re not sure of the spelling or the exact name of an author or a book, and use the tilde symbol (~) as a “not” to refine your search results.

For example, typing “kayak” in the title screen will return all titles that have the word “kayak” in them (approximately 728 titles) while typing “kayak*” in the title screen will return all titles with a form of the word in the title (approx. 2,206), including kayak, kayaker, kayaking, etc. The search engine can sort the results by price, binding, attributes, author, etc.

Bookfinder (www.bookfinder.com) offers a simple search engine that lets you input the author and/or title of the book. It’s best to jump directly to “Show more options…”, which provides greater search flexibility. One key difference between Bookfinder and Abebooks is that Bookfinder doesn’t support wildcard searches (*); however, I haven’t found that to be a significant drawback.

Alibris (www.alibris.com) is a search engine similar to Abebooks and Book-finder. Click on “Advanced Search” and follow directions much like those for the other sites.

eBay (www.ebay.com) lets you search using broad categories such kayak* book*. You can either use the simple search screen or go to “Refine Search” and narrow the scope of your choice.

eBay requires more work and more time because you need to run your search criteria every few days or set up automatic e-mail notification if an item matching your search criteria is listed.

Buyer beware! Many of the kayaking books listed on eBay are purchased from book closeouts at a deep discount, then the buyers re-list them on eBay at double the price!

Always check www.bookcloseouts.com to see if the same book has been closed out and is therefore available for a better price (use the “Keyword Search” feature with kayak*, paddle* or canoe*).

Reprinted Editions

Several publishing houses have started to publish facsimile versions of out-of-print books:

The Long Riders’ Guild Press (www.classicadventurebooks.com/travel.htm) as started republishing adventure books, including Enchanted Vagabonds and The Rob Roy on the Jordan, which are available for sale at Amazon.com.

The press’ web site provides a detailed description of each book with links to Amazon.com. While the quality of the text in these reprinted editions is clear and easy to read and the books are reasonably priced, I found the quality of the photographic reproductions poor.

D. N. Goodchild (www.dngoodchild.com) is a gem for the kayaking and small-boat community and provides a high-quality and reasonably priced alternative to first edition kayaking adventures. Their web site provides a list of reasonably priced books (usually around $20), which includes A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, The Rob Roy on the Jordan, The Rob Roy on the Baltic, Canoe Errant, Canoe Errant on the Nile, Canoe Errant on the Mississippi, Kingfisher Abroad, An Inland Journey, plus many more canoeing and small boat voyaging books. Of the two copies I purchased, the quality of the illustrations in A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe was excellent, and the watercolors in An Inland Journey were exquisite.

Elibron (www.elibron.com) is another good source of facsimile reprints. You can find The Rob Roy on the Jordan there, as well as many of Fridtjof Nansen’s books, including Eskimo Life and Farthest North.

Kayking Books Online

There are full-text electronic versions of many old books available on the Internet, usually those that are well beyond copyright -protection. The Gutenberg Project (www.gutenberg.net/index.htm) offers a free downloadable copy of Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage. Another site (www.rtpnet.org/robroy/books/jm/TM.HTM) features a free downloadable copy of MacGregor’s A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe. Some of these online books are text only; others are presented with their original illustrations.

Library System

Most states now provide online browsing of their entire state library system, which includes local libraries, state university libraries and any libraries that receive state funding.

Many library sites allow library card-holders to reserve books online. If the book is not available from your local branch, you can often request it from other libraries in the same system.

If the book isn’t available through your library system, contact your local librarian about obtaining a copy from another library system.

Other Sources

A few titles are -offered only by a few sources. There are also some great and hard-to-find books available from Folbot and KlepperUSA.

Even if you don’t use a folding kayak from Folbot, Klepper or Feathercraft, one book that should grace your bedside table is Folbot Holidays, which is available for $5.00 (plus shipping and handling) from Folbot (800-533-5099). Finally, don’t forget the benefits of the web. Amazon.com’s U.K. site (www.amazon.co.uk) has Brian Wilson’s Blazing Paddles, while Boat Books in New Zealand (http://boatbooks.co.nz/canoe.html) carries Paul Caffyn’s Cresting the Restless Waves and The Dreamtime Voyage. The U.S. site of Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) also carries used books, which automatically come up now when you search the site.

Playing in the Wind Factory: Sea Kayaking the Columbia Gorge

The dessert-like eastern gorge, east of Dalles, Oregon

by Neil Schulman

I leaned back as far as I could, hoping for the bow to rise. It was too late. The bow drilled into the back of the wave in front of me, burying me in water up to my waist and ending my umpteenth surf ride of the day. When my kayak resurfaced, I started paddling again, building speed to catch another swell.

The wave surged shoulder-high and green, its water comfortably warm on my bare arms. I rode about thirty yards, slid off, straightened my boat and started working on the next wave. Behind me, I could hear Karl cackling with the glee of a ten-year old. Kim was a few football fields ahead, yellow boat barely visible in a sea of whitecaps. As usual, there were no other paddlers in sight.

This wasn’t in Hawaii, nor was it a hallucination induced by a too-tight neck gasket. It was on a downwinder in the Columbia River Gorge, only a forty-five minute drive from my house in Portland.

For me, the Gorge is one of the best sea kayaking destinations on the planet. Portland and Hood River are both paddling towns, but somehow it seems the majority of sea kayakers have yet to take full advantage of the Gorge. I’ve spent 15 years kayaking in the Gorge, and in that time I’ve seen a grand total of three other paddlers.

A rainbow arcs over the mouth of the Klickitat River

The Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge is a hundred mile-long, three thousand-foot-deep U-shaped valley straddling the Oregon-Washington border. Carved by ice-age floods, it connects the mild and wet climate of the western Cascade mountain range with the extremes of the continental high desert.

A National Scenic Area, the Gorge is defined by basalt cliffs, waterfalls and endless options for paddlers. Within it you can find rainforest and rain, sagebrush and sun. You can find gentle breezes and gale force wind, flat water, big waves, or swirling river currents.

Below Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland, the Columbia River zips seaward with a consistent current, strongest in spring, occasionally reaching 5.2 knots. Upstream of Bonneville and the Dalles Dam, you’ll find a lighter current, commonly less than 1.5 knots, but still moving downstream noticeably in spring, creating steep waves against the Gorge’s prevailing westerlies.

Conditions at the Gorge vary, but there’s almost always good paddling to be found somewhere. In calm conditions, there are scenic paddles of almost any length. When the wind’s up, plan a downwinder and surf until your arms are like rubber. When the wind’s too strong, head up a side stream and play in river current.

Gorge Tours

Here are two of my favorite calm-day Gorge tours. Both can be done as downwinders as well.

The Western Gorge: Dalton Point to Chinook Landing (16 miles)

Launch from Dalton Point near Multnomah Falls and cross to Phoca Rock midriver to paddle beneath dramatic waterfalls and sheer cliffs and through a delta teeming with waterfowl and bald eagles. Below Bonneville Dam, this run is done east to west with the current on a calm forecast or an east wind.

Give a wide berth to sea lions, which are often hauled out on the rock or playing in the eddylines around the rock. Then wall-crawl below the cliffs of Cape Horn on the Washington side below several waterfalls. Pass Reed, Flag, and McNary islands before crossing the mouth of the Sandy River, a series of shallow, braided channels where mixing waters attract a congregation of waterfowl, eagles, otters and migrating salmon.

Take out at Chinook Landing, a large public boat ramp, on river left. A side trip into the Sandy adds more play in current. In summer and fall when the current is weak, you can also do a portion of this trip from Dalton Point by paddling downstream in the morning and riding the afternoon wind back to your car.

Paddlers beneath the waterfalls of Cape Horn in the rainforest at the western end of the Gorge

The High Desert Miller Island: (9 miles)

In the dry country East of the Dalles, Miller Island offers hiking as well as paddling. From the launch at Deschutes River State Park, circumnavigate the island clockwise: the north side, ominously named “Hellgate,” funnels westerlies.

Get out and hike to the top of the basalt cliffs that ring the island for stunning views of the Gorge and the island’s interior. In spring, you’ll see an array of wildflowers in bloom, including some found nowhere else in the world but the Gorge, which hosts a number of endemic plants.

The island was once a Native American village site for the many peoples that lived and traded along the Columbia River, such as the Wishram, Wasco, and Northern Paiute. Pictographs are visible from the water and along the cliffs. At the upstream end of the island, play in the wind and current eddies created by a series of rock islands, often under the watchful eye of several hundred Ring-billed gulls.

Continue around the island to Deschutes River State Park, or continue east to Maryhill State Park on the Washington side. The island is closed to camping, but camping is available at either Deschutes River or Maryhill.

Jodi Wright launches into Force-4 winds near Hood River

Summer Downwinders

Windsurfers and kiteboarders have flocked to the Gorge for decades. The same factors that lured them—predictable wind, sunshine, and easy access—make it an ideal destination for sea kayakers to surf or to learn how to manage wind.

Gorge winds are caused by air pressure differences between the marine-influenced west end of the Gorge and the continental climate of the eastern end.

The eastern region is warmer from spring through fall, which creates lower air pressure compared to the cooler west. As air flows from high pressure to low, and the Gorge acts as an enormous funnel.

West winds strengthen and create bigger waves as they move east, so paddlers seeking more adrenaline should head toward Hood River or farther east. Kayakers seeking a milder day can paddle near Cascade Locks and Wind River, depending on the forecast.

Begin your downwinder by checking the forecast (see appendix) for several areas of the Gorge, and recheck conditions on the morning of your paddle. Look at the conditions before you set up your shuttle, and shift to a spot farther west if they look to intense.

Gorge wind strength is so localized it’s easy to match your skills by adjusting your paddle route to meet conditions. Expect westerlies to build during the day and ease around sunset.

My philosophy as a downwinder is simple: point downstream, surf, cackle with laughter, wash, rinse and repeat. Unlike surfing in the ocean, you won’t have to pound back out through the surf after each wave, get windows shaded by a wave closing out, or develop an embarrassing neck rash from neck gasket, sand, and saltwater.

When you want to surf again, just point downstream and go. If you miss a wave, there will be another one in a few seconds. When you need a rest, just float for a few minutes or work your way to shore and find a wind eddy.

Of course, every paddler has a different level of skill and comfort in wind. Wind below Force 3 is generally too small to surf; our group of skilled paddlers seeks wind in the Force 5 range (17-25 mph.)

Force 6 is exhilarating, but you’ll need to be on your game if anything goes wrong. In spring, strong current magnifies the wind-against-current dynamic and generates slightly larger sea states than the same wind conditions during summer.

Icicles near Stevenson, WA on a cold day of the easterlies

Three Downwinders

Stevenson to Home Valley: 7 miles

Leave a shuttle car at Home Valley Park at the mouth of the Wind River, then launch at the public boat ramp in Stevenson, WA. The Washington shore is an intricate network of cliffs, coves and rock islands that provide breathtaking scenery and a good introduction to downwinders.

There are many nooks and crannies where you can rest, regroup, and practice turning upwind and downwind. In fall, spawning salmon in the Wind River put on an impressive showing.

Protect their spawning gravel by not walking in the shallows. After you shuttle back to Stevenson, walk down the block to Walking Man Brewing for a beer on the patio.

Viento State Park to Hood River (10 miles)

This run, located farther east, often has slightly stronger wind and larger waves on a westerly.  Leave a car at the Hood River City Marina, and then drive west and put in at Viento State Park ten miles to the west.

Start with a warm-up, paddle east (upwind) a quarter-mile to a large rock and group up in the wind eddy. Then cross to the Washington side and venture up the Little White Salmon River. Like the Wind River, it will be full of spawning salmon in the fall. Then surf upriver, crossing back to the Oregon side at the mouth of Hood River after passing its shallows, and take out at the city marina.

On this run you’ll encounter windsurfers and kiteboarders, and have a chance to play at the aptly-named Swell City. Then take your pick of Hood River’s many pubs where you can relax with a local brew.

Hood River to Mayer State Park (14 miles)

On this run, you’ll put in at the Hood River marina, follow several bends in the Columbia, and cross the mouth of the Klickitat River before ending at Mayer State Park. Wind is milder on the inside of the bends.

The lower Klickitat River is well worth a side trip to explore rock cliffs and oak woodlands, play in the river current, or watch for the local populaton of wild turkeys.  A half-mile upstream, paddlers reach the first set of riffles. I’ve spent entire days practicing ferries, eddy turns, peel outs, and upstream attainments here.

The Columbia pinches to its narrowest point between the mouth of the Klickitat and Mayer State Park, where waves are amplified as the accelerated current in this narrow passage meets the wind.

Save some energy to get your best surf rides of the day here, before heading for the Thirsty Woman Pub in Mosier.

The Easterlies

During winter, when the eastern high desert is colder than the temperate zone in the west, the entire Gorge wind factory runs in reverse. Colder air in the desert creates high pressure in the east and an east-to-west wind.  Just as a west wind creates waves in the east, an east wind creates waves in the western part of the Gorge.

On an day of easterly wind, the  aforementioned runs can all be paddled in reverse, from east to west: Home Valley to Stevenson, Hood River to Viento, Mayer to Hood River, etc. They will also reverse in difficulty: the further west, the stronger the wind and the rougher the conditions. The toughest conditions will be at Cape Horn, which is usually dead flat on a westerly. East wind flows with the current, which creates longer wavelengths for better surfing, but most east wind comes in the winter and is bone-chillingly cold.

Knowing the Wind

Windsurf-oriented smartphone apps such as iWindsurf, WindGuru, and NOAA weather are a boon for downwinders. They provide updates and forecasts, which make changing your itinerary easy as you head out to the Gorge.

The app can even send you updates when the conditions hit the perfect zone, so you can drop whatever else you’re doing to go paddle.

Downwinder Safety

Downwinders pose four particular safety issues: weather interpretation, wind management, group cohesion and sharing the river with windsurfers and kiteboarders.

Weather Interpretation

Humans are prone to exaggeration. Like the fish that got away, paddling stories tend to grow with the telling. In the Gorge, exaggeration can be dangerous.

I’ve heard many paddlers swear they were paddling in 35 mph winds, when I know for a fact it was really Force 4 (14-20 mph) from both my own measurements and the conditions report. This exaggeration leads them to honestly believe they have the skill to paddle in 35 mph winds, a recipe for biting off more than they can chew.

Learn to calibrate actual wind strengths with sea conditions and your paddling ability. Learn the Beaufort Scale, keep a paddling log, and refer to it when you’re wondering what 23 mph feels like.

Wind Management

You can’t control the wind, but you can control your boat in the wind. Turning your boat up and downwind and maintaining a course across the wind are basic skills for the Gorge.

Rudders and skegs help, but the paddler is the critical element. Learn to use paddle strokes and edging. You can lean forward and back, changing the trim of your kayak to make the wind help you turn. Grasping the effect of wind on a kayak requires experience in strong wind, which makes beginners nervous. Spend some time practicing these techniques with skilled paddlers in an onshore wind with a safe landing. When surfing, capsizes will happen.

Rolling in wind is much easier on the upwind side, and reentery and rolls often succeed because the paddler knows on which side they’re rolling. If someone does swim during a downwind run, there’s one major imperative: hold on to the deck lines. If the swimmer lets go, the empty kayak will quickly blow downwind while he or she stays in place, a challenging scenario for rescuers. In the warm water of summer, hypothermia usually isn’t a problem.

The east-wind runs of winter subject paddlers to more dangerous water temperatures.

Group Cohesion

Groups get easily scattered in the wind. Voices and whistles are often inaudible. Skilled surfers naturally speed ahead of more tentative paddlers, who are more likely to get in trouble.

One exception is during spring runoff with a westerly blowing, when skilled surfers tend to catch rides mid-current but make slow upriver progress while beginner paddlers who stay sheltered near the shoreline will get ahead of the rest of the surfers and remain easily visible.

In any case, a skilled paddler should stay upwind of (behind) the back of the group where they can see and respond quickly. Venturing out in the wind requires the same planning as any successful trip in challenging water.

Make plans for if the group gets separated, plan bailouts, map points for reassessment, maintain VHF communication and conduct an accurate assessment of skills.

Windsurfers & Kiteboarders

Paddling the Gorge means sharing the river with windsurfers and kiteboarders. While it can be unnerving at first, paddling with windsurfers is safe as long as they know you’re there.

Windsurfers tend to move predictably back and forth across the wind, while kayakers usually paddle downwind. That means they’ll be looking at the wide side of a kayak and they will spot a group easily. Windsurfers usually have a lot of control and can avoid you as long as you maintain a course.

Kiteboarders are connected to their kite by a cable, and I give them a wider berth to avoid the cable. Since the kite has more surface area and is higher aloft than a sail, they’re often slightly less predictable, though they tend to be on the river in lower winds than windsurfers.

I avoid the Hood River shallows because it’s popular with beginner boarders who have less control.

Now, back to my fun on a summer day in the Gorge. We ate up the miles until our smiles were exhausted. We found a sheltered cove along the northern shore for lunch.

While we ate and filled up our Tupperware with local blackberries, we watched six-person Hawaiian-style outrigger canoes fly downwind, training for an annual race through the Gorge. Later, we shared a pub with the racers and marveled again at how few sea kayakers paddle in the Gorge. It’s been overlooked for far too long.

Neil Schulman is a Portland-based photographer and writer. In his spare time, he also teaches kayaking and does environmental work. You can see his writing and photography at www.neilschulman.com/neilschulman2

Columbia Gorge Weather forecasts:

Smartphone Apps:


Kayaking, camping, traditional island life and an international border

Our kayaks were lined up like driftwood along the sand and stone beach when we heard the long, sharp Miller Ferry whistle in the distance. The sound welcomed the beginning of another trip to the Erie Islands and our launch from the Ohio mainland for a three-day weekend of paddling among the largest collection of islands on Lake Erie.

Located in the western basin of Lake Erie, the Bass Islands and their surrounding sister islands are part of a 21-island archipelago located in some of the richest walleye fisheries in the world.

While well known as a sport -fishing destination, the islands also offer some of the best paddling opportunities on Lake Erie. The island chain, separated midway by the international border with Canada, is steeped in history from its roots as a Native American fishing grounds to its grape -growing heritage and its pivotal naval battles during the war of 1812.

You can make the easy crossing from Catawba Island to the campground at South Bass Island State Park from several mainland locations. There is a public beach launch location just east of the Miller Ferry dock and another at Catawba Island State Park.

To add a few more shoreline miles, you can put in further southeast at the Mazurik public boat launch near Marblehead, Ohio. The three-mile crossing to South Bass Island takes kayakers across a busy boat and ferry channel, but be attentive and respectful and you should have no problem negotiating vessel traffic. Give a wide berth to the active ferries serving the island.

We edged our boats into the water from the little beach east of the Miller Ferry and paddled past Mouse Island toward the southern tip of South Bass Island, where its lighthouse greets boaters coming from the mainland. For the many day-trip opportunities in the Bass Islands, paddlers usually split off before the light and head east or west toward their selected adventures.

I prefer to paddle west around the rocky coast to South Bass Island State Park and set a base camp, then day-paddle throughout the islands for a nice, long paddle weekend. When you visit the islands for the first time, it’s easy to spend four or five days linking multiple island crossings and shoreline for more than 40 miles of water. Paddlers looking for a three-day weekend getaway or more can find many interesting shore and historical sights among the islands.

South Bass Island State Park offers cliff-side campsites reserved for tent campers, and the vistas overlooking the lake are a perfect post-paddle reward. These sites sit more than 100 feet above the water and you can set your tent as close to the lip as you dare for maximum viewing pleasure.

It’s only a short carry from the beach to the closest sites but we typically leave our boats lined up on the grass above the rocky beach and lug the gear up the slope to camp. The small harbor and breakwall off the beach provides a great location to practice rolls and rescues when the wind cooperates.

On previous trips, we always seemed to draw a small crowd of spectators who enjoyed watching us turn upside down and sideways during practice. On this trip we planned to put some miles behind us, so we launched our boats over the cobblestone beach for the afternoon paddle into the island’s main harbor.

All of the islands in the chain are limestone bedrock and paddlers usually follow the steep cliffs from camp four miles around the northwest shore to the harbor village of Put-in-Bay.

Cottages dot the cliffs above the water along this section. From a kayak you get a unique perspective of Benson Ford’s Shiphouse, a freighter which was removed and craned to the cliffs as a summer home in 1986.

At water level, the broken shoreline leads paddlers through a playground of rock gardens that dot the base of the cliffs. Depending on lake levels and wave action, there are several carved out caves where you can poke your kayak and many dynamic rocky play areas.

Paddling into Put-in-Bay Harbour, you’ll wind through sailboats bobbing at mooring balls and water shuttles bringing boaters into the busy maritime village. The little rocky beach at the edge of DeRivera Park, next to the Boardwalk restaurant, makes a convenient rest stop.

Stretching your legs, you’ll peer over the breakwall and back into time at the village’s nautical-themed, gingerbread framed shops that face the waterfront and park. This destination offers a convenient option for paddlers; they can rough it at the state park camp or wander into town for a beverage, perch dinner and nightlife.

Gibraltar Island and its steep, rocky shoreline is a paddling gem that guards the harbor entrance.

It’s home to college research laboratories instrumental in tracking lake biology and preserving the rare and threatened Lake Erie water snake. From time to time Stone Laboratory, the oldest freshwater biological field station in the United States, hosts open houses for visitors interested in learning about the ecology and biology of the lake.

The Stone Laboratory anchors one end of the island and Cook Castle sits high on the cliffs at the other end. Paddlers can also stop at the joint Ohio State University and Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) outreach facility across the harbor at Peach Orchard Point. Exploring the waters around Gibraltar Island, you’ll wind your way around car-sized boulders and under rocky overhangs that block out the surrounding boat traffic.

The highlight of your Gibralter circumnavigation will be finding Lake Erie’s only natural sea arch, the Needles Eye. Threading the needle is a paddler’s tradition.

As you head east out of the harbor from Gibraltar Island you’ll also be in the shadow of one of the most impressive sights on Lake Erie: Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial.

This fluted, granite Doric column, topped with an observation deck, stands 352 feet (47 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty) above the island and symbolizes the long-lasting peace between Britain, Canada and the United States. On a clear day the observation deck provides views of the entire western basin, islands and Canada. During the summer of 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry sailed from Put-in-Bay Harbour to fight the British in a battle that would help close out the War of 1812. Perry commandeered the Brig Niagara after his original boat, the Lawrence, was disabled.

With the Brig Niagara, Perry proceeded to outflank the British on his way to U.S. Naval victory. Vessels around the islands still fly versions of his famous blue banner that read, “Don’t Give up the Ship.” A kayak trip through these islands follows in the footsteps of this famous battle.

For a day-paddle destination, there is a small beach on the southern side of the island, near the visitor’s center. Kayakers can land and take a short walk to the tower and visitor center. If you listen closely and squint your eyes from the lookout deck, you can almost hear the ring of cannon fire and see naval vessels sailing at a distance through the milky haze.

Continuing your circumnavigation of South Bass Island, you’ll find 12 miles of rocky shore, well-kept summer homes and the Scheef East Point Nature Preserve. Activists and the state helped save this point of land from development and created a nine-acre preserve vital for the migrating birds and the preservation of the very rare Lake Erie water snake.

Just recently removed from the federal endangered list, this reptile was at the brink of extinction until efforts were made to save, track and restore its habitat. A day paddling the islands becomes complete when you see one of these mild-mannered gray heads poking out of the water along the shoreline. As you round the southern lighthouse point and head back to the State Park, give the Miller Ferry Line a wide berth as you’ll need to pass in front of its landing at the Lime Kiln Dock to make the turn back to camp.

The steep cliffs and strong current in this section also make for choppy waters, so be on your game when paddling near shore.

You will find a full day of paddling if you stick to the host island, or you can use South Bass Island as your jumping-off spot to a number of crossings and longer day-paddles. For our favorite full-day, 20-mile paddle, we leave Put-in-Bay Harbour and cross over to Middle Bass Island.

We then head north past Sugar Island, around the eastern shore of North Bass Island and then cover two, five-mile crossings to Rattlesnake Island and Green Island before landing back at the state park on South Bass Island.

As another option, you can also circle Middle Bass Island, paddle around Ballast Island and complete a circumnavigation of South Bass Island. With charts and your imagination, you can create any number of day trips of varying lengths among the islands.

If you cross from Put-in-Bay Harbour to Middle Bass Island, you’ll see a gothic castle that was once the main building for the former Lonz Winery. Now owned by the State of Ohio, there is a marina and a half dozen rustic campsites with beach access that paddlers can reserve through the ODNR.

Started during the Civil War, the former Golden Eagle Winery was the largest wine producer in the United States in 1875. Several of the islands have a rich history in wine production, as the climate and soil are known to support rich harvests. Grapes are still grown on several of the islands and sent to the mainland for processing.

Heading north, you can follow the Middle Bass shore past Sugar Island and out to North Bass Island. Members of the Native American Ottawa tribe once used the island as a fishing, hunting and trade outpost, and up until 1822, the border with Canada ran through the island before it was moved farther north.

North Bass Island doesn’t offer the same steep, rocky shore as some of the other islands, and Manila Bay on the northwest corner of the island is a good lunch stop.

Here, the clear water skirts what appears to be a white sand beach, but upon parking your kayak you’ll find it’s really a vast accumulation of broken zebra-mussel shells. Still considered an invasive species, the zebra mussel shells have actually helped filter water in Lake Erie, effectively improving water clarity from inches to feet.

The improved clarity allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into the lake, causing various plant and bacteria organisms to grow, decay, then pop back up as algae, a growing concern for Lake Erie biologists. If you want to bushwhack, there’s also a shallow grass and tree lined inlet to a small three-acre inland lake towards the northeast corner of the beach.

North Bass Island is currently uninhabited and was purchased in 2004 by the State of Ohio with the intention of preserving and letting nature retake the island. The state operates the island as North Bass Island State Park, where primitive camping and low impact activities are allowed with a permit.

To preserve the history of wine production, the state leases 38 acres to the Firelands winery and future plans include trails and access to the chapel, school, cemetery and several historic homes that still occupy the island. Only a mile from the Canadian border, this remote island allows for excellent secluded camping and exploring.

Experienced paddlers can link several long crossings together to make a full-day of paddling by leaving North Bass Island and heading southwest to Rattlesnake Island.

This island is privately owned, but houses a club and a three-hole golf course that doubles as a landing strip. Legend holds, the island has a long history with private ownership, organized crime and prohibition bootlegging.

The current owner/membership list is extremely private and the land is off limits. While the island is very private and doesn’t allow boat landing, the high cliffs, carved out limestone water-level caves and surrounding rock outcroppings that form the island’s “rattles” are fun to explore.

There is a small metal lighthouse protecting the entrance to a tight marina, and while powerboats are dissuaded from seeking refuge, a paddler should have no issues landing in an emergency.

Turning southwest from Rattlesnake you’ll see Green Island in the distance. Now an ODNR wildlife refuge, this island is uninhabited and displays rugged shoreline like many of the other Bass Islands. Several lighthouses once stood watch from this island and now an automatic light guides vessels through the south passage around the Erie Islands.

Weather and waves have calved off large chunks of the island, inviting  a fun rock-play experience. Rebounding waves may keep less experienced paddlers away from shore, but experienced paddlers can venture closer and run through some of the technical slots in the rock.

Landing is difficult on this island, but there is a low depression in the far western side of the island where you can land if necessary. After balancing your boat on the rocks, careful and adventurous paddlers can climb through the vegetation to see the remains of the limestone lighthouse and keepers quarters.

The roof and internal structure were lost to fire and the elements long ago, but the large, carved “1864” above the doorway still stands watch over the island and the birds that now call it home. Only two miles from the state park and camp, paddlers can zip back to South Bass Island and home after a long day of crossings and open water paddling.

Many paddlers are introduced to the islands via the South Bass Island Kayak Rendezvous, held each June at South Bass Island State Park.

Each year more than 100 kayakers gather and paddle the islands during what park officials call “Kayaker Weekend.”

Kelleys Island

Kelleys Island should be included in your list of Lake Erie paddling adventures. Slightly outside of the scope of the Bass Islands, and seven miles away through open water, Kelleys is the second largest Lake Erie island and home to a year-round population of 360 people.

Kelleys shares a similar Native-American and maritime history with the Bass Islands in addition to serving as a large quarry through the 1940s and an active commercial fishery into the 1950s. The island is home to loyal village residents, a lush state park and a commitment to keeping a lot of the island reserved in its wild state.

You can paddle its shores after making the five-mile mainland crossing from the Mazurik State Boat Launch or from Catawba Island. Access from the Mazurik Launch places you closer to your vehicle if you have to leave the island by ferry.  The rocky shore does not include steep cliffs, but paddling along the North Shore Alvar offers several miles of opportunity for rock exploration and seclusion since cottage development is not allowed in the area.

You can also hike this shoreline from the 677-acre state park on Kelleys Island. The park offers a  wide and well-kept sand beach and many lakeside campsites. Each September the Island Audubon Club and State Park host the Kelleys Island Poker Paddle and more than a hundred paddlers descend upon the island for a weekend of socializing and paddling.

With a strong northeastern wind, the eastern and southeastern shore can be a fun surf run, and there are at least 15 miles of shoreline to paddle if you circumnavigate the entire island.

Pelee Island

If you’re an experienced paddler, wait for a good weather window to paddle nearly 20 miles through the Erie Islands to Pelee Island on the Canadian side of the border. Crossing the international border in the middle of Lake Erie is a neat life-list check-off.

More than once I’ve been greeted with confused, “You came by arm?” responses from the French Canadian customs agents on the other end of the phone when I called with my passport. Even the phone location is interesting, as you direct dial from a 1970s-era phone booth sitting outside the historical museum at west dock.

Pelee Island is the largest Erie Island and is nearly nine miles long from tip to tip. Camping is at the Anchor and Wheel Inn and at the municipal campground on the east side of the island. The shoreline is mostly beach and breakwall, but the island community, its natural areas and winery are worthy reasons to visit, and it’s a bonus if you can get there via kayak.

The two most distinct features accessed by land and water are located at the extreme tips of the island. To the south, the Fish Point Provincial Nature Preserve and its long sandy beach offers many opportunities for hiking, bird-watching and exploring the natural habitat.

To the north, Lighthouse Point Provincial Nature Reserve includes trails and the restored Pelee Island Lighthouse.  On land, the island is too large to navigate without using a taxi or renting a bicycle, but there are many day adventures to tap into with some advance research.

In accordance with the wine-making history of the islands, Pelee Island Winery offers tours and tastings. If you don’t arrive “by arm,” you can bring your kayak to the the island by ferry from Sandusky, Ohio or Leamington and Kingsville, Ontario.

The Erie Islands have long been a boater and fisherman’s haven, and now the islands have a growing reputation as an eco-friendly destination for kayakers. From day-paddling expeditions to week long adventures, the Erie Islands offer a multitude of sights and distances for kayakers of all levels.

A tour through the islands will carry you over waters that are rich with history, island life and natural preservation.

Eric Slough is a kayaker based in Toledo, Ohio and loves paddling throughout the Great Lakes. He is the co-coordinator of the South Bass Island Kayak Rendezvous held each June at South Bass Island.

Safety: Crossing Lake Michigan

Tired of snow and bored out of my mind I was sitting in my living room, staring at my Facebook page.

I made a list of summer to-dos and posted them on my timeline. One idea was to cross Lake Michigan with my Zodiac. My coworkers and friends thought I was nuts. The weather on the lake can be very unpredictable and many things could go wrong, they said.

I was not convinced. I searched on the web for those who had crossed Lake Michigan and came across a story of a group of guys who kayaked across the lake. “Not a bad idea!” I thought. That was pretty bold coming from someone who had not seen or touched a kayak in years.

A month later I bought a Wilderness Systems Tempest 170 on Craigslist. I knew nothing about it other than it was 17 feet long and built for open water.

The weather was cold so I did a test run on a pond before going out on the open water. I didn’t have a kayak paddle so I used a canoe paddle instead.

I’d never been in a sea kayak and wasn’t sure what to expect. I carried the boat to the pond, got in and launched. As I hit the water, I immediately rolled upside down into 40-degree water. That got a few giggles from my wife. I drained the kayak and gave it another go. This time I stayed afloat. I never realized how unstable these kayaks are compared to the wider, shorter, leisure counterparts.

The kayak sat for over 4 months before I took it out again. I’d been extremely busy at work and had entered a few local adventure races.

In the spring, I posted inquiries on several forums asking if anyone would be interested in kayaking the lake with me.

That sparked some interest, but no one was able to go come launch time.

By July I‘d purchased a spray skirt, paddle, night lights [i.e. running lights. Many of the author’s names for things have been left as he wrote them. Language can reflect a kayaker’s experience or lack thereof. Ed.], emergency signal kit, drybag, gloves and a life vest.

Uncertain that I would be able to do the Eskimo roll or a wet entry in open water, I decided to build an “anti-roll” set-up that would prevent the kayak from tipping over if I ran into rough weather. I purchased four buoys, two flag-pole holders and two aluminum windshield squeegees.

I’d hoped to launch in August but I wasn’t able to catch good weather when the time came. I set my sights on the week after Labor Day, Monday September 3. I had yet to purchase a device to track my progress, report my location and allow me to call for help in case of an emergency.

I found two such GPS-equipped devices. One was the DeLorme inReach. It transmits location and SOS and sends and receives text. It would also allow me to track my own location with a smart phone. The inReach uses Iridium satellites which was a big plus on my list but I couldn’t afford the hefty price tag and expensive service plan.

The second was the SPOT 2 GPS Messenger. It could broadcast my position and call for help but could not receive communication. It ran over the Globalstar network, which I’d read had some issues over the years. The cost of the device and the service subscription were within my budget.

I tested the SPOT 2 by sending locations and OK messages, not the 911 distress call, and it performed without failure. Having the SPOT 2 convinced my wife that it would be okay for me to do this trip solo.

With a week left before the trip I had to decide which direction I would paddle: Michigan to Wisconsin or the other way around? Both options had an equal number of advantages and disadvantages. Paddling from Michigan to Wisconsin would be easier as I would not have to deal with a ferry service when the time came to paddle.

I would also be paddling most of the time against the waves because the wind usually travels from west to east and I would see and anticipate what was coming but I’d have a longer crossing time. With approximately 80 miles between Milwaukee to Muskegon, I had no desire to make the trip any more difficult than it had to be so I decided to go from Wisconsin to Michigan. Instead of driving to Wisconsin I could take the Lake Express ferry. This service would get me over to Wisconsin in less than three hours saving time and money.

I picked up the remaining necessities: marine compass and bilge pump from Bill and Paul’s, a sports store in Grand Rapids, spare hiking compass, several flashlights, glow sticks, emergency horn, emergency strobe light, extra batteries and a shorty wetsuit.

Once my vacation began I checked the forecasts throughout each day to find a perfect window. The weather over the Labor Day weekend was not cooperating because of hurricane Isaac. The forecasts changed hourly, making my decision to set out very difficult.

On Monday, Labor Day, I finally saw a break in the weather forecast for Wednesday or Thursday. While making my reservation with the Lake Express ferry I was told I could bring a kayak only if atop my car. I called the only other ferry service the S.S. Badger. It sails between Ludington and Manitowoc and I could walk my kayak aboard without charge.

The Badger would leave from Ludington on Wednesday, September 5th at 9 A.M. and would arrive at Manitowoc four hours later. By paddling the 52-mile long Badgerroute my trip would be eight hours and nearly 30 miles shorter than paddling the Lake Express route.

On Tuesday I got the hardware for mounting the buoys and stopped at the local Dunham Sports Store to get a paddle. The paddle I had at the time was 240 cm, much too long. I had purchased it without knowing much about kayaking. I bought a nice aluminum paddle that was the right size and an excellent blade shape, which would allow me to get a better “grip” on the water.

The bright yellow blades would also make me more visible. At the grocery store I got a box of granola bars, two cans of peaches and two cans of pears. These cans did not require a can opener and would not take up too much room. The fruit would give me energy without filling me up too much. I bought one Powerade, a six pack of mini-V8 drinks and some bottled water. A can of Monster and a can of AMP, both caffinated energy drinks, would keep me awake and alert at night.

It didn’t take long to mount the stabilizers and get my gear “battle ready.” Attaching a leash to the paddle was a last minute idea. It would prevent me from losing my paddle in case it slipped out of my hands. By late afternoon, everything was ready to go. That evening I packed the car and sent an email to my friends with the link to the site where they could monitor my progress. I fell asleep around 11 P.M., watching the weather on my mobile phone.

I woke at 6 A.M. on Wednesday, grabbed the phone and refreshed the weather app. Two storms were passing over the lake but the evening was forecast to be clear with a chance of rain. Tired and unmotivated, I stayed in bed for another 30 minutes. In the back of my mind I had hoped that I could reschedule the trip, but I eventually jumped to my feet.

With a two-hour drive ahead, I was pressed for time. I left the house at 6:45 A.M. On the highway I set cruise control for 65 mph as I did not want to press my luck with the kayak strapped to the roof, but by 8 A.M. I was still a good hour away from the dock.

My speed went from a calm 65 to a frantic 85 mph. I finally arrived at 8:45 A.M. as the ferry was being loaded. I parked the car and crammed everything into my backpack and the storage compartments of the kayak. My first test of the trip was to see if I could lift the now extremely heavy kayak and carry it to the Badger.

The ship set off a little after 9 A.M. The weather was calm and there was no sign of the storm systems reported earlier that morning. To my surprise, the only waves I could see were caused by the wake of the ship.

The sky was clearing to the west and the chilly morning winds turned into a warm breeze. The Wisconsin shore finally appeared and the closer it was the more nervous I got.

At 1:00 P.M. the ferry reached the Manitowoc. I checked the weather one last time. There wasn’t a single cloud on radar as far west as Seattle, Washington. That cheered me up quite a bit.

I lifted my kayak to my shoulder and made my way to the small beach nearby. I was out of breath by the time I got to it.

I started to unpack my gear. I was not exactly sure that a lake crossing via kayak was legal. Honestly, I‘m still not.

I hurried to mount the stabilizers and the night lights to the kayak. The lights connected with suction cups. I was about to trust them with my life, so I taped them to the deck using Gorilla tape (the strongest tape I could find). I stuffed my food and drinks and emergency signaling kit behind the seat where I could easily reach them.

The backpack with my shoes, sweater and sweatpants went in the rear hatch. A small tool-kit, extra batteries and the Gorilla tape went in the hatch right behind the seat. I secured on deck the marine compass, glow sticks, emergency horn, extra paddle and the camera.

Slipping on the wetsuit, I decided to wear it half-up as the water and air temperature were somewhat warm. If it was going to cool off at night, I could simply slip the rest of the suit on. The life vest went on next. I turned on the SPOT 2 device and sent out an “OK” message.

I slipped on the spray skirt, jumped into the kayak and turned on the camera. After sealing off my dry bag containing the granola bars, gloves and hat, I placed it inside the cockpit, then attached the spray skirt. I pushed off at exactly 2:00 P.M. The water was calm and the weather was perfect when I left the port. I was very comfortable and it didn’t take long to get about five miles out.

I heard the horn of the Badger sound and 15 minutes later caught sight of it. I was about a quarter-mile south of its path. I couldn’t see any people on it, but I waved my paddle in the air to say hello anyway. The ship disappeared quickly past the horizon and the only thing I could make out was its smoke trail. I decided to paddle in that direction.

Before leaving on this trip, my wife told me that if she did not receive an “OK” message every two hours, she would call the Coast Guard to come for me. I made a point to send out an OK message approximately every hour.

The buoys were doing an excellent job of keeping the boat stable. Even though they caused some drag, they prevented lateral roll and allowed me to concentrate on paddling instead of balancing.

The sun was beginning to set. There was a fairly strong breeze blowing out of the southeast and the water was getting a bit choppy. The Wisconsin shore was no longer visible and I started to feel a little freaked out. Taking a short break, I chowed down a can of peaches and a granola bar. There were no more Powerades left, so I had some bottled water.

My shoulders were sore, so I took an ibuprofen. After sending out another “OK” message, I scanned the horizon and pushed on. I was about 20 miles out.

I kept my course southeast. Not long after the sun set I reached out front with my paddle and turned on the red and green bow light. It was a tricky feat as the button was nearly flush with the housing.

I then reached back and fought the stern light. It kept giving in under the weight of the paddle as I struggled to depress the ON button. I was praying the taped suction cup would not give out. The sun set so I activated a few glow sticks and secured them with the bungees in front of me.

That proved to be a dumb idea as I could not see anything but their glow. I moved them behind me, hanging off each side of the boat. I kept one red stick, covered up with the GPS device, to light up the marine compass. It was pitch black and eerily quiet.

Waves occasionally broke over the kayak and startled me. One wave broke right next to me with a loud hissing sound that made me jump. I hit my sunglasses with the paddle—they were secured by a bungee in front of me but they went flying overboard and sank. To calm myself I sent out another “OK” message. After a granola bar and a few gulps of Monster I kept going.

I saw a small white light on the horizon to the northwest. It glowed brighter and larger with every minute.

It was slowly getting closer. I expected it would pass behind me if it continued on its path. The light split into the bow and the stern lights of what appeared to be a large cargo ship.

At approximately 10:45 P.M. the ship was at my seven o’clock, approximately a quarter-mile away and traveling southwest. It was comforting to know that I’d be able to spot vessels a long way out if I paid attention.

A green flare shot up about 200 meters in front of me, hung in the air for a few seconds then disappeared. I’d never seen a green flare before and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

An emergency flare would be red in color. White flare would signify a man overboard, or someone trying to illuminate the area. Green flare? [Two Coast Guart stations in the area had no record of reports of a green flare and knew of no special meaning of the color. Alex cited a website (truflares.us) that listed green flares as signals meaning “OK.” Ed.]

After a moment of sitting there I decided to paddle to where the flare went up. If this was an emergency I would be able to help out. There were no lights and I could not hear anything. If a boat was out there, dead in the water with no lights, I could run straight into it.

I turned on one of my flashlights, stuck it under the bungees and pointed it forward. I would paddle and then stop to listen. 15 minutes passed and I couldn’t hear or see anything. I sent out a “custom” message through my GPS device. Although it would state “Taking a break” it would note the location for the Coast Guard in case someone was in fact in trouble.

Still wary, I stopped from time to time to look and listen.

After returning home from the trip I learned my wife had called the Coast Guard and asked them to track me. My guess is the Coast Guard contacted the passing cargo ship and asked them to check if I was OK. The cargo ship fired off a green flare, which apparently is used to signal either “Everything is OK” or “Is everything OK?” giving you a chance to respond with an emergency flare if you need help.

I saw a glow on the horizon directly ahead. It could only be Ludington. Being able to see something on the horizon lifted my spirits. I opened a can of pears and wolfed it down, chasing it with the remaining energy drink. A bit sore, I needed to stretch. I leaned back on the kayak and looked up at millions of stars. The Milky Way was directly above me. It could have been mere chance, but I knew I was halfway across the lake at that moment. The only sounds were from waves lapping against the hull.

Another hour passed and another glow appeared on the horizon north of Ludington. It was the moon slowly rising. As it rose higher into the sky the waves changed direction.

A breeze picked up from the southeast and waves were now coming at me from the north. It took me a few minutes to adjust the skeg and my paddling, which now required a bit more power on my right to keep me on course. I would adjust my bow to point east only to find it pointing southeast a few minutes later.

The struggle annoyed me. What bothered me even more was the breeze blowing in my face. I was not sure what the weather was doing, but I was beginning to get a bit suspicious. Southeast wind meant there was a storm system building to the west. I am no meteorologist, but I know the basics of weather development—I paid attention in middle school. I looked to the northwest.

A large storm system was building up right behind me with the bulk of it coming out of the north. The heavy clouds were lit up by the moon. I was nervous and paddled with more fervor than ever. If a storm was coming, open water was the last place I wanted to be.

The clouds seemed to move slightly northeast which meant that I needed to paddle more southeast to get out of their path. I raised the skeg and let the waves point my nose in the desired direction. I paddled nonstop, dispite my heavy arms and tired shoulders.

I noticed a flash of light at my eight o’clock. Initially I thought it was moonlight reflecting off the water splashing from my paddle. I ignored it at first, then I saw it again and again. It was lightning, high up in the clouds I’d been tracking. Paddling against wind was bad enough, but I now had to deal with a storm system that would cause large waves.

There was lightning and the highest object in a 10-mile radius was my head and my trusty aluminum paddle. I kept an eye on the clouds as I pushed southeast. By the time the moon was directly overhead I noticed a couple of faint red lights on the horizon.

This meant that the shore might be only about 15 miles away. I calculated that at three miles an hour it would take me five more hours to hit land. I stopped for a break while I enjoyed the last can of fruit. My shoulders were killing me, so I took another ibuprofen and gulped down two surprisingly refreshing V8s. Recharged and freshly motivated, I continued.

The lights on the horizon multiplied and I had about eight of them in my sight. It was difficult to determine which light would lead me to the harbor. Picking the wrong direction would add extra miles that I was not willing to paddle. I began to sing to stop myself from complaining.

A new storm system appeared behind me and rapidly came closer. More lightning kept me alert and I pushed harder. Luckily it soon passed to the northeast. The horizon was becoming lighter and finally the sun appeared, peeking out through the clouds.

I could no longer see any lights, but I could see the faint outline of the shore. I estimated to be about 10 miles out at that point. The sun rose in early September at approximately 7 A.M., which meant I had another three hours or so left in my trip. Those three hours proved to be the longest of my life.

I ate my last granola bar and drank the last of my water. I was feeling extremely tired. Another rapidly approaching storm system was the only thing keeping me going. I was careless at that point and I did not look back. I wanted to reach shore, get out of the boat and take a nap.

It felt like no matter how much I paddled, I was not getting any closer. As the sun rose, I fixed my sights on some sand dunes directly ahead. They were the only landmark I could clearly make out. I started to count my stokes. Each minute felt like an eternity. I noticed a couple of sailboats cruising up and down the coast. I was so close!

A few miles out from shore, I began to feel like my kayak was slowing down. Indeed, I was no longer making much progress. I was not sure if it was the offshore wind or if I was fighting a current. I tried to muscle through it but the kayak came to a crawl. I turned around and saw the left stabilizer had given way.

It had collapsed backward, dragging and causing the kayak to turn left. I had to break it off. I reached out and grabbed the stabilizer and it popped right off. Immediately the boat became unstable. I carefully tucked the broken stabilizer under my bow bungees. I tried paddling forward, but I was going nowhere. The right stabilizer, now unbalanced, dragged and turned the boat to the right. I had to take it off too.

I were extremely uncomfortable doing this. If I was to accidentally roll over and go in the water, it would be extremely difficult to get back aboard—not impossible, but not something I wanted to try after being up for over 24 hours straight. Balancing, I grabbed the stabilizer. I pulled but it would not bend. I then leaned back and pulled the stabilizer straight up. It buckled and collapsed, but didn’t break off. The boat was wobbling as I got used to balancing it. I rocked the stabilizer back and forth until it broke off, then tucked it under the bungees with the other stabilizer.

I paddled toward the sand dunes. After an hour of nerve-wracking paddling I was frustrated and decided to signal to see if one of the sailboats would help. I made three short blasts with the
emergency horn.

There was no sign of response. I tried again, with longer blasts. No response. I paddled for another five minutes or so and tried again. No response. I continued this for another 30 minutes until the horn was out of pressure. By this time the sailboats were only about a quarter-mile away, but there were no signs of either boat responding. I was not making any progress and if there was a rip current, then fighting it head on wouldn’t work.

The only way to defeat this was to paddle diagonally to shore. I would travel a longer distance but I’d get to where I needed to go. I headed northeast toward a large lagoon. It was much farther away than the sand dunes but I found myself making better progress in this direction. I was exhausted but I had to keep moving.

There was a fishing boat heading in my direction. As it came closer I pulled the skirt back and pulled a flare from my emergency signaling kit. I sat there for a minute to make up my mind, then removed the protective cap and yanked the cord. The flare shot up a hundred feet in the air with a loud bang. It glowed for 5 to 10 seconds and then disappeared as I waited for a response. None came.

I was shocked. The lack of response ticked me off. This anger gave me energy I didn‘t think I had left. The boat was gliding well through the water. I heard a distant blast of a horn directly ahead of me. It was the Badger sailing for its morning run. It was 9 A.M.

Shortly after I saw the Badger coming out of the channel, I noticed the silhouette of the small lighthouse indicating the pier. Incredibly I was going in the correct direction all along. I was hesitant to enter the channel as I was not sure where the Badgernormally docked. I decided to make landfall on the small beach near the pier.

I made the last turn around the pier, took a few more strokes and hit the sand. It was exactly 10 A.M. when I reached my goal. I’d paddled 62.26 miles in 20 hours.

I tumbled out the kayak and stood up but nearly fell over. I dropped to my knees in a foot of chilly lake water. I could feel every aching muscle, yet I felt completely relaxed. I finally got out of the water and lay down in the sand. After a few minutes of rest I got up, pulled out the first-aid kit and took my last ibuprofen. I turned off the SPOT 2 GPS messenger.

The rear hatch took on some water during the trip, leaving my spare clothes, including my shoes, soaked. I found my cell phone and keys and I decided to hike to the car barefoot. I tossed the lifejacket, sprayskirt and wetsuit in the kayak.

A group of Coast Guardsmen were busy removing the “No Swimming” buoys from the beach in preparation for the winter. I asked them to keep an eye on my stuff for a few minutes. I walked to my car and drove back to the beach in a daze. I had no energy to carry my kayak nearly 300 feet across the sand so I drove onto the beach and pulled alongside my kayak. I was in no shape to lift the kayak—I needed a break before attempting that. I sat down in the car, closed my eyes and immediately fell asleep. The engine was still running.

I awoke to a tapping on my window. One of the Coast Guards was saying “You probably should not be sitting here…” but stopped when he saw my face. “Hey, you OK?” he said. The only thing I remember saying was “I’m sorry. I normally don’t pull these sorts of stunts.” The guy offered to help and called over a few of his buddies. We tossed the kayak up on the rack strapped it and I drove off the beach. The first restaurant I came across was a McDonalds. I ordered a chicken sandwich with some fries and a coke.

I’d felt I was in no shape to drive but the food gave me a sudden rush of energy and I decided to drive myself home. I’d been having trouble with my cell phone and hadn’t been able to call my wife so I turned on the GPS device and sent an “OK” signal that would show I was on land.

When I pulled into my driveway, I stumbled out of the car and walked into the house. After a long, hot shower, I konked out for about an hour on the couch until my dad, wife and best friend popped in to congratulate me on completing my adventure and of course, for surviving.

Alex Tsaturov lives in Ada, MI, and works in information technology incident management. You can find videos of his Lake Michigan crossing and other pursuits at  www.youtube.com/user/rxakt2000.

 Lessons Learned

This is an unusual story for Sea Kayaker. Alex submitted it at the urging of some of his friends and described it as a tale of “extreme adventure.” After reading his account I was left with the impression that it was as much an adventure as it was an accident that didn’t happen.

Although he was successful in making his crossing, his story had to be presented as a safety article pointing out the mistakes that could have led to an accident. Alex graciously consented to this approach.

The purpose of our safety articles is to offer useful lessons to sea kayakers. The benefit any of us can derive from the Lessons Learned is linked to the degree to which we can identify with and sympathize with those kayakers whose stories are told here.

(Aras Kriauciunas conveys this in his article on risk perception in this issue.) I’d venture that few of our regular readers will identify with Alex any more than Alex thought of himself as a kayaker. There may still be something of value in his story.

Sea kayaking vs. athletic events

Alex had competed in local adventure races, events that combine trekking, bicycling and canoeing. Hosted by Grand Rapids Area Adventure Racing (GRAAR), the entry-level races last from four to six hours. The races are, according to the GRAAR website: “designed to test an athlete’s physical and mental endurance as well as skills in a number of disciplines.

While physical fitness plays an important role in adventure racing, your mental fitness or ability to keep pushing yourself, is just as important.” I didn’t find much emphasis on skills on the website: “The only prior training you might need to undertake is in navigation skills with a map and compass.”

For the paddling stage, canoes, paddles and PFDs are provided. Competitors who don’t have access to paddling gear for training can still enter the races. (There is an open division for advanced racers; they are allowed to use their own paddling equipment.)

Alex’s racing and his training for the adventure racing would have improved his strength and endurance for a long crossing, but wouldn’t have added to his skills as an open-water kayaker.

The kayaking stage of that race took place on the exposed coast of the Bay of Fundy and was intended as a test of endurance. A sudden and violent squall turned it into a test of sea-kayaking skills. As I mentioned in the review: “Had the incident been written up as an article for Sea Kayaker, the Lessons Learned section would have little more than a review of basic safety practices.”

In another racing-related kayaking fatality (“A Race against Time” SK April 2008), two adventure racers in Sweden set out on a March training run. The kayaks they used were designed for fitness paddling and poorly suited for rough water and self-rescue.

They had long cockpits to allow for leg drive and were built without bulkheaded flotation compartments. After paddling out of a lee and into rough water, one of the pair capsized.

The lack of proper equipment and training in rescue techniques led to his death. In both of the incidents cited here, the capsized kayakers made efforts at self-rescue while other kayakers stood by watching, failing to employ assisted rescue techniques simply because they were unaware that such techniques existed.

Athletic endeavors have specific goals and athletes reach them by taking a single-minded focus. Bailouts and back-up plans aren’t part of the mindset, and may even prevent athletes from giving their best performance. With sea kayaking, it’s best to have options.

Long, open water crossings appeal to some because they require commitment. Retreat is an option early on, but when the hardest work has to be done you may have only two options: reaching the goal or calling for rescue.

When kayaking is one of several disciplines of adventure racing and approached as an athletic endeavor, participants can miss the wealth of knowledge accumulated by the sea-kayaking community.

Maritime pursuits have historically been steeped in tradition and with good reason. There’s a lot to learn to be safe on the water and to manage a boat. Training assures that the newcomers safely learn about the risks and acquire the skills to deal with them.

Physical limits

Paul McMullen told us about his attempt to kayak across Lake Michigan. Paul had served as a rescue swimmer with the Coast Guard and he was a world-class track athlete. He rented a kayak (one faster than the one he owned) for the 83-mile east-to-west crossing from Grand Haven to Milwaukee, a route very close to the Muskegon to Milwaukee route Alex had considered.

He set out at 5:00 P.M. on September 7, 2006—the Thursday after Labor Day, a date and a time similar to that of Alex’s crossing. The weather was fair when he set out but in the early hours of Friday morning, the wind picked up. The waves built to three to five feet and the headwinds dropped his forward progress to just two miles per hour.

Seasick, taking on water and still 30 miles shy of his goal, he activated his EPRIB. A freighter traveling north found Paul by chance, not because of the EPRIB, and rescued him.

With Paul we have another very fit athlete, but strength plays only a small part in making a long crossing. There are limits to the kind of power even the fittest person can generate.

If you look at the resistance figures that accompany Sea Kayaker’s reviews of kayaks, you’ll see resistance measured in pounds at particular speeds. The Arluck III that Paul was paddling generates slightly less than three pounds of resistance at 3 ½ knots—Paul’s average speed over the 52 miles he had paddled. The resistance figures are based on towing tank data—straight-line travel on flat water and in still air—but they’re good ballpark figures for paddling in calm conditions.

The three pounds of resistance indicates that only three pounds of propulsive force are required to maintain that particular speed. The results of Sea Kayaker’s early research into resistance concluded, “A fit paddler can maintain a cruising speed at three pounds of drag. Only a few can work against five pounds of drag for long distances.” Taken from the paddler’s side, that means that even exceptional paddlers can generate just five pounds of propulsive force during a long passage. That’s one sixth of the thrust generated by a small, electric trolling motor.

A moderate headwind can nearly double the effort of maintaining a cruising pace. A simple formula for converting wind speed into pressure is: The square of the velocity in miles per hour times 0.0027 equals the pressure in pounds per square foot. If we assume the frontal area of a kayaker is 3 square feet, paddling into a 15 mph headwind at 3.5 knots (4 mph) is meeting 2.77 pounds of wind resistance.

Add that to the 3 pounds of resistance in the water and you’re at 4.77 pounds of drag, very close to the 5 pounds of propulsive force a strong paddler can generate. Keep in mind that increases in resistance are a function of the square of increases in speed. As paddling conditions deteriorate, our limits come up very quickly.

Athletic events are about gauging the strength and ability of one person against another. In the coastal environment, we can fare well if the forces we confront are on a human scale. The power of natural forces can quickly and easily exceed that scale.

Testing mental endurance

The GRAAR website notes: “While physical fitness plays an important role in adventure racing, your mental fitness, or ability to keep pushing yourself, is just as important.”

The ability to persevere is important in sea kayaking, but it most often comes into play when we’ve overreached our abilities. It’s natural to wonder what we might be capable of and athletics provide an opportunity to test that in a structured environment.

Within that context, it’s appropriate to “leave it all on the race course.” If you’ve ever had to resort to your mental fitness to extend your physical limits on open water or along a hostile coast, it’s quite likely you’ve made some serious errors in judgment.

In racing you push your limits voluntarily. You don’t have to continue. Any race that’s a good test of endurance should have a number of entrants winding up in the race results’ DNF (did not finish) column and a safe way to withdraw from the race. Open water crossing without an escort leaves you with no good options for withdrawing.

Equipment and knowledge

Alex found his kayak online through Craigslist. Trying to keep within a tight budget, he opted not to buy a new kayak from Bill and Paul’s Sporthaus in Grand Rapids, the nearest retail store specializing in kayaking gear. Alex purchased a Wilderness Systems Tempest 170 from a seller who’d received the kayak in trade and knew nothing about it.

Alex could have done much worse with his luck online. The Tempest 170 was the Sea Kayaker Readers Choice for Best Day/Weekend Touring kayak. It is designed for the “entry-level enthusiast up to the advanced paddler looking for a seaworthy rough-conditions boat.” I paddled the Tempest 170 Pro (the composite version of the rotomolded kayak Alex purchased) for my review in the Readers Choice article: “The cockpit offers solid connection with the boat through adjustable thigh braces snug hip bracing, solid foot braces and a back band that sits low where it doesn’t restrict the paddler’s range of motion.

The stability of the Tempest 170 is very good and the secondary stability is excellent, providing solid support for edging. The Tempest moves along nicely at a cruising pace: I could sustain 4.5 knots with ease. The fit and maneuverability of the Tempest 170 make it a pleasure to paddle.”

While Alex got a good deal on a good kayak, he got no advice on kayaking. I spoke to John Holmes, an employee at Bill and Paul’s who conducts many of the classes offered by the store.

The sales staff is trained to look for the “red flags” of customers purchasing equipment for activities that they may not be adequately prepared for. There were several sea kayaking classes offered in June and July of 2012. Had Alex purchased a kayak from Bill and Paul’s, there’s a good chance he would have been encouraged by the sales staff to take a class.

He did buy a compass and a pump from the Sporthaus, but that may not have been a purchase that raised a “red flag” about his lack of training. (Aras Kriauciunas’ article on risk perception also notes how we may base assumptions about paddling ability on the gear that people have or purchase.)

In the videos Alex took of himself during the crossing, it’s evident he is a self-taught paddler. There is no torso rotation powering his strokes. While Alex is powerfully built, the lack of training in the forward stroke must have contributed to his exhaustion as he neared the finish of his crossing.

Alex “drooled over the carbon fiber paddles at Bill and Paul’s but couldn’t justify spending 300 to 400 bucks.” The primary paddle he purchased came from a discount sports-store chain that offers inexpensive gear for recreational kayaking. Economy was a chief virtue of the aluminum/plastic paddle: “It cost me a whole $25. Can’t beat that!”

Alex was able to anticipate some problems. Employing a paddle leash was “a lesson I learned from the movie Cast Away,” Alex noted in our correspondence.

He remembered the scene when Tom Hank’s character lost his stand-in companion, a soccer ball named Wilson, to sea. “I thought that could happen to my paddle. A boogie board leash did a good job,” Alex said. In spite of his resourcefulness, naïve as it was, it would be impossible to anticipate everything that can crop up in a long crossing.

Training and sea trials

Alex mentioned that he likes to “learn everything on my own, and I end up being very good at whatever I do: ice hockey, motorcycles, tennis, free diving, etc. “I pick things up very quickly. Same with kayaking. It did not take me long to get a very good feel for it. I did watch quite a few videos online about wet reentry specifically.

I did get a chance to take this boat out to the lake in July or early August to practice reentry. In waves it was nearly impossible. I was able to get on the kayak and balance myself fine, but when trying to slide into the seat, the boat would roll. Without the water being very flat or having some sort of a float, it was extremely difficult to do. For those reasons I made my little
‘anti-roll’ set up.”

Like Alex, I enjoy learning on my own. There’s a measure of pride that comes with being self-taught, but it’s a slow way to learn, and you can develop some bad technical habits. An instructor can solve both of those problems. The word “educate” has a Latin root in “educere,” which means, “to lead out.” It implies two things: that there’s someone to do the leading and there’s something the student needs to be led out of.  That something has to be ignorance. Not knowing what you don’t know makes it difficult and in some cases perilous to educate one’s self.


Alex wasn’t shy about his plans for the crossing when he was shopping for gear. “The reactions ranged from ‘You’re nuts!’ to no comments at all. The only suggestions I received were ‘Don’t do it,’ and ‘Get a boat to trail you.’ I said no to the latter suggestion, as to me that’s no sport.

No one, other than my friends and coworkers took me seriously. Those close to me know that if I set my sights on something, I achieve it.”

If people were not taking Alex seriously, it was because they couldn’t believe that he could successfully make the crossing with the skills, experience and even the equipment he possessed. But his intentions should have been taken quite seriously.

There was no reason to assume that he would not make the attempt and get well out from shore. It would be reasonable to assume that he would fail. There we should feel that we have a responsibility. “Don’t do it” and “Get a boat to trail you” were indeed very sound pieces of advice, but they were not effective.

Alex would make his decision to launch based on what he knew. The shortcomings in his preparation must have been quite obvious. He needed advice and an approach that would help him make a better-informed decision. Aras Kriauciunas touches on the process of swaying someone’s decision in his article in this issue.


Alex’s plan was shifted to a significantly shorter crossing by the refusal of the Lake Express ferry to take his kayak aboard. Paddling the route of the Badger saved him 20 miles.

Had he paddled his initial intended route and reached his point of exhaustion at 60 miles out (as he did on the Badger route), he would have had another 6 hours of paddling ahead of him. It’s very likely he would have had to use his SPOT 2 to send a distress call.

Alex carried a smart phone in a small dry bag. He had intended to use it to track his position by logging onto the website that mapped his SPOT 2 messenger’s “OK” transmissions. That worked for the few messages he sent in the first hour of his crossing, and he was able to get a rough idea of his speed. “It worked for the first two to three miles, then the connection degraded and then finally dropped.

When I left the Michigan shore on the Badger, the cell phone reception was great until approximately 10-15 miles into Lake Michigan. The Wisconsin side did not offer reception as good as that. I checked my phone maybe once or twice when I first paddled off from Manitowoc.

It worked for about the first hour. It did help me get an idea for how fast I was paddling at that time.” Fortunately, his wife would consent to let Alex make the crossing only if he had a satellite messenger that could send a distress call with a location. It would also provide updates on Alex’s progress once he was out of the coverage area of the land-based cell-phone system.

Alex was extremely lucky with the weather. He estimated the winds he faced during the crossing were about 10 miles per hour. The swell “just kind of rolled past,” and the wind waves were minimal.

The videos Alex took while under way show very mild conditions (Paul McMullen, paddling at the same time of year, encountered strong winds and 3- to 5-foot seas that frequently broke over his bow). The weather around Alex was unsettled. Thunderstorms can bring strong localized winds, but while Alex could see storm clouds, he did not have to contend with strong winds or rough seas. His outriggers were never put to a rigorous test, and one of them failed in mild conditions. He was able to break off the other, even though it was in an awkward position behind him.

The telescoping aluminum tubing of the squeegees would have almost certainly failed in rough water. Sea trials, a longstanding maritime tradition, are essential for learning what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t know by experience how your gear will hold up, or how you will hold up, you’re leaving your success to chance.

Looking back on the crossing, Alex said, “I am a huge risk taker and this is not the first time I have done something ‘stupid.’ This was very dumb and unsafe and it could have turned out differently.

Luck was a major factor. Anyone that knows anything about the Great Lakes knows that it can go from calm to ‘the perfect storm’ in a matter of minutes. My self-confidence got the better of me.” The experience of the crossing deepened his interest in kayaking and made it clear that he had a lot to learn. “I plan on going to a kayaking symposium that is held here in Michigan every summer. I am looking forward to the kayak clinics there and it will also be nice to get to know the kayaking community.”

Alex had taken up kayaking as an outsider and neither his web searches nor his encounters while shopping for gear brought him into our community where he could get the advice he needed.

As interest in adventure sports grows, there will be more people like Alex looking at kayaking as a way to challenge themselves. It would be a mistake to dismiss them for their bravado. Their naïveté is good reason to bring them into the fold as quickly as possible.

Kayak Surfing Etiquette

In places where the waves are well suited to surfing, you’ll often find board surfers. Knowing their rules of etiquette will help you avoid collisions with them and keep the peace at the break.

Kayak surfing in the ocean is growing in popularity. For some kayakers, it has become a sport of its own, involving advanced maneuvers in highly specialized ocean surf kayaks.

For other kayakers, it’s a way to sharpen skills while providing a fun diversion. Unfortunately, many cruising kayakers come into conflict with surf boarders.

Many kayakers show up at the ocean with a whitewater kayak and find themselves among unfriendly, sometimes very unpleasant, board surfers. The problem is one of ignorance.

I believe many kayakers have no understanding of the rules associated with the sport of surfing. This is understandable. At Westport, Washington, I’ve seen kayakers literally bongo slide (trapped sideways in a high brace) over board surfers. I’ve seen kayakers drop in on surfers with no regard for wave etiquette.

What is not cool are the kayakers who say, “The waves are free; I can do what I want.” This attitude is common among kayakers, and it’s causing problems. But in some places, this ignorance will get you into serious trouble.

Kayakers would do well to know the rules, not only to avoid dangerous collisions, but also to show more respect for others. Following these rules has kept me out of trouble and allowed me to coexist with board surfers in California, Costa Rica, Canada and Washington.

1. When possible, surf places that are not popular with board surfers.

Surf boarders require a steep wave face for a drop-in take off. They typically have fewer wave choices than a kayak. Kayaks have the speed to catch waves early, while they are still steepening, and be on a wave before a surfer can drop in. This can be a problem, as the board surfers wait impatiently for a wave, only to see a goober in a kayak hopelessly out of control side surfing toward them. Not only have they lost the wave, they must avoid the kayaker who may have no idea they’re even there. This is worse if it’s a sea kayak that is prone to broaching and cuts a wide swath down the face of the wave.

2. Don’t drop in on surfers, board or kayak.

The person closest to the breaking shoulder of a wave (steepest part) has the right of way. Surfers actually line up and take turns grabbing waves at the break. Kayakers routinely take off away from the break on a building wave while a surf boarder is working across the peeling face, only to encounter a kayak that’s either stuck sideways or surfing straight ahead.

3. Be extra courteous around surfers.

Take some time to size up the situation. If they are working a peak (steep, building part of a wavetake off point), try to find another area. If it’s the only spot, wait your turn. Sometimes I’ll sit a bit in shore from the surfers and grab waves they miss. Other times, I’ll wait for my turn, take a late drop and enjoy the wave. It’s important, though, to have control if you play among surfers. If they see you competently working the wave, they’ll show respect.

If you appear out of control, they’ll get nervous and tell you to go away. Sometimes the wave is hollow and very fast, making it less suitable for all but the best kayak surfers in specialized surf boats. If I’m uncertain of my ability to maintain control on a given wave, I’ll wait until the crowd dies down so my inevitable wipeouts won’t harm anyone.

4. Paddle out in a manner that doesn’t put you in the way of an incoming surfer, and look for surfers paddling out when you’re surfing a wave.

5. If it’s a hot spot, arrive early and enjoy an hour or so of surfing before the board surfers arrive. If you arrive at a hot spot and find a great wave that is populated with board surfers, go elsewhere, come back later or ease your way in. In some areas, surfers sometimes feel they own the place and are just plain nasty.

However, my experience has been that this is rare, especially in the Northwest. It may seem as though I’m allowing board surfers to dictate my experience. Not so. I’m simply learning to respect a tradition that has evolved for a reason. A kayak out of control in crowded waters is a very real hazard.

Acquiring the right skills and playing by the rules will lead to more fun. You’ll learn a lot by being around the surfers, and most of them will appreciate what a kayak can do on a wave.

Michipicoten Island – Atypical August winds turn an annual summer outing into a struggle to survive


I have been fascinated by Michipicoten Island ever since I became aware of it 43 years ago. The heavily forested island, located in the northeastern part of Lake Superior, is uninhabited by humans, seldom visited, and awash with wildlife, sandy beaches, rocky coastlines and jagged cliffs.

My partner, Judy, and I take a kayaking trip to Lake Superior every year. We usually go late in the summer to enjoy the cooler weather and fewer mosquitoes, but our 2010 trip began near the very end of August. We planned to visit Michipicoten Island and would begin our trip from Michipicoten First Nation land near Wawa, Ontario. The island itself is 15 miles long and 10 miles across. We’d cross to the island about 35 wilderness miles from the put-in.

I have been kayaking the Pukaskwa region of the Canadian north shore most summers for 24 years. I’ve made the full 110-mile trip from Hattie Cove to Michipicoten Harbour twice. Judy and I had made the nearly 10-mile crossing from Northern Ontario’s remote Pukaskwa region to Michipicoten Island for the first time the previous year. Despite my long-standing interest in the island, until our 2009 trip, time limitations, weather and caution regarding the unpredictable nature of Lake Superior had kept me from making the crossing.

The paddle out to the island had been a joy in fine weather and the return crossing had been even nicer; we’d only wished time had not constrained our explorations of the island. We had promised ourselves we would return.

Judy and I felt prepared for the 2010 trip. We were using a 21.5-foot Current Designs Libra XL, a tandem sea kayak I’ve had for 15 years. It has a great deal of cargo space and considerable seaworthiness. We added two deck mounts for sails that we would use if the winds were favorable. We dressed for immersion with 2-millimeter shorty wetsuits, which protect the body parts most vulnerable to heat loss—the body core, including the armpits and groin. Over the wetsuits we wore long-sleeve paddling jackets.

We also wore neoprene socks and neoprene sleeves on our forearms. I had deliberately chosen the shorty-style suits after hearing a Coast Guard medical doctor report on his studies of body-core heat loss in cold water. The study found that shorty wetsuits protect the shoulders and armpits better than farmer-john wetsuits. With neoprene on our lower arms and from our calves down, only our heads, elbows, knees and parts of our hands were exposed.

Our plan was to paddle from the put-in at Michipicoten Harbour to Floating Heart Bay, make the crossing to the island and explore its perimeter and larger streams. We would then cross back to the mainland, go 40 miles north to Hattie Cove, and paddle back to our starting point. If we had more bad weather days, we expected we would at least make it to Hattie Cove and shuttle overland back to our vehicle.

The previous year I’d felt vulnerable near the middle of this passage, so I purchased and registered an ACR Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) as a precaution. When activated, it sends a distress signal and location coordinates (via satellite and a rescue-coordination center) to the appropriate search-and-rescue team.

It was our security blanket not just for paddling but also for mishaps that might occur on land while far from a road, a telephone or maybe even another human being. At 63 years old, and with Judy not much younger, I felt the PLB was a prudent addition to our safety gear. The model we chose also allowed us send daily “OK” messages and our location coordinates to our loved ones.

We filed our trip plans using ACR’s web-based trip registration service. If we activated the PLB, the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards and ACR would have key information available, including our intended route, the type, size and color of the kayak, and the colors of our paddling jackets. They would be able to keep our contacts apprised of our status until the rescue was complete. I keep the PLB tethered to my person so I can activate it even if I were separated from the kayak.

Our trip in 2010 was colder, windier and wetter than any prior year. The first two days were quite warm and the winds were moderate, but after the first stopover at McCoy’s Harbor, we spent three to five nights at almost every campsite awaiting a break in the weather. Lake Superior can be formidable, and most days we were confronted with 20- and 30-mile-per-hour winds.

After spending three nights at Floating Heart Bay (the closest approach to Michipicoten Island), we were presented with strong northeast winds and predictions of more of the same, so we decided to put off the crossing and instead proceeded westward, hugging the north shore for protection from the wind. The coastline here roughly parallels that of the island for the next 15 miles. We could cross from another point if the opportunity arose or continue to our turn-around point at Hattie Cove and catch the island on the return leg.

Our strategy worked fairly well until we got to Le Petit Mort Rocks in the afternoon. Here, the shoreline begins to arc gently northward to the west of Floating Heart Bay, and once beyond Le Petit Mort Rocks, the shoreline was no longer providing us adequate shelter from the northwest wind. After about an hour of being pummeled by wind and mounting seas, we decided to turn around and overnight in a cove, above a small beach behind the “little death rocks.”

Contrary to the earlier weather reports, the next day was fair and mild, with a light north wind. The latest weather reports indicated the northerly would last no more than a few hours, then change to the west. We saw this as our opportunity to cross, and we did, using our sails to speed our trip. Fortunately, the fair-weather window remained open long enough for us to make it to the island’s East End Lighthouse at Point Maurepas–but no longer. The wind shifted just before we arrived and the wind and waves rose suddenly right after we landed.

Once we were on the island, the unfavorable weather pattern returned. We spent two nights at the lighthouse then another mild day paddling around to East Sand Bay, a deep, southeast-facing scoop out of the island’s southern shore.

The fifth day opened with a gale from the southeast—a howling, sandstorm wind, alternating with cold, driven rain. Weather radio indicated conditions were more benign everywhere else. The gale lasted a full 24 hours, and then the wind turned to the west, and for the next two days we watched leaping waves march past the bay.

Judy and I reviewed our situation and our calendar. We were not making the progress we intended. Approaching the equinox, daylight was diminishing by several minutes each day, and temperatures, already below normal, were following suit. Nights were sometimes at or below freezing, and days were now typically around 50?F. We decided to head back to the mainland.

The next day, winds were fairly stiff, but from the west. By hugging the south shore as it arced northeastward, we felt conditions would be favorable for our return to the East End Lighthouse. The wind rose and shifted to the east that evening, and we spent the next day listening to the waves pound the rocks, periodically checking the kayak to make sure the waves weren’t reaching high enough to grab it from the boulder ridge where we had secured it.

The next morning, we admired a spectacular sunrise but decided to ignore the old mariner’s saying, “Red sky in morning….” The winds were gentle and from the southeast, and the weather report was for the wind to change to the southwest and increase to around 20 miles per hour in the midafternoon.

We could be across by then, and if we weren’t, we would be close to land and able to make safe harbor before the sea rose too high. We also took comfort from the fact that, in a worst-case scenario, we did have a personal locator beacon. So we packed up and shoved off. We decided to strike out to the northwest, with the wind directly at our backs, for Le Petit Mort, the same bay that we had departed the mainland from.

Within a half hour of our departure, the gentle southeast breeze had become a brisk southeast wind. Apparently the sequence of events was not to be a wind shift followed by a rise in wind speed. The wind speed was rising first. By then, however, the prospect of fighting the wind to get back to the island was daunting, and we figured that the southeasterly would help us get to the mainland before it changed direction.

Our reluctance to reverse course and return to the island was part of our undoing. Yes, it would be very difficult to fight the wind and waves if we turned around, but plowing into the waves, able to see the oncoming peaks, anticipate their effects and compensate accordingly would have afforded us much more directional stability.

A heavy following sea knocks the stern to the side, and since the top of a wave is flowing forward, the boat must be moving even faster than the water in the crest in order for the rudder to function. I became fatigued by constantly correcting for direction and compensating, after the fact, for wave impacts.

As we got farther from the island, occasional waves crossed from the southwest, even though the wind had not yet shifted. These were a nuisance, as they crossed the southeasterly waves at roughly a 60-degree angle, and where they met, the combined crests peaked while the troughs deepened. I expected we’d experience crossing waves for a short period of time after a wind shift, but the wind was still from the southeast.

As we would learn later, this herringbone pattern of waves, well known by experienced mariners and called the Witch’s Grin, is caused by a 90-degree shift in wind direction, and was accentuated by the waves from the south wrapping around the island and intersecting.

Then the wind changed—two or three hours before we expected it to—and grew stronger. Building southwesterly waves intersected the well-established southeasterly waves. We decided to change course to avoid being broadsided by the growing southwesterly waves and started steering a little east of due north, aiming for Floating Heart Bay.

Judy and I struggled to keep moving forward but we were getting knocked side to side. Where the two wave patterns converged, waves would occasionally toss a column of water into the air that appeared fully double the other wave heights.

Slowly, the mainland appeared closer, and the island more distant. We took some comfort when the GPS told us we were at least halfway. The wind was stronger than anticipated, and by now the waves seemed over six feet in height and the peaks higher yet. (We later learned the waves were up to 10 feet in height.) The shore disappeared from view about half the time.

I felt the stern swing violently to the left as we listed to the right. Almost at the same time, a large wave crest from the right washed over my shoulders, burying the aft half of the boat while the forward half seemed to pitch upward as it was thrown to the right. I felt the kayak roll into the curl of the wave and I knew there was no coming back. I shouted in outrage at the elements even as my mouth filled with water. And then I was upside down.

OK, we’ve all been taught that all you have to do is roll back up. Try that in a fully loaded tandem in heavy seas. Especially when you’ve never done it very well in a single, in practice. Nonetheless, I tried. The kayak barely rotated. I evacuated the cockpit and bobbed to the surface.

Judy was already out and hanging on. She asked if I was OK. I sputtered affirmatively and asked likewise. I didn’t notice the water temperature. With our two-piece shorty wetsuits, long water socks, paddling jackets and water shoes, we weren’t completely exposed, but I knew we couldn’t afford to stay in the water for long. We both had our paddles, which were attached by paddle leashes to our paddling jackets. We also were both wearing backpacks carrying hydration packs. These provided some insulation as well as flotation.

I decided the first order of business was to attempt self-rescue, so together we righted the kayak. I dispensed with the paddle-float approach and had Judy hold one side of the kayak while I pulled myself up from the opposite side onto the rear deck. The kayak promptly tipped over again. The second attempt worked better, and I reentered the cockpit.

The waves within the cockpit surged back and forth, causing an eerie water-clap sound like the back of a sea cave. I contemplated whether I should empty the cockpit with the bilge pump or have Judy get in first. A crashing wave suggested I’d never get the spray skirt on, much less be able to empty the cockpit in these seas. Then another wave sent me over, throwing me a good six feet from the boat.

My paddle was between my legs and one leg was wrapped in the leash. I had to get untangled before I could swim back to the kayak. By the time I had myself straightened out, the boat was 20 feet away. I was upwind of the kayak, and the wind was blowing it farther from me.

Judy was holding on to the lee side of the kayak, watching the bilge pump float away. For the first time ever, I had failed to secure the bilge pump tether to the kayak. Had Judy pursued it as it floated away we both could have been separated from the kayak. Waves were breaking over my head, and I swallowed some water.

We didn’t have a throw rope. I had always thought of it as something to assist another boat, and we always went alone. If Judy could have tossed one to me, letting it trail upwind of the drifting kayak, I could have reached it and pulled myself to the boat. We later learned that 15-meter throw lines are required boating equipment in Canada.

I tried to swim to the boat, but my tethered paddle was like a sea anchor. I reorganized myself and used the paddle to swim, albeit clumsily. Slowly, I approached the kayak, and I put on a burst of speed to catch up. I gained on it somewhat more quickly, but ran out of steam.

I had to catch my breath, but the crashing waves kept that from happening. By the time I recovered, the boat was 30 feet away. I tried again and again, without success. Judy watched me with a look of desperation.

At this point it was clear to me we were not going to self-rescue. I wasn’t even sure I was ever going to catch up with the boat. I fumbled and found the rip cord on the belt pack for my inflatable life vest. It promptly inflated but was so rigid that it was difficult to pull over my head.

It was clear we were going to need help if we were going to survive. I opened the pocket on my spray skirt and pulled out the PLB. I hated having to do this. I’d never before gotten myself into a situation I couldn’t get myself out of. But I had no other choice.

I unwrapped the antenna and uncovered the red emergency button. I pushed it. Two seconds. Did I hold it two seconds? I thought. Was my sense of time even close to accurate? The PLB’s display showed that it was sending coordinates, and its strobe began flashing. It would do this, presumably, for 48 hours.

I knew we wouldn’t last 48 hours in Lake Superior, so that would be long enough to either summon assistance or be a moot issue. I tucked it into my PFD where it was generally above the water and its GPS was well exposed. It was still tethered to my spray skirt so I wouldn’t lose it.

By now the kayak was a good 75 or more feet away from me. Judy appeared not to have inflated her vest yet. I began to paddle-swim toward her but that was awkward. I had never practiced swimming with my PFD inflated. I swallowed more water as waves crashed over me.

I tried different approaches, once even holding the paddle aloft like a sail, hoping the wind might move me toward her and the boat. It seemed they were receding ever farther, disappearing except when they bobbed up on top of a wave. Once I saw Judy had righted the boat, but then it was over again. Once more it was up, and she was in it. “Good girl!” I spluttered, aloud, but then it was over again. Why didn’t she inflate the life vest? Finally, I could see the vest inflated, but not on her. She appeared to have her arm looped through it.

I was starting to feel the cold. I didn’t know how long it had been. I looked at the distant shore and thought, “Is this how it ends? If help doesn’t arrive, this will be how it ends.” I looked for the kayak. I wasn’t even sure where to look anymore. I began to despair. I flashed on a scene from the film, The Perfect Storm, where the last surviving crewman from the submerged fishing boat bobs to the surface in his PFD and the camera pulls away, revealing the vastness of the sea—and how hopelessly lost he is in it. I chastened myself for being such a media creature that I would even think of such a thing in this situation.

Then I saw Judy and the kayak, so far away, Judy with that desperate, searching expression on her face, searching for me. I had been swimming in the wrong direction. Then I thought, “No, it will not end this way!” I resolved to make it to her side. The only way I could possibly catch her would be to paddle-swim as efficiently as possible, at a rate I could sustain for a long time. If I could travel just a bit faster than the kayak was drifting, I could catch it, if I could keep it up long enough.

I didn’t know how long it would take for rescue, if rescue was, in fact, on its way. If rescuers found me by homing in on the PLB and strobe I needed to stay close to Judy so she’d be found quickly. So I swam using the paddle. It was hard to estimate how long. Paddle, breathe. Paddle, breathe. Ignore the breakers. Swallow water. Breathe, paddle. It occurred to me that at least I wouldn’t get dehydrated.

I was closer. I could see Judy and the kayak more frequently. This was heartening. It seemed Judy was turning the kayak into the wind. “Good girl!” I thought again. “That will reduce the windage and help me catch up!” But then it was parallel to the waves again. At one point it appeared I was almost even with it with respect to the wind, but a hundred feet off to the side. I had to course correct.

As I drew nearer I saw that the front hatch cover was missing. The bow was riding low in the water. Judy must have accidentally dislodged the latches while attempting to right the kayak or board it. The lower profile of the bow may have been what was allowing me to catch up. What I didn’t know was that Judy was trying to scissor-stroke the kayak in my direction. Whatever was happening, I was finally getting closer. I was getting colder, and I was running out of energy. It must have been an hour by now that I had been chasing the kayak.

Just keep paddling. I had almost reached it before and had run out of steam. If that happened again, my energy was too depleted to make another attempt. I had to avoid the urge to put on a burst of speed. Just keep plugging. And I knew I must not grab for the kayak too soon; if I missed, if it lurched out of reach, I’d have lost momentum and have to reorient the paddle, and that might have the same result. I waited until I was in contact with the kayak to reach for it.

I caught the rudder deployment lines with my fingers. Judy came around the bow to the upwind side and called back to ask if I was OK and if I had activated the PLB. I gasped yes to both, but I needed to rest. The waves were crashing over my head as the kayak and I bobbed up and down.

I tried to use the kayak to elevate myself a bit in the water, my inflated life vest holding me somewhat away from the boat. I just hung there for a while, recovering. Once breath and strength returned, I worked my way around to the downwind side of the kayak and Judy did the same at her end. I moved along that side to join Judy at the bow. I asked her about her PFD.

“I can’t get it over my head!” she replied. “I can’t use both hands because I won’t let go of the kayak!” We had never before inflated our PFDs so we were inexperienced at actually getting them on, especially in a situation where one is in the water and does not want to release the boat.

I told her to hang on and I pulled it over her head. It had not been easy to get my own PFD over my head and it was harder to do that for Judy.

“I’m going to try to reenter the boat again,” I said. “Try to stabilize it from the upwind side—but don’t let it get away from you!” I worked my way back to the rear cockpit while Judy went around the bow. After a couple of tries, I managed to get into the boat. It felt terribly unstable. Judy tried to get in, and we capsized.

I reentered. We repeated the experience. The kayak just wasn’t stable enough for her to get in too. We were less than fully practiced in self-rescue. Our practices typically had taken place in gentle, warm waters and low winds using an empty kayak. Reentry of both kayakers in a flooded kayak having the stability of a half-soaked log was much more challenging.

In the process of entering and capsizing, my coiled paddle leash became tangled in the deck-mounted sail yoke. Both Judy and I had our paddle leashes get wrapped on the sail yokes. We had kept the yokes mounted because of the inconvenience of stowing and retrieving them as needed. Our coiled paddle leashes compounded the problem in that they persistently fouled on everything they encountered. Judy was never able to release her paddle. I got it loose for her by releasing the leash’s Velcro fastening.

Judy gave up on trying to get back into the boat and hooked her arm over the forward cockpit coaming and hung on. I tried to paddle, partly to maintain some stability, partly to generate some body heat, and partly to try, however incrementally, to move us toward the mainland shore still four or five miles to the north.

Judy’s drag on the port side of the boat kept turning us in that direction. Trying to overcome the drag using the rudder and paddling mostly on my left was only slightly effective. I know at least once we turned in a complete circle. Eventually, I was paddling just to be doing something.

The chill was beginning to penetrate. We both had lost our hats. I could feel the heat leaving my body in the 25-knot wind. I was in the kayak, only half immersed, but Judy was still in the water. It had seemed warmer in the water, but sensation can be deceptive. Survival was beginning to look less likely. I could keep believing we would survive as long as I was reasonably strong and our objective realistically attainable.

But it had become apparent that even if we were to make shore on our own, we would be too hypothermic to survive. And at the rate we were chilling, we would never make shore. We had been heartened when I had regained the kayak, but dismayed by our inability to get us both into the boat without capsizing. Our inability to make progress toward shore was just as discouraging.

Our only hope was that the Coast Guard had received our PLB signal, and that they were en route. We spoke of it circuitously. We told each other that we loved each other. Judy told me how she feared she had lost me. I told her of the wrenching minutes when I couldn’t see her or the boat. We kept hoping to see our rescuers and wondered how far they would have to travel. We didn’t know how much time had passed, but it seemed like hours.

I kept paddling. My arms hurt. My hands barely felt like a part of me, but they continued to follow my instructions and I held on to my paddle. The waves must have been getting more organized, with less of a southeasterly component, as I don’t think I could have stayed upright if the herringbone peaks had been prominent.

I was beginning to weaken significantly and feel the cold in my bones when I heard a deep drone. I saw a magnificent, huge, four-engine prop plane approaching us from the southeast, flying what seemed to be only a couple of hundred feet above the water.

It was the Canadian Coast Guard search plane. We would later learn it had come all the way from Trenton, Ontario—some 90 miles east of Toronto. The C-130 aircraft was a beautiful sight as it flew directly over us. It seemed like forever before it turned and circled. It seemed to be flying a pattern and only flew over us again after completing it, then circled some more.

We assumed it must be checking to be sure we weren’t the only ones out here. But it also soon became apparent this aircraft was not going to rescue us. It was the search half of search and rescue, and the faster half, at that. How far behind was the helicopter? We could only wait.

Time was elastic. The half hour it took for the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to arrive seemed like well over an hour. It approached from the south, across Michipicoten Island, and pulled to a hover about 200 feet away. My arms were rubbery, barely able to brace the kayak against battering by the waves, and I hurt from chill and fatigue.

My field of vision had closed down to a tunnel, and I didn’t see the rescue swimmer leap from the helicopter. I looked over my right shoulder to see what looked like a finless dolphin slicing through the water at amazing speed toward us.

In a moment, the rescue swimmer reached me and said, “We’re going to get you both out of here. I’ll take your wife first and come back for you.” I would later learn his name was John. He then went to her, gave her the thumbs-up, said, “You’re going to be okay!” and told her the plan. He grabbed her by the loop on her backpack and towed her to the helicopter, placed her in the basket and sent her skyward. When he came back for me, he said we had a nice kayak and nice equipment.

I think I thanked him. At this point, I was only intermittently aware of things, as I was beginning to shut down, but when he said he was going to tip the kayak over so he could take me, I had enough presence of mind to reach behind my seat and grab the waterproof pouch tethered to it. It contained a credit card and ID, some money, and most importantly, the car key. I wasn’t capable of unclipping it, so as I fell out of the kayak, I just pulled until the cord snapped.

John told me to relax and let him do the work. He towed me through the water by my backpack strap at remarkable speed. The water felt so warm compared to the icy wind. He laid me on my back in the basket, which was submerged just below the waves, and told me to hold my glasses. As I rose through the air I turned my head to see my capsized kayak drifting slowly northward, presumably never to be seen again. I didn’t care.

The prop wash from the chopper blades was intense and freezing. Whatever body heat I had left seemed to get sucked out of me on that ascent. I was helped out of the basket by one of the crew, positioned on the floor in the back and given a blanket.

Judy was sitting in the one spare seat in the rear. We both expressed our relief at being reunited and for our rescue. Cramps set in my entire body, especially my neck. Mercifully, Judy didn’t experience any cramping. A crewman put a radio-equipped helmet on me so the crew and I could hear each other. He pulled off our PFDs and our water socks, and said the heater in the cabin was cranked all the way up. It was stifling for them but good for us. John turned off my PLB and said he would love to learn the whole story.

When we arrived at the Wawa airport, the ambulance was waiting. We were each asked whether we could walk to the ambulance. For me, there was no way that was going to happen. Judy was able to walk the few steps to the ambulance.

We had spent over three and a half hours fully or semi-immersed in the water. The Coast Guard reported the water temperature at 55° F. I was more hypothermic than Judy. The paramedics couldn’t get a temperature reading on me using a forehead scanner.

They immediately stripped all the wetsuits and gear from us and wrapped us in warm blankets. Once we were in the emergency room at Lady Dunn Hospital, they were able to take ear-probe temperatures. Mine was 93°F, and Judy’s temperature was 95°F. I was still cramping. They put us both under hot air blankets, and because my hypothermia was more severe, I was put into the trauma room and administered a warm-water IV, followed by warm liquids to drink. Judy recovered more quickly, and after three hours of treatment, we both enjoyed a hot shower.

I learned later that it would have been dangerous—possibly fatal—to have taken a hot shower early on. Warming the skin too rapidly can cause a sudden rush of cold extremity blood to move into the body core, causing cardiac arrhythmia. We were given wonderful care, receiving the almost undivided attention of a physician and the ER staff for four hours.

After we had both recovered sufficiently, the hospital staff provided us with warm clothing and summoned a pair of community volunteers from the Wawa Area Victim Assistance program to return us to our vehicle, which we had parked not far from the hospital. One of the volunteers, hearing our story, told us we had been caught in the “Witch’s Grin.”

Five days later, we were contacted by Dave Wells, a kayak outfitter in Michipicoten Harbour near Wawa. We had provided him, the police, local fishermen and anyone else we could think of with a list of the kayak’s contents in case any of it were to show up.

Dave told us that our kayak had been washed ashore on a sand beach adjacent to his facility. It had drifted 35 miles to one of the few patches of sand in a coast that is nearly all rocks.

Dave and his staff had emptied the kayak of sand, brought it to their facility, emptied the hatches and dried out the gear. The kayak was nearly undamaged. We lost my camera and some non-floating items that had been stored in the cockpits, but recovered almost all the rest. Even my paddle was retrieved by local folks who turned things over to the police or Dave. Our GPS was found on the beach, and it still works.

After the accident I wondered if having the PLB had influenced our decision to proceed even when we had doubts about the crossing. I know it went through my mind that morning, weighing the factors, that if conditions turned really rotten and we got into trouble, we always had the PLB to fall back on. Would we have proceeded without it?

I don’t know the answer, but I know I will be wary of allowing it to influence me in the future. No doubt our family and friends will demand we carry one on future excursions (as if we weren’t convinced ourselves) and after this event, I expect they will be tracking our movements and status carefully.

Surviving a near-death situation can be a life-altering experience. In our case, it has served to cement the bonds between Judy and myself. Seeing a loved one’s life at genuine risk, especially knowing you may be responsible, can be more frightening than being at risk yourself.

It reprioritizes your values in a hurry. Both of us are more aware of how precious we are to one another. The single strongest memory I have of that event is the image of Judy in the distance, clinging to the kayak as waves intermittently heaved her into view, her face filled more with concern for me than with fear for herself.

We two aging, far less than optimally conditioned sea kayakers, capsized in Lake Superior under adverse weather conditions and weren’t able to self-rescue, yet we survived thanks to a combination of technology and the extraordinary efforts of a team of people who have dedicated themselves to bailing the rest of us out of situations we should never have put ourselves into. Certainly, our experience underscores the importance of kayakers having a Personal Locator Beacon for any but the most protected waters.

The only consolation we perceive in consideration of the public resources expended to save us is the hope that our case contributed positively to the justification for the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard budgets. We cannot fully express our gratitude.

Robert Beltran retired from EPA in 2007. He is a coauthor of The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book. He and his late wife kayaked Lake Superior annually from 1986 until she developed cancer in 1997. Bob resumed kayaking the lake with his new partner, Judy, in 2005.

Judith Gottlieb retired from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2009, where she was a wastewater engineer for the Milwaukee River Basin. She has been kayaking Lake Superior annually since Bob introduced her to the sport in 2005.

Lessons Learned

by Roger Schumann

When analyzing most kayak accidents, one rarely has to look very far beyond a few common basic safety measures to see what went awry. The majority of mishaps typically involve hypothermia and one or more (too often all) of four basic errors.

Paddlers who got in trouble were 1) not wearing PFDs, 2) not dressed for immersion, 3) paddling a kayak without adequate flotation, and 4) had inadequate rescue training and practice for the type of trip attempted. There is often a bad decision to launch, followed by one or more unexpected waves and/or gusts of wind and, voilà—deep trouble.

In this story bad things happened to paddlers who thought they were fairly well prepared. Both Robert and Judy wore PFDs as well as wetsuits, and paddled a kayak that had demonstrated “considerable seaworthiness” to them for the past 15 years.

They also had several years’ experience in the area, and a personal locator beacon “as a last resort” to get them out of just about any trouble they could get themselves into. In spite of their feeling well prepared for the trip, trouble did come, and it came in spades.

While stories of survival can be inspiring—Bob and Judy’s determination after they found themselves in the water was no less than heroic—our goal is to avoid putting ourselves in circumstances where our survival is in jeopardy.

Back to Basics

Bob and Judy did wear PFDs, although the inflatable type they wore proved less than ideal when they ended up in the water. Although the PFDs ultimately did the job of keeping them afloat—despite the obvious operator error—standard PFDs that use foam for flotation would have caused them fewer problems, and the inherent insulating properties of foam would have kept them somewhat warmer.

Bob and Judy hadn’t practiced paddling, swimming and doing rescues with their PFDs fully inflated. Bob told me that they just didn’t think that practice seemed necessary. Making time to practice with the gear you will be using on a trip can help reveal any unexpected complications you might encounter.

While Bob and Judy had considered themselves dressed for immersion, they were not dressed for a capsize and wet exit in the middle of a 10-mile crossing in very rough conditions and in 55-degree water.

Full wetsuits designed for paddling, or even drysuits and neoprene hoods would have been better options. Had Bob and Judy both been warmer after Bob’s long swim back to the kayak, they both might have been better prepared, not just physically but mentally as well, to explore and execute a wider range of reentry alternatives, such as deploying their paddle float (more on this later), that might have gotten them both out of the water and back aboard the kayak.

No immersion wear can assure survival in cold water forever, but what’s more important than survival time is the time immersion wear provides for clear thinking, adequate strength and manual dexterity.

Most tandem kayaks are quite stable, especially when loaded with camping gear, but they can take on a lot of water after capsizing and lose much of their stability. With a hatch lost and the forward compartment flooded, Bob and Judy’s tandem was made even less stable.

Also, paddling a tandem kayak “solo,” that is, without another kayak to help out and provide stability for reentries and pumping, definitely limited their rescue options. Other gear issues, such as getting tangled in paddle leashes and not having a throw line, compounded their problems. (Given their luck with the paddle leashes, I don’t know if having another few dozen feet of throw line in the roiling water would have improved their situation much.)

The main lesson still left to learn before Judy and Bob attempt paddling solo in open water again—and the most important point, I believe, for readers to ponder—involves shifting our focus away from gear.

Focusing on things like tangled leashes and throw lines they wish they’d had and difficult PFDs is a bit off the mark (like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” I believe the saying goes).

Certainly a throw rope could have saved Bob from the epic swim, but then what? And life jackets that didn’t have to be awkwardly forced over their heads would have been much more helpful, for sure, yet still left them essentially in, or rather out of, the same boat—miles from shore without the skills to reenter their kayak, shivering and waiting for a helicopter ride to the hospital.

While the PLB certainly saved their lives, and their shorty wetsuits kept them alive long enough for the Coast Guard to save them, the fourth safety principle I listed above could have spared them the trauma and danger of requiring a rescue: Paddlers should have adequate self-rescue skills and practice for the trip planned.

Bob admits that they were “less than fully practiced in self-rescue.” Bob had done some rescue training in calm conditions and had even managed to roll an empty single in practice.

Judy’s only background involved having taken a basic canoe course as a teen. They had not practiced at all together nor practiced rescues in a tandem or in a loaded kayak. Most importantly, they hadn’t practiced in a loaded tandem together in conditions similar to those they could and did encounter on Lake Superior.

Bob mentions that rescue “practices typically had taken place in gentle, warm waters and low winds using an empty kayak.” Unfortunately, this is all too common an approach.

While protected areas are a great place to begin your rescue training, allowing you a safe place to learn, it takes more than flat-water practice to develop the sort of self-sufficiency that might actually keep you from having to activate your PLB. Once you feel confident with your technique in calm water, a good next step is to move to a safe place to practice in more challenging conditions; for example, off a wind-blown point where you’re being blown back into a calmer area.

After that, the third step might be to head back in to the calm area and practice in a loaded kayak, since it handles much differently than an empty one. While it might sound inconvenient to pack your kayak full of camping gear for a practice session, you might more easily simulate a load by filling jugs of water held in place by float bags.

You could also practice with an actual load of gear on the first day of a trip, in the shallows near shore as you’re coming into camp. You wouldn’t even have to get your head wet; just jump out in waist-deep water and tip your boat over to see what it takes to get back in.

Many paddlers I know resist this, because they say that they don’t want to get wet and cold. This would be a valuable reality check on whether or not their immersion gear is adequate for a capsize in actual conditions. If they aren’t eager to get in the water to practice, it’s a pretty good indication that they’re not properly dressed. The information you gather during an in-trip practice could provide you with invaluable information on how well you are equipped to carry out any crossing you may have planned in the days ahead.

If Judy and Bob had done such a practice session before even considering their initial crossing to the island, they likely would have discovered the same weaknesses in their gear and skill in a much less traumatic venue. Knowing that the weather was worse than usual, they might have reconsidered the crossing if they found any reason to be less assured about their current level of skill and the suitability of their gear.

The fourth step in preparation would be to practice in a loaded kayak out in rough conditions. Such a practice session would duplicate what Bob and Judy went through but without the dire consequences. Without a graduated series of practice sessions, the mid-crossing capsize they experienced was like learning to swim by jumping straight into the deep end of the pool.

By practicing before the cruise and the crossings they would have discovered that their inflatable PFDs were difficult to deploy, and they could either have had a chance to figure out a technique for getting them over their heads more easily or else decided to switch them out for foam-equipped vests.

They would have learned that their shorty wetsuits were perhaps a bit skimpy for immersion in 55-degree water and that they needed more thermal protection. And they might have prepared for the drill by making sure essential gear like the bilge pump was securely attached to the kayak.

They also would have discovered that the latches on their hatch covers were a problem. Fifteen years ago, when their double was made, the lever-and-slider systems for hatch cover straps were common and prone to release accidentally.

Manufacturers have since addressed this problem in a number of ways—bending the end of the levers upward, putting jogs in the sides of the lever arms, or putting webbing with snaps on the slider—all to help prevent accidental tripping. Unfortunately there are still hundreds of the old closure type still lurking on hatch covers, and they are susceptible to getting tripped, especially in reentries when people are crawling over the decks.

Regular practice would have revealed this problem and sent Judy and Bob to seek solutions. Ironically, as Bob pointed out, the flooded bow and the resulting change in the trim of the kayak may have been what made it possible to catch up with the kayak.

Bob’s leash was attached to his spray skirt, instead of his kayak, leading to his becoming tangled in it away from the kayak and precipitating his long swim. He and Judy found the coiled leashes they used were especially prone to tangles and snares.

Practice would have exposed the possible problems with their paddle leashes and left them better able to weigh the pros (such as not losing your paddle) with the cons (entanglement issues) and consider possible alternatives.

Most of all, taking the time to practice gives paddlers a more realistic idea of their reentry skills, allowing them to make better informed route decisions. Crossings require a higher level of expertise in rescue skills and knowledge of alternates. The greater the exposure, the higher the risk of bad conditions and need for practice in rough water.

My standard advice to students is not to paddle in waters that are rougher—or likely to get rougher—than they’ve practiced rescues in. To take this a step further, always add a set of conditions to your skills and equipment.  Saying, “I’ve practiced paddle-float recoveries” won’t help you make decisions as well as it would to say, “I’ve done solo-reentries in three-foot seas and twenty-knot winds with a loaded kayak”. Similarly, an assessment like “I’m dressed for immersion” is not as useful as “I can still function well in my immersion wear after twenty minutes in fifty-degree water.”

A rescue is something that happens to paddlers who don’t yet have the skills to reenter their kayak after a capsize. Capsizing is in itself not the problem for kayakers. For those with a solid roll, it’s just a momentary dunking. It is when paddlers end up in the water without the proper gear or regularly practiced skills to reenter the kayak that a capsize can become life threatening.

The major lesson to be learned from this incident is what can happen if you take a set of skills and equipment that may be adequate for touring in calm, warm water along a friendly shoreline, and then attempt to pull off a significant open-water crossing during a fluke of a weather window on a large body of cold water with a nasty reputation.

Exposure is a key consideration. It makes a big difference whether you are paddling five minutes or five miles from the nearest safe landing zone. On longer crossings, you’re allowing more time for the conditions to change. Your decision to cross has to be based not on what conditions are like at the start, but on what they could become before you make a safe landfall and how much strength you’d have left to deal with adversity, say several hours after leaving shore.

Bob and Judy’s first crossing committed them to a second crossing, doubling their time of exposure. The brief weather window that allowed them to get to the island wasn’t forecast and was merely a break in a pattern of unfavorable conditions. They would need a second break in the weather to get back to the mainland. While I agree with their assessment that making the crossing back to the mainland was a poor decision, making the crossing out to the island in the first place set them up for trouble.

Once they ended up in the water, Bob mentions having a paddle float, but decided not to use it for his reentry because Judy could stabilize the kayak for him while he got in. That strategy ended up being a good way for Bob to get himself out of the icy water, but while Judy provided the stability to allow Bob to get back in his cockpit, he was not able to brace well enough in the conditions for her to get back in without re-capsizing them. Using a paddle float can provide much more stability than braces alone. Better yet, if both paddlers have paddle floats, especially ones that they’ve practiced with previously, it can provide enough stability on either side of the kayak to help counteract the effects of confused sea conditions, such as those encountered by Bob and Judy.

Even with a pair of paddle floats deployed, there might not have been enough stability to remain upright in the teeth of the Witch’s Grin, given some of the inherent issues with rescuing tandem kayaks. Although they are usually perceived as being a safer, more stable craft than single kayaks, after a capsize tandems pose several problems. Their decks are generally higher and can make reentry more challenging than it is with single kayaks. The reentry sequence needs to be coordinated between the two paddlers. The large cockpits allow for the entry of lots of water and for lots of sloshing (free surface) that creates instability. Bob was able to get back in the kayak for good once they drifted into the somewhat less confused seas beyond the Witch’s Grin, and it is quite likely that paddle floats would have worked to get Judy aboard and kept the double upright, especially if the two had done a little rough-water practice beforehand.

While investing in a PLB is a good idea, investing in some rescue classes, as well as some time practicing before heading out is an even better idea because the training can help you avoid the trauma of having to deploy a PLB. Having some expert guidance can provide an invaluable source of advice and perspective, and nothing but actual practice—especially in at least some moderately rough seas—can reveal weaknesses in your gear or skills that might land you in trouble.

Practice your reentry skills regularly, at least every paddling season. Before every trip, ask yourself when was the last time you and your regular paddling partner practiced reentries? And did you practice together, in the same boats and conditions you are likely to capsize in? Reentry skills are perishable. When was the last time you checked the “expiration date” on yours?

Not Your Average Afternoon (Kayaking to Todos Santos Island, Mexico)

October 31 began beautiful and sunny down here at my Punta Banda hacienda, about twenty minutes south of Ensenada, Mexico, and I thought I’d take a good kayak outing to Todos Santos Island about ten miles away.

I told my girlfriend, Mary, where I was going by email, and left about 10 a.m. I thought I could do the round-trip in four or five hours. The seas started out calm enough, and in my old-style high-volume riverboat I had with me my spray skirt, whitewater paddle, wetsuit, sunglasses, visor and a little water bottle, just in case. I even put some sunscreen on.

I don’t usually bother with a PFD because I love to swim in my wetsuit. It provides plenty of buoyancy to keep me afloat. There was so much big, beautiful water out there, I had girlfriend issues and other stuff to think about, and I needed some time with me and the big guy upstairs, to sing, pray, figure things out—you get the picture.

A steady, nonstop nine-mile pull from the mainland, taking a little over two hours, brought me within a mile of the island. The wind started to kick up. Ferociously. Five-foot rollers with the occasional eight- to ten-footer—no big deal for a whitewater kayaker, except that the wind and current I was now fighting was not letting me make any forward progress.

Of course I was sealed in my boat with the neoprene spray skirt, which was supposed to be keeping all the water out. Well, it was a little worn and with all the wind and water spray it seemed to be opening up around my waist just enough for a trickle, which became a steady flow, to get inside my boat. I was suddenly up past my ankles in water.

Now this was not that unusual of a development, but the sad thing was that I was not making any forward progress at all, and this was a high-performance kayak with an expert paddler—as I like to think of myself—at the helm. Egos get us into all kinds of trouble, as I was about to find out.

Soon the water was up to my knees and the boat, with an additional few hundred pounds of water inside, was responding sluggishly. If I leaned over too far one way or another, it wanted to help me complete the circle, or at least the first half of it. Suddenly, I was paddling as hard as I could, still not close enough to the island to get in the lee and what I hoped would be calmer water. I paddled as hard as I could.

Every time I stopped to rest, even a little, I would lose all the ground I had gained, and the wind blew on— steadily. I couldn’t go back for nine miles or I might wind up farther away from any land when my boat filled up completely, and I knew that would be bad. The wind-driven spray was working its way under and through my spray skirt, and there was nothing I could do about it. Drip, trickle, drip, trickle.

This went on for another three hours, and I was paddling as hard as I could just to stay in place. It was killing me that the island was getting no closer. My arms and shoulders and back were screaming, but I dared not stop. I couldn’t chance opening my spray skirt to bail a little because wave after wave was washing over my deck and I couldn’t risk having the kayak fill all the way up.

The waves and whitewater action were taking my full attention every moment, and I couldn’t even let go of my paddle with one hand. I dreaded the thought of going into the water, so I paddled on as long as I could—bracing, adjusting and reacting to a kayak full of hundreds of pounds of water, floating barely above the surface. This really sucked.

I have not bailed out of a kayak in years and can usually roll and weather any kind of conditions, unless I have a boat full of water, that is. I’ve flown my kayak to Cabo and Hawaii, caught mako sharks off of it and surfed it in Encinitas for 25 years.

I have taught and guided river, ocean and surf kayaking for literally thousands of people. I am comfortable floating around offshore, at night, you name it, but I have never been in a boat full of water stuck offshore with a howling 40 mph (35 knot, 64 kph) wind before, that’s for sure. I was praying a lot and using all the whitewater skills I had just to stay upright.

Finally, a complex combination of waves hit me in the front and the side simultaneously and that was it. I was over. No point in rolling, the boat was full. Out of my boat swimming.

Damn. I quickly went to the stern and looped the webbing sling around my wrist. I was almost relieved at being able to stretch my body out a little for a change and take a rest, of a sort. I floated there as I weighed my options. I knew I should stay with the boat. It was bright red and stood the best chance of being seen from a distance. Dressed in my black neoprene wetsuit I looked like an injured seal, a notion I tried not to think about too much.

I worked at every combination of bailing out the boat, convinced that I could get back in the kayak if I could get the water out. As I splashed and splashed with my cupped hands at the water inside the boat, I thought about the old fisherman’s trick of slinging a bailer full of water over the surface of the sea, mimicking a school of excited bait fish, to attract the bigger predator fish, even sharks. I tried to put that thought out of my mind as well.

Even if I had to climb back inside upside down under water and roll back up, I was ready to go for it, but wave after wave was splashing over me and the boat, so this idea was hopeless. I was no longer a kayaker. I was a swimmer.

The sun was out, the water wasn’t too darn cold, and I like to swim in the open ocean, so I had that going for me anyway.

I was really tired from the effort I’d put into paddling, and I was still about a mile from the island. I got kind of a sidestroke and frog-kick thing going and pushed the boat in front of me;

I kept it upside down to keep a bubble of air inside to help float it. It looked like I could actually make some headway. I didn’t want to lose my paddle, of course, and experimented with holding it in various positions where it wouldn’t create any drag. I just kept kicking and pushing, kicking and pushing, switching sides as fatigue set in. The island didn’t look like it was getting closer. At all.

Even when I went into the water I had already given thanks for all of the blessings in my life and the people I have loved and the experiences I have had, and did some hard-core should-I-live-through-this contracting with the man upstairs. Now that I was slogging along completely alone in a big, empty ocean, the conversation deepened.

It seemed that only a little time had passed when a fishing trawler came close by, and I screamed and waved my paddle for all I was worth. But it kept on driving, sadly, unbelievably.

My scrambling forays up onto the back of the overturned kayak to rest and get warm were coming closer together while I was having serious conversations with myself, not believing that I was going to go out this way.

I tried a kind of paddleboard technique of lying down to swim my upside down boat, but my arms were absolutely dead, and my feet fluttered in such a spastic fashion that I was sure it would attract sharks. One little bite would do me in for sure.

My pushing and kicking were actually having just the tiniest bit of effectiveness, but I was still very far off from Todos Santos Island and it looked like, at this rate, it would take me until about eleven at night to get there. I started to think about being out when the sun went down.

I knew after the first hour in the water that I was already getting hypothermic: my dexterity was going, my breathing was rapid and my thinking was a little desperate. That’s not to mention my screaming muscles. I had been in the water for three hours now.

The one big decision I had left was whether to abandon the boat and try to swim for it. I knew I could swim the distance of a mile on a good day, even if I had to float on my back and kick, but the idea was not exactly a reassuring one. What if the current just carried me away from the island? I knew that if I abandoned my boat no one would see me at all and then I might not make it. The current and wind still hadn’t slowed down. Blowing like stink out of the west. Nonstop. All day.

I was getting really, really tired and it took every bit of mental control I had to keep myself together. I have been in plenty of hairball situations before, but this one was sapping my energy fast. It was something I was not in control of, and I was getting really cold. Things were looking bleak, but I refused to give in. I just kept pushing and kicking. It helped to have something to do, to have a goal.

Suddenly a giant tug appeared behind me. It was pulling a garbage barge from Ensenada and it looked like…YES, HE SAW ME! He took forever to maneuver to a position where he could get close enough to present the side of his big tug to me. I was still pulling my boat along and swimming for all I was worth, which was not much at this point.

The wind was not through with me yet, however, and it pushed him away from me faster than I could catch him by swimming. To say this was discouraging is to put it extremely mildly. I still had a chance to swim for the huge, long barge he was towing though, and I could see guys on deck scrambling around trying to manage the gigantic cable between the two massive craft. They didn’t want it to be the first thing that I reached. If it suddenly went taut or I got tangled in a loop while I was near it, the result could be fatal.

I had to make a decision. It took me about a millisecond. I told myself there was no way I was going to miss that barge, so I left my kayak and paddle behind and set out with the strongest stroke I had left to catch that barge! Being a giant boxy thing, it stuck out in the wind even more than the tug and it moved away even faster. Now I was literally up the creek without a paddle, or a boat, and really, really, really tired.

Now the tug had straightened out its trajectory and was moving away from me. It couldn’t be, I thought. It was leaving. NO! I yelled, I screamed. I used some expletives about the code of the sea or some such thing, but off it went. I just could not believe it. This was going to be it for me now, I was sure.

My kayak had not drifted too far away and somehow I was able to get back to it with some effort and to scramble and sprawl my huffing and puffing frozen, tired body over it once more. OK. I was still alive. The paddle was nearby and I grabbed it too, thinking I had my signaling device back, but I knew there would be no more swimming for me. It was getting later, I had now drifted farther from the island than where I started and I was “running on fumes” at best.

Just then, out of nowhere, came one of the biggest bow-smashing, rooster-tailing high-performance watercraft I have ever seen. It was about 60 feet long, and most of it was low to the water. There were a bunch of uniformed guys on deck. They were Mexican Marines! The tug must have made a Mayday call for me and left me only because they knew I’d soon be rescued. The Marines’ vessel had a cockpit way up front that looked like a stealth fighter, and these boys could drive. Their high-performance machine was built for catching drug runners or whatever else the mighty Pacific threw at them. I was saved.

It was unbelievably scary to be alongside a big boat rising up about 15 feet and then smashing down in each huge roller. The crew threw me a rope and I was able to grab it without letting go of my boat and paddle. They hauled my kayak on deck, took my paddle and pulled me aboard.

I was now quite hypothermic and my body was working hard to compensate for a very low core temperature and abnormal metabolism. My vital signs were all screwed up; my breathing was rapid and my heart was racing.

Thank God this vessel had a warm and cozy inside where they blanketed me up and we tried to converse in my terrible Spanglish. Between chattering teeth I told them to drop me at the Punta Banda boat ramp where I’d left my truck—I would be OK to swim to shore.

They insisted that I go back to Ensenada for a medical screening and I was certainly in no condition to argue with that. I had been running on pure adrenaline for six hours, with three of that in the water, and I was starting to come down. I felt pain everywhere and was a little nauseated and light-headed.

It took about 18 minutes to cover the 12 miles back to their Navy base where I managed to clamber with some assistance up onto the side of a cruiser—a good-sized Navy ship—that the Marines had tied up alongside, and then onto land on the other side. They loaded me into an ambulance for a short ride to their ER, where I was stripped down and heated up with hot blankets, heat lamps and about six nurses working on me. It took my core a good hour to return to some semblance of normal temperature.

The nurses kept jamming a thermometer under my arm and then pulling it out again. I don’t know what my actual core temperature was, but each time they read the thermometer they seemed to get more excited about getting me more blankets and heat lamps. The lamps felt really good. I drank some tea and hot chocolate and tried to massage the aches out of my really sore chest, arms and shoulders. I had definitely used up one of my nine lives on this little outing.

I didn’t have a nickel on me, of course, but no one asked me for any kind of payment either. “We’re the Navy,” they explained. It turned out this group was the most highly trained maritime rescue group in all of Mexico. My prayers had been answered by the best of the best. They not only had a high-tech fleet, complete with helicopters and rescue swimmers, but they regularly respond to emergencies as far as Tijuana to the north and 120 miles to the south of Ensenada.


Now I’m not what you call a “normal” paddler. I got hooked on paddling large-volume plastic roto-molded riverboats when the company I was guiding for on the Green and Colorado Rivers let me take some boats home to my San Diego beachfront house in the early ’80s. I quickly discovered how to surf and was literally out there every day, right alongside the board surfers and loving it.

I have been paddling in the ocean for more than 25 years, comfortable in El Niño 15-footers, competing in the Bay-to-Bay 21-mile race we have here in San Diego, and exploring every river channel, estuary, marina and whatever is happening on the water, all in this same type of kayak, which, on balance, tracks as well as most sea kayaks out there.

I regularly do endos and paddle spins, surf backwards, paddle up to the sportfishing party boats miles offshore, and go out with a fish finder and gear to catch all kinds of fish— including mako sharks—a story for some other time. I have used my kayak as a dinghy for my sportfishing boat on solo trips on the Sea of Cortez.

At an annual parade of lights in San Diego Harbor I illuminate my kayak with glow sticks and do a 15-foot drop off the end of the pier into the drink. To say I am comfortable in my kayak is pretty accurate. And yet, I found myself in an unexpected situation. It’s obvious that I should have told someone, other than my girlfriend by email, that I was going to the island, but for me ten miles is no big deal, and I like going solo. I like the peacefulness and experiencing nature at its most pure. It’s essentially a private experience.

I often go as a kind of meditation and I rarely tell anyone. I have soloed big mountains and big rock walls for days at a time and come back with a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of being the expanded man. All that time alone in contemplation is great for the soul, or at least it feels like that to me.

It would have been a simple thing to paddle with someone else and do a simple rescue and dump the water out, but there really isn’t another serious paddler for a hundred miles down here. If there were, I would probably be paddling with him or her already.

Frankly, there is no one down here who could have done much about it if I had gone missing anyway. I knew that and, as the saying goes, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

What about the PFD?

Let me tell you about that. You see, I am comfortable rolling. Very. The PFD messes up my act underwater, upside down, and when I’m up top it is just one more piece of gear that either chafes or rides up or just makes me hot. When I do wear one—mostly I use a trimmed down PFD when I’m fishing—it’s mainly for the pockets.

My wetsuit gives me great flotation and is almost a vehicle in itself. I regularly jump in the ocean and drift and swim for a mile or two in it. I know it won’t keep my face out of the water if I am unconscious, but the Type III PFDs that most kayakers use aren’t designed to float wearer’s face up either. The lack of a PFD didn’t figure much in this situation.

I am not saying don’t bring one, just giving you some insight into my personal thinking here. I’m sure it was my wetsuit that kept me alive. It is a full-sleeved, full-legged wetsuit. I don’t care who you are, three hours in the water is a long time. I would put on a full wetsuit before a PFD anytime.

I think of it as a survival suit, and, remember, I paddle the relatively warm waters of Southern California. If you paddle colder waters up north, you should be paying attention and get the neoprene hood too.

Once we’re past the surf down here in Southern California, and even more so in Baja, it’s usually just pretty darn nice so we are quite spoiled. We generally paddle warm and dry. On this particular day I was literally thinking that I wouldn’t even get my hair wet.

My kayak has 5-inch-thick foam columns inside, front and back. They stop the boat from oil canning when a few thousand pounds of water crash down on it in the big surf and they keep it floating when it is filled with water. They were the only reason I was able to paddle a boat full of water for three hours, and they kept the kayak afloat when I climbed up on it as it floated there upside down.

But it’s not enough for built-in flotation just to keep a boat from sinking—it has to keep it capable of being paddled effectively. Without float bags, my kayak could take on a considerable amount of water, enough to make it extremely slow and vulnerable to capsize.

If I’d had float bags, I wouldn’t have been so bogged down by a load of water, rolling might have been an option when I got knocked over and I would have been able to stay aboard where I was less exposed to the chilling effects of the water.

As far as techie gear like a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) goes, well, prices are coming down so if you can afford it, why not? The current models are compact enough to fit in a PFD or paddle jacket pocket. The PLB signal is picked up by satellite and relayed to a mission control center and then to the local rescue authorities.

I have a VHF radio on my fishing boat, but my experience with having electrical devices aboard my kayak has generally resulted in batteries shorting out, short equipment life and more hassle, and let’s not forget the expense. I hadn’t looked into the more recent waterproof handheld models; I had never been interested in electronics until now.

My solution has always been this: When in trouble, paddle out of it. That didn’t work this time.

I like to go lightweight and fast, and don’t carry much of anything if I can help it. Just to give you a concept of what I’m talking about here, this is how I launched that day: I backed my pickup truck up to within about 25 feet of the water on a rocky beach next to a slippery old cement boat ramp.

I untied the one rope holding the boat in the pickup bed. I had the boat on the ground and was inside with spray skirt attached and paddle in hand in less than 45 seconds. With a gorilla push start I was doing a slide down the boat ramp (see, plastic boats do make sense sometimes) and splashed into the water, already moving, not stopping in this case, until about nine miles later. That’s just me.

I regularly laugh at all the sea-kayaker fishermen who buy literally thousands of dollars of stuff, from electric bait tanks to pedal-driven kayaks, who have to use wheels to get all of it to the water. My whole boat is light enough to carry it on my shoulder for quite a ways

Bottom line, I don’t really want to carry a lot of extra stuff. What I can tell you is this: I go out there several days a week, year-round, so I get very lean with my gear. Every area is different, every paddler is different. This is just me. And in Baja and Southern California, the ethic is a little different perhaps because the weather is so mild and forgiving.

Now the weather on this particular day was different, unexpected and unpredictable. I am also a paraglider pilot with about 1,000 hours, and I’m very tuned in to wind and direction and developing fronts, different types of clouds—you name it.

This particular blow actually ripped the roofs off of houses down here and knocked out power lines—and it was not forecast. It was just my luck to be out there that day.

Normally I can bail quite effectively with a sponge and get most of the water out, but in this case I couldn’t even let go of my paddle with one hand, and I dared not open up my spray skirt, something you don’t normally think about.

Statistically, if you paddle a lot, things will happen to you. It is these unforeseen incidents that are the “statistical outliers” that we need to be prepared for, as I found out.

The smaller version of aerial flares commonly carried by kayakers wouldn’t have fared too well in the wind, and wouldn’t have been all that visible in the daytime anyway.

I think a smoke signal would have been useful. Anyone who spends a lot of time on the sea will tell you that you can see smoke for miles. In my sportfishing boat I am regularly 50 miles or more offshore, and whenever you see the horizon interrupted by smoke, it definitely gets your attention. I will be looking for some from now on. I also find myself newly curious about shark repellent.

Thinking about the potential of being “benighted” out there, provided I hadn’t succumbed to hypothermia by then, one of those clip-on flashing strobes would have been great to make sure I could be seen by ships in the area who could easily have run me over and never known it.

I do give thanks to the Lord above that someone did see me out there and that I was rescued. As a climbing guide, kayak instructor and head of a ropes-course company, I have managed high levels of risk and made safety judgments for more than 200,000 of my clients. I’ve been in some scary situations before on personal adventures and expeditions, but I have to say that this was my closest call yet.

It is an amazing thing to watch your strength atrophy, your stamina degrade and your mental anguish get right to the very edge. And believe me, you never, ever, want to get that cold. I took a good measure of who I am and what I can take that day, and I now have a very accurate idea of where my own personal edge really is.

This incident was personally memorable and definitely up there with the intense experiences I’ve had in my life, even as a kayaking and climbing guide. In Yosemite I once saw a guy die in a climbing accident right in front of his girlfriend. After his body was taken away she decided to climb again that afternoon, to help her process the experience. It’s been two weeks for me. Maybe I need to go for a paddle tomorrow.

Coincidentally, I am working with some folks on our peninsula to organize a rescue group there. We do our own cliff-rescue training and have made plans with the Commandant of the Ensenada Naval search and rescue station to coordinate our efforts and training with them.

There are a surprising number of accidents and incidents on the Punta Banda peninsula, with everything from fishermen being swept off the rocks and boats sinking to cars over the side and the occasional tourist making a misstep along this beautiful, but exposed and potentially treacherous coastline.

As a rescue trainer I never thought I’d be a victim myself. It looks like some much needed rescue team coordination can come out of my experience, something I can use to benefit others who find themselves in perilous situations.

Bart Allen Berry is a professional climbing guide, kayaking instructor, ropes-course and corporate trainer who has been living and working part time in Mexico for the past eight years.

With a corporate ropes course and training center on the Baja coast north of Ensenada, Bart leads regular team-building and leadership trainings for the Baja Norte Maquiladora industry. You can contact him by email at [email protected]

A Note from the Editor:

Bart’s story comes on the heels of a discussion of experienced kayakers who find themselves unprepared for the conditions they encounter.

Cold and Alone on an Icy River

Friday, February 19th, the weather was better than it had been in some time with temperatures in the upper thirties and overcast. I knew I couldn’t make a Saturday trip with friends and I was in the mood to paddle solo.

My plan was to launch into the Mississippi River from the gravel ramp at the Foley, Missouri access, 3.5 miles above the Winfield Lock and Dam and paddle upstream in the calm, slow-moving water sheltered from the main channel by a string of islands.

On my return I could easily pop out into the main channel and return downstream to my car. I realize the risks of paddling alone. Even my wife, who rarely paddles, had heard enough discussions that she voiced some concern about my decision to paddle solo in the Mississippi River. The Foley access is one of the closest to my home and I paddle there frequently either solo or with the St. Louis Canoe and Kayak Club.

It has been a long time since I unintentionally flipped a sea kayak, and far longer since I had to wet exit, so I felt quite secure paddling in a familiar setting on calm water.

Getting my QCC 700 kayak ready to go, I stowed my spare paddle—a two-piece Euro-blade—on the front deck. I’d paddle with my mainstay Greenland paddle. My paddle float and pump were already in the aft compartment, often stowed there during transport, and I decided to leave them there. I felt they wouldn’t be needed for a flat-water paddle, although they were still available. I knew there was phone service in the area so my cell phone joined my wallet and car keys in the dry bag with basic gear I always carry.

In the back hatch with that dry bag were some snacks and a sports drink in case I chose to land along the way. Over my insulating poly base layer I wore splash-proof nylon pants, a fleece pullover and rubber-soled booties with waterproof socks. A breathable rain jacket, knit watch cap and waterproof neoprene gloves completed my gear. I had a hydration pack and new camera secured to the PFD I was wearing.

At the river’s edge there was an apron of ice about 3 feet wide and not quite a quarter inch thick. I used a fallen tree branch to clear a path through it. Launching into the slough and paddling near the shore brought me in sight of a few bald eagles, several pelicans and other waterfowl, most just out of camera range. The large flights of waterfowl passing high overhead were a sign that spring was on the way.

Widely scattered rafts of ice were drifting in the gentle current; I took several photos of one and even tried setting my camera on the ice for a self-portrait but was unable to get far enough away for a decent picture. Once I heard a loud ripping sound and turned to see the gentle current shred the quarter-inch ice over a log snagged on the river bottom.

A few times I heard a loud metallic racket in the distance. Not being able to determine the source, I assumed it was coming from the lock and dam downstream.

After an hour of zigzagging up the slough taking pictures I reached the head of Jim Crow Island. I heard more metallic clanging, first upstream, then across the main channel. It finally dawned on me that the noise was caused by rafts of ice striking the marker buoys in the navigation channel. Thinking this would make an interesting video I headed out to the middle of the river to the nearest buoy.

While there were more and larger rafts of ice moving down the main channel, it was still no problem crossing between them. It was amazing to see how the quarter-inch thick sheets of ice moving a few miles an hour could knock the several-hundred-pound buoys about so violently. I took a video of the buoy as I drifted downstream with the ice.

I had to pick a route through the ice floes as I headed back. While there was a clear path down the left side of the river, from this distance I wasn’t able to see an easy way to cross the channel to get back to the landing. An hourglass-shaped sheet of ice beside me left only about thirty feet of ice blocking an easy crossing. I decided to become an icebreaker, something I’ve done several times before, although usually in a plastic kayak rather than in my Kevlar boat.

Ice breaking in a kayak is fun, but you don’t move very fast. You chop the paddle down to punch a hole in the ice, then using that anchor point you slide ahead until the boat’s weight breaks the ice beneath it. With only six or eight feet of ice left between me and open water, I brought my paddle down to make one last anchor point; instead of punching a hole in the ice, the blade hit and skidded across it.

I was suddenly upside down. I made two unsuccessful attempts to roll up and while both attempts got my head above water, neither was good enough for me to stay upright. I’d never had a problem with gasp reflex underwater, but I was definitely gasping when I surfaced.

I bailed out and came up on the left side of the boat. My first thought was: “You have minutes to do something.” I could feel the icy water on my legs. I had chosen not to wear a wetsuit, assuming I wouldn’t need one for a flat-water paddle.

Previously our club’s coldest day out paddling had been 9° F and I had worn a drysuit that day, but the suit had worn out since then and I hadn’t replaced it. Unfortunately on this day, the coldest I had paddled solo, I was in trouble wearing only a poly base layer and a fleece pullover under nylon pants and a waterproof jacket. Only my neo gloves worked well in the water. My cap had fallen in the water and I threw it in the cockpit, but I didn’t notice the cold on my head.

I turned the boat upright and popped the cover off the back hatch. It was a simple matter to grab the paddle float. I had it mostly inflated before I thought to put it on the paddle. During the paddle-float rescue I put my foot on the paddle to climb in, and the boat leaned over taking water into the cockpit and open back hatch.

I knew this wasn’t working but didn’t immediately grasp why. Thinking it was better to call for help too soon rather than too late, I opened my drybag and found my cell phone. I was afraid I would drop it into the water so I held it over the open hatch.

That made it hard to see the keys to dial 911. The call to 911 failed twice; then I noticed there wasn’t any signal strength showing on the screen. This was odd since I’d heard my phone signaling an incoming message shortly after launching and I’d made calls from the shore on other days.

I thought that if I could swim the boat through the remaining ice, the current would carry me toward the car while I worked on a self-rescue. It soon became evident I could not swim through quarter-inch thick ice as fast as I needed to. The thought crossed my mind that maybe I should tie myself to the boat to make it easier to find my body, but I wasn’t willing to give up yet.

It then dawned on me that I had not finished inflating my paddle float. That explained the failure of the first self-rescue. I blew more air into the float and tried again. I was able to get myself belly down on top of the boat and even take a moment to slide the paddle under the bungee more securely. As I started to rotate my body upright, a wrong shift of my weight dumped me back into the water on the right side of the boat, away from the outrigger. This was probably the low point for me.

Fortunately, the partly flooded boat did not flip and dump all my gear into the water. I once again repeated my mantra for the day—“you have only minutes”—and I kept moving. Pulling my marine radio from the deck bag I struggled to control my gasping, then made a Mayday call twice and listened for a reply. Silence. Changing the power from one to five watts I tried the Mayday call again. Still no reply. That’s when it really sank in that I was on my own.

Moving the paddle float to the right side I saw my pump in the hatch and put it in the cockpit. Then, gingerly climbing onto the flooded boat, I was able to get completely out of the water. I took a minute to rest. The rest of the paddle-float rescue went just as it’s supposed to with one hitch, sitting up in the cockpit I realized I was on top of my pump. If I’d had feeling in my lower extremities I’m sure it would have been uncomfortable.

A couple attempts to reach the pump convinced me the flooded boat was too unstable to risk pulling the pump out. It was under my right hip on the seat and the float was now on that side. I’m not sure of my thought process at the time but I didn’t feel I could get it out without shifting my weight to the left and capsizing again to that side.

I knew I couldn’t survive going in the water again. Deciding not to remove the paddle float, I very gingerly retrieved my spare paddle. The three inches of water in the cockpit didn’t help with the cold I felt or my stability. Working through the remaining ice was uneventful and soon I was in open water.

Paddling back was a slow, methodical process. I remember trying to reach the pump once or twice and was stopped by the boat’s lack of stability. I remembered a chemical hot pack in my jacket pocket. I felt around but it was under my PFD and I wasn’t willing to tempt fate by trying to get it out. I did take a moment to drink from my hydration pack. I hadn’t realized till then how thirsty I had become.

It was about one half mile to the car and for the last several minutes I noticed my vision getting dark around the edges and a roaring in my ears that almost covered the usual river noises. I don’t really remember shivering much during the paddle. Pulling into shallow water and attempting to dismount resulted in landing on my butt in six inches of water. The next attempt got me on my feet and I dragged the boat ashore. I immediately went to the car and got it started.

Before long I had wet gear spread out all over the landing. My PFD and wet clothes were scattered on the ground, the roof racks and roof of the car. I changed into dry clothes but I didn’t remove my soaking briefs. I don’t know why, but that certainly caused me to take longer warming up.

Back in the car I got a couple drinks of Gatorade but I was soon shivering violently. I found a chemical hot pack and stuck it to my shirt near my armpit. Weighing my options, I knew I couldn’t load my boat and I wasn’t willing to leave it unattended.

With my cell phone now working and slightly damp, I called my friend Mark. He lives nearby and we often share rides to and from trips. As soon as I spoke Mark asked what was wrong with me. Hearing I’d taken a swim and needed help loading my boat was all it took to get him on the way.

A few minutes later a car with two men and a pickup with another guy pulled up. Seeing the debris field between the car and the water and taking one look at me, the pickup driver came over and asked if I needed help.

They all offered to load my boat, so with minimal instruction and even less real help from me they pumped it out, put it on the roof rack, tied it down and helped me pick up the scattered gear. I was still shivering violently, so the pickup driver urged me to get back in the car, saying he’d stay till Mark got there. Most people on the river are decent, hardworking souls. These guys were some of the best.

Within a few minutes Mark arrived and the pickup driver left before I could properly thank him. Looking over the situation, Mark took my Gatorade and began heating it on an alcohol stove he’d brought with him. I have to say hot grape Gatorade tastes terrible, but it felt really good!

Sitting in my car Mark gave me another hot pack and found that I had turned the car’s blower on high but hadn’t turned the heat up. He dialed it up and that helped warm me, but not nearly as much as the warm drink. Fortunately, Mark had put it in a spill-proof cup or I would have worn it. He still had to do a lot of coaching to get me to drink. I tended to just hold the warm cup, pant and shiver unless told to do otherwise.

The warm drink worked its magic quickly. Even though Mark had offered to follow me home and help unload, by the time we reached the highway I told him I could make it on my own and we parted ways. I had nagging thoughts that someone may have heard my Mayday call and started an unnecessary search, so I phoned the lock and dam to make sure someone knew what happened. The lady who answered the phone told me they only monitor Channel 12 for lock operations and do not monitor Coast Guard Channel 16. No search had been initiated.

When I got home I put together a timeline from time stamps on the camera and cell phone. The 911 calls weren’t completed so they didn’t register in the phone log.

About 12:15 – Launch
12:21 – First photo
1:20 – Last photo at the head of Jim Crow Island
1:35 – Video of buoy
2:21 – Called Mark
3:40 – Called lock and dam

Time was a very relative thing that day, but I’m estimating I spent about ten minutes in thirty-something-degree water. Assuming I dumped about ten minutes after the video and called Mark about ten minutes after landing, that leaves sixteen minutes to paddle from near the head of Turners Island to the ramp just over one-half mile away.

Lessons Learned

I had filed a float plan. My wife knew where I was going and when I planned to be back. However, given the limited survival time in cold water, a float plan may have only indicated where to look for the body. The single best thing that I did was never give up.

Every time one attempt failed, I moved to the next. While I was making calls for help I was thinking of what to try next. I knew even if a call for help got out, I had to get back aboard my kayak. Staying in the water till help arrived would have been fatal. Paddling upstream first is always a good idea. Whether you’re tired, hurt, or just late it’s always best to have the easy downstream or downwind leg at the end of the day.

What I did wrong: Not listening to my wife. Even if things go well, that’s always a bad idea. Going solo is not necessarily wrong but when you do, it has to influence every decision you make from then on. Going into the navigation channel was probably OK; my decision to cross the channel between ice floes was questionable.

Deciding to break through the ice was definitely a bad choice. Getting among ice floes at any time can be dangerous. If the ice had jammed up on an island or sandbar, the current would have crushed the floes together. Being caught in its midst would be dangerous for a person in a boat and almost certainly fatal for a swimmer.

Not dressing for immersion in 30° water was a critical mistake. I didn’t then own a drysuit, but even my wetsuit would have kept me much warmer. Proper cold-water immersion wear would have led to better composure, fewer mistakes and a quicker self-rescue.

I wear a wetsuit when paddling whitewater where the odds are good I will roll and probably swim, and the protection it offers makes a big difference.

Several weeks after the incident a friend pointed out a sale on semi-dry suits. My wife insisted I get one, so I did. I wasn’t going to repeat the mistake of not listening to her.

Doing a radio check before launching would have told me no one in the area was monitoring Channel 16. The lock tenders monitor Channels 12 or 14 and while they have no capacity for rescues, they could have called 911 for me.

I hadn’t been practicing rolling last summer as much as usual. In the ice I think I rushed and overpowered the Greenland paddle. The paddle works best for me with a very slow sweep and more of a gentle knee lift than a hip snap. I feel my roll is less reliable with a Euro paddle but with it I complete half of my rolls in cold whitewater.

All of my failed rolls have been in shallow whitewater where I’m bouncing off rocks and can’t seem to get set up properly. In the past I have sometimes dealt with an unsuccessful roll by switching to a sculling roll, which may have worked in the ice had I thought to try it.

I demonstrate paddle-float rescues at our club’s safety clinics but because it’s a technique I feel confident with, I don’t regularly practice it. More practice may have helped it work the first time. Leaving the paddle float and pump where they were stored in the back hatch was another critical mistake.

Had I placed the pump and float in their normal position on the back deck, when the first reentry attempt failed, the kayak’s buoyancy would not have been compromised by water getting into the open rear compartment. Had the pump been secured in its place it would have been available to clear the cockpit after my successful reentry.

Without the pump under me I would have had my weight lower in the boat and therefore would have been more stable. Getting the water out of the kayak would also have restored its stability.

I survived the day more intact than I had any right to expect. I had two palm-sized bruises on my right thigh, perhaps from sliding out of the thigh brace during the wet exit, and right calf probably from the coaming. I also had some numbness of the skin in my midsection.

My doctor said it was inflammation of the nerves. It’s almost totally gone and improving. He also said my darkening vision was possibly low blood pressure brought on by shock or hypothermia. He explained that during initial submersion all the blood vessels constrict, forcing blood into your core. As hypothermia gets worse you lose the ability to constrict the vessels and they relax, dropping your blood pressure—the same effect that shock has. The doctor thought that dropping blood pressure would have caused the roaring in my ears.

I think about that day a lot and it will definitely influence my decisions on future trips. Two days after the swim my wife and I went to see the movie The Wolfman. One of the characters was in an 1880s mental institution and as part of his “therapy” he’s strapped to a chair and lowered into a tank of ice water. That was hard to watch and caused me to tense up enough that my wife asked if I was OK.

Time can take on new meaning as quickly as a kayak can flip. Resting on a warm beach we can while away a few minutes with barely a thought. Submerged in icy water gasping repeatedly as your body reacts to it’s warmth streaming away in the current, every thought races past and you try to grasp their importance and cling onto the thoughts that will help you.

Our comprehension of the river can change just as quickly as we make the transition from kayaker to swimmer. Sure it’s just a flat-water paddle—so what if it’s colder than last time I was here? It’s easy to dismiss these concerns because we have no intention of swimming.

But we can’t control the water, and that’s part of what draws us to it. When we make that sudden transition from kayaker to swimmer, the outcome hinges on choices we’ve already made, maybe days before, when we were on land, warm and dry. Good decisions should come and go instinctively. But you will ponder a poor decision for the rest of your life, be that decades or minutes.