The Loss of a Novice (A Kayak Training Misfortune)

On Saturday, May 26, 2001 , 51-year-old Robert Beauvais participated in a sea-kayaking course for beginning paddlers—a six-hour class listed as Essential Skills I, run by a New England–based kayak school. The participants included four students and Carla, a British Canoe Union (BCU)–trained (Four Star) instructor. (Names of the staff and other students have been changed.)

Paul, an unpaid volunteer, helped with instruction during the morning session. Class started at about 10:15 A.M.

The kayak school provided boats and equipment for the students, including a wetsuit, spray skirt, paddling jacket and PFD for Robert, 5′ 11″ and of average build.

The day was partly sunny with a light southeast wind at approximately five knots, which strengthened later in the day. The air temperature was 75˚F, and water temperature was about 58˚F. The water in the area was well protected from the southeast wind and waves.

The initial instruction was carried out on shore. Instructor Carla showed the students how to get in and out of their boats and how to get the spray skirts on and off the cockpit rims of their boats.

Under her direction, the students each went through this exercise twice on shore before launching. Carla asked the students if they understood the maneuver and confirmed that they all felt comfortable with their ability to perform it.

She told the students they would do wet-exit training in the water at the end of the day, as she didn’t want them to start the session by getting wet and risk having them become hypothermic during the course of the outing. Before launching, the students also were instructed on how to hold the paddle, perform various paddling strokes and do a deep-water rescue.

They launched their boats at about 10:45 A.M.

Once on the water, Carla taught forward, reverse and turning strokes. Shortly after launching, while working on a forward sweep stroke, Leslie, one of the students, capsized.

Initially, she tried to struggle to the surface while still in the boat but then remembered she had to first remove her spray skirt from the rim of the cockpit.

As she reported later, her first attempt to get it off failed, and in spite of the wetsuit she was wearing, the cold water made her want to gasp for air. She continued to hold her breath and made a second effort to free the spray skirt. Simply pulling on the grab loop failed to remove it from the cockpit rim, but she remembered to punch it forward and up.

The skirt came free of the cockpit rim, and Leslie bailed out successfully. She estimated that it took her about five seconds to get out of the kayak.

Carla then pulled Leslie’s boat across her own boat to dump out the water (a T-X rescue) and helped her reenter it from the water. Carla used the capsize as an opportunity to review the wet-exit procedure and to demonstrate a deep-water rescue.

The students continued working on strokes, and Carla spoke about other marine subjects while they paddled south along the shore. George, Mary and Leslie stayed up front with Carla, while Robert moved a bit slower in the company of the assistant, Paul.

About noon, Paul headed back to the launch site. Carla kept the group together, and they usually stayed within 10 or 15 yards of each other. They crossed the boating channel to have lunch on a small island. During the lunch break ashore, Carla assisted Robert in adjusting the position of his foot braces.

They launched again at about 12:45 and paddled around to the lee side of the island to work on more paddling skills. These included the draw stroke and more paddling forward and backward.

The students also worked on paddle bracing. They were to lean to one side until starting to fall, then recover by slapping the surface of the water with the paddle blade in the low brace -position.

To avoid the wind, Carla lined the students up near shore for more practice doing the low brace, but the wind carried the group about 100 yards away from shore as they practiced. Leslie’s boat was parallel to Robert’s and about 25 feet to his left.

At about 1:45 P.M. , Robert capsized toward Leslie while trying to practice the low brace. According to Leslie, “when he tipped, he almost immediately began splashing the water on his left side facing me. He was flailing his arms, and I think he was trying to yell for help.”

Carla started paddling toward him noting that Robert hadn’t exited the kayak. George called out that Robert wasn’t getting out of his boat. Carla paddled to the right side of Robert’s boat and reached across it to pull him upright. Robert clutched at Carla and tried to pull himself up. She noticed that Robert’s hips were apparently outside of the cockpit, but his spray skirt was still attached to the rim of the cockpit coaming.

Carla got to Robert’s kayak in about five seconds (according to Leslie’s estimate) and was able to get Robert partially upright after he had been underwater for 10-15 seconds (according to estimates later provided by her and the students).

Mary got out of her boat, released Robert’s spray skirt and got him out of his boat. She then held Robert’s head out of the water while holding onto his boat. Carla attached her towline to Robert’s boat and both she and George blew their emergency whistles in an effort to attract the attention of passing boat traffic. At this point, both Robert and Mary were still in the water with Mary holding Robert’s head out of the water while still holding onto Robert’s boat.

During the first five minutes after being brought to the surface, Robert was conscious but had difficulty breathing.

Mary said he was able to talk a little bit. In another three to four minutes, he lost consciousness. Mary, a professional nurse, began rescue breathing, while Carla towed them (both still in the water) to shore. One powerboat passed them without stopping.

Leslie started paddling toward a marina about 0.4 miles distant, where she saw a sailboat maneuvering near the docks. She repeatedly yelled out the boat’s name and waved her paddle in the air. In the course of this effort, she capsized. This time she was able to remember the proper technique for a wet exit and immediately bailed out. Momentarily, two men in a powerboat arrived and offered her their assistance. She told them she would be fine and directed them to Carla, Mary and Robert.

The boat’s owner, Thomas Guard, took Robert and Mary aboard. Mary and passenger Gregory Haley immediately began CPR on Robert. At the marina, police officer Macy Joseph (also an EMT) assisted Mary with the CPR effort. Off-duty police officer Bouvier arrived and provided them with 100% oxygen and a defibrillator.

They were not successful in reviving Robert. CPR was continued during transport to the emergency room at a hospital about seven miles away.

In the course of his capsize, Robert had inhaled water to a degree that compromised further lung function even after Carla and Mary got him up and out of his boat. He was declared dead at 2:51 that afternoon. An autopsy, carried out the next day, determined that he died from asphyxia due to drowning and that the manner of death was accidental.

Robert capsized unintentionally in cold water. He was not mentally prepared for the unexpected capsize, and he panicked.

At the moment he capsized, about three hours after doing the wet-exit drill on shore, he was unable to compose himself, release his spray skirt and exit his boat. When he went over, there was no one near enough to his boat to lift him up immediately.

In his panic, he inhaled water to a degree that could not be reversed by subsequent rescue efforts.

Leslie capsized at about 11:00 A.M. , some 15-20 minutes after launching. Although she had just reviewed the wet-exit drill on shore, Leslie did not immediately remember what to do.

The cold water on her head and up her nose made her want to gasp. She composed herself after two false starts and finally succeeded in getting the spray skirt off and herself out of the boat. After doing an actual wet exit, the lesson stuck with her: When she capsized later in the day, she had no further difficulty bailing out of her boat.

The fiberglass kayaks provided to Leslie and Robert had keyhole cockpits that required them to follow a specific routine to exit their boats if they capsized. Once over, they had to tuck forward, grab the spray skirt grab loop, and push it forward, up, and away from the deck to get it off the cockpit coaming. Then, with legs straight, they had to push off the cockpit rim at their hips and somersault forward out of their boats.

The British Canoe Union Handbook, Second Edition, which was current at the time of the accident, had various recommendations for wet-exit practice, and conceded the following:

“To capsize your group, especially at the beginning of the session, puts people off and creates other problems. We therefore have to content ourselves with an explanation, or perhaps a dry land demonstration, and then be prepared to come quickly to the assistance of a capsized person.”

At later points in this edition, the BCU authors recommend the use of large-cockpit boats without spray skirts to assure an easy exit in the event of capsizes.

Although the spray skirts used by Robert and Leslie had plastic balls attached to the grab loops and were one size larger than recommended for the boats, their capsizes demonstrated that these skirts would not slip off of the coaming if the paddlers just came out of their seats.

The abrupt edge of the cockpit rim on the composite boats combined with the design of the neoprene spray skirts prevents them from coming off the rim by accident. This can provide a measure of safety by keeping the skirt in place in rough sea conditions.

The consequence, however, is that the paddler must be trained to remove the skirt in order to do a wet exit. The mastery of this skill requires practice in the water.

The British Canoe Union Handbook, Third Edition , published after this incident, addresses the issue of novices doing their first wet-exit drills with a more consistent recommendation that the drills be carried out in a swimming pool with an instructor or informed friend standing in the pool adjacent to the boat.

The first try should be carried out without the spray skirt in place on the cockpit rim. For comfort, the student should use nose clips. They even recommend that students practice somersaulting into and out of the cockpit of the capsized boat several times before trying the drill with a loose-fitting nylon spray skirt in place.

The student’s first wet exit is discussed in this more recent edition as follows:

“When people are practicing [the] capsize drill for the first time, particularly if it is the first time with the spray deck, they should be closely supervised. Stand next to the kayak and when they go upside down watch the boater carefully. Problems are rare but to be on the safe side you are looking for:

1.) Signs of panic (undirected, futile movements), or

2.) Signs of counter panic (no movement), i.e., the paddler freezing.” In such cases, the instructor is told to immediately turn the capsized boat upright.

Many of the introductory paddling courses I have taught for the American Canoe Association (ACA) or private groups have been in situations not satisfactory for working on wet exits.

These included insufficient time for the specific program, as well as cold water, high river levels and dirty water. In such situations, I have given the students or guests stable, large-cockpit boats without spray skirts. It is the practice of other instructors I know not to provide spray skirts to students who haven’t demonstrated skill at doing the wet-exit drill.

Students or guests were always required to wear PFDs. Although I instructed them on how to get out if they capsized and how to do a deep-water assisted rescue, I had a high level of confidence that they would not be trapped in their boats even if they panicked after capsizing.

On one occasion, a student in one of my classes was attempting a low brace for the first time and threw all his weight onto the paddle and instantly capsized. He leaped from the boat even as it was going over and ran for the shoreline through the waist-deep water.

After a few minutes, he agreed that he had totally panicked. He was more cautious after that, but his momentary panic was something that can happen to any novice.

In the lowest level BCU assessment for paddlers, the One-Star Performance test, candidates must successfully perform the capsize-and-wet-exit drill along with other paddling skills.

Even though candidates are supposed to be well practiced and entirely comfortable doing the wet exit before taking the performance test, they are allowed to release the spray skirt from the cockpit coaming before capsizing.

What alternatives are available to sea-kayaking instructors?

If it is impossible to start a class with the wet exit drills, the students should be given kayaks with medium to large cockpits that will assure an effortless exit in the event of a capsize. The students should not be given spray skirts. The BCU recommends that introductory classes be held on calm waters where spray skirts aren’t really necessary.

If an instructor thinks that spray skirts must be used, they should be ones that will fall off easily if a capsized student simply pushes out of the cockpit. Many of the plastic boats on the market work well for beginning paddlers because their coamings do not grip spray skirts as tightly as do those of composite kayaks.

It is not possible to predict whether a student will panic on a first wet-exit attempt. Some may panic even if they’re prepared for the capsize, are wearing nose clips and have practiced getting in and out of the boat under the water.

Even in instructor-supervised situations where the student has reviewed exactly what to do after capsizing, has taken a full breath and capsized when ready with no paddle in hand, some students still require immediate assistance by the instructor.

Instructors must accept that any student might become confused, disoriented or panicked on their first try at the capsize drill. The instructor must be prepared to act immediately to get that student upright or out of the boat.


Robert Beauvais is survived by his wife and two teenage daughters. The house he bought in Mattapoisett , Massachusetts , had a backyard opening onto a saltwater cove and marsh.

He thought paddling a double kayak with his wife, Diane, through the marshes, coves and bays bordering Buzzards Bay would be a great way to get some exercise and enjoy the marine environment available from his backyard.

I greatly appreciate the interest of Mrs. Beauvais in putting this unfortunate incident into the public record.

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