When you are out on the water, how will you hold up during an emergency? What items should you always have with you?
The last twenty years of my life working in the emergency services of fire and ems have shown me that anyone, anywhere at any time, can become in need of rescue. In the last decade alone, I have been in two life-threatening situations as an experience avid kayak angler. I want to share one of those stories with you. Then we will take a look at some emergency items every kayaker should have.
I walked out of the house, kayak strapped to the top of my SUV, hopped in, and started towards a local island boat ramp I wanted to try out. The 30-minute drive out was excellent, and the weather was fair, but where I live, the weather can change instantly. Upon arrival at the boat dock, I noticed clouds in the distance, nothing major, and they looked like they were going to stay to the side of the river I planned on scouting. I unloaded the car, got the kayak in the water, and went through a checklist of items I usually bring, climbed in, and pushed off. The river's population that day was pretty sparse, with only two or three boaters and no other kayakers. As I paddled down the river looking for channels to enter to test out some fishing, I noticed the clouds shifting towards me.
I was probably a 30minute paddle from the boat launch when I heard the first crack of thunder over my shoulder. The storm had shifted, the clouds had darkened, and the wind had picked up drastically. There was nothing around me except saltwater marsh, no hard ground to land on, and the only cover in view was several hundred yards downriver. I could make out a partly torn down old boat dock protruding straight from the water.
I can remember the rain forcefully hitting me as I heard the first lighting strike off to my right. I have always been afraid of electricity and having an aluminum paddle in my hands, no cover, and lightning crashing around me terrified me. I raced down river for the remaining part of the broken dock to hide under for cover. Halfway there, the sky had turned a dark brownish-black, the rain was coming down so hard I was squinting to be able to see, then something hard struck me; it was hail the size of marbles. I can remember paddling with my head tucked in and turned away, trying to protect my face while pellets of ice stung me like angry bees.
I finally reached the remnants of the old dock, and I remember grabbing the rotted pillar and pulling myself under what few planks of wood remained. I couldn't get the aluminum paddle out of my hands fast enough. The wind continued to kick up, the hail and rain mixture came in sideways, still painfully pelting me. The howling wind and slashing of hail and rain hitting the water and bouncing off the wooden planks were all I could hear. Lighting crashed over and over all around me. Even with my eyes squeezed shut, I could see the flashes and feel the electricity coursing in the air. I can remember being terrified, thinking of my son, and thinking, this is how I will die, screaming at the top of my lungs for help, alone on the river.
As fast as the storm came on, it passed. Roughly five minutes later, I heard a boat engine coming down the river. I sat in my kayak, exhausted and still shaking, trying to reign in my fear and calm myself enough to process what just happened. I could feel the welts on my back from the hail that had struck me. I heard voices and lifted my head, tears in my eyes, and I heard people screaming, "There he is! There he is!".
As the boat moved closer, I pushed myself out of cover and moved towards the boat with two couples urgently asking if I was alright. At a snail's pace, hey followed me back to the boat landing. I could not thank them enough for racing back to ensure I had survived the storm.
As it turns out, they had passed by me on my way out as they headed in. Once reaching the boat landing and getting in their vehicle, they heard the emergency broadcast on the radio, alerting them of a tornado watch in the area with dangerous winds, hail, and lighting. Later that afternoon, the news confirmed that a microburst had moved right down the center of the river. I had been in the direct path of that microburst, at its most violent period. I only spent a few minutes under that structure, but that experience will live with me forever.
Pre-planning for any type of emergency can always increase our chance for survival or help remain injury free. What do we need to help us in preparing for an emergency while kayaking?
Float plan before launching.
USCG Approved Life Vest or Personal Floatation Device.
Cell phone in a waterproof case or emergency radio.
Water and a snack.
Sunscreen and a hat.
First Aid Kit.
Rope throw bag and 2 D-Rings or Carabiners
Manual ballast pump
I had all of these necessary items, except for a cell phone or emergency radio. That simple overlook could have saved me from a truly horrifying experience. That event has taught me to carry both a cell phone and waterproof radio on every outing.
Share with me what you think of my experience and what I could have done differently. If you have a harrowing kayak story, share that with us too. Our hard lessons can be the life-saving factor for a fellow kayaker.