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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Worst-Case Scenario

Sink or Swim? Lessons Learned From a Near Tragedy

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

September 25, 2007

Buying a new boat is always exciting, even if the "new" boat is really somebody else's hand-me-down. Is there a paddler anywhere who isn't thrilled at the prospect of putting a newly acquired canoe or kayak through its paces for the first time? If there is, I've never met her (or him). But there's a downside, too. In our fever to hit the water, it's terribly easy to throw caution to the winds. Maybe that's why Clyde Bolter came so near to death in early August of this year. Here's how it happened:

There was no hint of danger on the sunny, southern California morning when Clyde paddled away from the beach at La Jolla and headed out to sea for some birdwatching. To be sure, his boat wasn't exactly showroom shiny. In fact, it was practically an antique: a 30-year-old sit-on-top (SOT) with a plastic viewing window glued over a cut-out in the hull. Moreover, Clyde wasn't really a model of Be-Preparedness. He wasn't wearing a PFD, for one thing, and he had no flares or other means of summoning help in case of trouble. Furthermore, the shorts that covered his bum were his only protective clothing. All in all, then, Clyde's planning for his first trip in his "new" boat was pretty casual. Still, the initial phase of the shakedown cruise was uneventful. But then Clyde noticed that the SOT was getting harder to paddle. And it was settling lower in the water, too. In fact, it was sinking beneath him, as the hollow hull slowly flooded. Was the seal around the viewing window defective? Clyde didn't know. He hadn't checked it before launching. He kept his head now, though. To begin with, he deliberately capsized the SOT, hoping to trap enough air in the molded well to keep it floating high. But the attempt failed.

Clyde's summer outing was ending badly. His SOT would no longer float with him aboard, he was miles from shore, and night was approaching. Rightly or wrongly, Clyde decided to swim for it. And he did. At one point, a sportfishing boat passed near him as he swam. It came tantalizingly close, so close that Clyde could read the labels on the beer cans in the anglers' hands. But his desperate shouts were drowned out by the gutsy rumble from the boat's engine, and he had no other way to attract attention. The boat continued on course, its captain and crew unaware of the screaming figure left bobbing in their wake. Soon Clyde was alone in the water again. So he kept swimming, husbanding his strength as best he could. In the end, his efforts paid off. Early in the pre-dawn hours, he found himself just offshore from Naval Base Point Loma — ten miles, give or take, from his launch site. He clambered up slowly onto a wave-washed rock. Then he started calling out to anyone who passed by, and at last someone heard his cries. Yet Nemesis still wasn't finished with Clyde. Naval security personnel, unaware of Clyde's long ordeal, refused to allow him to come ashore. Finally, though, they relented, and civilian lifeguards came to his rescue. They arrived just in time. Clyde's core body temperature had dropped dangerously low. He was very lucky to be alive.

And what of his boat? Some days later, it was spotted drifting near the international border with Mexico, barely afloat and nine miles offshore. The finders returned it to Clyde.

 

That's quite a story, isn't it? Imagine yourself adrift in a sinking boat, miles offshore, with no life vest and no way of calling for help. You're already tired from hours of paddling, you're scared, and night is falling. It's almost the worst worst-case scenario possible. Of course, in any such incident, there are always lessons to be learned. And Clyde certainly learned a few. In fact, after he recovered from his long swim, he went public, hoping that his example would save others from making the same mistakes. You may have seen his story on the news, or read about it in a paper or on the Web. Now let's dig a little deeper, and see just …

Where Clyde Went Wrong

He Went Offshore Alone in an Untried Boat.  As pleasant as it sometimes is to get away all by yourself, heading out to sea on your own is never a good idea, and doing so in a new boat is (to borrow George Orwell's memorable phrase) doubleplus ungood, particularly when the "new" boat in question is somebody else's old boat. Whether your new boat is factory fresh or a battle-scarred veteran, though, there's just no substitute for a sea trial, conducted under safe conditions and with friends standing by to help in case of trouble.

His Boat Didn't Have Any Supplementary Flotation.  Admittedly, not too many SOT owners bother with float bags. But as Clyde's experience shows, older SOTs — and any SOT that doesn't have foam encapsulated in the hull — can founder. In any case, supplementary flotation is never a bad idea. Plastic is sturdy stuff, but time and sunlight take their toll, and even a small crack can let in a lot of water.

He Didn't File a Float Plan.  Telling someone where you're going and when you expect to be back is always smart. Call it filing a float plan if you want. Or just call it common sense. Either way, Clyde didn't do it. Not good.

He Didn't Wear a PFD.  Worse yet, he didn't even have one in his boat. This is illegal in most places, but that's not the point, is it? Unless you've learned to breathe water, it's stupid to leave your PFD behind when you go paddling. A PFD won't turn a non-swimmer into an aquatic star, of course, but it makes even the strongest swimmer a little bit safer, and it helps to conserve body heat when you're in the water, too. That can be vital.

He Didn't Dress for the Water Temperature.  According to news reports, sea-surface temperature off La Jolla was 72 degrees Fahrenheit when Clyde set off. That's plenty warm if you're just taking a dip, but it's cold enough to kill when you have to stay in the water for hours, particularly if you're exhausted by the effort of keeping afloat.

He Didn't Have Any Way to Call for Help.  Shouts often fall on deaf ears. A whistle is cheap and light, and it's much more likely to be heard. Or are you counting on being seen? Don't. A swimmer's head bobbing in the waves is almost invisible, even during the day. And after dark? Forget it! Flares and strobes, on the other hand, are hard to ignore. Of course, an EPIRB or Personal Locator Beacon is even better at getting attention. They're not cheap — the cheapest ones cost about as much as a recreational kayak — but in a hard chance …. Is your life worth as much as your boat? It's a question you might want to ask yourself.

 

OK. That's the downside. But Clyde must have done something right. After all, he lived to tell his story. So now let's consider …

What Clyde Did Right

He Was Prepared.  No, I haven't forgotten what I just wrote. It's true that Clyde violated almost every rule in the prudent paddler's handbook, but at least he had enough sense to learn to swim. It can't have been easy. He did it as an adult, long after the age when most of us have already learned, or given up trying. But I'm sure Clyde would agree it was worth the time and trouble. What about you? While many non-swimmers are skillful canoeists and kayakers, there's no doubt that good swimmers have the edge when things go wrong. And it's never too late to learn.

He Kept His Head.  When Clyde first realized his boat was sinking, with miles of water between him and the nearest dry land, he didn't panic. He thought the problem through and tried to find the best solution. First he flipped his SOT, hoping to trap enough air to support both the boat and himself. Then, when that failed, he weighed his options carefully and decided not to stay with the boat. In this he went against much expert opinion, but he had his reasons, and they were good ones. His boat was already awash, no one was looking for him, and night was coming on. The likelihood of his being rescued was therefore vanishingly small. So he set out for shore, pacing himself to conserve his energy. It was a calculated risk, to be sure, but it paid off.

He Learned From His Mistakes.  Clyde escaped death by the narrowest of margins. But as his later public statements made perfectly clear, he didn't blame anyone else for his misadventure. He didn't even blame fate. He acknowledged his mistakes and accepted responsibility for the consequences. The result? It's not likely he'll make the same mistakes again. Learning from your mistakes — that's the most important lesson of all. 'Nuff said?

There's no doubt about it. Clyde Bolter had a very bad day early in August. And as night fell on that terrible day, he was left with just two choices: Stay with his sinking boat and hope for a miracle, or swim for shore, with no guarantee that he'd have the strength to make it back to land. Sink or swim? Those are choices that none of us would welcome. But they were the only ones left for Clyde. Worst of all, it was nobody's fault but his own. Happily, though, he lived to tell his tale. It's a compelling story. Moreover, it's a story no paddler can afford to ignore.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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