Life Lessons —
A Solo Kayaker's Harrowing Story
By Tamia Nelson
July 13, 2010
A Note to the Reader: The photos in this article are from stock. They do not show the Croton River or environs. They're for illustrative purposes only.
No activity is completely safe. In fact, getting in a car to drive to work (or to the corner store) is about the most dangerous thing any of us will ever do. Seen in that context, the risks that paddlers run are pretty small beer. But however slight the danger, some risk always remains. None of us is immortal. Fortunately, we can do a lot to keep the odds on our side: wear a properly‑fitted PFD, carry the Ten Essentials, paddle in the company of other experienced boaters. And — perhaps most important of all — we can learn to listen to that still, small voice that warns us of trouble ahead. Still, most of us break some of these common‑sense rules at least some of the time, and mostly we get away with it. It's all well and good to prate on about the importance of paddling in company, for example, but that's nearly impossible for many canoeists and kayakers. If we only went out when we could go with others, we'd never go out at all. And sooner or later we'd succumb to heart attacks or strokes while watching the Extreme Sports Channel, safe in our living rooms at home. The moral? While beginners should never paddle alone, experienced boaters sometimes choose to do so. As far as many of us are concerned, going solo is better than not going at all.
But… If you paddle alone, the danger certainly notches up. Get into trouble, bad trouble, and it could be the last thing you ever do. Not long ago, I received an e‑mail from Brian, a Putnam County, New York, kayaker who found himself facing a worst‑case scenario, largely because he had chosen to paddle alone. He'd planned for a strenuous — but straightforward — slog against an ebbing tide, followed by an easy float back to his car. Nemesis had other plans, however, and things suddenly went wrong. Badly wrong. I figured that Brian's experience had lessons for us all, and I'm happy to say that he gave me permission to reprint his letter in its entirety. So, without further editorializing on my part, here's Brian's story in his own words. (NB I've added internal links to some critical points in the narrative, points that I'll follow up on below.)
You Learn From Your Mistakes
After work on a mid‑March day this year, I went down to the put‑in spot near the Croton‑on‑Hudson train station and made ready to go kayaking up the Croton River. I had kayaked the river twice last summer during both high and low tides, so I was familiar with what the river could have in store for me. Part of my preparation included leaving my wife a map of the area and notifying her once I put the kayak in the water.
I had already checked the tides a day earlier, and two days prior I had paddled the Annsville Creek (near Peekskill) during similar tide conditions. I knew the tide would be ebbing, the current would be moving swiftly, and that paddling would not be easy during the 1.5‑mile trip up the river. But I decided to go anyway, making sure I took proper safety measures.
I don't have a drysuit, and I usually never wear the spray skirt in my 9'6" Old Town Otter. This time was no different in that respect. The kayak is wide and stable, I usually paddle flat water, and I don't take many chances. What I did have was a 15‑quart dry bag that I bought a few weeks earlier. It held my wallet, car key, cell phone, rolled‑up windbreaker, and stern light. However, I didn't clip it to anything. I just stuffed it in the cockpit for what I was expecting to be a mostly easygoing, dry paddle.
Most importantly, I was wearing my PFD, which is a must on the Croton River. This has also become my new number‑one rule whenever kayaking anywhere. I have to admit that there have been times in the past, especially in the calm bay of Shelter Island Sound and Coecles Harbor, where I haven't worn my PFD. Maybe that was due to confidence in my own abilities and the familiarity with the water I'd paddled so many times in 12 years of kayaking. I can safely say I will never paddle without a PFD again.
There are clichés like "You learn from your mistakes" and "Everything happens for a reason." As you will see, those phrases sum up the trip.
I set out in my kayak at 4:06 p.m. in light winds, and immediately noticed that it was going to take two or three paddle strokes against the strong outgoing tide for every one paddle stroke it would take during calm conditions. So I trudged along, staying close to the calmer left [i.e., river right] shoreline as much as possible. After finding the best route up the river, I came to the larger of two islands [Paradise Island] and decided to go around the left side of the split. Both channels are marked by small rapids, but the left is usually the easier side, and I have never failed to paddle through, nor have I had to portage. This time was different.
I stayed along the calm left side as far as I could and at the last possible moment decided to paddle for the middle [of the channel]. I quickly realized that this spot was unforgiving and that wasn't going to happen. After paddling hard and staring at the same spot for about 30 seconds, I decided to let the current take me back to the foot of the island. I then paddled around to the right side, and saw two teenagers in a canoe floating downriver toward me. We exchanged hellos and I asked them how the rapids were on the right side, where they just came from. After hearing that it was easier on the left side where I had just failed, I grew a little uneasy.
Again, I stuck with the "successful" portion of my plan by staying close to the [Paradise Island] shoreline. I was able to pull myself up against some rocks in an eddy about three‑quarters of the way along the island, where I sat for a couple of minutes admiring the beautiful 65‑degree weather. I took some cellphone pictures and a brief video of the rapids to document the conditions of the mid‑March trip. I knew there was no way to make it through, and the water was too cold to go dragging the kayak around the rapids. So I braced myself and let the rapids carry me along for about 50 yards. This is where a somewhat uneventful trip took a turn for the worse and forever changed my outlook and the way I now approach paddling. And it all happened in a matter of seconds.
The rapids pushed me to the right [i.e., river left], where I paddled ahead to the tip of a smaller island [Deer Island] with fast rushing water to the right and a steep hill with houses above me. There was only about 25 feet between the island and the river embankment on the right, which means the water was running faster through that spot, like a bottleneck.
As I began to paddle upriver close to the island, I quickly realized that there was no calm area on this side where I could paddle in slacker current. I was quickly swept into the middle of the river and rotated sideways, with the water rushing against my port side. I figured I would just pivot the kayak to face forward downriver, but all hope for that was quickly lost. I was slammed sideways up against a downed tree that had fallen over the winter. I started tipping to the left and upriver, and steadied the kayak with my paddle for maybe five seconds. Then the water overpowered the kayak and quickly started filling the cockpit. I had watched all sorts of videos, seen pictures and read articles, but I had never performed a wet exit before. And this was a hell of a time to perform my first, but I dumped myself out with paddle in hand.
I tried feeling for the bottom of the river with no luck. It was much deeper than I thought. I was up to my neck in 40‑degree water and the seriousness of the situation was setting in. I got very concerned very quickly, and began to think about my wife and daughter, and about how many times my wife had told me to be careful, especially when kayaking alone. I started yelling to the two houses up the embankment or to anyone who could hear me. I did not have a whistle, but did have a marine strobe attached to my PFD. The water was very cold and I began to hyperventilate, actually thinking that I could die a number of ways (drowning, hypothermia, getting stuck under the tree) if I didn't get out of the water quickly enough.
I held onto the now‑flooded kayak and pulled my body around to the bow handle. I grabbed a thick branch extending out over the water, and I still cannot figure out how I got my legs up onto the base of the tree — it's still a blur. I was able to pull myself up with the paddle in one hand regardless. I inched my way onto the trunk of the tree and was able to stand on a few large branches that were somewhat rotted and not very sturdy, but they still supported me. In the process, the backs of my hands and fingers were scratched by the branches. I rested for a minute to gather myself together, wondering how the heck I was going to get my kayak.
Looking back on it, I realize that the water filling up the kayak was a blessing in disguise. If I had been wearing a spray skirt and exited the kayak with little or no water in it, the kayak would have easily been taken down the river by the strong current. The water inside it made it heavy and impossible for the gushing water to move it out from behind the tree. This left it available for me to retrieve. I just had to figure out how.
The dry bag that had been between my feet in the cockpit was now wedged inside the bow by the weight of the water. My only means of communication, identification and access to my vehicle all would have floated away if the kayak hadn't been stuck there. I thought if I could just get some of the water out, I would be able to grab the dry bag. It was easier said than done. A few attempts at getting the kayak up out of the water were unsuccessful because it was both heavy and wedged under a large branch. After freeing the bow, I pulled the kayak up a number of times to empty the water and it quickly filled back up. Finally, I was able to get it emptied enough where the bright orange dry bag slowly came floating out. I grabbed it quickly, as branches cracked beneath my feet, and tied it to my PFD.
About 10 minutes had gone by since I first went into the water. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and I was getting colder. I was wearing a t‑shirt, PFD, nylon jogging pants, socks and sneakers, all of which were waterlogged. I slowly was able to pull up the kayak enough to empty almost all of the water out. There just happened to be three large tree branches lying parallel on the surface of the water. I had to balance on the tree, turn the kayak around and place it on the branches so I could use them to launch. I figured if I could get in the kayak and slowly push myself off the branches, the current could push against the bow and shoot me down the river out of harm's way. Luckily, it went exactly as planned because I was in no condition to be dumped back into the frigid water.
The fast current assisted my slow, chilly paddle back to the put‑in spot. I got out, strapped the kayak to the roof of my car and drove away 90 minutes after I started. It didn't take long for me to realize how fortunate I was to walk away with the harrowing experience behind me, and with a life lesson that would help me be better prepared for future paddles.
Whew! Nemesis pulled out all the stops here. But Brian's story had a happy ending, nonetheless. Part of this was due to luck — and Brian needed to have luck on his side. He made a number of avoidable errors, any one of which could have altered the outcome of his cautionary tale. The line between triumph and tragedy can be narrow indeed. So let's explore…
The Ways That Brian Tempted Fate
He Was Alone on the Water, With No Companions Yes, it's true that experienced paddlers can often go it alone without inviting Nemesis' attention. But a spring trip on a tidal creek isn't one of those times. Cold water and strong currents make self‑rescue difficult at best, and impossible at worst, while sweepers — always a problem in the early season — add other, potentially lethal, complications. As Brian learned the hard way, when a simple swamping rapidly escalated into a struggle for survival. An experienced companion (or better yet, two) could have made all the difference.
He Was Overconfident I call this hubris, and it's more likely to strike web‑footed veterans of many paddling seasons than wet‑behind‑the‑ears beginners. As the miles flow by under your keel, your confidence grows. That's a good thing, of course. In fact, it's inevitable. Your boat‑handling skills and your ability to read water will improve with experience. But no boater, however expert, is omnicompetent. We all make mistakes. So it's best to err on the side of caution, particularly when boating alone. I call this "listening to the still, small voice," and it ranks high in any inventory of essential skills.
He'd Never Practiced a Wet Exit The wet exit is one of the first things a novice should master (in warm water, with one or more experienced boaters standing by in case of trouble, of course). That's especially true for kayakers, who need to learn the most efficient way to slide out of their snug‑fitting craft. But Brian isn't the only old hand who's waited till trouble struck to undertake this essential baptism by total immersion. Don't make the same mistake yourself. Go on: Get wet!
He Tried to Put His Foot Down You can't walk out of trouble in fast‑moving water, and you shouldn't even try. If your foot catches in a rock crevice or the crotch of a submerged branch and the current subsequently knocks you down, you'll have to learn how to breath through your ears in a hurry. What should you do, instead? Float on your back till your bum is hard aground. Only then should you stand up. Warning: The classic feet‑first back float isn't the wisest choice when you're headed for a sweeper. Then it's best to turn over on your stomach and swim hard and fast, planning to pull yourself up and out of the water before you're pinned in the strainer. You don't want to end up with your legs entangled in branches while the current holds your head deep underwater, do you? I thought not.
He Didn't Dress for Distress Cold water kills, if not outright, then by sapping strength and eroding judgment. If you boat in cold water — and this means any water colder than you'd find comfortable to swim in — it's imperative to dress for the water temperature. A t‑shirt may be comfortably cool on a sunny, 65‑degree spring day, but it will offer only the coldest of cold comfort in 40‑degree water. Rubber wetsuits and drysuits may be steamy and constricting, but they're nowhere near as claustrophobic as a coffin.
His Kayak Had No Supplementary Flotation He didn't use a spray skirt, either. Properly secured float bags keep water from filling your boat if you swamp. This is almost always a good thing. Better yet, a spray skirt makes swamping less likely. (It also keeps dribbles of cold water and stray waves out of your boat.) And while Brian credits the lack of flotation for keeping his boat within reach, I have my doubts. Still, I wasn't there, was I? So maybe his is the one case that tests the rule. I can say this with confidence, however: having float bags in his boat would have made the job of hauling it out of the water and emptying it much, much simpler.
He Didn't Tie His Dry Bag Into His Boat It's almost always easier to spot a drifting boat than a floating bag. So it makes sense to tie your gear bags into your boat. An unsecured dry bag will often be washed out of a swamped kayak or canoe, and once this happens you're in for a protracted — and quite possibly fruitless — search. Better hope that you can get along without whatever you had in the bag! Brian was lucky, of course. His bag stayed in his boat. But it's best not to count too much on luck.
He Didn't Have Essential Gear on His Person Even flotation‑filled boats disappear, never to be seen again, and bags are sometimes lost. But your PFD is always with you (if you're wearing it, that is — and you should be). So carry essential gear — knife, whistle, strobe, compass, map — in your PFD pockets or clipped to one of the PFD's tie‑down points. And speaking of essential gear…
He Didn't Have a Whistle You never know when you'll need to get someone's attention in a hurry, and a blast from a whistle carries a lot farther than a panicky shout. Tuck a waterproof whistle into a pocket on your PFD. It's cheap insurance. Of course, there won't always be someone within earshot of even the loudest whistle. So in remote areas — and this includes any big lake or large river or just about every stretch of seacoast — an electronic personal locater beacon wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
He Didn't Watch the Time The days are short in March. The sun sets early, and paddling a tidal river in the dark is no fun. (It gets colder when the sun goes down, too.) Starting out at four in the afternoon was cutting it fine — too fine.
OK. That's enough Monday morning quarterbacking. Although Brian certainly made a few mistakes, he lived to tell his tale, didn't he? And among the reasons that he did are…
The Many Things That Brian Did Right
He Wore his PFD A properly fitted PFD is a boater's single best defense against Nemesis' malign schemes, and this is particularly true in cold water. It's not enough to have a PFD somewhere in the boat. It has to be on your body, zipped up and strapped down. As rescue swimmers and other pros are fond of pointing out, if you aren't wearing your PFD when you go into the water, you won't live long enough to die of hypothermia. The upshot? While a PFD is no substitute for either a wetsuit or a drysuit, a life vest is essential wear for all canoeists and kayakers. This isn't an either‑or situation, PFD or wetsuit/drysuit. If the water's at all chilly, you need both.
He Filed a Float Plan If something happens to you but no one knows where you are and when to expect you back, no one will come looking for you. That's not a comforting thought, is it? Which is why filing a float plan should be part of every boater's pre‑trip checklist. And Brian did just that. He left a map with his wife, and phoned her just before he put his boat in the water. If he hadn't succeeded in getting back in his boat after he capsized, this simple precaution could have saved his life.
He Did His Homework There's just no substitute for local knowledge. Brian had previous experience on the Croton River during both high and low tides, he'd checked the tide tables before he left, and he'd paddled a nearby tidal creek just two days earlier. So he'd done his homework. Could he have done more? Yes. He might have inquired about scheduled releases at the New Croton Dam, for instance, or checked in with local paddling clubs and outfitters. He might even have used Google Earth to get a bird's‑eye view of the rapids. But he started with a good inventory of local knowledge, nonetheless. That's the important thing.
He Held on to His Paddle You know the name of the creek you'll find yourself up if you lose your paddle, right? (Hint: It's not Croton.) That's why keeping a grip on your paddle in a capsize is a very good idea. And Brian did. This made his trip back to the put‑in a lot easier.
He Kept His Head Maybe you've heard this old ditty: When in danger or in doubt, shout and scream and run about. That's probably the worst response in any emergency, of course. Panic kills. But Brian kept his cool. While he was still gasping for breath in the frigid water, he was already thinking through his options and settling on a course of action. And once he'd decided what to do, he did it, even when it proved more difficult than he'd anticipated. In other words, he didn't give up. I'm sure he was afraid — I certainly would have been, at any rate — but never once did he let his fear overmaster him. That's what saved his life. There couldn't be a better bottom line, could there?
Paddling is a blast, but it's not without risk. Nemesis is always waiting, ready to punish the overconfident or unwary. Most of the time, our mistakes and misjudgments only result in embarrassment, but on rare occasions things go very badly wrong, very fast. Such worst‑case scenarios can end tragically — or they can teach us lessons we're not likely to forget. Brian is one of the lucky ones. Nemesis did her worst, but thanks in no small measure to his grace under pressure, he lived to tell his tale. It's a story that has lessons for us all, as well as a happy ending. Who could ask for more?
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