Staying safe on the water

Experts offer advice for kayakers, canoers, paddleboarders

By: Samantha Shriber | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published August 31, 2017

CLINTON TOWNSHIP/HARRISON TOWNSHIP — Weather conditions, distance from shoreline, level of experience and the presence of a life jacket are each factors that can determine life or death while operating paddle craft.

Paddle craft refers to nonmotorized watercraft such as kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. These devices are reliant on the paddler, who is also the most vulnerable against the water.

United States Coast Guard Sector Detroit is responsible for overlooking the water areas of Bay City, Harbor Beach, Port Huron, Toledo and St. Clair. The sector’s coverage reaches Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair. The Coast Guard has the immediate obligation of providing rescue and preserving safety, especially to the paddler community of these massive areas.

In July and through mid-August, this area had reached 27 cases of paddlers in distress, according to Executive Petty Officer Chief Jeremy Graybill, of Coast Guard Station St. Clair Shores.

Four of these cases resulted in death, adding to the recurrent paddler deaths that occur every summer, Graybill said.

“It happens all too often,” he said, explaining that such cases could be avoided by following simple steps and protocol.

The biggest problem comes from a lack of life jacket laws for private paddle craft owners, he said.

A recent case that Graybill shared featured two men kayaking without life jackets on. After overturning their devices, they predicted that they were at a safe enough distance from the shore to swim back. A lack of accuracy and life jackets resulted in one man drowning.

First Class Training Petty Officer Josh Serow, of Coast Guard Station St. Clair Shores, said that the difficulty of knowing your distance from the water makes a life jacket mandatory.

“You may be kayaking and thinking that you’re only a few hundred yards from shore, when actually you can be a half a mile to a mile away,” Serow said.

Before going out on a paddling trip, make sure that your life jacket’s buckles, zippers and sizing are in correct order, he said. Also, confirm that your preservers are Coast Guard approved and are free of tears, damage and any signs of distress.

Another step to take with a personally owned paddle craft is to label it with name, address and contact information.

“We often get a call from someone who comes across a kayak or paddleboard that is unmanned, and that initiates us to consider whether a search is in order or not,” Graybill said, explaining that his station receives several reports of vacant paddle craft every time a storm hits.

Graybill said that the search for a distressed paddler is the same as attempting to find a needle in a haystack, thus it would be a misuse of resources if the craft’s owner is not in actual distress. Contact information can help the Coast Guard determine whether a search is needed or where an individual may be located.

Serow suggests purchasing an emergency position-indicating radio beacon station to provide location coordinates in a case of urgency.

“Water temperature is a very important thing to consider before going out. If you’re in cold waters, your life expectancy dramatically decreases,” Serow said.

Falling in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit can result in hypothermia and eventually death, he said.

Wind conditions are another factor to pay distinct attention to.

“All it takes is a 2-foot chop from wind speeds to get consumed by the weather,” Serow said.

Michele Arquette-Palermo, of Bloomfield Hills, coordinates the Slow Row LO paddlers group out of Lake Orion. She said that in the case of weather, paddlers should be just as prepared not to go as they should be to go.

On Aug. 7, 30 kayakers had to be rescued on Lake Huron after being caught in a storm of high waves and winds with gusts exceeding 30 mph.

“They shouldn’t have been out there in the first place,” Arquette-Palermo said. “Weather and water conditions are some of the most important things to pay attention to.”

Arquette-Palermo said that level of skill and experience is a factor to pay close attention to. She said that she learned that the hard way after a river kayaking trip with her husband.

“We were heading into a large log in the water, and he followed the natural reaction to row away from it,” she said, explaining that in return he flipped over and was dragged down under the log by the current. “He was basically pinned down. I had to dive down and pull him out.”

Other tips follow a strict guideline of knowing an area’s weather conditions, level of difficulty, and having the right equipment and a buddy.

Serow and Graybill both said to make sure that you enter the water only after letting someone know where you intend on going and when you plan on returning.

“Do not be out after dark, and have a plan,” Serow said. “Let someone know where you’re going and what’s going on.”