On the first weekend of June, near our beautiful Whidbey Island home, two young Navy men stationed at NAS Whidbey went fishing on open water in borrowed kayaks. The bodies of Vinson Ya and Joey Lee were found the next morning, victims of hypothermia and drowning.
These guys had family and friends who loved them, who are stricken by grief at their loss. Could the tragedy have been prevented? That’s unknown, since the only comment from first responders in the local press was “the water is cold”. A little more research by other regional press revealed that their equipment and experience may not have been right for the conditions. But while the town grieved, then got over it when our next big story hit, no comprehensive public statement was made by our fire departments, police, health care professionals, or any public official about how the rest of us can stay safe on the water.
Click here to see the original – and only – article about the tragedy from our local Whidbey News Times staff. The tributes in the Comments section are heart-wrenching.
I wrote up the following few paragraphs last week for the News Times, reflecting simple steps to enhance safety for ourselves and our loved ones on the water. Did Vinson and Joey follow any of these steps? There’s no way to know. If not, there’s still no way to know if doing everything right would have saved them. But the least we can do is to honor their memories by educating ourselves about the risks.
Since the News Times edited some volume from the article, here is the full version:
Water safety begins with knowing the risks
Two weeks ago, our island community suffered another tragic loss when two young Navy men drowned while kayaking off the West side of Whidbey. The grief is immeasurable to their families and friends – a permanent, life-changing hole ripped in their hearts. But for the rest of us, like too many other times, we blink our tears away and a deputy tells the paper how cold the water is… and we move on.
This is a challenge to honor these men’s memories by learning how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe on our waters, and it begins with knowing the risks. Whether paddling, motoring or sailing, a healthy fear and thorough understanding of the effects of cold water could save your life.
Our local waters stay between the mid 40s and low 50s, year-round. When immersed, even on a hot summer day, you will be incapacitated in just a few minutes. Your motor skills – swimming, waving for help, even shouting to a rescuer – will be severely compromised. After fifteen minutes you will be approaching hypothermia. Your core temperature begins to drop, and so do your chances of survival.
How does a boater stay safe, without staying home on the couch? Here are seven simple, essential steps to enhancing your safe enjoyment of the water.
- Prepare for immersion. Either dress for it, with a neoprene wet suit or waterproof dry wear, or know how you’re going to get out of the water if you go in. Practice reentering your kayak or remounting your SUP board. Do a regular overboard drill on your sail or power boat. Otherwise, stay within 1 or 2 minutes’ swimming distance from shore… much less than 100 yards.
- Know the area you’re boating. Check charts and seek local knowledge about currents, obstructions, commercial traffic, and weather patterns. Plan potential bailout points; many of our beaches aren’t easy landings, and even if you get safely ashore, you may have to walk for miles before you reach help.
- Check weather and tide predictions. A marine forecast from NOAA will include more accurate wind predictions than your local weatherman. Again seek local knowledge to understand the relation of wind, tide and current in specific locations.
- Leave a float plan with someone you trust. Include your intended boating location, and descriptions of your boat, clothing, vehicle, parking location, and intended return time. Instruct your friend, “if you don’t hear from me by X time, call me. If I don’t answer, call 911.” Contact the friend as soon as you’re safely off the water.
- Know your craft. Understand what it can and can’t do. Some kayaks can’t be reentered when they’re swamped, so should never be taken far from shore or into heavy swells. Some sailboats aren’t made for heavy winds. Some powerboats aren’t designed for more than two people. Put a boat to a use for which is was not intended, or play Russian roulette. Same thing, your choice.
- Wear your pfd (lifejacket) properly. If it’s lying on the seat next to you, or worn loosely, it’s useless. A pfd is meant to be worn snugly – almost uncomfortably – so it can give buoyancy to your upper body and keep your head out of the water when you fall in. It’s virtually impossible, especially in frigid water, to put on or adjust a pfd after you’re in the water. Wear it and cinch it tight before you need it.
- Bring waterproof communication. Keep a vhf radio or cell phone safely waterproofed, usable and reachable if you end up in the water. Practice using your device while it’s in its waterproof case.
It’s rarely possible to speculate whether any of these steps would have prevented a specific tragedy. But to maximize your shot at survival in the event of a mishap on our chilly, beautiful Salish Sea, treat these seven steps as essentials every time you hit the water – regardless of your craft.
- Here are some additional, sensible steps to consider when appropriate:
- Don’t wear cotton. Fleece and wool dry much more quickly, tend to wick chilly water away from your body, and provide some insulation even when wet.
- Bring a thermos of hot beverage, to warm you or a boating buddy if you’re chilled.
- Understand navigation using charts and a compass, not just your pocket gps.
- When boating with a group, know your buddies. Know the strengths, weaknesses, and expectations of each person, and talk about what to expect in an emergency.
- If you end up in the water, it’s almost always best to stay with your boat rather than try to swim to shore.
- SUP paddlers should always use an ankle leash.
- Along with “know your craft”, practice your skills. Take advantage of boating safety resources on line and in person. We have professional instructors right here on the island who teach everything from SUP paddling and kayaking to sailing and power boating, including all the safety information you could ever need. Use them!
- Don’t assume you’ll be rescued. This isn’t Disneyland or a water park. Your safety is your responsibility.
- Boat regularly with someone who’s more skilled than you are. There’s always something new to learn, from unfurling a sail to rolling a kayak. Keep getting better by challenging yourself to learn more from your boating buddies.
- Learn to swim. After a few minutes in our waters, we’re all non-swimmers. Still, a strong, confident swimming stroke provides an extra margin of safety. And with a local pool that provides affordable lessons for both adults and children, there is no excuse for being a non-swimmer here on Whidbey Island.
Honor the memories of our neighbors and friends who have died in our waters by not becoming a victim yourself. Know and respect the risks. Play by Nature’s rules, and teach your loved ones to do the same. You and your family will come home with smiles on your faces and build a lifetime of good memories on the water.
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If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading. For graphic detail on the effects of cold water, take a few minutes to look at some shocking videos at Cold Water Boot Camp.
Here on Whidbey Island, learn to swim at Oak Harbor Pool, where you can also raise your kayaking awareness with their in-house certified paddling instructor; learn safe SUP paddling technique from Jeff Vallejo at Harbor SUP; and learn the skills you need for safe powerboating and sailing from Deception Pass Sail and Power Squadron.
Beyond our local waters, internationally recognized safety training resources are available at US Power Squadrons, American Canoe Association, US Sailing, and British Canoe Union.