Lots of waterfowl and a real-life water rescue made last night’s paddle a unique evening on the water. We put in at the Oxbow ramp at Hoover reservoir. Typically, the lot is filled with fishing boat trailers and cars with kayak racks. We pulled in to find an unusually empty parking lot. A woman with a paddle board also put in around the same time we did. She had just gotten the paddle board “free” for buying two kayaks and was giving it a test run. We set out across the reservoir to check out some sailboats and a couple coves on the far shore, just under a mile from the boat ramp. The woman on the board paddled off in another direction. When we got out on the open water, a delightful breeze kicked up that also produced choppy waves that made us work harder to cross. Our efforts were rewarded when we reached the little cove. An osprey couple were fishing together, soaring over our boats and calling to each other. One made a dive and came up with a fish. I surprised myself by getting a shot of it flying with its prey. Fishing birds are cool because they carefully turn their catch head-to-tail to make flying with it more ergonomic. We played around in the cove for a while and then headed back across the reservoir intending to check out a cove on the other side.
We bounced over the choppy water and neared the halfway point of the return when Ben pointed and asked, “do you see that?” I scanned over my left shoulder and saw an object low in the water. Then a few splashes. Then a few more splashes. Someone was on an unplanned swimming adventure. We promptly changed course and headed over. The closer we got we could tell someone was in trouble. We made sure our PFDs were properly zipped (I know, not safe but it was a hot night after all) and hustled. As we paddled towards the person, I mentally reviewed the rescue techniques I’d learned in my boat safety class from long ago but had not practiced since. Covering the distance between us and the person only took a few minutes, but we felt agonizingly slow. It turned out to be the woman with the new paddle board. She was exceedingly glad to see us. We introduced ourselves and got busy helping our new friend Joan. Her new board was a hollow plastic model and had scupper holes at both ends. It also turned out that there were no plugs in these holes and Joan hadn’t realized that there should be plugs, as her other board was an inflatable board and had no such holes. As she got out into the wind the waves pushed water over the top of her board and into the holes.
By the time she realized she was taking on water, it foundered. Miraculously it retained some flotation, and she was clinging to the stern valiantly trying to kick swim herself and the board back to shore. Ben and I always carry self-rescue equipment, so we pulled out a rope, hitched her and the paddle board to Ben’s boat and headed to the ramp. I rode sweep. Joan came off the back of her board once, but we got her back on. It was exhausting for Ben, hauling her waterlogged board with the extra drag of her body in the water, and of course he had to paddle into the wind. To add to her woes, Joan’s PFD wasn’t well-fitted. The shoulder straps rode up over her head, making it hard for her to maneuver in the water. I give her credit, she was game about the whole experience and put up with me lecturing her about her lack of safety equipment. We pressed on and made it back to the boat ramp where her husband was waiting. He had arrived to pick her up at their agreed time and watched our progress hauling her for a full 20 minutes. He didn’t realize it was his wife we were towing until we got closer; his face crumpled with horror. “She’s fine,” I yelled. We pulled up to the ramp and she let go of the board. Her weight on the back had kept the nose of the board out of the water; as soon as she let go the board tipped forward, filled with water and sank nose down, stopping when the board hit the bottom. With a great deal of effort they got it out of the water and dumped several gallons of water out of the board cavity. It occurred to me later that board could have easily sunk out on the water and dragged Ben’s boat down with it.
Overlooking basic safety on the water added up to a potential disaster. Joan took an unfamiliar vessel out in deep water alone. Her PFD was not fitted correctly, and she didn’t seem to have considered why it needed to be tight. The loose vest was pushing her face forward into the water, making her waste energy to stay upright. She had her phone in the chest pocket of her vest in a waterproof bag, but she couldn’t figure out a way to use it without getting it wet. If her vest fitted properly, she could have rolled on her back to get the phone out of the vest pocket to call. There are also lots of dead signal areas on the reservoir, so depending solely on your phone for rescue isn’t a good idea. She wasn’t carrying a signal whistle. Yelling for help doesn’t carry well on the water, but every experienced boater knows the sound of a whistle on the water means someone is in trouble. It was a quiet night on the water too. There were few other boaters on the water. Ben and I were the only visible boats in the area and he just happened to spot her on our left before we turned to paddle to the right. Had we turned any earlier we may have missed seeing her. She was tired by the time we got to her and I couldn’t imagine how exhausted she might be if she tried to cover the last quarter mile through the water. So many ways to drown on a pretty summer evening.
When she was safely on shore, Ben unclipped his whistle from his vest and gave it to her. She clipped it to a waist strap; I told her to clip it to her zipper pull or shoulder clip so it was close enough for her to get it to her mouth. “Good idea,” she said. After some profuse socially distanced words of thanks, they left.
I have paddled off and on since college. I’ve taken a few boat safety classes over the years. After I retired we bought our own boats. We’ve always carried safety gear including tow ropes. They had stayed unused in our dry hatches for years, until yesterday. In this summer of forced staycations people are buying outdoor equipment in record numbers. Finding a boat, bike or tent can be difficult. The plus side is that people who rarely get outside are now doing so. That’s also a downside, as people with limited knowledge about recreational safety try their new equipment. In the case of vessels, people see a big placid-looking lake and assume it’s a good place for beginners. This summer I have seen so many ill-equipped adults and children on deep water it scares me. I made a vow that Ben and I would practice self-rescue and boat rescue techniques. If you are one of the folks who bought your first boat this summer, take a safety class.
We turned back out to finish our evening paddle and after a bit Ben decided he was done paddling for the night. He certainly earned his rest! We floated in the water for a few minutes admiring the developing sunset when a mama mallard and her babies swam up to our boats. They circled us looking for a handout making those charming little chirping noises ducks do. Once they realized we had nothing to offer they headed off, and we decided to call it a night.
On the news this morning I heard a statistic that 10 people drown every day. Don’t be one of them. Here’s a nice list of what every boater should carry on board. I’d add a knife to the list as well.
BASIC SAFETY GEAR
- PFD: Your personal flotation device should fit snugly and always be on—and there’s never a kayak outing where you can forgo the PFD.
- Whistle: Attach it to your PFD. One blast is for attention; three blasts is “help.” If you forget how many, just keep blasting away until a rescuer arrives.
- Communication Device: If you’ll ever be out of whistle range of someone on shore, you need another way to call for help. If cell coverage is stellar everywhere, you can bring a cellphone in a waterproof case. Otherwise you need a VHF radio.
- Bilge Pump: Handy when your butt is sitting in a puddle after a water fight; vital if you capsize and have a boatful of H20 to purge.
- Spare Paddle: One per paddler is best, though a group can also share one or two spares.
- Paddle Float: This self-rescue gear requires training to use. (If the group’s rescuer can’t help you, you’ll have to rescue yourself.)
- Towline: in case someone can’t get to shore on their own.
- Headlamp: in case you’re out longer than you anticipated.
- Source: REI kayaking Safely https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/kayak-safety.html