By Ken Stelter, Northwest Indiana Paddlers Association (NWIPA)
An intense presentation by New Buffalo, Mich., Chief of Police Larry Pitchford at CASKA's meeting in Oak Park yesterday began with a moment of silence, and concluded with a search for a lesson to be learned by last October's rescue of two kayakers and tragic loss of a third. Chief Pitchford related the timeline of the events that day, and the 'perfect storm' of circumstances that lead to the death of a 18 year old kayaker. He made no attempt to fault or blame anyone involved, and described the facts, witness statements, and efforts of rescuers to reach the kayaker trapped in waves that changed from 6-8 feet to 12-15 feet during the course of two hours.
Key events of Oct. 15, 2011 started with fierce north wind pushing large waves on the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan. The winds had been strong for several day prior, and rose to 30-40 mph sustained that afternoon pushing the waves to near record levels. The three high school seniors from Illinois launched into the Galien River next to the New Buffalo beach parking lot. Although the water within the break wall was smooth, there was a strong out-going current in the river. Witnesses related the three were pushed back 4-5 times over thirty minutes before finally pressing on into the lake. Two of the three kayakers capsized immediately after passing the end of the break wall. The third turned to re-enter the harbor and also capsized. Witnesses called 911 and within minutes the police arrived, and the Coast Guard was notified minutes after that. One kayaker was able to swim back to the sand beach within the break wall, he was exhausted and hypothermic. The second paddler was being pulled eastward along the outside of the break wall by the waves and current. Two police officers were able to cross the break wall with waves breaking over them, and after numerous attempts finally caught his hand and pulled him to safety. He was also exhausted and suffering from hypothermia. Both of those officers themselves sustained injuries from being pounded by the waves against the break wall boulders. The third paddler was trapped in waves only dozens of yards off the break wall. The safety boat trying to reach him was stood on end by the huge waves and tossed back into the harbor, there was no way to get through the waves to the kayaker. Repeated attempts to reach him with throw lines and flotation failed. After two hours the third kayaker, battered by waves and trapped just out of reach of rescuers was overcome by the elements. He slipped out of his life jacket while the rescuers watched helplessly. The Coast Guard helicopter arrived 12 minutes later.
In answer to some of the common questions about the incident: based on a general description the kayaks were probably 10-14 ft. rec boats, not sit-on-tops; the paddlers were not wearing wetsuits or helmets, and were without spray skirts. One was in shorts, and the kayaker that died was wearing layers of moisture-wicking fleece; they were all wearing life jackets, the one worn by the deceased paddler was a high quality vest, and even though it was cinched tight the kayaker slipped out of it when he lost consciousness; the water temperature was low 50's and the air in the high 50's, wind was from the north and topped out with sustained winds near 40 mph.
The question came, how could this happen? Chief Pitchford was careful to avoid blaming or second guessing the actions of the rescuers, or of the kayakers. The lost paddler was by all accounts a very level-headed young man not expected to take make rash decisions. The discussion led to speculation that the group dynamic of these three young men, on an end-of-season outing to catch some surf, led them to underestimate the force of the lake and the risk to their lives. All present at the meeting struggled to find a lesson, Chief Pitchford suggested that we spread the message to be willing to 'Walk away', when the conditions are wrong. Just because you drove two hours to get to the lake is no reason to risk your life. No one is a strong enough swimmer, or skilled enough paddler or surfer, to overcome the power of the lake.