I often find myself cautioning people not to use recreational kayaks on Lake Michigan, to be very respectful of the power of wind and waves on large bodies of water, and to take seriously the threat of immersion in cold water. Recent events have brought home the reasons why I continue to give these warnings. At the risk of being accused of being some sort of sea kayaking elitist, I would like to share my thoughts.
On Wednesday, June 9th, a 9-year-old girl playing in a kayak as her family watched on the beach, was blown out into Lake Michigan by a strong wind. Her father tried to swim after her, but could not swim as fast as the kayak was drifting in the wind (an example of why it is so important to hang on to your kayak and paddle after a capsize in windy conditions). The little girl was apparently not a strong enough paddler to make progress back toward the shore from which the wind was coming (before you start feeling smug, I’ve seen plenty of adults struggle to make headway against 30-mile-per-hour winds which is what was reported in the area of the accident, especially when paddling slower less efficient recreational kayaks). It is unclear whether the little girl fell off the kayak or perhaps jumped in thinking she would swim back to shore, but she disappeared under the water almost immediately (falling into 50-degree water wearing only a bathing suit strongly suggests that this little girl may have quickly succumbed to the effects of cold shock). She was not wearing a life jacket that would have kept her afloat (Why should she? How many adults would argue that the air temperature was too warm to wear a PFD and the water near shore was very calm.).
Last Friday, I was preparing to begin a class on Wind Lake at 4pm as a strong storm was approaching. I had been monitoring the weather radio and internet radar images all afternoon. I was hoping the storm would hold off long enough that we could get part of the class in before it rolled on through. No such luck. At 4pm, the students and I began to observe the lightning as we were getting the kayaks ready on shore. We rolled the kayaks upside down and sought shelter in a nearby building and then watched in fascination as a 50-mile-per-hour storm front took the lake from flat calm to raging fury in a matter of seconds. Waves built to over a foot (remember this is an inland lake, not Lake Michigan) and the lake was literally blowing sideways as the wind grabbed water off the tops of the waves and blew it faster than the waves could travel. A tree snapped off next to us. It was something I will never forget, but I would have given anything to have had a video camera in my hands to record the scene to share with others.
Imagine being on one of the Great Lakes and not making the decision to get off the water soon enough. That storm on Friday was traveling about 10 times faster than the average kayaker can paddle, and the worst of it blew through in about 15 minutes. It is unlikely that any kayaker would have stayed upright in the winds. This would have been a dire, life-threatening experience no matter what your skills or equipment. Your only hope once you exited the kayak would be to hang on to your boat for flotation as you were blown through the water. At least on Wind Lake, you would have been blown into shallow water fairly quickly. If the storm was coming out of the west on Lake Michigan (as is often the case around Milwaukee) you would not be able to swim for shore. If you were dressed for the water temperature, wearing a PFD, and could hang onto your boat (not an easy task), you might have been able to try re-entering the boat in 15 or 20 minutes after the storm blew through (if you kayak was not completely swamped with water). This is the problem with recreational kayaks. When they capsize, they fill with a lot of water and have minimal reserve bouyancy. If you survived the 15-minute ordeal of the storm and hung on to your kayak, there still would be no chance that you could re-enter the boat.
When I suggest that someone should not paddle a recreational kayak on Lake Michigan, it is not my intent to keep them out of an elite “sea kayaker’s club” or to wreck their fun. Rather, it is my hope that they will have a long, safe and fun life full of much kayaking. In order to make sure that you always stay safe, please use the appropriate kayaks and equipment on the waters you paddle. Dress for the water temperature. Wear your life jacket. And ALWAYS respect the power of the wind, current, and waves on any body of water.
It has been said that “it is always better to be on shore wishing you were on the water than to be on the water wishing you were on shore”. To borrow the words of a good friend, Dick Silberman. . .