In the interests of trying to disseminate accurate information about a incident that is certainly important to kayakers in southeast Wisconsin, I have pieced together the following from a variety of sources including WITI, WTMJ, WISN, CBS-58, The Ozaukee Press, and The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel.
On March 16, 2016 around 3:30pm, two brothers from West Bend went out kayaking on Lake Michigan from South Beach in Port Washington, Wisconsin, wearing street clothes. While air temperatures were in the upper 50’s to low 60’s that day, water temperatures on the lake are only 38-40 degrees Fahrenheit this time of year. Sustained winds were 30-40mph with a top recorded gust of about 46mph in Port Washington around the time of the accident. Winds were out of the west which would blow paddlers and kayaks away from shore. The brothers had only been on the water around 15-20 minutes when 24-year-old Kevin Beilman capsized. Very shortly thereafter, Kevin saw his 27-year-old brother, Marcus Beilman, capsize. Kevin quickly lost sight of his brother and the other kayak. It took Kevin about 30 minutes to swim to shore. He was spotted by a passing cyclist who contacted authorities. Kevin was taken to a hospital to be treated for “exposure” (read hypothermia) and is expected to make a full recovery. The USCG and Wisconsin DNR continued to search throughout the night, but the search was finally called off the next morning as it was highly unlikely that the missing brother could have survived in the water given what he was wearing. The surviving brother was wearing a life jacket. The missing kayaker was most likely not wearing a life jacket, although there has been no official report to that effect and the surviving brother was very disoriented when he was found on shore. He was unable to say for certain whether or not his brother, Marcus, had been wearing a life jacket. A photo on Marcus’s Facebook page posted just a few days prior to the accident shows him on the water in his kayak without a life jacket.
The brothers were paddling small recreational kayaks less than 10 feet long. Neither kayak has been found, as yet. Boats of this type typically have small pieces of foam in the bow and stern to provide very minimal flotation in the event of a capsize. It is not nearly enough buoyancy to allow a paddler to re-enter the boat from deep water. From personal experience using these types of kayaks in pool classes, it is not uncommon for the piece of foam in the bow to become dislodged from the kayak and to float out of the boat when the cockpit gets swamped in a capsize. A marketing video that I found on the manufacturer’s website actually shows that this particular model of kayak has no flotation in the bow of the boat which means the boats are likely floating in a vertical orientation with the stern at the surface. Since the kayaks were gray, this would be similar to searching for two gray bleach bottles floating on Lake Michigan. It also is quite possible that the foam pillar that is placed in the stern of this kayak could also have become dislodged and floated out of the kayak which would mean that the boat would eventually sink.
I think if most of us are honest, we’ve made some “rookie” mistakes early in our careers. Thankfully, most of our mistakes were much less consequential. (“There but for the grace of God, go I.”) The best thing that we as experienced kayakers can do is to try to gently educate newbies about those risks of which they may be totally unaware. I have no idea whose idea it was to go out paddling on that Wednesday afternoon in March, but I suspect that the surviving brother is going to be experiencing a tremendous load of survivor’s guilt. We all need to be somewhat careful about what we say and how, and where, we say it. There are no doubt many friends and family of the missing and the surviving kayaker who may hear or read our comments. We don’t want to cause unnecessary additional pain to those who are grieving at this time, but I do want to make sure that we don’t have more people grieving because someone else makes the same mistakes that these two brothers did. There will be a time to fully evaluate this incident objectively; to use it as a tool for teaching; and to remind all of us not to get too arrogant about our own paddling skills. For now I would just like to reiterate three important safety rules for local paddlers.
- ALWAYS wear a life jacket when paddling.
- ALWAYS dress for the water temperature. (That means a wetsuit or drysuit when temps are less than 70°F.)
- NEVER paddle a recreational kayak on large bodies of water like the Great Lakes.
If anyone reading this post knows these two kayakers, I would like to extend my sincere condolences. This was a sad, but very preventable tragedy that unfortunately seems to keep happening.