Agencies Team Up to Curb Rise in Paddler Deaths

May 19, 2017

Last year, 28 people in the Northeast died from paddle craft-related deaths. That’s more than double the national average, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

To try to reduce the number of fatalities, the regional Coast Guard office in Maine is teaming up with the National Weather Service to issue a new advisory to alert enthusiasts when water temperatures are dangerously cold. They’re also emphasizing the use of one tried and true safety tool they say isn’t used nearly enough: the life jacket.

Joe Mullin was only a couple hours into what was supposed to be a 2,000 mile kayaking voyage from Maine to Florida when his journey ended abruptly on April 30.

He had been paddling through 3-foot swells, he says, and things were going fine. Then he turned his kayak toward a place called Bailey’s Mistake, near Lubec.

“When I started to turn to go up into Bailey’s, I got hit with this little — probably less than a foot — wake, broadside. And when it hit me, the boat just immediately rolled, and I mean, you didn’t have time to do anything. I did a wet exit while I was upside down, under water,” Mullin says.

The water was a frigid 38 degrees, and he tried to get back in his kayak.

“Yeah, it kept rolling over. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to re-enter the boat,” he says.

Mullin’s situation could have ended in tragedy. But he was wearing a dry suit and a life jacket. He was also carrying a radio, and he called the Coast Guard for help.

Mullin was prepared for the unexpected, but Coast Guard Capt. Mike Baroody says far too many people on kayaks, canoes and paddleboards are not.

The U.S. Coast Guard demonstrates a water rescue.
Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public

“Last year we had 49 deaths,” he says.

That’s in the eight states that comprise the 1st Coast Guard District. But most of those deaths, Baroody says, were in Maine, New Hampshire and the Lake Champlain region.

“Which kind of makes sense because you have parts of the state that are very remote, and also because of the very cold water temperatures,” he says.

And as more people embrace paddlesports, says Maine Warden Service Lt. Adam Gormely, they often fail to take into account just how cold the water is, even on a warm, sunny day.

“People often dress for the air, and not the water,” he says.

But the worst mistake people make, says New Hampshire State Police Marine Patrol Capt. Tim Dunleavy, is failing to wear a life jacket.

“Seventy percent of the people who die as a result of a boating accident, their cause of death is ruled a drowning. Eighty percent of those people were not wearing life jackets,” he says.

Registered Maine Guide Humphrey Johnson says even strong athletes don’t stand a chance if they accidentally plunge into ocean water without a life jacket.

“And the reason for that is that as soon as you’re in the cold water, all of the blood is going to go to the core of your body, and it’s going to go away from your arms and legs. And that’s what causes the numbness. And people lose the function of their arms and legs,” he says.

Beginning this spring, the regional Coast Guard office and the National Weather Service in Maine are teaming up to bring more awareness to paddle craft safety. John Cannon of the National Weather Service says they’re now issuing Beach Hazard Statements to alert paddle craft enthusiasts to potentially risky conditions.

“We’re used to forecasting intense weather. But now our staff is also forecasting the benign conditions in the morning. ‘The water is flat, smooth. The winds are light, but a big cold front just went through.’ It’s very windy out here today, and there’s a chop out there, and if you’re out in the kayak and you went out in the morning when it was beautiful, there’s a very good chance you might flip over in very cold water,” he says.

The Beach Hazards Statements will be issued on weekends and holidays when cold waters pose a risk for hypothermia and large numbers of people on paddle crafts are expected on coastal waters.