Bill Watson is an avid kayaker who has seen far too many reports about entirely preventable kayaking accidents and deaths.
How Not to Kill Yourself in a Kayak
Kayaking can be fun, but only if you live to tell the tale! I'm an avid kayaker and follow news feeds and local reports on the topic. Every few days throughout each year, kayaking deaths are brought to my attention, some of which I'll share here. Consider yourself forewarned—many of these accounts are heartbreaking.
The purpose of this article is not to scare you, but rather to alert you to the risks of kayaking so that you can make good decisions both while planning a kayaking trip and while you're out on the water.
10 Dos and Don'ts of Kayaking
- Avoid Trees and Other Obstacles
- Don't Kayak During Storms
- Don't Kayak at Night Without Lights
- Avoid Kayaking in Cold Water
- Watch Out for Wild Animals
- Don't Kayak Whitewater Rapids
- Be Careful Kayaking on Large Bodies of Water
- Always Wear a Life Jacket
- Don't Kayak in High Winds
- Watch Out for Docks, Tugboats, Etc.
Continue scrolling to learn more about each of these risks, including tragic accounts of some of the fatalities linked to each.
1. Avoid Trees and Other Obstacles
Let's start with incidents where kayakers have become victims of stationary objects.
The surface of a river or creek can appear calm, but moving water has far more power than most people realize. An excellent way to kill yourself is to get trapped between a tree or other immovable object, and a moving current that can exert forces no human could possibly extricate themselves from.
Even in calm waters, I give objects sticking up above the surface plenty of space; you never know if what you're seeing is the "tip of the iceberg" so to speak. The object may have a much wider footprint just under the surface, and cutting a hole in the bottom of your boat can't be a positive move. There could be a rusty, discarded shopping cart down there resting against a branch, or something that could just as easily do the trick. Does the word "Titanic" ring a bell?
Kayaking Deaths Caused by Trees
Here are a few stories from the news about this exact situation.
June 10th, 2008: This first incident is based on a piece discovered in the Rapid City Journal on June 10th, 2008. Two female co-workers went kayaking on the Bad River near Fort Pierre, South Dakota with 45-year-old Kevin Honness, a senior field biologist at the Ted Turner Bad River Ranch. They were a bit ahead of him when they noticed his paddles floating past. Reversing course they soon discovered a grisly sight: Kevin's kayak lodged and submerged between two trees in the river, his dead body inside.
Kevin surely saw the trees as he approached the hazard and probably figured he could fit between them. If not, no big deal, just back out. Surprise! The current was simply too strong and forced his kayak under the trees in such a way he couldn't exit.
On my own very first kayak trip, on a gently flowing creek with a few mild Class I rapids, I had a similar experience. At a right-angle bend in the creek, the current forced my borrowed kayak under a pile of brush and logs that had accumulated in the corner of the bend. I responded by climbing up onto the brush, but had I failed to react properly I would likely have suffered the same fate as Kevin.
September 22, 2011: Here's another case (just one of hundreds of "kayaking tree deaths" in my files) from September 22, 2011 in Polebridge, MT. An Idaho woman, Shawna Thomas, 51, died Wednesday afternoon after the two-person inflatable sea kayak she was riding in with her husband in The North Fork River became wrapped around a tree. Her husband was able to extricate himself but water pressure held her under the water causing her to drown. Both were wearing life jackets.
April 17th, 2009: On the Silver River in Baraga County, Michigan, Professor Richard Honrath, a leader of Michigan Tech's atmospheric sciences program and recipient of the 2006 Research Award, died in a kayaking incident. Separating from his boat after it rolled over in rapids, he became pinned under a tree in the fast-moving current and drowned.
It's possible Richard was knocked out by hitting his head on a rock in the spill, but that's something we'll never know for sure; he may well have been fully conscious. In heavy rapids, the water flow, not your attempts to swim, usually controls your route. The report also didn't mention if he was wearing a life jacket or not. As noted in the previous example, in this type of incident a jacket may not help anyway.
2. Don't Kayak During Storms
Most boat wakes aren't high enough to enter a kayak and most rough-water waves won't, as the kayak rides up over them. But a series of large waves, or a rogue wave big enough to overwhelm the boat, can.
Once the initial wave drops water in the kayak it then sits even lower in the water, making it easier for the next wave to add more. You can capsize in seconds, and there's about zero time to put on that life vest you keep "handy"...WEAR THE DANG THING!
Kayaking Deaths Caused by Waves
August 30, 2011: Johnny Harder, 8, and his brother Joseph, 4, died while kayaking with their family on Big Horn Lake near Billings, Montana. All eight family members were experienced kayakers, had been on the lake several times before, and were wearing personal flotation devices.
The family headed out in calm waters to visit an island. A storm blew up on their way back, creating heavy waves and separating the kayaks. The father and two sisters reached shore. Unable to launch a rescue effort due to the extreme conditions, the father summoned help, but the initial rescuers found conditions too rough and had to call for larger, heavier craft. Two more sisters and the mother were rescued, clinging to their capsized kayaks. The boys, whose kayaks also capsized, were later found floating dead in the water.
Several things are brought to mind by this horrible tragedy. Any time water temperature is below 98.6, you begin to lose body heat to the water. If your body temperature drops to about 85 you're basically done for, and the colder the water, the faster that happens. So even though "cold water" isn't cited specifically, I'm thinking it played a factor considering the length of time the rescue must have taken. Primarily, though, this is a simple case of kayaks being inherently vulnerable to waves swamping them.
September 17, 2011: 18-year-old Mitchell Fajman and two buddies decided to go kayaking near the Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman, Indiana, in spite of waves later reported to be cresting as high as seven to ten feet. Although all three men were wearing life jackets, wetsuits and helmets, they had to be saved by the Coast Guard. Unfortunately, Fajman's high-quality flotation device came off in the water.
Mitchell's friends were pulled onboard the Coast Guard craft successfully, but the waves had become too rough to effect a rescue of Mitchell.
3. Don't Kayak at Night Without Lights
This could very well leave your lights out for good. On July 4th one year, a friend and I launched our kayaks to enjoy a local town's fireworks display, which was easily visible from the lake. As we were waiting for the fun to begin, we watched other folks launch, including entire families of kayakers with kids. It was already dusk, yet not a single kayak was equipped with lights for night running...and they were launching into waters chock full of motorized boats filled with partiers waiting for the show. No doubt at least a few of the motorized boat operators were operating under the influence of alcohol.
What were these kayakers thinking? Not a single adult was wearing a life vest. And one little girl, about four years old, was observed wearing a vest made for an adult—completely useless if she needed it to save her life. It could slip off, entangle her, and actually contribute to her demise.
Fortunately, although they were doing their very best to make it happen, no one died that night.
July 4, 2011: Things didn't go quite so well for a Roswell, Georgia man kayaking in Texas that same evening. 53-year-old Craig Landoli's body was recovered after a Fourth of July night collision with a motorboat on Eagle Mountain Lake near Dallas Texas. Craig's kayak was struck as he floated near a dock. The kayak lacked the required lighting.
4. Avoid Kayaking in Cold Water
On May 16th of 2010, two young women, Irina McEntee, 18, a summer resident of Peaks Island and her close friend from college, Carissa Ireland, 20, were found floating dead in the rough waters of Casco Bay in Portland, Oregon. Both were wearing life jackets. Although the kayaks apparently capsized due to the choppy waters, cold temperatures were cited as the biggest contributing factor in their deaths. "Forty-eight degrees is very, very cold," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Brian Downey. "Survivability is very short in that type of water condition."
Water conducts away heat 25 to 30 times faster than air. Think about a hot frying pan you need to cool fast. Should you leave it to sit in 40-degree air or submerge it in 40-degree water? It will cool 30 times faster in water, and so will you!
To drive home the point that cold water will hasten your demise, here's a detailed report of water temperature vs. survivability.
Water Temperature vs. Survivability
|Water Temperature||Time to Unconsciousness||Survival Time|
3 hours to indefinitely
under 15 minutes
less than 15–45 minutes
Hypothermia Risk Rule of Thumb
The general rule of thumb regarding kayak safety is unless you're wearing either a wetsuit or dry-immersion clothing, there is a significant risk of hypothermia if the sum of the water temperature and air temperature is less than 120 degrees.
So given a water temperature of 58, you'd want the air temperature to be at least 62 to kayak safely. Even then, you'd eventually succumb to water temperatures that cold—in no more than two hours—so stay near shore, verify winds aren't strong enough to blow you farther out or capsize you, and carry a dry bag with extra clothing, matches and fire-starting materials.
5. Watch Out for Wild Animals
If you kayak regularly, sooner or later you'll likely be attacked by a wild animal. Depending on where you float your boat it may be something large that can easily de-float it such as a moose, a seal, a polar bear, hippo, alligator or shark. Or it may be something smaller like a snake or a beaver, where the principal danger is they'll scare you and knock you off balance enough to capsize your boat.
Most animals attack only if you encroach on their territory or if they believe you're a threat to their offspring, so keep as much distance as possible. But a few—sharks, crocs and the like—are interested in you the same way you are interested in Kroger's or Piggly Wiggly: you're groceries, and delivered too!
I imagine it would be very difficult to fend off a large, wild animal intent on killing you when you're in a boat in which you must remain seated, with only a plastic paddle and a ham-and-cheese sandwich for defense.
Kayaking Deaths Caused by Wild Animals
December 7, 2010: Semi-famous kayaker Hendrik Coetzee, 35, who billed himself as "The Great White Explorer" probably didn't intend to explore the stomach of a crocodile from the inside, but that's where his career path ended up.
Leading an expedition sponsored by Eddie Bauer down the Lukaga River in the Congo, Hendrik ignored pointed warnings regarding huge and extremely hostile crocs. One member of his party even sent this dispatch to Outside magazine: "There is a crocodile at the river's mouth named Gustav that is an ancient, well-fed man-eater".
Later, the other expedition members, Americans Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic, could only watch in horror as a crocodile, which may or may not have been old Gustav, snatched Hendrik from his kayak and presumably enjoyed him for lunch.
December 3rd, 2013: In Maui, Hawaii, a man dangling his foot over the side of his kayak was attacked by an unknown species of shark, losing his foot. He died from blood loss and shock before rescuers could get him to shore.
January 23, 2010: There's a video available of pro kayak fisherman Drew Gregory being attacked by a goose that had previously been peacefully following him for quite some time as he fished. Once the attack began, it was only seconds before he was flipped into the water. Near shore, and in relatively warm water, the highly experienced kayaker's life was not in danger. He swam a bit then walked onto terra firma, no problem, and the episode is funny to watch.
But imagine that same event happening farther from shore, in far colder water, to a less experienced kayaker...the episode might not have ended in such a pleasant fashion.
April 15th, 2012: Sadly, that happened just months after I wrote this article. On April 15th, 2012, in Chicago, Illinois, the caretaker of nesting swans being used to keep geese away from an apartment complex was in his kayak checking the animals when he ventured too close to a nest and a swan attacked him. Anthony Hensley, 37, father of two little girls, drowned after the swan caused him to fall out of the boat.
April 15th in Chicago? That water would be somewhere in the 45–55˚F range, far too cold to kayak without a wetsuit and life jacket, even near shore. Witnesses say the animal continued to attack mercilessly when he surfaced for a second and final time. In an interview, his father reported him to be a "very good swimmer" (who apparently felt no need for a life jacket).
Fortunately I live and kayak in an area where there are no known large animals on land or in the water capable of killing and eating a human. To the rest of you, good luck and hopefully it will be over in a matter of seconds!
6. Don't Kayak Whitewater Rapids
In my opinion, rapids above Class II are interesting to observe but not so good for sticking your kayak in (and certainly not a recreational kayak, unless you really do have a death wish).
Filled with potential death traps such as strainers, sweepers, hydraulics (a.k.a. holes), pillows, undercut rocks and sieves, whitewater is simply too unpredictable to "read" properly every time. Don't do it.
What About "Expert" Whitewater Kayakers?
We live in a time when people do something 12 times, declare themselves "experts" and start giving seminars or doing TV shows. There are a few, but extremely few, true experts in this entire world.
My files are chock full of reports of "lucky up-till-now" whitewater kayakers who mistook luck for expertise until one day their luck ran out as water filled their lungs while they were hopelessly stuck under a submerged tree. Or they were caught in a hydraulic that wouldn't let them out until it drained the last measure of life from their body. Or they ended up submerged with their kayak vertically pinned under a waterfall. Or some other equally horrific, fatal whitewater event.
Whitewater Kayaking Deaths
August 7th, 2011: An Oregon man—28-year-old Allen Michael Satcher of Portland—known as an expert kayaker, died while paddling "Waterfall Alley" in the Stanislaus National Forest. Satcher was kayaking with several other people on Cherry Creek when the group encountered a whirlpool.
According to several witnesses, Satcher's kayak started spinning uncontrollably. He then jumped out and tried to grab ropes tossed out by others but he couldn't reach them, and was slowly sucked into the whirlpool which later ejected his body. A member of the group performed CPR on him but could not revive him.
September 28, 2011: Not long after, Tammy Paczewski was riding whitewater on a paid expedition through what turned out to be the aptly named Pillow Rock Rapids, about three miles below the Summersville Dam in West Virginia. Hitting a particularly rough stretch, Paczewksi was tossed from the boat, floated about 70 yards downstream, and became fatally pinned under the water by a rock.
Perhaps this is most telling: Between 1975 and 1995, no more than five expert kayakers died each year. However, since 1995, according to stats on this kept by the American Whitewater Association, as they began pushing the envelope by testing their skills in more challenging whitewater, as many as 15 expert kayakers have died each year. In many cases, the deaths occurred in waters the expert "knew"...waters they'd kayaked previously multiple times and claimed they could "read" easily. Guess not.
October 1st, 2012: The search for 19-year-old expert kayaker Peter Thompson has been called off; he is presumed dead. Thompson had kayaked throughout the world, won numerous awards, and had several corporate sponsors when he decided to have a friend videotape a run over a waterfall on the Cheakamus River in British Columbia, Canada. He had kayaked the Cheakamus multiple times and felt he "knew" it thoroughly. He was mistaken.
"He went down into the whitewater and never came up," RCMP Captain, Sgt. Rob Knapton, said. "We don't know for sure, but we think his body is somewhere under the falls."
I'm sure someone will e-mail me, "Shame on you, he died doing what he loved." But I'll stick to my belief it was a preventable tragedy. There's a lot more to this life than running a rapid in a kayak, and Peter had most of it ahead of him.
I frequently receive mail from kayaking experts, whitewater kayak instructors, and owners of kayak rentals (located near whitewater) who attempt to dissuade me from dissing whitewater kayaking in this article. My goal has nothing to do with either supporting or destroying their sport or their business and I'm not out to diss anything or anyone. I'm simply providing the truth and allowing the reader to make their choice whether to pursue this sport based on the full knowledge of things they'll never hear from someone with a conflict of interest.
Don't worry, whitewater lovers, knowing something is potentially deadly barely slows most folks down. People have full knowledge that others die in car wrecks every day. Yet they still purchase vehicles and drive like maniacs.
If you do whitewater kayaking, just be sure you have sufficient knowledge and be as safe as possible, okay?
7. Be Careful Kayaking on Large Bodies of Water
I kayak on lakes that are extremely long—about 30 to 40 miles—but narrow enough that 15 minutes of paddling from the center in either direction puts me solidly on shore. But if you are kayaking on any large, open body of water or in a bay or cove attached to one, beware. Sadly, my files have far too many "washed out to sea and never seen again" incidents.
The biggest risk is kayakers who launch in relatively calm waters in a cove or bay just prior to a storm arriving, and get blown into deep water and conditions they're not prepared for.
January 22, 2011: Wes Powe and Jerry Knight, both from Lakeland, FL, decided to kayak in Tampa Bay in spite of knowing a small craft advisory was in effect. They discussed the advisory and concluded they'd be fine as long as they stayed very close to shore. Their conclusion was incorrect.
Shortly after launching, the storm arrived. To their great surprise, they were sucked out into the bay at least a mile from shore. They resisted continuously but the wind and waves were too strong. Two hours later, in worsening conditions, they separated, with the exhausted Powe lashing himself to a buoy and Knight continuing on in an attempt to get help for Powe. Clearly, their kayaking adventure was not going well.
Powe was soon observed and rescued. An all-out search was then mounted for Knight. Much later Knight's empty kayak was discovered on Beer Can Island followed by his lifeless body floating in Tampa Bay. Because water temperatures were in the upper 50s and the body was still wearing a life vest, the cause of death was suspected to be hypothermia.
8. Always Wear a Life Jacket
It may not look very stylish or cool, but life jackets got their name for a reason—they are meant to save your life should an incident occur. They prevent most drowning situations and exponentially reduce your chances of dying.
Accidents happen in seconds or fractions of seconds, and when they do, you'll go from happily padding to fighting for your life. You'll have no time or hands to spare fiddling with straps and buckles. It's worth repeating: There's simply zero time to put on that life vest you keep "handy." So wear the dang thing!
Patrick's Law: Inspired by a Preventable Tragic Accident
August 12th, 2011: It wasn't the first time Patrick Luca—a 21-year veteran of the New York Police Department—took his son Caden kayaking; unfortunately, it was the last. The 41-year-old father died saving his son's life after capsizing in Smithtown Bay.
Miraculously, 5-year-old Caden was spotted nearly a mile from shore floating alone in his life jacket by a boater and rescued. The father's body was discovered the next day. He had not been wearing a life jacket, the one thing that could have avoided such a sad ending to this story.
Here is a sad recounting of the event from Luca's wife, Stephanie:
Caden kept saying, 'Daddy was hitting me in the face' and we think he just kept picking up his head, saying 'stay up, stay up, stay up'. Caden had on an emergency whistle and safety light and Patrick said, 'Just blow that whistle somebody is going to find you.' Then he said, 'Daddy is going to go under the water and he's not going to come back up.' He said he was going to go to heaven.
Now Stephanie's mother is pushing for "Patrick's Law," which would require anyone on watercraft under 21 feet in length to wear a life jacket at all times.
9. Don't Kayak in High Winds
On April 1st, 2012, Christopher Gromley launched his kayak into Rock Lake in Spokane Washington. With an advisory in effect warning of sustained 25–30 mph winds and gusts of up to 50 mph, the trip was as ill-advised for him as it was for the six other kayakers who had signed up.
Organized by the Spokane Parks Department and Gonzaga University where Gromley was a student, it was a predictable disaster for anyone with knowledge of kayaking in wind and cold water.
Thirty minutes into the event, three of the kayaks capsized, including Gromley's. Unlike at least one of the others fighting for survival in the 40˚F water, Gromley wore no wetsuit. Within seconds he was unable to swim. Paralyzed by the frigid water, Gromley soon drowned.
10. Watch Out for Docks, Tugboats, Etc.
On October 23rd, 2011, 55-year-old Thomas Gregoire's kayak overturned near San Francisco's Pier 80 due to getting too close to a tugboat that was re-positioning a barge. Caught in the wash, he fell from his kayak into the water. The search for his body was eventually called off and there have been no updates, so I believe he's still officially listed as missing, presumed dead.
My own sole experience to date with accidentally flipping my kayak occurred late last fall, when I approached a stationary dock at a local park faster than was apparently safe. The front point of the boat hit the dock, causing the kayak to flip, and I found myself submerged upside down and disoriented. My life vest righted me and luckily popped me up near the dock rather than under it.
More Mistakes to Avoid While Kayaking
- 31% of boating fatalities are alcohol-related. Mixing a good dose of spirited drink with kayaking rapids and the phrase "I'll have mine on the rocks" may end up giving the phrase a whole new meaning.
- Wearing dark clothing on your even darker kayak is a big no. You'll be hard to spot, making it more likely a motorized boat will run you over and less likely you'll be found afterward.
- Goofing off! Crashing your kayak into someone else's just for fun can roll one or both boats and sometimes result in death. Use common sense.
So How Safe Is Kayaking, Statistically?
Do you copy? This is Kayak One. Do you copy, over?
I've got an emergency situation.
I'm in a kayak about 30 kilometres from Milford Sound.
I need a rescue.
My kayak's sinking.
Fell off into the sea and I'm going down.
That was the last transmission from Andrew McAuley, a man who quit a cushy job in IT to pursue a 1,600-kilometer attempted crossing of the Tasman Sea, one of the most brutal stretches of ocean in the world. During the adventure, which lasted from early January through early February of 2007, he encountered gale-force storms, great white sharks, and 12-foot waves. He capsized several times and endured body sores from living and sleeping in a cockpit so tight it permitted zero body movement...well, I guess everyone has their own idea of fun.
It's believed a rogue wave got him about 30 miles short of landing in New Zealand. The kayak was found in a capsized state but Andrew's body was never recovered. Officially he's missing, presumed drowned.
As long as you don't do anything as crazy as Andrew did and you avoid the most common mistakes noted above, your chances of surviving a paddle are quite good. When deaths each year per hours spent on an activity are calculated, scuba diving, skydiving, lion taming, and rock climbing are statistically more dangerous than whitewater kayaking. In fact, driving your car is statistically about four times more dangerous. And calm-water kayaking is even safer than that, not much more dangerous than bicycling.
But how useful is knowing that kayaking is relatively safe if, due directly to your lack of knowledge, you blindly go out and put yourself in a potentially deadly situation? And that, friend, is the reason I took the time to make this article for you.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 MagicMan007
Any Comments on Kayak Safety?
Rick Phelps on August 08, 2020:
I live close to five of the "best " kayak/canoe rivers in Tennessee Beginners level.mostly. I am a retired WW canoe Instructor with close to 20 yrs experience and training and trained many solo and tandem paddlers.
I see very many new kayakers around here because of the sccess and " mild ' water.
A teen girl out solo with her parents in yaks on a class I Duck River encountered a downed tree below a low head dam. She was ahead and drowned under the tree as her parents fought to rescue her. She had taken a path around the old dam into the tree.. The current increased below the dam, of course. With her limited skills; under she went. None had any training or had been on the river there before. The tree was a recent strainer. No other boaters were near.
I have several friends with limited river experience and when i try to tell them to get some training, they ignore me; get it on the river !!
We have a very strong state wide river conservation; recreational river paddler group. TSRA is now over 50 yrs old and has offered classes during almost all that time, Mostly in the Nashville area.
Tennessee has many WW rivers and streams, as you probably know. Premier as the Obed system , Hiwassee, Nolichukcy and Nantahala. These are II to IV. The Benner/ Lantz guide is a good reference.
The awful examples and caveats you include in your great article should be required and sold with every canoe/ kayak sold. As should a basic training class.
I also agree that lakes have their share of dangers. Self rescue in a yak is problematic and few can. These lakes draw many neophytes as well. Lots of power boats there. Wind, weather, waves !
Again, your article is extremely well done and I will, at risk of pissing some off, distribute it. Thanks again !
TommyT on July 07, 2020:
Whoever wrote this article has very little knowledge about paddling and no knowledge about white water " the full range" paddling and skills available to diligent individuls who wish to invest the time and energy to become proficient. 50 year paddler, including Class 4 water. Get some good info!!
Audrey Sheck on July 01, 2020:
I was paddling the Hillsborough River in Florida. The expert guide from Canoe Escape had reminded me to take the larger of two paths.
I came across a big clump of tree branches in the river, and didn't have time to look right and left. I grabbed the tree branch on the left and pulled my kayak closer. Then I glanced all around me. To my left, about 8 feet away, almost surreal, was a half-submerged alligator in the muddy river bank, with his eye on me, but not moving. It almost looked like in a cartoon, shinning in the sunshine! Looking to my right, was a big path, so I took seconds to gently guide my kayak to the other side without putting my paddle on the left side of the kayak.
On another trip, also on the Hillsborough River, a couple was paddling up much further. All of a sudden the woman looked to her left, screamed and threw her hands in the air.! I didn't know what happened., but I found out when I paddled up to the same spot. I stopped for a moment or two, a growl or a motor was close. Looked around, and didn't see anything, but quickly paddled off. The couple and I stopped at the next park/stop and conversed about that strange sound. I took out my phone and looked up about "alligator's growling" - yep! The male alligator growls, alright, and it growled right by my kayak!
So, even though I do enjoy the excitement of new places and the comfort of my kayak, I remind myself of the many dangers that lurk in the lovely, inviting beach/river/creek/bayou and mangroves.
Jed Kramer on May 25, 2020:
My near death experience today led me to this page. I don't exaggerate, and I don't get shaken up easily. My life vest was a contributing factor.
I have a question that summarizes my situation. If my river kayak gets pinned sideways against a fallen tree (with numerous sticks and branches that accumulate on it) ... and the class II / III rapids instantly roll my kayak and send me under the water ... should I 1) try to pull myself 'up current' onto the debris? or 2) push myself deeper into the river and hope to be kicked out the back side of the debris?
I was paddling a new section of the Clinton River in SE Michigan. The river changes drastically depending on recent rainfall ... lots of tributaries and tight turns. My wife & I heard that the section we usually run was impassible in a few spots due to high, fast water and downed trees. Other paddlers suggested a different part of the river they had just finished. We gathered as much intel from them as we could, then set out ... knowing there was a dam near the end of the run where we would pull out and portage. Just before putting in, another kayaker mentioned the river splits just before the dam, and that taking the branch to the right allows you to avoid the dam and continue paddling.
My wife and I had a great experience on our class II / III paddle, and were nearing the end of our run when I saw a lot of debris in the center of the river where the river was split. At the moment I was undecided ... left which looked to be a bit slower and would require a portage around the dam, or right which looked a bit faster and could avoid the portage. Due to the speed of the river my wife and I didn't have time to sort it out on the spot. She was on my left. The current took her left while I was unable to fight the rightward current. We were separated.
Knowing we couldn't get back to each other, I figured we'd meed up on the other side of the dam. The right branch was narrow (maybe 15ft wide) and running FAST! There were low hanging small branches obscuring my vision down stream. Passing under a leafy branch I saw a log jam 20ft ahead. There was no way around it, and no way to get to shore quickly enough. I aimed at a lower part of the jam, and leaned back to try to beach my kayak as far up it as possible to prevent my kayak from being rotated perpendicular to the current. Success! I was also able to grab a stick to my right to help stabilize myself. Now, what to do? I ran though several scenarios, but none of them seemed like a safe enough departure from my kayak.
Then, in a split-second, my kayak rotated 90deg, and was flipped as the current forced it partially under the log jam. I pushed out of it only to have the current pin me against the underside of the log. I could see the light surface of the water just inches above my face. I struggled to pull myself up the 'up stream' side of the log to get to the surface. After 10sec or so of struggling, I made NO progress. My vest seemed to be stuck to the log and the current was too strong. I had no idea whether pushing myself deeper in the river would kick me out down stream, or if I would be lodged deeper in the debris. I was convinced that I was likely going to die there. Having made no progress on the 'up stream' side, I gambled. The current rushed me past the initial log, but I was again caught on the next one. I could see the lighter surface of the water less than a foot above my head between the two logs. I can't remember what I was able to grab, but I pulled myself up just high enough to get a breath. But, my vest was again caught on the second log. Knowing how close to death I was, I pulled with all of my strength. Something on my vest tore, and the current was now pressing my chest against the log, with my head above the surface of the water, and my legs being pulled down stream under the log. I inched myself upward until I was stable, caught my breath, then threw a leg up and over the log.
My kayak was barely visible, and couldn't be safely retrieved. So, I balanced and leapt to shore. The forest was dense, but I knew I wasn't far from our take out spot. I bushwhacked my way through the forest, keeping the river in sight for direction. It was only about 1/3 of a mile before hitting the shore of the main 'rejoined' river. My wife had just finished her portage around the dam. I called out to her, and she paddled by me to our take out spot. The river was still fast there, but only thigh to chest deep. I crossed the river to the park where she stood ... wondering where my kayak was.
What I learned: Get MORE intel on 'short cuts' before taking them. If 'short cuts' were safe, they wouldn't be 'short cuts'. They'd be "the way". If visibility is obscured, get to shore! Lack of visibility significantly elevates risk! Even so, I would paddle the same river again tomorrow and continue to wear my life jacket. But, I will NOT take the 'short cut' around the dam.
But, what advice should be followed in the scenario where a kayak capsizes perpendicular to the current on a log jam? Do what I did? Try to climb/claw up the upstream side of the jam? If that isn't possible, push yourself deeper into the water to escape the logjam on the underside of it?
M.Vassilatos on April 23, 2020:
I have a real passion for kayaking. I own four kayaks. I was once kayaking on the sea, in Maine, in early season (May) wearing a wet suit, a top dry-suit and a life jacket. I was very surprised to encounter a kayaker wearing nothing but a tee shirt, no wetsuit, no drysuit and no life jacket. Such a behaviour is totally irresponsible and suicidal.
scott Durrette on September 20, 2019:
DO not go Kyakaing
David on September 17, 2019:
Great article! Im just getting into Kayak fishing on a 13' sit on top pedal drive. Have not been in it once without my life vest. I actually bought the vest before my kayak came in. My first kayak gear purchase. I actually had planned to fish near a dam on a lake but being new to this I never thought about the undertow! Thanks for that story. Ill keep my distance from it.
You may want to add some cautions about anchoring too. Ive read some horror stories about guys trying to anchor in moving water and even on lakes and being taken off thier kayak by a wave that basically yanked it under on anchor. A good trolley and a fast disconnect on your anchor line is a must have if your gonna anchor and just dont do it in moving water. Period.
Laura on August 28, 2019:
Thank you for writing this! I decided to get into kayaking this summer. Even bought boats for my teenage boys to join me. I was researching safety and trying to prepare myself when I read about a secret service agent (who was super fit) drowning in the Chesapeake. No life jacket. I hit upon your article and it has been eye opening. I did not realize how easily it can go bad, even in the best of weather, even with a life jacket.
You are making an impact on us. Thank you.
Nikki on August 04, 2019:
We really enjoyed your article. We did a small narrow creek the other day with lots of downed trees. So scary! We had no idea what we were getting into and luckily only ended up with bruises. I loved your article and the information and your satire with it. Thank you for your insight!
Dean on June 19, 2019:
This would be great information if it weren't presented in such a sarcastic and, at times, sadistic manner. Please develop some sensitivity--I doubt any of these people wanted to die.
Katelyn Kimble on June 14, 2019:
Wow, I am not big into kayaking. Just reading this to get some ideas for a safety posting at my work regarding the topic. But I absolutely loved this! You're a great writer. I would buy all of your books!
Lara on June 02, 2019:
Personally I am super grateful you wrote this article. My husband and I have been kayaking for a few years now - first on lakes then up to an easy river. The easy river has two small sections of class two that w’ve done many times now and felt we could then be ready for a small step up. We tried the “step up” today. We did our research and all the writing on the river we did said it was class 1 and 2. We had life vests on too. We WERE NOT expecting the dozens of trees downed from a heavy rainfall this winter - in a rapid, I was sucked right toward a downed tree, had ZERO control of my boat,
Hit the tree and probably would have been decapitated if i hadn’t ducked, my kayak flipped, I went under, took effort to get back to air, was able to grab my kayak AFTER it, and the tree hit My head, I luckily was able to hang on to the now upside down kayak through the rest of the rapid, until my upside down kayak started to sink. I made it to a calmer spot, got to shore, had lost my shoes and my paddle and thanked God it wasn’t worse. That experience terrified me, and led me to this article. I will now 1/ not even attempt a river with debris because i don’t know how to maneuver around those and don’t have the strength, and 2/ will invest in a helmet and 3/ will stick to class 1 forever more. Thanks for the warnings I think too many of us assume we’re “safe” in a boat, or assume we can just go around Trees. I had no idea until today how strongly current can pull you toward a tree and I am thankful to be alive and writing this comment.
MagicMan007 (author) on May 03, 2019:
Thank you Sigrid!
Josh on January 25, 2019:
A friend and I kayaked Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis a couple summers ago. It's relatively small creek about 22 miles long from Lake Minnetonka west of Minneapolis that hits the Mississippi River. We went after some good rain and the flow was near but not above the no go limit. I came to a tree that had fallen across the creek that was only about the size of your forearm and the plan was to just ease up to it and maybe push it under water a bit and somehow get my kayak over it. Weeeellll.......it probably took about 5 seconds for it to take me completely under neither the stupid thing and thankfully spit me out the other side. That hungry bastard swallowed my friend just as quick. The current had been taking us at a nice slow pace until then. Definitely a show of how deceiving current can be. It was funny at the time, but reading these puts a little perspective on how easily someone can get pinned on who knows whats under the surface. I can neither confirm nor deny the effects of alcohol on the situation...Thanks for the articles. Stay safe out there. Cheers!
Anonymous on October 20, 2018:
Drysuit: I really wish you had mentioned a drysuit in addition to the lifejacket, which is an absolute muts, of course.
This article missed one of the most obvious solutions - proper clothing for water.
But a drysuit when the water temperature gets below 50 degrees is also a must, unless you can get to the shore in moments.
For those with limited finances, try Mythic Gear, which sells the least expensive drysuits. Otherwise, aim for Kokatat or NRS.
If you can't afford a drysuit, please stay off the wayer when the water gets cold.
- From a whitewater kayaker who kayaks when the air temperature is 33 degrees, and who stays safe in his drysuit.
dblacksmith from Navi Mumbai on July 12, 2018:
Thank you for such a wonderful piece of warning. Hopefully every buddying Kayaker reads it, and then takes adequate care before and during Kayak trips.
Ive gone through most of what you have described, and thankfully came out alive from each such incident.
Your article has just made me more alert about the basics, with regard to river reading, paddling, rolls, team work, safety, complacency, stupidity and bad luck
Thank you for being so candid. It takes just 2 minutes to die in the river.
I have an observation though. Most people dont paddle hard enough. Ive seen many paddling videos/rafting videos, where Ive seen rafts topple because hardly anyone was paddling.
Perhaps you should do another article on other aspects which cause people to get trapped into such unfortunate situations. If you can include the physics part, it would serve as a great learning for budding kayakers like me.
We cannot give up Kayaking, But we can surely learn from the mistakes of others. Ive read hundreds of articles, but your article is one of the best to shake a person out of ones complacency.
Thank you again! best wishes. Keep up the good work..
Nikky Rhoades on July 11, 2018:
I thought this was great and informative! I am a very beginner. I kayaked for the pretty much 1st time 3 days ago. I loved it!! My sister & I will be purchasing some kayaks! I wanted to do some resurch on my new found hobbie for us and thats how I came across this article! 1st off thank you! You really tought us great info on what to not do, and what to be aware of! I am most of all thankful because I learned I already broke a few rules! My sister and I enjoyed bumping into each other while one of us (ME) WAS NOT WEARING A LIFE JACKET!! I'm a bit over weight and the thought of me tipping not only me but my little sister over and swim fighting for mine/our lives I probably wouldn't have it in me! So I cant thank you enough. My 11 yr old son play bumped into me as well in the middle of a lake. Thanks God motorized boats are not allowed. Saftey 1st! Also I thought the "on purpose" reverse physiology was really cool! I like how you captured your audience! The jerks telling you off obviously didn't get it! Lol but I did! I will always practice safety due to this article. I also learned about temperatures and so much more! You may have just saved mine & my familys life with this wonderful article! Again Thank you! Wishes for many blessings your way!!
Smartwoman91258 on April 28, 2018:
Portland, Maine, not Portland, Oregon
Ash Powell on April 05, 2018:
This article is bullshit. Way to freak people out and be a negative sarcastic dick. youre probly still a virgin because of your fear of contracting clamydia. live s little Loser.
Kyle Lewis on October 19, 2017:
You clearly know very little about kayaking, especially as it pertains to whitewater. Ridiculous title for the article. Way to add value to society.
Susan Sears on May 25, 2017:
Very well written article. I enjoy kayaking but always wear my lifejacket and attempt to be as wise as possible on the water. It only takes one mistake though to cost your life.
MagicMan007 (author) on March 25, 2017:
Very sorry about your son and apologize for anything that's incorrect. As stated, these accounts were taken from news stories published by (typically local) news organizations and I assume they get their facts straight prior to publishing. I clearly state if I'm theorizing at any point. If the basic story has inaccuracies they would be the fault of the original reporter. If anyone involved in these tragedies can point me to an article or other published news account or to an authority figure who was involved (a police report or police officer who investigated the incident) that contradicts the basic facts printed in the article I'll be happy to make corrections.
As far as sensationalizing, seeking publicity and other things etc. I suppose I'm as guilty of those things as any other author. However, having nearly died myself due to a lack of knowledge, my primary motive was to make people aware of some of the dangers of the sport. One preventable death is one too many in my opinion.
As far being an expert kayaker I I never claimed to be one, I'm not even close. But I'm not sure why you have to be an expert to point out that cold water can harm a person, to caution people to beware, high winds have blown people into risky situations, etc. Only an expert football player can write about football? If that's the case we need to erase 98% of all the articles and books written in history. I don't follow the logic there.
tom fajman on December 03, 2016:
You have made reference to my sons death (Mitch Fajman). Your account is grossly riddled with errors. You have the wrong, date, wrong location, and are inaccurate in describing the efforts of the Coast Guard when you relate the rescue of the two other Kayakers, and the subsequent search and recovery of my son. I would question your credibility since you obviously do not research your topics thoroughly before posting.
Sean McNierney on April 17, 2016:
I think all of this information helps everyone to be aware and take a proactive approach to any high risk sport. I almost drown in 50 degree weather 25 years ago goofing around on a canoe without flotation device. I am an avid kayaker but my respect for water runs very high. Thank you for a great article.
James on May 06, 2015:
A few months ago I went on a solo expedition in the Andaman sea for 4 days, covering over 60 kms and camping on different islands. It was actually my first time ever in a sea kayak but I tried to read as much as I could and prepare. On the longest stretch of open water kayaking (7 hours straight) I met a couple of light rain storms that made the sea very very choppy and I feared capsizing for every moment of it. Needless to say I made it safely with my kayak half filled with water. But after watching Andrew McAuley's documentary and how he died in the end, this hit right home and now I realize how extremely lucky and stupid I was being a complete beginner and going on such an expedition alone without proper training, a wetsuit, a proper gps device (I used only a map+compass), and at least some type of radio or sat phone.
Michelle on May 01, 2015:
This is an amazingly accurate and informative lens. I'd like to mention another precautionary experience. A couple of years ago while going out to the tidal races in the Long Island Sound, I was nudged into a metal buoy by another kayaker. Not wanting to slam my fiberglass kayak nose first into the buoy, I rolled it. I was very familiar with wet exits but I had a new neoprene seal sprayskirt and couldn't get the damn thing off. I was under water but kept calm and made myself use every ounce of strength and tried again and got it off - not one more second to spare! Word of wisdom, if you purchase a new neoprene sprayskirt, soak it in preferably salt water, stretch it and pull it over your kayak cockpit and leave it to stretch out there. Even re-wetting it periodically. Then, test it before you end up needing to use it!!!
WW on April 03, 2015:
Yeah, this is a ridiculous article.
You have no business on moving water unless you can roll your boat and you have no business in a boat at all unless you have mastered the wet exit.
If you are doing things like rolling your boat by hitting a dock, you probably aren't any sort of expert and probably shouldn't offer advice.
Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on June 30, 2014:
Any water sport or water activity has a certain element of danger and people should always learn before they leap into something new. As you point out, even with experience the unexpected, unprepared for eventuality can still happen. Thank you for sharing the many stories here. Perhaps it will help some of us to think carefully and prepare, before we just jump in for the ride.
Dawn from Maryland, USA on June 27, 2014:
My kids took me kayaking for my first time, in Florida, in a tiny canal or river complete with baby 'gators. I was both terrified and thrilled. I just now bought my own kayak so I'm thrilled to stumble upon this lens. thank you. In fact, I like it so much, I'm thinking how to include it in my blog post Monday. Awesome (and scary) information here.
Whitewaterguy on March 10, 2014:
I am an avid Whitewater kayaker. I see and understand what you have written. I know there are freak accidents that happen all the time but almost all of these deaths you spoke of could have and should have been prevented. I run Class V rivers and creeks and love it. I have 5 children that i am encouraging to take up the sport too. I preach safety to them and everyone I boat with. I always weigh the risk to reward factor when scouting a drop or rapid. My kids are always the first thought. I have walked around many rapids just thinking of them. Life is short enough. so I say lets live life to its fullest potential and live to talk about it and share my experience with others. I don't care how good of a swimmer someone clame to be. They should always have a PFD on while in a kayak of any type and size. I wear a drysuit till the water is in the 60's. The water will freeze you to the point that you can't swim. The initial shock of the cold takes your breath away. Trust me I have swam in 35 deg rivers with chunks of ice floating around me. Its brutally cold. even with a drysuit on. Always prepare for the worst case scenario and hope for the best case. Be prepared!!!!
rihannsu on February 09, 2014:
The day I learned how to kayak there was a storm moving through the Caribbean. Luckily, we were in tandem kayaks and my skipper was experienced. We tried our absolute hardest to row in the wind, but as soon as we would reach the rest of the group, the wind would push us away from them.
I'm really shocked I didn't pull something in both of my shoulders. Kayaking should be a breeze after that.
MagicMan007 (author) on January 29, 2014:
@usa123: I say exactly that in the article- that statistically kayaking is relatively safe, that I'm not trying to scare anyone away from a great sport and you'd have seen that had you taken time to read it.
Regardless of how safe it is statistically, there are kayaking deaths weekly almost year round.. Nearly every case listed would have been preventable had the people involved had any clue that what they were doing had hidden hazards. They simply didn't know because they went and bought a kayak and used it without training. No one told them that there are dangers to avoid and a small percentage encountered those dangers and died..
I get many thousands of readers every year and I'd like to think I've saved a life or two. Or would you rather not make people aware and let children and adults die needlessly? This article has been up for years now and rescue workers have congratulated me for doing it. You're the only person who has objected except for pro rental whitewater company owners.and others who obviously care only about profit, not people's lives..
I'm guessing you have an agenda also.
God bless you. May you stay safe and live long. If you kayak in serious whitewater much that may not be the case.regardless of your knowledge or skill. Just a fact.
usa123 on January 29, 2014:
Are you from Ohio or something? Statistically, more people die on their way to the put in for on whitewater rivers than on them. Passenger vehicle fatality rates range around 15-20 per 100,000 participants while Whitewater paddling deaths hover around 2.5 per 100,000 participants. A fat inexperienced rec boater on class I is in more danger than a praticed intermediate whitewater kayaker on class III. Live in your own box if you want but don't scare others out of what has been a rewarding and life changing opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people.
anonymous on September 09, 2013:
Kayak is inherently flawed in its design. and is the worst ever vessel invented..It is too unstable and traps the user when capsizing,,giving him only split seconds to escape from underwater.One of my son's friends who was a novice kayaker recently perished while kayaking in supposedly safe waters in Europe.I did not know anything about kayaking until this happened,but after doing extensive research into it following his death, I realized what a deadly trap it is. It should be banned,but there are too many fools out there who think it's a lot of fun and choose to take their chances.
anonymous on July 25, 2013:
I recently flipped my kayak by getting pushed into some fallen trees which created a strong currant and my vehicle instantly filled with water. Somehow I got out and was pushed toward some others branches again in the water. The grace of God allowed me to somehow jump up on that branch, where I sat for 2 hours waiting for 911. The water force around me sang songs of death, so I just prayed, and waited, watching those branches which I could have been under. Note the water was not very forceful that day, it was simply an accident. BEWARE.
Joan Haines on June 22, 2013:
Holy cautionary tales! My inflatable kayak will be delivered shortly. Along with it, I ordered a life vest, the whistle you recommend, a dry bag, a throw bag, and a book for beginner kayakers that is supposed to include a big chapter on safety. I plan to go on calm waters, and also have a guide book about those. I'm not a danger seeker. Your warnings are well heeded. (I'll be looking at swans and geese with greater respect now.)
anonymous on May 23, 2013:
Too painful and too soon.
geosum on May 03, 2013:
I lived on Marsh Creek in Gettysburg PA for a number of years. In the spring the Kayakers would go by when the water was highest. Not for me.
anonymous on August 17, 2012:
Don't kayak between islands when the tide is going out or coming in. It's too easy to get caught in the current and not be able to kayak to safety.
Staar_C on August 02, 2012:
Great post! Very sobering for sure! So sad that more people don't respect the laws of nature, there are so many variables but just a little caution, common sense and preparation and your set for a good time.
anonymous on June 13, 2012:
i almost died while kayaking but it was my ignorance that was the cause. i was in the ocean and the lifegaurd warned me not to go to far or to the other side of the rocks where there was an abandoned beach because the waves were too big. the water looked so beautifuly turquoise and the waves looked so fun i coudnt resist. so i headed there and i didn't intend to go far and the next thing I knew a giant wave dragged me to the shore and i was surfing them fine but when i reached the shoreline the waves curled over and i was thrown onto the rocks/sand with an immense force the kayak landing on top of me. every time i tried to get up another wave would hit me and the kayak hit my head.at this moment all i could hear was the waves and i was sure that i was going to die. i was undearneayth it and i had a split second before another wave would come and god knows what would happen if this wavehit me. i pushed up with all my strength the heavy kayak and ran to the shore just before a wave hit the kayak. i was at an abandoned beach, my top was thrown off and my leg was bleeding immensely. adrenaline was pumping through my viens and i felt was numb. after standing there dumbly for 5 minutes i regained my sences and tried found the paddle . then the lifegaurd came to get me after the waves had calmed down. i was sacred to ride the waves but he told me to keep paddling forward so the wave coudnt throw me off. i did it and i paddled with great eneergy until i got into the warm waters. when i reached shore he yelled at me and told me to never return to the beach again and i walked to my chalet stnubmly. i felt nothging. it was a lifechanging experience. when my mom asked me my i looked so dishelved and my i was bleeding i told her i tripped so i woudntworry her. the realization hit me after and i started freaking out. to this day i rmeber every detail of that incident and every time i see a wave i get anxxiety. i never told anyone excpet for this post.
June Campbell from North Vancouver, BC, Canada on March 30, 2012:
i do sea kayaking around Vancouver, Canada. It's a wonderful sport but you are so correct. One has to be careful. There are hazards out there and you need to be aware of them
anonymous on March 22, 2012:
Good lens! I think all safety measures are worth while implementing and none is one too many! Always be on the safe side, but then, the best safety measure is to use the proper kayak for the tipe of water youÂ´re navigating, besides including floaters inside (empty pvc bottles or such). Thanks for sharing!
flycatcherrr on December 12, 2011:
I live on the east coast where sea kayaking has gotten very popular, and cringe to see some obviously inexperienced people setting out on the wrong tide - very scary indeed.
Maria-Zuzeena on October 28, 2011:
How about take your precautions, breath deeply ...and relax and enjoy! If you are only thinking of what could go wrong how can you enjoy your trip? I loved the title you used for your lense! very witty!
Writingmystory1 on October 26, 2011:
I don't think you can ever be too cautious when it comes to kayaking or other water sports. I hope this article will help to save someone's life.