Because cold water can kill you. Not wearing thermal protection when you paddle on cold water is gambling with your life. The air temperature is irrelevant. The only thing that really matters when you fall into cold water is whether you are dressed for immersion.
Dressing for the water temperature means a lot more than simply donning a wetsuit or drysuit before you head out. It means knowing with certainty that the garments you're wearing provide enough thermal protection to keep you warm and allow you to function - physically and mentally - should you wind up in the water.
Cold water immersion is always a race against the clock, and depending on how well prepared you are, it can be a desperate race or one you can walk rather than run.
The Cold Facts
“For the record, when I say “wearing a wetsuit”, I mean a good quality, well-fitted wetsuit appropriate to the conditions one is paddling in. And that means IMMERSION. A 3mm farmer john with some polypro and an anorak when paddling the Mendocino Coast is not “wearing a wetsuit”. - Andy Taylor – Comment on the Tsunami Rangers blog.
Tsunami Rangers co-founder, Eric “No Exceptions” Soares emerging from the chilly Pacific Ocean wearing a full-thickness (7mm) wetsuit and neoprene hood.
Why we say “No Exceptions”.
A lot of people who don’t want to be bothered with dressing for the water temperature argue that you can make a lot of exceptions to this rule, and they’ve come up with all sorts of excuses and rationalizations to justify paddling unprotected on dangerously cold water:
Common Excuses for Not Following Golden Rule No. 2
“I‘m not going to wear a wetsuit or drysuit because”:
Ram Island is only a mile across the water from Peaks, but the location is exposed - to the East, South, and Southeast, there's nothing but open ocean, and neither Irena’s parents nor the girls were aware that the National Weather Service had issued a Small Craft Advisory for that afternoon.
When they attempted to paddle home, the weather had changed and the wind was blowing out of the north and gusting to 22mph. That may not sound like much on land, but out on the open water it’s another story, particularly for small human-powered boats like kayaks.
Unable to make headway against the wind, Irena and Carissa were blown out to sea and into much rougher conditions where, dressed only in shorts and light shirts, they capsized in brutally cold 48F (9C) water.
When the girls failed to return home on schedule, Irena’s parents could look out the window and see much rougher conditions had become - and that there were no kayaks in sight. By then it was 2.5 hours before sunset. Heartsick with worry, they called the Coast Guard, which responded by promptly dispatching the 207-foot US Coast Guard cutter Campbell, launching a Jayhawk helicopter and Falcon jet from Air Station Cape Cod, sending out an emergency broadcast on Channel 16, and contacting their “local partners” - civilians with SAR capabilities in the Casco Bay area - setting in motion what was to become a massive search operation.
HH-60 Jayhawk Medium Range Helicopter – US Coast Guard
As any pilot can attest, it's not easy to spot small objects from the air. At best, a person wearing a PFD will have only their head and upper shoulders exposed - not an easy target, even when the light is favorable and the water flat calm. The same goes for twelve foot blue-green kayaks.
When the sun set at 8;00 p.m., searchers were left with roughly 90 minutes of gradually diminishing twilight before darkness fell. Nevertheless, by 8:30 p.m., both kayaks had been located, floating in the open ocean roughly seven miles South of Ram Island, and about a mile SSE of Cape Elizabeth. One kayak was upright and contained a jacket and T-shirt; the other was upside-down. Irena and Carissa were nowhere in sight.
Map of Casco Bay
Search teams on the ground had initially concentrated their efforts on Ram and nearby Cushing Island, but found no sign of the missing women. With the discovery of the kayaks, the ground search moved South to probable landing areas on Richmond Island and Cape Elizabeth. When twilight faded into night, searchers began using aerial flares for illumination.
After a grueling all-night search involving the U.S. Coast Guard, multiple local agencies, and more than 150 people, they were found by the Coast Guard at 9:00 am the following morning, floating lifeless in their PFD’s, three miles offshore and seven miles south of their original destination.
Inexpensive, reliable, waterproof cases that are available for cell phones allow you to operate the phone without removing it from the case. You can program your phone with the number of the closest Coast Guard sector.
High quality, waterproof, hand-held VHF radios can be purchased for under $150. The US Coast Guard continuously monitors emergency Channel 16 (the one you’d use on your VHF radio to call for help) as do many commercial and private boats. Most VHF radios also have an automatic weather alert feature that activates whenever an adverse weather broadcast is detected.
At twelve-and-a-half-miles long by two-and-a-half miles wide, with a surface area of 11 miles, Loch Maree is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland and the largest north of Loch Ness. The water there is very cold year-round, and area residents were quoted as saying that conditions on the lake were notoriously changeable and had been particularly poor that afternoon, with driving rain and waves that could easily overwhelm a small vessel such as a canoe.
Tollie Bay is a short distance from the village of Poolewe where Dr. Madders had lived for the last few years with Daniel’s mother, Christine Cain, and when the pair didn’t return home on time, she went down to the loch to look for them and found their overturned canoe on the shore around 4:30 p.m.
The Stornoway coastguard rescue helicopter was scrambled shortly afterwards and located the missing pair by 5:30pm. Although reports indicated that both father and son were alive when found, they were pronounced dead when they arrived at the Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway after being airlifted across The Minch to the Outer Hebrides. Christine was left with the heartbreaking task of identifying their bodies.
Nick Thompson, manager of the Loch Maree hotel, was quoted as saying "I warned off three other kayakers on Sunday – the waves were 3ft high. It was dangerous conditions, there were white caps everywhere. A lot of people just don't know the loch. It can change quickly and become very treacherous suddenly." He also noted that a father and daughter had been lucky to escape with their lives three weeks earlier when their canoe capsized. Fortunately they had been able to swim to the shore.
Although air temperatures across the Great Lakes region were reported to have increased significantly for several weeks prior to the incident, the water temperature was still a brutal 47F and the National Weather Service had issued a marine small craft advisory for the area with a prediction of winds gusting to 30 mph.
When the group was 2/3 of the way across, 4 foot waves caused one of the kayaks to fill with water and submerge, forcing the paddler out of the boat. As the other three kayakers were turning around to help him, one of them, Kevin Dammen, capsized and exited his boat. He had on a life jacket, swim trunks and a t-shirt. Although he had a wetsuit with him, he wasn’t wearing it.
At that point, Kevin reportedly directed the two kayakers who remained in their boats to help the other paddler in the water. They accomplished this by having that person hold on to the rear of one of the kayaks, which, accompanied by the other kayak, proceeded to tow him through the water the remainder of the way to the island.
There was no indication in news reports as to whether the party made any attempt to salvage and reenter either of the submerged kayaks, and no reason was given as to why Kevin wasn’t taken under tow by the second kayak.
When the two kayaks reached the island with the other kayaker in tow, one of them turned around and paddled two miles back to town where, at 5:30 p.m., he contacted the Bayfield County Communications Center via 911. According to reports, a water and shoreline search was started, and a boat was dispatched to Sand Island to retrieve the two kayakers who remained there.
After being notified of the situation, Coast Guard Station Bayfield immediately launched a 25-foot Response Boat-Small with a rescue crew on board. The Coast Guard boat found Kevin in Little Sand Bay at about 8 p.m., floating dead in the water. He was wearing his blue life jacket and had the bottom half of his wetsuit on. The boat crew pulled him out of the water and performed CPR while they transported him to shore where the Ashland Paramedics and Life Link III medical crew, along with the Red Cliff Ambulance EMTs, were waiting. Resuscitation efforts were continued, but the paramedics were unable to revive him.
Chief Petty Officer James Robertson, officer-in-charge of Station Bayfield, is quoted as saying that the boat crew didn’t see Kevin until they were relatively close, because his life jacket blended in with the color of the water.
When he didn’t return within two hours, Guan’s friend called the local police and the Coast Guard was brought in to search the area. Using helicopters, falcon jets, and rescue boats, police and Coast Guard personnel initially canvassed 1,250 square miles searching for him. The search was finally called off the next day at 9 p.m. after no sign of either Guan or his kayak could be found.
One day later, however, his kayak was discovered by Southold police officers, swamped at the high tide line in Goldsmith Inlet, and the search was resumed, again without success. His body was finally recovered two weeks later when it washed ashore on Ocean Beach in Amaganset. The Body Glove PFD was found washed ashore nearby, suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t properly fastened and came off in the water.
The kayak was found floating upside down in a small area of open water in front of his lakeside home. Millsite Lake was still mostly ice-covered, and the water temperature at the time of capsize was 32F. Mr. Tamkus, who was not wearing a sprayskirt, drowned before he was even able to exit the kayak.
Following an autopsy conducted that evening at Samaritan Medical Center in nearby Watertown, Jefferson County medical examiner Dr. Samuel A. Livingstone, ruled that he died of asphyxia due to cold-water drowning.
Mr. Tamkus was a part-time veterans benefit counselor and advocate at the Veterans Affairs Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Watertown. Millsite Lake is located in the Jefferson County town of Redwood, about 90 miles north of Syracuse, NY.
According to the information below, posted on the internet by his sister, Dickerson had a lot of assorted outdoor experience under his belt:
On the Sand River, Ontario
Omena Bay is formed by a small indentation in the shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay, which itself is a part of northern Lake Michigan. On the final evening that he went paddling, Dickerson took his dog with him in the canoe. Although there was no wind and conditions were calm, the water temperature was a brutally cold 41F (5C).
He was expected home by 7:00 p.m., and when he didn’t return on time family members went looking for him. They couldn’t find him, and at 8:15 p.m., his sister called 911 for help and Leelanau County dispatch notified Coast Guard Sector Sault Sainte Marie, which launched an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Traverse City, and dispatched a 25-foot Response Boat–Small from Station Charlevoix.
Within minutes of getting airborne, the helicopter crew located the overturned canoe and also spotted Dickerson, who appeared unresponsive, floating in the water about 100 feet away. Minutes later, Northport firemen and emergency medical technicians made the recovery, confirmed that he was unresponsive, and transported him to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His dog survived and returned home soaking wet at 9:30 p.m.
Rachel also shared a video of Dave - fully dressed for immersion in a drysuit, neo hood and gloves - rolling his kayak on Omena Bay the previous December, and told us that he had both a wetsuit and drysuit hanging in his closet – a piece of information that naturally raises the question of why in the world he wasn’t wearing any protection when he went out that night. Watch the video here.
Dickerson was a very competent paddler with a wealth of outdoor experience, and yet he left his cold water gear at home. How could that happen? What was he thinking? The sobering answer is that a person can easily make this kind of bad decision without even thinking about it.
In November, 2011, I wrote a safety article for Sea Kayaker magazine analyzing a very similar incident in which another competent and experienced paddler, someone who also knew better than to leave his wetsuit in the closet, went paddling solo on the freezing Mississippi River and came within a whisker of dying.
We have four documents on our site that relate to these seemingly inexplicable lapses in judgment, and while no one will ever really know what Dave Dickerson was thinking, I believe this information can help us to better understand his tragedy. (Click on links below.)
The Marines were all excellent swimmers, part of an elite group that had trained for two months as close-combat, physical-fitness, and water-survival instructors at the nearby Marine Corps Physical Fitness Academy. They were a tough bunch, and their group leader had taught water-survival for five years.
No one was wearing a PFD when the canoe turned over, but it was equipped with seat-cushion-type life preservers - one for every man on board. Why they capsized, and whether they attempted to right and reenter the canoe will never be known, because despite a valiant attempt to swim to safety, every single one of them drowned. The water temperature was 36 degrees (2C).