Updated: Feb 10, 2022
Always Wear Your PFD (Lifejacket)
Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean, Gideon Kane
April 2nd, 2020 - Shady Side, Chesapeake Bay, MD
Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and her 8-year-old son, Gideon
Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and her 8-year-old son, Gideon, drowned when their canoe capsized in 51F water on Chesapeake Bay several miles south of Annapolis, MD. According to family members and authorities, McKean and her son were playing kickball behind her mother's house in Shady Side, MD when the ball went into the water and they launched a canoe to try and retrieve it.
This tragedy involved wind pushing their canoe out of a relatively quiet, wind-shadowed cove and into rougher water where they were blown far offshore. According to news reports, a bystander who saw them in trouble called 911, but first-responders apparently didn't have a boat with which to rescue them and they drifted out of sight.
By the time a water rescue was launched, they had capsized. When their canoe capsized, the cold water would have resulted in immediate swimming failure due to maximum-intensity cold shock, and without PFDs they would have quickly drowned. This combination of circumstances is a common cause of paddlesports fatalities.
The Wind-Shadow Trap
This tragedy is a perfect example of paddlers getting caught in a wind-shadow trap. To understand how it happened, you have to consider the location - a small, tree-lined cove on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay.
Here’s a satellite photo of the property, which is relatively secluded and surrounded by trees.
Although the wind was blowing at 25mph, it was blocked by both the trees and houses so that there was just a small breeze in the back yard where they were playing. But when the ball went into the water, that breeze was enough to move it slowly away from shore.
The most obvious solution to the problem was to get into the canoe that was conveniently waiting right there at the corner of the lawn. So they ran over, hopped in, and went after the ball. Her cell phone was probably in the house. They skipped the PFDs - possibly because they never wore them when canoeing, but more likely because they were somewhere else and the situation felt rushed because the ball was drifting away. After all, they were just going a short distance in the familiar cove to retrieve the ball. All this was perfectly natural under the circumstances, and because McKean had zero awareness of the lethal nature of cold water, the risk must have seemed insignificant because cold water doesn’t look dangerous at all.
The problem arose when they lost the protection of the wind shadow, and when they did, it happened quickly. By the time they felt the increase in wind, it was already blowing their canoe out of the cove and into open water, and the farther out they got, the harder it became to paddle against it.
A canoe can be very difficult to handle in wind, particularly by a single paddler - which McKean essentially was, because her 8-year-old son wouldn’t have been much help - even if he had a paddle. In this kind of situation, you’re going to get blown off shore as soon as the force of the wind is greater than the energy you have to paddle against it.
In a wind-shadow trap, the water always looks flat calm with maybe a few small ripples along the shoreline or at the boat ramp. However, when wind leaves the land and moves out over the water it drops down to meet the water. How far away from shore that happens largely depends on the height of the trees, land, houses, buildings and other structures at the water’s edge. However, that transition can be abrupt - which is why so many paddlers are caught by surprise.
Canoes are usually paddled in one of two positions: Sitting on the seats, or kneeling on the floor. Sitting is more comfortable, but kneeling is more stable because it lowers the center of gravity and makes the canoe more difficult to capsize.
Sitting vs Kneeling in a canoe
Because they’re wide and have flat bottoms, canoes have a lot of primary stability. However, when waves approach from the side, that flat bottom tilts the canoe at an angle - a primary reason for capsizing. Three foot waves were reported offshore in the area where they capsized.
Wide and flat on the bottom with excellent primary stability
The best survival strategy in a situation like the one they encountered is to get off the seats and sit or lie down on the bottom of the canoe to lower your center of gravity as much as possible which greatly reduces the risk of capsizing. You can ride out some pretty rough weather like that.
McKean and her son were being blown southeast across the Bay, and if they had managed to stay upright, they would have reached the Eastern Shore after roughly twenty miles.
It’s highly likely that rescuers would have reached them long before that point. As it was, they capsized roughly 2.5 miles from the cove. The water temperature was 51F (10.5C). As noted throughout this website, most people will experience maximum-intensity cold shock at water temperatures between 50-60F (10 - 15.5C). Without PFDs or thermal protection, they had almost no chance of surviving.
This tragedy received a lot of press attention because in addition to the compelling nature of the story, McKean was a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Georgetown University's Global Health Initiative. She was also Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter and the daughter of former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
It’s worth pointing out that none of the news reports understood what actually happened here and mistakenly focused on “tidal current” as the reason that the canoe left the cove. While Chesapeake Bay certainly has tidal currents, what pushed them out of the cove and away from shore was wind, which continued to push them further out into the Bay until they capsized.
Major Contributing Factors
No PFD (Lifejacket)
Not Dressed For Water Temperature
Unable To Recover From Capsize
Unable to Call For Help
Unaware of Hazards
Lack of Weather Awareness
Unable To Deal With Wind and Waves