Updated: Apr 4, 2022
Always Dress For The Water Temperature
Kevin Dammen June 7th, 2011 Little Sand Bay, Apostle Islands Area, Lake Superior
On the afternoon of June 7th, twenty-year-old twin brothers Kevin Dammen and Kyle Dammen of Austin, Minnesota, and their friends Grant Schlicter, 21 and Travis Hawley, 19, of Winona, Minnesota launched their kayaks at Little Sand Bay on Lake Superior. They planned to paddle across two miles of open water to Little Sand Island and then return via the same route. All four were wearing PFDs (lifejackets).
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, an air, 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 lifejacket 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 lifejacket blended in with the color of the water.
Wind and Wave Shadows: There are plenty of lessons to be learned from this tragedy, but the first question that most people would ask is why in the world did these paddlers head out on a 2+ mile open-water crossing on Lake Superior with 4 foot waves and 25-30 mph winds? The answer isn't obvious unless you know what to look for. Like so many boaters before them, they fell into a well-camouflaged trap formed by a wind and wave shadow.
Wave Height: The height of wind-generated waves is determined by three things: wind speed, the distance over the water that the wind blows (called fetch), and the length of time that the wind has been blowing. As you can see in the picture below, the fetch for a NNE wind was 70+ miles - more than enough to develop those 4 foot waves that they encountered. (Click to Zoom Photos)
However, even if they were aware of the marine weather forecast, when they arrived at Sand Bay, the water didn't look rough at all. As you can see in the wind and wave shadow picture, York Island acted as a natural barrier or breakwater that blocked the 4 foot waves from reaching Sand Bay. From York Island to the route they paddled, the fetch was only 2.5 miles, and as long as they stayed in the protected area, the waves were small. When they were 2/3 of the way across, they lost the protection of York Island and conditions suddenly got much worse. The waves grew large, and the kayaks didn't have spray skirts to prevent water from periodically splashing into the cockpits. It wasn't long before the first kayak filled with water and swamped. The waves were also coming at them from the side, which less experienced paddlers find destabilizing. It's therefore no surprise that Kevin capsized while turning around to help the kayaker in the water. Once the two kayaks capsized, the lack of floatation or watertight front and rear bulkheads in the kayaks compounded the problem, guaranteeing that if a cockpit flooded, it would be very difficult or impossible to remove the water by pumping. Also, a flooded kayak sits very low in the water, and paddlers typically report that pumping is useless, because every wave dumps water into the cockpit faster than it can be removed. There's no indication that any attempt was made to dump the water out using a boat-to-boat rescue technique, but that's also very difficult to accomplish with a flooded boat in 4 foot seas.
Unprepared for Immersion: According to reports, Kevin was the only paddler with thermal protection, and he wasn't wearing his wetsuit. “Having it with you” doesn’t count. Even if the water is flat calm, it's very difficult to put on a wetsuit while you’re in the water, and it’s impossible to pull it up over your torso without removing your PFD. This is why Kevin was only able to get his wetsuit half-way on. It wasn't nearly enough to protect him long enough to be rescued. Rescues: This tragedy is another reminder that open-water rescues take time. Authorities were notified at 5:30 pm, and Kevin was found by the Coast Guard 2.5 hours later at 8:00 pm – by which point he had been in 47F water for at least 3.5 hours. People who are used to rapid EMS response times often find it difficult to understand why it took the Coast Guard hours to spot him in the water. Actually, 2.5 hours is above average. We discuss this issue in detail in our article: How Long Will It Take For Me To Be Rescued? Because the group had no communication devices, one member of the group had to paddle 2.3 miles back to Sand Cove in order to summon help - after he finished towing the swimmer 0.75 miles to Sand Island. By the time he called 911, Kevin had been in the water for at least an hour. Furthermore, search conditions were far from ideal. It's not easy to spot someone in the water under the best of circumstances, and in this case, 4 foot waves and his blue PFD (lifejacket) made the situation even more difficult. This photo from another rough water rescue illustrates the challenge faced by rescuers. (Click to expand photo)
Major Contributing Factors
Not Dressed For Water Temperature
Unable To Recover From Capsize
Unable to Call For Help
Unaware of Hazards
Being Complacent / Overconfident
Lack of Weather Awareness
Unable To Deal With Wind and Waves
Poor Group Management