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Rule 2 / Case 6

Updated: Feb 14

Always Dress For The Water Temperature

David Arthur Dickerson April 21st, 2012 - Omena Bay, Lake Michigan

Dave Dickerson on the Sand River, Ontario, Canada

Family members said that Dave Dickerson, 43, loved being out on the water and usually paddled his canoe for an hour every evening on Omena Bay, starting around 6 p.m. From all accounts he appears to have been a lovely, kind, generous, and thoughtful man who was well-respected in his community.

According to the information below, posted on the internet by his sister, Dickerson had a lot of assorted outdoor experience under his belt:

  • “He left a good job as the buyer for the world's largest paddling retailer to live on Omena Bay, because that's where he wanted to live”.

  • “He was fueled by a passion for living. Salmon fishing in the Pacific. Ice climbing on Mount Washington. Downhill skiing black diamond slopes of Bridger Bowl in Montana. White water rafting the Galliton River in Yellowstone Park. He paddled the Gales of November in Lake Superior. His sailboat was the first on Omena Bay in spring and the last to come out”.

  • “He built his life around kayaking, canoeing, sailing, hiking, snowshoeing and climbing. He found grace in every weather. And he took it seriously, buying the best quality gear and the right clothes for the weather. He bought my daughter's first life preserver, her first sled and her first snorkel. He organized her first canoe trip, and her second and her third”.

-Rachael North

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.

MH-65 Dolphin

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.

Lessons Learned Dave Dickerson’s sister, Rachael North, contacted us and provided a number of important details which we’ve included in this article. In the aftermath of the tragedy, she also contacted the Coast Guard at Traverse City and worked with them to create a safety video to alert others about the danger of cold water. 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. 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.

We have three documents in our Cold Water Articles section that relate to this seemingly inexplicable lapse 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. One of those is Anatomy of A Bad Decision, a safety article I wrote in November, 2011 for Sea Kayaker magazine. It analyzes 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.

Major Contributing Factors

  • Not Dressed For Water Temperature

  • Unable To Recover From Capsize

  • Unable to Call For Help

  • Being Complacent / Overconfident

  • Paddling Solo


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