Swim Test Your Gear Every Time You Go Out
A Close Call for Dan Corrigall November, 1985 - Queen Charlotte Channel, British Columbia
This is a classic case of a big, strong guy getting quickly trashed by 50F water - even though he’s wearing a 7mm farmer john with a wool sweater and a paddling jacket. - Moulton Avery
Dan Corrigall and his paddling partner Andy Bennett were hit by katabatic winds during a three-mile crossing of Queen Charlotte Channel north of Vancouver, BC. Dan was wearing a 1/4” (7mm) thick farmer john wetsuit, a wool sweater covered by a paddling jacket, and a PFD. The water temperature was around 50F (10C). Dan was 6’3”, 200 pounds, a strong swimmer, and a paddler with confidence in his roll. Following a capsize, he tried to roll three times before bailing out. Once in the water he quickly felt extremely cold. After swimming a short distance to retrieve his paddle, his arms were so weak that he couldn’t swim 50 feet back to Andy’s boat. Soon he was so weak, and his hands were so cold, that he was unable to use a paddle float given to him by Andy. The float was then lost. He was rescued shortly thereafter and took 1.5 hours to rewarm. Why they didn't attempt an assisted rescue rather than the paddle float self-rescue technique is unknown.
Lesson Learned Swim-testing his gear would have alerted Dan to the fact that his torso and hand protection were inadequate for the conditions.
The problem with Farmer John wetsuits is that they offer no protection for your arms and shoulders. If you’re going to wear a Farmer John, swim-test it. If you find that it’s not enough protection, you can wear fleece on top of it and cover that with a drytop. Just make sure that the waist seal on the drytop is watertight.
Cold water entering the ear canal can cause disorientation and vertigo, resulting in a failure to roll. Some paddlers wear ear plugs for protection, but a better solution is a neoprene hood because it also protects against heat loss from the head and neck.
You can very quickly lose the use of your hands and your arms in cold water. Numb hands are a serious problem. To appreciate this lack of dexterity, imagine trying to paddle, re-attach a spray skirt, or make a cell phone or VHF radio call with boxing gloves on your hands.
Paddling jackets provide very little thermal protection once you’re in the water because they leak at the neck, wrists, and waist.
When it’s windy, things like paddles, paddle floats, and even boats can quickly blow away and be lost.
Major Contributing Factors
Not Dressed For Water Temperature (Underdressed)
Unable To Recover From Capsize
Unable to Call For Help (Cell phones & hand-held VHF radios not invented)
Being Complacent / Overconfident
Lack of Weather Awareness
Unable To Deal With Wind and Waves
Poor Group Management