Missing kayaker found on Nashawena

Several recent kayaker rescues underscore critical importance of paddlecraft safety.

"Just a little bit of training can go a long way," Island Spirit Kayak owner and instructor Chick Stapleton — Barry Stringfellow

Late Tuesday morning the Coast Guard found a missing kayaker on Nashawena, after a search that was triggered by an unmanned 12-foot yellow kayak, with a wallet and cell phone aboard, found in the water near Cuttyhunk Island early that morning.

“We got a call about 6:30 this morning from a good Samaritan, and we recovered the boat,” Station Menemsha Senior Chief Rob Riemer told The Times. “He was out of the water on Nashawena, and a helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod saw him and picked him up.”

Robert Kaminski, 48, told rescuers that he was sailing from Gooseberry Neck Island when a wave knocked him out of his kayak. He said he tried to stay with the kayak as long as possible, but the seas were too rough. He swam to Nashawena Island and fell asleep from exhaustion.

A 29-foot response boat from Coast Guard Station Menemsha, an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter aircrew from Air Station Cape Cod, and a crew from the Buzzards Bay Task Force responded to the search. Kaminski was airlifted to Barnstable Municipal Airport and transported to Cape Cod Hospital, where he is in stable condition.

“He left from Horseneck Beach, on the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border, and was returning from Cuttyhunk,” Chief Riemer said. A wallet and cell phone found in the kayak’s dry storage compartment helped trace Kaminski’s movements. “He did a couple of really good things. He told someone when he was leaving and what his route was, and he had arranged check-in points with people,” Chief Riemer said. “Another big thing is that he was wearing a life jacket. We can’t stress this enough. For his boat to end up on Smith Point and him to end up on Nashawena, he must have been in the water for a long time.”

On Monday, the Coast Guard confirmed that a capsized kayaker found was alive and well after capsizing Sunday night near Fort Gorges, Maine.

A good Samaritan had called Coast Guard watchstanders at about 8:45 pm on Sunday to report an empty 10-foot orange kayak in the water. The kayak was not labeled with contact information, and no one had reported a missing person. Coast Guard aircrews and boat crews searched for more than 15 hours and more than 60 square miles with Maine Marine Patrol, Portland Fire Department, Portland Police Department, Cape Elizabeth Water Extrication Team, and good Samaritans.

The kayaker, who was not identified, said she swam to shore after capsizing Sunday around 3:30 pm near Fort Gorges, and got to land at approximately 8 pm Sunday night. She said she was wearing a life jacket, but that the current was too strong to pull the kayak to land.

“We would like to remind paddlecraft users to label your kayak with your name and contact information, and have a reliable means of communication,” the Coast Guard said in a press release.

Spike in fatalities

Paddlecraft, in particular kayaks and paddleboards, have exploded in popularity in recent years. So, too, have Coast Guard rescue calls for paddlers in distress.

“Overconfidence is the biggest problem,” Island Spirit Kayak owner and instructor Chick Stapleton said. Ms. Stapleton has owned and operated Island Spirit for 16 years, has numerous certifications, and has kayaked all over the world. “We get a lot of people who say they know how to do it, but most of them don’t understand how much there is to it. They say they want to sea kayak, and I ask if they know a T-rescue or how to paddle float rescue, and they have no idea. People capsize all the time. We rescue someone about once a week. Just a little bit of training can go a long, long way.”

Paddlecraft fatalities have dramatically increased in recent years, especially along the Atlantic coast. According to First Coast Guard District, which extends from Maine to northern New Jersey, in 2016 there were 28 paddler deaths in the district, more than double the national average.

In 2015, recreational boating statistics showed that paddlecraft — defined as canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards — had the second and third highest percentage of boating deaths in that year. Capsizing and drowning were the causes of more than two-thirds of those deaths, and 83 percent those killed were not wearing life jackets. Paddlers in Massachusetts are required to wear life jackets from Sept. 15 to May 15. Most states require children under 12 to be in a life jacket at all times.

“People need to plan their trip, and the first thing is to check the weather,” Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Andrew Barresi told The Times. “We find a lot of people who get in trouble go out on a sunny day and they suddenly get beset by weather; it happens all the time in this part of the country. The ocean can get very choppy very quickly. Many people are also not properly equipped to call for help. A cell phone that’s not in a waterproof case won’t do you any good if you capsize.”

Mr. Barresi said a float plan is also essential. “A float plan can be as simple as telling someone on land where you’re going and when you’re coming back,” he said. “It can just be a text. As long as somebody knows.”

“It’s important to check the water temperature,” Chief Riemer said. “It might be a warm day, but the water temperature is still going to be colder than your body temperature. It depends somewhat on the individual, but no matter what time of year, there comes a point hypothermia will set in and a search and rescue becomes a recovery operation.”

According to a chart from Mr. Barresi, the estimated time of survival in water between 60° and 70° ranges from two to four hours. The current temperature in Vineyard Sound is 71°.

“Kayakers should have a sound-producing device, such as a whistle,” Chief Riemer said. “For longer open-water trips, I strongly recommend a handheld marine radio. You may also want to consider an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. They’re small enough so you can clip them on your life jacket. They’re not cheap, but they can make all the difference if something goes wrong on the open water.”

Look for the label

Labeling a paddlecraft with contact information gives search and rescue coordinators a starting point when a paddlecraft turns up empty.

Additionally, every time an empty paddlecraft is found adrift, which is frequently, the Coast Guard must treat it as a rescue mission. More often than not, the kayak was improperly moored or stored.

“When a kayak breaks free from its mooring, or if it’s just left on the beach and ends up washing out, we have to assume there was a person with that paddlecraft,” Mr. Barresi said. “We put out an urgent-information marine broadcast, and solicit help from people already underway. We contact the appropriate state agencies, and local harbormasters, fire departments, and police departments. Most of the time we’ll launch a helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod as well.”

A typical search can involve a helicopter and two or more station boats, which costs an estimated $24,000 per hour, according to a Coast Guard spokesman.

Mr. Barresi said earlier in the week, a search was initiated after an empty green kayak was found afloat off the Cape. “In the end, we didn’t find anything, there were no missing persons reports, so we end up suspending those searches. We don’t close them until we find out who the owner is. If the kayak has a name and phone number on it, the mystery is usually solved very quickly, and we don’t have to expend valuable resources for someone who’s not in trouble.”