First, our deepest condolences to Peter’s family. I called the Wisconsin, Port Washington Police Captain Michael Davel who was involved in the recovery of Peter from Lake Michigan. I wanted to clarify some details for the Lake Michigan Sea and Surf Kayaking community who spends a lot of time out on cold water in small craft.
- Peter was found 1/2 mile off shore by the Port Washington Fire and Rescue services in Lake Michigan where he had most likely drifted across the harbor mouth where he was spotted in the water, separated from his kayak. He was unconscious when found, and never regained consciousness. No one knows how long he was in the water.
- Winds were reported at 25 knots, waves six feet. There were many board surfers out this day. All most likely wearing 6/5 or 7/6 full wetsuits with hoods, booties, and mittens to deal with 36 degree water temps.
- Peter was not wearing any immersion protection. He wore underarmour poly-pro, and then normal clothing with a rainshell/ski jacket over the top. No wetsuit, no drysuit.
- He was wearing a lifejacket when he was found.
- He was wearing a nylon spraydeck when he was found.
- He had no signalling device of any kind.
- His kayak, may have had bulkheads, but they also could have been foam pillars. I have never seen an otter sold with bulkheads fore and aft, but he may have fitted it himself. For anyone who has not seen an Otter, it is a short (9′ long 28″ wide) recreational type craft with a wide open style cockpit that easily allows water in, but is very maneuverable. It is not seaworthy.
- Peter had no float plan with loved ones on shore. No on one land knew of his journey, how far he was going, where he was going, when he would be back, and what to do if he was not back at a certain time.
- The police officer stated that Peter had done some white water paddling in the Boy scouts, and may have done a white water course or certification.
All of these odds unfortunately stacked up against a young 24 year old man with no experience in the conditions he was found in on Lake Michigan. And without placing judgement, because you don’t know what you don’t know. He was completely unprepared with immersion protection, signalling devices, a float plan, or a properly outfitted kayak and the knowledge on how to eskimo roll, or re-enter his kayak in waves whilst far from shore. I have not rolled an Otter in 6 foot seas on Lake Michigan, so I am not sure this is even possible.
The media spoke with the family who stated that he was experienced because he went out 3-4 times a week.
A proper risk assessment done with the local sea kayaking community would have dispelled the notion that going out on Lake Michigan, on this day with the equipment and experience he possessed was a good idea. A class or symposium where he might have been exposed to the idea of a kayak with bulkheads, how to roll it, or re-enter it, might have saved his life in that he might have learned this skill, or decided that because he did not possess this skill that it was not wise to go. Exposure to the risks of hypothermia from the sea kayaking community in his area would have certainly increased his time in the water. But this is all idle speculation.
I would encourage local clubs, paddleshops, and sporting good stores to think long and hard about not speaking up about the inherent risks of the Great Lakes. We often don’t want to impose, or make folks feel like we are safety nazi’s. You can certainly hurt a live person’s feelings and risk a boat sale, or paddle club membership, but you can’t hurt a dead person’s feelings. The good shops and clubs, you know who you are, do their utmost to caution paddlers about the risks and offer courses. And for that we thank them.
We seem to have had a dearth of Great Lakes related paddling fatalities and rescues. It would be great if each sea kayaker brought one new person to a class or symposium each month, or maybe even sponsored an open rescue class for free. Pass on what you know about your environment, and your passion for the sport.