Peter Dougherty Lake Michigan Kayaking Fatality

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.

Map of Port Washington
Peter found near mouth of harbor
  • 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.
  • Update.

  • 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.


  1. I have talked to a few people here in the Chicago area about getting some sort of website / handout / DVD into the hands of the big box retailers and convincing them about the DIRE need to educate their uneducated consumers. I know the 17 year old kid at Dick’s or Costco know even less than the customer…. but shouldn’t it be up to us to impress upon the store managers that their staff be trained to inform new paddlers of the dangers this time of year pose? I’m sure we could get enough volunteers together to offer the stores free in-house seminars on what to tell customers. I’m envisioning the staff handing out DVDs or flyers for a website that is similar to the “Blood on the Highway” movies we all had to watch for drivers ed class!! This is literally a life and death issue and should be driven home as such. In the past few months Chicagoland alone has given us enough horror stories about unprepared paddlers succumbing to badly laid plans… it should be easy to assemble a collection of news stories and point by point examples of what went wrong just like what’s detailed above. Scared Safe is kinda what I’m thinking??

    Any thoughts on if this seems worthwhile or plausible?


    Jeremy Faust

  2. Avoidable tragedy. I’m not a kayaker but am an avid canoe paddler. White, flat and big lakes. But I don’t take risks as I know my limitations and have way too much respect for the water and changeable conditions. Last Saturday I was was in my canoe shop in Manitowoc County about a 1/2 block from L. Michigan. I looked hard at the lake about 11 am. After a day of sanding and varnishing I took another look at the lake and Hika Bay was almost a solid wall of white caps with 4 – 5 ft rollers coming into shore fast. Of course the wind was predictably roaring all day.

    Got home later and my wife told me about the “experienced” kayaker off Port Washington.

    Wind, waves, 46 degree water. I guess until I read through these posts, I assumed he was in a proper sea kayak. Now all I can do is shake my head and say to all, let’s get busy and educate people.


  3. I own an Otter and I occasionally take it out in waves, but not when its 6 feet, and not without wearing the same wetsuit gear I would wear for surfing under that day’s conditions. Once tipped, Otters are very difficult to roll (I haven’t tried to perfect it, but I personally cannot do it), and I can say with virtual certainty that all but extremely experienced kayakers would have tipped in those conditions. This was an avoidable tragedy, he should have known not to go out at all with that craft under those conditions, and at the very least he should have known not to go out without a winter wetsuit because if he knew how to swim, he probably could have lived.

  4. Thank you very much for posting this and following up on the information. Let me echo my deepest sympathy for Peters loved ones and those who attempted his resuscitation. I’m the education director for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. We compile data on deaths in the Great Lakes and do water safety programs throughout the region.

    In the past 2 years at least 11 people have perished on the Great Lakes while canoeing or kayaking. There was another fatality in Lake St. Clair just last weekend:

    We MUST do a better job of educating the public about safe practices, I certainly don’t want to become a ‘safety Nazi’ but I fear there is the very real possibility of limiting access to watermen (and women). A man was arrested in Chicago recently for surfing.

    We are interested in collaborating with any group with an interest in Great Lakes water safety. We have a facebook page at:
    and a website under construction at:
    You may also reach me at Bob

    As a final note I would encourage everyone to become a positive role model for safety: always wear a lifejacket, file a float plan, learn CPR and encourage your paddling partners to do the same. We’ve lost over 150 lives in the last 2 years, many of these are preventable with simple steps.

    Thank you,

    Bob Pratt
    Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project

  5. Keith, nicely outlined and to the point. Still the largest group of paddlers out there is the most under-served instruction-wise because they simply don’t know what they don’t know. Put us up on your links page please and we’ll help spread the word.


  6. Some of your info is suggestive and misleading, your opinions are filled with conjecture. Please reconsider some of what you have written in this article.

    “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.” – Incorrect, he and I had been out in similar conditions before, both of us are experienced yakers.

    “He was completely unprepared… or a properly outfitted kayak and the knowledge on how to eskimo roll, or re-enter his kayak in waves whilst far from shore.” – Incorrect, while he lacked certain key pieces of gear he did have a proper boat as well as the knowledge of how to right himself, anyone who yaks learns this skill right away.

    As we all know these things happen and there is a lesson to learn from all of it. Peter believed you can’t have adventure without a little risk, but we know what can become of walking that fine line between adventure and inherent danger, while a dangerous day to paddle it is no different than an attempt at 5 star rapids (you accept the dangers and go anyway). I understand the point of this article is to show people what can happen in the worst case scenario and teaches them to be prepared (I share the same message), but even with correct gear and a float plan, in these conditions, it cannot be certain it would have saved his life. But please, if not to admit inaccuracy in the article or for respect of the deceased, make corrections to this piece for me since you now have better info from a close friend. Thank you.

    • Michael,

      Thanks for your comments. Seeing as you knew Peter, my deepest condolences to you and to his family. There is an inherent risk in paddling, no doubt.

      I appreciate the need to clarify some of this information. If you knew Peter, can you clarify this?

      Could he roll the Otter in six foot waves?

      Did he have proper immersion gear, and just not wear it that day?

      Did he normally have a marine radio or some sort of signalling device?

      Did he normally file a float plan?

      The media said he was a white water instructor, but the ACA did not have any record of him being a WW certified instructor. Could you validate what his training was?

      I have been kayak surfing the great lakes for almost 12 years in a variety of craft. As point of reference this is my usual list of precautions and gear.

      I always tell my wife, or someone on shore where I am leaving from, where I will be paddling, and when I will be back, and to call the coastguard/lifesaving service if I am overdue.
      I always dress for the swim, I wear either a 4/3 suit, or a full drysuit depending on water temps. Wetsuit in water above 50, and drysuit with thermal layers when it is below 50. This includes pogies, gloves, and a neoprene hood.
      I carry a marine radio, signal mirror, strobe, and flares on my lifejacket so I can signal for help if I get hurt, or separated from my kayak.

      I try to paddle with someone whenever possible to ensure I at least have someone to call for help. But this is not always possible, and I do kayak surf in fall alone quite a bit. But I make sure to make friends, or at least my presence known with board surfers, kite boarders, and other people in the water so that if I am not visible for some time, someone out on the water knows about it. I also try to surf within sight of board surfers so that we can look out for one another.
      I have learned how to eskimo roll all of my kayaks in surf of all sizes. I also know how to perform a variety of self-re-entry techniques including re-enter and roll.
      I look at the weather patterns, wind speed, and wave conditions on a variety of lake cams, to see if the conditions are going to be safe enough for me to even drive to the beach and think about going out. There were many days this fall where it was just plain nuts to go out, one of which was the day Mitch Fajman was killed. I was going to be surfing in the exact spot where he lost his life, and I elected not to go out.
      I make an assessment of the conditions based on my skills and equipment once I am on the beach and can see the conditions before actually getting on the water, looking for wind, wave, rip currents, and hazards in the water. Because I do a lot of planning while looking at the forecast, I have very rarely had to call it on the beach that I am not going out, but I can recall two-three times where I just said “screw it.”

      While I am making some conjectural statements above that might seem like I am guessing at what could have happened. My assessment of the conditions is based on surfing the great lakes over a time period that is roughly half of the time Peter was alive. I totally understand the ache and the hole this kind of event puts in your life, but would you say it is fair that Peter made an egregious error in judgement when he paddled out into six foot waves without telling anyone where he was or how long he would be out, in a boat with no flotation, that he could not self-rescue, with no immersion protection or any way to signal for help.

      In my 12 years of experience surfing the Great Lakes, those are risks I would not take.

      And if you would rather not reply online, that’s fine too, I would be happy to chat on the phone.

      Best wishes,


  7. It is sad that someone so young died in an accident that was so avoidable. People first have to respect the Great Lakes as the conditions change rapidly. Second people have to understand that just because it’s 60 degrees this time of year the water is still dangerously cold.

    Most people do not know how quickly they can be disabled in cold water. Education is the key, and people that venture out into the big lakes in small boats need to have proper knowledge and gear to keep from becoming a statistic. This paddle was done alone, big mistake, in the wrong wave conditions for the boat and gear he had. I hope other paddlers like him can learn from this and don’t repeat his mistakes this warm early spring.

    Kayak symposiums are a great place to learn and build skills that can save your life when on the water.

  8. It was good seeing you, albeit briefly, in Madtown. Good work on this update. After talking to Silbs, JB, and seeing the notes from the guys that paddle Port Washington regularly, the ‘experienced paddler’ tag in the paper had me suspicious. I don’t know the answer because this guy, like the quartet that paddled into tragedy up in the Apostles this spring, are not the seminar and safety lecture types. Neither was I when I was in my early 20’s. I think your ‘one at a time’ approach is about the only way. Last months Wisconsin DNR magazine had an excellent article on Superior by warden Dave Oginski, himself a paddler. Good general exposure but did the victim read it? Understand it? Relate to it? Take it to heart? I guess that’s the key and I don’t have the answer.

  9. Thanks, Keith, for getting the facts before all the misinformation took over the story. This is a very sad story. It was a preventable death.