The third week in June, as we’ve done for the last 20-odd years, my kayak buddies and I rented the same next-door houses on the water in Stonington, Maine. At the end of a long peninsula, Stonington is a seakayaker’s mecca. A dozen or so islands not far from shore offer us refuge from the open ocean and delightful spots for picnics and hikes. We can see the hills of Acadia National Park from the house and water.
This year, a sudden squall scared the heck out of a couple of us, including me. I wrote about what happened on my Facebook Page. Essentially, it was terrifying and truly took all my skill to not flip over. If I had, my pals couldn’t have reached me because they were fighting the same conditions. We made it to shore, but a few hours later we learned that two kayakers were not so lucky and died as a result of the decision not to wear wetsuits. There’s a scene in COLD BLOOD, HOT SEA in which readers learn how and why paddlers practice rescues. What happened to those kayakers is why.
Since the event, I’ve been asked for details on how to safely kayak in marine waters. I’ll use Mara as an example of Kayaking 101.
Mara’s kayak, like her buddies’, is specifically designed for rough ocean waters – very long and narrow (hers is 17′ long and cockpit narrower than most – just big enough to squeeze into). In high winds she might drop her skeg a bit into the water so the boat doesn’t turn into the wind. Other boats have rudders, some nothing. Basically these boats are designed to go straight and fast (river kayaks turn quickly). Mara’s kayak is light – less than 50 lbs – so she can lift it easily.
Mara always wears a wetsuit when she paddles off the Maine coast, even in midsummer, and of course her PFD (life jacket). She would never go out without her sprayskirt, which wraps around the cockpit and keeps waves from swamping the boat. If the water is really cold, as in early spring, she wears a drysuit. It’s a total pain to put on but keeps her dry if she rolls the kayak.
As I show in the book, Mara and her pals practice self and buddy rescues. Using a paddle float, she can get back into her kayak in about a minute if she flips the boat and can’t roll back up (although it’s never happened to her).
Mara has years of experience dealing with super tall waves, breaking waves, wind events, currents, and motor-boaters who can’t see kayakers (so low in the water) or don’t look for them. She loves to surf waves with her kayak even though that’s a tricky maneuver.
Finally, Mara carries these on her trips: weather radio, compass mounted on the deck, chart, extra paddle, emergency kit, emergency food, extra water, extra clothes in dry bag in the hatch, cell phone, bilge pump, tow rope, and whistle attached to her PFD. No wonder it takes her so long to get ready for a trip!
The event was another sobering reminder of how everything can change in an instant. As Mark Twain said, “Life is short, break the rules … Never regret anything that makes you smile.”