Exhausted kayaker drowns

Lookout! Issue 24, March 2012

A kayaker struggled in vain to reach her companion after he was tipped out of his kayak by a wave.
Extensive search
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Despite extensive on-water and shoreline searches, the man’s body was not recovered.

The pair had only minimal kayaking experience, but both were confident on the water. They had decided to take a kayak trip to a nearby island for a picnic lunch. The trip took about 40 minutes, and once at the island, the pair spent another hour having lunch and resting before setting off for home.

On the way back, the wind had picked up and the going was tougher. About halfway to shore one kayaker fell out and cried out to her companion, who was about 20 metres ahead. As he turned towards her, he was also tipped out by a wave.

Once in the water, the man let go of his kayak to pull off his backpack. Immediately, the kayak drifted away out of reach. His companion was still in the water and started swimming towards him, towing her kayak behind her.

After about 15 minutes, she still had not reached him and climbed back into her kayak. When she leaned over to pick her paddle up out of the water, she fell back into the sea and again tried swimming towards her friend, with the kayak in tow.

About 15 minutes later, the pair were still some metres apart. The woman climbed back on board her kayak and started sculling with her hands to try to reach her friend, who was by now tiring with the effort of remaining afloat.

He was calling out and raising his hand up in the air to let her know where he was, but as time passed he grew more and more frantic, going under the water frequently.

About 10 minutes later, his calls had stopped and the kayaker could no longer see her friend.

She remained in the area for some time before deciding to try to make it back to shore. Sculling with only her hands and struggling against the waves, she eventually reached shore and raised the alarm.

An extensive sea and air search over two days failed to find the missing kayaker. His kayak eventually washed up on shore, and his backpack and paddle were pulled out of the water.


  • Neither kayaker wore a lifejacket. They looked for some before leaving home, but when they couldn’t find any, they set off anyway. A lifejacket would have enabled the kayakers to remain afloat in the water without expending a large amount of energy, and would have reduced the tendency to panic.
  • Lifejackets also increase a person’s ability to survive in cold water. A type 401 lifejacket is designed to hold an unconscious person’s head and face clear of the water.
  • The pair were not equipped with any means of communication, and had no way of raising the alarm. At a minimum, a cellphone in a sealed plastic bag, carried in a pocket, would have enabled them to call for help from the water. It is recommended that people carry two means of signalling distress that will work when wet.
  • The planned voyage would have been suitable for novices only in perfect conditions. On the day of the trip it was windy, and so conditions worsened considerably once the kayakers moved beyond the more sheltered inner waters.

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