Lifejacket, phone and knife save capsized kayaker

Lookout! Issue 32, December 2014 – January 2015

A kayaker made headlines for all the right reasons after becoming trapped under his kayak about 300 metres off the coast. His safety precautions and sound judgment meant he was able to contact rescuers and eventually make it home safely.

The man had been out fishing from his kayak for several hours. He had the kayak in a position where he knew he was in 20 metres of water, lined up with a group of rocks off the beach and between outcrops on a nearby island.

Noticing the swell picking up and the wind strengthening, he moved about 50 metres closer to shore. The wind continued to intensify, and he decided to follow the lead of two other kayakers who had told him they were heading back to shore.

The kayaker went to pull in the anchor, but it was stuck fast in the reef. He continued to tug on the line until it was pulled taut in a position directly above the stuck anchor. Reluctant to lose the anchor, he gave it another few sharp tugs, which turned the kayak side-on to the waves. A final tug coincided with a high swell, flipping the kayak over and trapping him directly beneath it.

There was not enough give in the line for the man to right the kayak and get it off himself. Luckily, he was in the habit of keeping his knife attached to his lifejacket, and used it to cut the anchor line so that he could push the kayak off. However, his attempts to right the kayak were not so successful, as it had become waterlogged.

Recognising that he was in trouble, the kayaker knew he needed to call for help. His cellphone was in a sealed plastic bag in the pocket of his lifejacket, and he was able to phone 111 and report his situation. He lost contact but managed to also call his wife, who phoned the police. A rescue helicopter and Coastguard vessel were dispatched to search for him.

The kayaker assessed his situation and realised his safest course of action was to stay with the kayak. He had been in the water for about 45 minutes and had swallowed a considerable amount of seawater when he was located by three divers in a runabout who’d heard reports of his call for help on their VHF radio.

They kept him warm and talking for about 10 minutes until the Coastguard rescue vessel arrived and took him back to shore. He was then taken to hospital and treated for hypothermia.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • The key factors that prevented this incident turning into a tragedy were the kayaker wearing a lifejacket and carrying a way to summon help when he got into difficulty.
    • The lifejacket enabled the man to keep afloat until rescuers arrived and would have kept him from swallowing even more seawater, as it kept his head and face mostly clear of the water. The lifejacket also helped him to conserve energy, reducing fatigue and any tendency he may have had to panic.
  • All boaties should carry at least two ways to call for help that will work when wet. In this case, the kayaker had only one way to call for help – a cellphone in a sealed plastic bag – but it was enough to enable him to alert rescuers to his situation. Carrying it in the pocket of his lifejacket also meant that he could access it when he was in the water.
    • A minimum of two ways to call for help is recommended, as one may fail. Cellphones are not always a reliable way to call for help, as they only get reception in some areas and will not work when wet. Having a cellphone in a sealed plastic bag, as this man did, means it can be used by someone who ends up in the water.
    • A hand-held VHF radio or a distress beacon clipped to his lifejacket would have been a more reliable means of alerting people that help was needed.
  • The man also made the right decision to stay with his kayak and to wait for help to arrive, rather than striking out in an attempt to swim ashore. Although the kayak was too saturated for him to get into, it served as a flotation device and would have enabled him to be more readily seen than a person in the water would have been, especially from the air.
  • The good sense of keeping his knife attached to his lifejacket became apparent when the man became trapped under the kayak by the taut anchor line and was able to cut it.
  • Other lessons the kayaker took from the incident were not to pull tight to anchor, and to never be side-on to the waves. He has also resolved to tie his gear down in future, after suffering the loss of his fishing gear overboard.

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Cover of Issue 32
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