Kayaking drama off Fishers Island – FishersIsland.net
Posted in The day July 15, 2021
By Steve Fagin
After circling through The Race, a notoriously dangerous canal at the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound, the six of us rafted our three tandem kayaks for a short break.
“The hard part is over,” I said, between bites of an energy bar and two sips of a bottle of water.
We were in the Atlantic Ocean, a third of a nearly 20 mile paddle around Fishers Island, starting and ending at Esker Point in Noank.
Our group had our tour scheduled for a cloudy July 4th so that the ebb tide would sweep us through The Race and along the south shore of the island into New York waters. Then, as we rounded East Point, crossed Wicopesset Passage, and entered Fishers Island Sound, a rising tide propelled us toward Connecticut.
It was a good plan – in theory – that paid off as we paddled with a tail wind and relatively calm seas, enjoying one of my favorite views. Just beyond Wilderness Point, waves hit Isabella Beach; The Gatsbyesque mansions stretch out amidst the landscaped splendor on the hill above; sand dunes and cobblestones extended to Barleyfield Cove.
Moments later, however, the shrill breath of a distress whistle from behind shattered my reverie.
Tom and I immediately turned around with our 22ft boat.
About fifty yards away, Dan Bendor, who had whistled, faced a problem: the woman at the bow of his boat was gagging.
As Tom and I approached, the woman muttered something about seasickness and a severe migraine.
“I’m going to hook up a tow rope,” Tom announced, untangling a line from his life jacket. Within minutes, he and I started pulling Dan and the woman into their ship.
Meanwhile, Robin Francis and Phil Warner, who had gotten ahead and wondered why we were late, backed off and joined us.
We hastily chatted about getting ashore at the nearby Fishers Island Club, but were concerned the ocean waves would make a difficult landing.
“If we could get to the other side of the island it would be quieter,” I said, “but we can’t wait, the wind is about to turn against us. “
Phil connected a second line to Dan’s bow and set up a V-tow, using both his boat and ours to help pull Dan’s.
“It’s going to be bumpy through Wicopesset,” Phil warned. The tides that spring across this narrow gap between Fishers and Wicopesset Islands often produce gnarled conditions.
By this time, the woman in Dan’s boat had started to sag, increasing the chance of capsizing.
“We have to do a contact tow! Phil yelled. In this maneuver, Tom leaned over and latched onto Dan’s boat to increase stability while Dan and I paddled our connected kayaks. Phil then hooked his tow rope to the bow of my kayak so he and Robin could help us move forward.
So early in the incoming tide, the current was only a few knots, but against a headwind from the southwest, the waves were getting more and more confused. We still had to navigate about a half mile of rough water to reach the nearest beach.
” We are doing very good ! I exclaimed – but I really thought, “This is bad, really bad.”
I was supported, however, by the confidence in the skills of my fellow paddlers. Phil and Tom trained in deep water rescues with certified instructors from the American Canoe Association; like them, Dan, Robin and I have years of kayaking experience. Also, with the exception of the woman in Dan’s boat, we have all paddled around Fishers on numerous occasions, as well as on longer expeditions when the sea and winds were considerably more dreadful.
Previously, we had accompanied the woman, a strong paddler, on shorter group trips, and we believed that on a calm day, she would be able to complete the long circumnavigation in a two-person boat. She had asked to join us, well aware of the demanding route.
None of this mattered, however, as we struggled to stay upright. Fortunately, the contact towing system allowed us to move forward without tipping over. After bouncing off the last choppy stretch of Wicopesset, Phil disconnected his towline so he and Robin could first reach the beach to help us land, south of Latimer Reef.
Once ashore, we took the woman out of her cockpit and placed her on the beach. She quickly curled up in a fetal position and fell asleep. Robin covered her with a warm jacket.
Dan, a medical graduate psychiatrist, checked his pulse and found it weak.
Sometimes sailors with seasickness can recover after resting ashore, but we all realized that there was no way the woman could get back into Dan’s kayak for the last five miles until at Esker Point.
“We have to call the coast guard,” urged Robin.
Tom hit channel 16 on his VHF marine radio – each of the three kayaks carrying one – and broadcast, “Pan-pan, we’re six kayakers on Fishers Island. One of the paddlers is in distress… ”
There are three different ways to start such a call: “pan-pan” (pronounced “pon-pon”, derived from the French word fault, meaning breakdown) is the second most urgent call. If we had encountered a minor problem, like debris in the water, Tom would have started with “security”. For a full-fledged disaster, like a sinking ship, he would have announced: “Mayday! “
The New London Coast Guard station responded instantly, asking for our precise location and more details on the woman’s condition. Tom read the GPS coordinates on his radio and relayed information about the woman’s situation.
At the Coast Guard station just north of Fort Trumbull State Park on the Thames, Boswain’s second officer, Carlos Cabral, heard the call as he rolled a 29-foot response boat over a ramp to the water – a fortuitous moment.
“I gave the call a high priority,” Cabral said in a later phone interview.
Cabral, the ship’s coxswain, immediately gathered the rest of his crew: Machine Technician 2 Michael Hand, who is a certified emergency medical technician; Master-at-Arms 3 Thomas Scott; Machine technician Lorenzo Morales; and Boswain’s Mate 3 Wilkins Polanco.
After everyone jumped on board, Cabral pulled two 225 horsepower outboards and the aluminum-hulled vessel sped downstream and in sound, at over 40 mph.
Meanwhile, Pete Jordan and his son Will, of Stonington, who were fishing on a speedboat, heard Tom’s distress call on his radio, spotted our group and sped up to help us.
Jordan relayed his position to the Coast Guard and offered to take the woman to Stonington on his boat, but was told the response vessel would be there momentarily. To their credit and to our immense gratitude, he and his son stayed with us until the Coast Guard arrived.
Because of the rocks, Cabral couldn’t maneuver within 20 yards of the beach, so as soon as he cut the engines, Hand and Scott jumped in and swam to shore.
They then helped load the woman into the front cockpit of my kayak while Tom climbed into the back seat; he rowed the woman to the Coast Guard boat while Hand and Scott swam alongside.
The ship took off and arrived within minutes at Noank Shipyard, where a waiting ambulance took the woman to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London.
She received intravenous fluids and other treatments before going out that night. In an email later, the woman reported that she suffered from a “vestibular migraine causing profound drowsiness” and that she slept most of the time while being towed.
“I remain grateful for all of your help, your efforts and your Herculean concerns, and I am happy that everyone is safe and sound,” she added.
After the woman left on the Coast Guard boat, Robin, Phil, Dan, Tom and I still had to paddle three kayaks for five miles to Esker Point. Phil offered to paddle Dan’s boat solo; Tom and I helped him tow it with our kayak; while Robin and Dan paddled together in the third boat.
In just over an hour, we finally landed at Esker Point – tired, relieved and in conflict: had we made the right decisions? What could we have done differently?
After loading the kayaks onto the cars, we organized an impromptu debriefing in the parking lot; Over the next few days, we continued to debate these and other questions in emails, phone conversations, and face-to-face meetings. Some conclusions:
Robin, who has prepared a long list of safety gear that kayakers should wear, noted that a number of paddler groups run training courses and safety drills several times a year, but for one reason or another. another, they stopped doing it. It is time to reinstate these measures, she said.
Dan stressed the importance of stocking up on food, especially water, on extended excursions.
Phil agreed, noting that the woman was having difficulty absorbing fluids from a backpack system she was using for the first time.
“The complication with the new hydration pack may have started to slip into dehydration, and with the onset of the migraine (she) quickly came down the slippery slope,” he said.
Tom has also prepared a detailed spreadsheet of the equipment and supplies that every paddler should always wear and take, even on short trips (a life jacket and whistle), as well as more sophisticated equipment for longer trips. long under difficult conditions (a tow rope, radio, first aid kit, warm clothes and food, to name a few).
Cabral of the Coast Guard thanked our group for carrying all the appropriate equipment and acting as a team to prevent a tragedy.
When asked if we should have called for help sooner, when the woman’s symptoms first materialized, he replied that it was a judgment call that could be debated in both cases. Towing a kayak with an impaired passenger through Wicopesset Passage could have been risky, he said, but if we had disembarked on the ocean side of Fishers it would have been more difficult to transfer it to the response vessel. .
However, everyone in our group could agree on one point: the response team saved the day. Those of us who venture into the open water, whether by kayak, sailboat, fishing boat or cargo ship, should be thankful and reassured by the Coast Guard motto: semper paratus – always ready.