Capsized in the Back Bay of Assateague
The day did not start out like any
other day. It was very windy. Two days before I had skipped going out in the
bay behind Assateague in my Kayak because the winds were too high. After
waiting out that day, I went out the next day even though the winds were at a
marginal 15 mph for my comfort level. It was not an easy going trip, but work.
I had to put into shore once to empty the kayak of water that had collected from
the spray going into the boat. At one point the wind turned 180 degrees in less
than ten minutes. When that happened the waves also started getting higher. I
took the prudent action and I headed back to shore immediately. I was able to do
the rest of the trip to my camp site through protected channels that had marsh
breaking the wind and waves on each side. My camp site was fairly far since I
had a 2 HP engine attached to my Kayak. I camped about 12.5 miles from the
That night out at the camp site was a
long night. The wind and rain was very high. The storm splintered one of my
tent poles on my dome tent. One side of the tent was repeatedly pushed in onto
my head while I slept. Several times I held my hands up against the tent walls
because it felt like the tent was in danger of collapsing. There was
lightening, high winds and a lot of rain. The lightening and thunder was at
times frequent. It was not a restful night and after spending two days at
Assateague I was ready to get back to civilization. I estimated with the 2 HP
engine it would, with luck, take about 2 to 3 hours to get back if the wind was
to my back in the same direction as the day before. I neglected to eat
breakfast because I thought I would wait until I got to my car. Sometimes on
the water, the mornings are calmer. So, I thought I should head out as quickly
as I could without taking the extra time to eat breakfast.
The wind was high, but by returning in
the same protected channels I came in on I was doing fine. The waves were
minimal, but the wind was still high in the channels. With the engine I had a
false sense of security that I could push through the bad weather in my Kayak.
The wind was so strong I probably could not have paddled against it. I estimate
the wind was about 25 to 30 MPH. There were white caps out in the deeper part
of the bay and I could see water spraying into the air from the strength of the
I reached an unprotected and open area
that I needed to cross. I would have to emerge from the channel that I was in
and the protection it provided. The day before this area was so shallow my
engine was dragging through it at low tide. I thought I would not have a
problem with the waves since I expected that the bottom was too shallow, which
would prevent large waves from forming. I thought I would only have to deal
with wind and salt spray. As it turned out, I was further west then I was the
day before. This meant I was further out in the bay. This was a significant
error. I was, as it turned out, in water over my head. I was, at the time,
thinking the water was, at most, just a couple of feet deep.
As I emerged out of the protected
channel out into this open area to cross, the waves very quickly started
growing. I was probably not out in this area for more than five or ten minutes
when, again as the day before, I realized I should start heading back to shore
because the waves were too high. I turned the boat and started working the
troughs to keep the water out of my boat and to keep from getting swamped from
behind with waves. It seemed that the waves were continuing to build.
I could not understand why the waves
were so tall. I thought maybe I was at the breakpoint were the bay turned from
deep to shallow. I thought the waves must be high because they were breaking on
the shallow bottom. I was wrong as I discovered when I was dumped into water
over my head.
The waves also seemed to stand
straight up. I remember observing the waves and remembering what the ranger had
said to me two days before – the waves in the bay stand straight up. It was odd
to be looking at waves that had a front face that was almost straight up. The
waves seemed to be holding a shape just at that point where they were ready to
start to curl over. For some reason they did not curl over and as they moved
they continued to stand straight up. I thought how odd. In hindsight it seems
even odder that in deeper water the waves would hold this shape.
After I had turned my Kayak around to
head to shore, I estimated the wave height was about 3 to 4 feet. The waves
were at the height of my head sitting in the kayak. This was the first point
were I started feeling fear. This was not good for me since the Kayak is not
more than a foot in total height above the water. I worked to stay in the
troughs so the waves would not wash over me. For the first five minutes or so I
was able to keep the waves behind me.
For a few moments I felt that I was
doing fine. I was heading to shore and more/or less staying in the troughs.
The last couple of waves were alarmingly high. Then, something lifted the kayak
up and turned it over. Waves in the bay often are at different angles. I think
this is caused by reflections off of the various islands and shore. As the boat
started lifting up I realized there was no way I could have leaned enough to
prevent it. The wave seemed to be flipping the boat from the rear left side.
As the boat was lifted the boat and I flipped completely over. I was in the
water. To my alarm and surprise, I found I was in water over my head. I
remember being surprised at this reality. I thought I was in shallow water, but
I was not.
My first thought had been the harsh
reality that I was being tipped, it was real, and there was nothing I could do
to stop it. My second thought was how cold the water felt. My third thought
was, as my head went under the water, my feet had not touched bottom. The water
was deeper then I thought. This was my second moment of fear. This was a much
worse situation than I had anticipated. I would have to swim and stay afloat or
I started struggling to keep my face
up. I had on waders, a heavy winter coat and a rain suit (top and pants). The
thought flashed through my mind that I had too many clothes to float or to
thread water. I attempted to thread water, but could only do this with a lot of
effort and very little result. After several waves went over my head I started
looking for alternatives on staying afloat. I took in some water when the waves
were breaking over my head and did my best not to repeat this. I flashed back
to a memory of survival swimming when I had trouble getting to the surface. I
calmly felt that I would be able to swim to the top as long as I put in a hard
effort, which I did.
The first thing I tried to do was to
climb on top on the kayak that was floating upside down. I reached over, but
could not hold onto anything. The rounded bottom of the kayak gave no support
for me to hold. I did manage to get half my body up the Kayak, but it was
unstable and I couldn’t seem to stay on top of it. I think this was a function
of my weight, the waves, and the instability of kayak floating upside down with
an engine on one end. There was no leverage to hold on and it kept rolling back
I grabbed one end of the side of the
kayak and flipped it over. I had managed to roll it over face up.
Unfortunately, the motor with the waves made it top heavy in this condition and
it rolled back over. I tried again, but could not make the kayak stay up. Even
if I could get it to stay up I had nothing to get the water out of it.
At this point it flashed through my
mind that even if the kayak would stay up how useless all my emergency equipment
was. I could not grab a cell phone to call and most likely it was either
submerged, wet or would become wet when I tried to dig it out of my bag. My
whistle, emergency flashing light and emergency flag were useless since no one
was around to see it. I was alone. I realized at this point I had to get back
to shore as my only option to end this ordeal. I gave up trying to keep the
kayak right side up. I let go and went back into the water.
I noticed the waterproof bag with my
sleeping bag in it was holding one end of the kayak up. I undid the bungee
cords holding the green bag and held onto the green bag’s handles. It was
floating great. I tried to climb on top of it. That did not work. I could not
balance myself on top of it because it held me too much out of the water making
me and the bag too tippy to stay upright. I tried this maneuver twice and gave
up. I slide back into the water. The handles were so long it was difficult to
use the waterproof bag (with my sleeping bag keeping it inflated) to keep my
head above water. My hand descended too far down into the water to make it
comfortable to keep my head up. Even with the waterproof bag in one hand, I was
still continuing to struggle to keep my head up.
As I kicked with my legs and used my
other arm to tread water, I could not understand why I was having a hard time
keeping my head up. Then, I remembered I had shoes on. At this moment I was
thinking I had on shoes. This was the only way I could imagine why I was not
getting any thrust when kicking with my legs. I decided I had to get my shoes
off. I reached down on my left leg first and there was no shoe. It had fallen
off. Then, I reached over to my other leg. I couldn’t feel a shoe and it felt
odd. Then I remembered it wasn’t shoes I had on, but waders. I thought how odd
one wader had fallen off without even knowing it. I then tried to shake the
remaining wader off of my other leg. I shoke my leg over and over again.
Nothing happened. I remembered that I had buckled the wader to my belt.
I was beginning to feel even more
desperate in my struggle to keep my head up. I did not want to reach down with
one hand and unbuckle the snap. This meant that when I stopped treading water
with my free hand I knew my head would go back down under the water. I did not
want to do this. Since I still had the waterproof bag with one hand I knew I
would not sink and would be able to return my head back above the water. I
reluctantly stopped threading water with my free hand and started searching for
the buckle to my wader. My head went under water while doing this, but I had
the waterproof bag in the other hand. I released the buckle and kicked off the
wader. Since I could now kick with my legs it became easier, although still
difficult, to keep my head above water.
I grabbed a life vest, but everything
I had on still made it difficult to float even with the life vest. I tried to
get the lift vest on, but could not put it on. Instead, I just put it on the
front of my body. I felt more confident with my waders off that I could swim.
I laid back, let go of the waterproof bag and then started to swim on my back.
With the life vest on my the front of my body held under my shoulders I seemed
to float fine. I was able to use both arms to do wide strokes to push me
through the water. I felt I could swim back to shore.
I was thinking again how important it
was to get out of the water. I knew a significant amount of time had gone by.
At this point I was probably ten or fifteen minutes in the water. I remembered
thinking I still seemed very functional. The ranger said I made it only because
I was in such good physical condition. I knew I still had a lot of time
remaining to swim to shore. I was perhaps a half mile from shore. Not an
impossible distance, but I needed to act fast. Fortunately, the waves and wind
were pushing me towards the short I wanted to go to.
It was very cold and I could feel the
numbing effects kicking in. I realized that if the water was cold enough to
make me feel numb I would not be able to spend much more time in the water
without going into hypothermia. I swam hard as a means to stay warm. My upper
body seemed ok, but my legs and feet were alarmingly numb. As I started
swimming I fully expected to swim the half mile to shore.
Life was very focused on dealing with
one problem at a time. Float so I do not drown. Get out of the water by
swimming to shore to prevent hypothermia. Keep moving. Keep moving.
Fortunately, after swimming about 100
or 200 yards I could feel just barely touch bottom with the tip of my toe. I
bounced along for a while on the tops of my toes until I could put a whole foot
down. I then waited for the wind to blow my kayak to me and grabbed the kayak
and my waterproof bags that were floating in the water. This was not as foolish
as it first seemed. In my bag were matches in a waterproof case. I knew once I
got to shore I had to do something to get warm. A thought flashed through my
mind about a book I had read when I was young. It was about someone hiking in
Alaska and they had fallen through the ice in a stream. They survived because
they made a fire to keep warm. This was my goal. Get to shore. Make a fire.
Get warm. Life was very focused and simple.
Since I couldn’t tell at this which of
my two waterproof bags had the matches I grabbed both of the bags. About half
way to shore I saw there was a small island. I thought I could push the Kayak
up on the island and empty the water out of it. It seemed to me that heat loss
would be greater in the water then in the air. Emptying the kayak was my next
goal. I tugged everything behind me and walked in the water towards the
island. When I got to the island the water was only waist deep at this point.
I felt very cold at this point. My
feet and ankles felt extremely numb. I think the wind was 25 to 30 miles per
hour – perhaps more. I could see the wind was strong enough that the wind was
spraying water into the area. Wind strong enough to create sea spray was a sign
of high winds. As I walked along I could feel sand and mud. I was hoping I
would not step on any oysters. The last thing I needed was to cut a foot. I
only had my socks on my feet since I had kicked off the waders.
I made it to the small marshy island.
I had probably been in the water about 20 to 30 minutes at this point. I had
the shakes. Keep moving. One survival technique in the cold was to keep moving
to stay warm. I kept moving. At this point, though, I was starting to have
I pushed everything up onto the
island. The bags were so heavy I could not lift them. My “waterproof” bags
were full of water. It probably all came in through the zipper line. Hold
something under water and over several minutes it does not take long for
significant water weight to accumulate. I climbed on the island and tried to
pull the Kayak up. I could barely budge it. I got back in the water and tipped
the kayak on its side to try and get some water out. Even tipping the Kayak on
its side in the water did get some of the water was out. I then groaned loudly
and tried to push it up. It moved several inches at a time. I did several
iterations of tipping the canoe to get some water out and then pushing it a few
inches onto the island. Once I got the Kayak on the island I tipped it
completely over and got most of the water out.
I couldn’t stay there because it was
just a small grassy island with no protection from the wind and nothing to make
a fire. I still had to cross more water to get to Assateague Island. Only then
could connect with the possibility of rescue. As I emptied the kayak I could
feel my legs were so numb I felt no pain as I walked on top of grassy stumps of
broken grass. I was worried about stepping on broken grass blades and cutting
my feet. Several times I felt myself walking on the tops of broken stumps of
grass. I was working so quickly to get back to shore I did not take the time to
see where I was stepping, choosing instead to just keep moving. I am not sure I
had a choice of where to step. It was very difficult to see what I was stepping
on. My feet felt like inert stumps. I worked quickly.
I threw everything into the now empty
kayak and put it back in the water. I started paddling as hard as I could to
stay warm. My feet felt very numb. I had been in the water for probably 20 to
30 minutes. I estimated it took me about ten minutes to get the kayak back into
the water. I still seemed very functional, but I was getting very concerned
about how much time I had been exposed in the water and now in the wind and
I looked for a channel that would cut
through as close to the ocean side of Assateague Island as possible. I needed
to land where the island was as narrow as possible so I could access the Ocean
side. The ranger would be able to drive a vehicle on the Ocean side, which was
a regular practice at Assateague. Fortunately a channel was close that took me
very far into the island towards the Ocean side. I maneuvered my Kayak towards
this channel. The wind kept trying to turn the Kayak side ways and it seemed to
take a lot of extra effort to keep the Kayak pointed straight. It took probably
about fifteen to twenty minutes to get to shore. Although my arms were getting
warm, my feet were very numb.
I put the kayak onto the shore and
opened my “waterproof” bag looking for my shoes. I pulled these out and put
them on. I was sure even with wet shoes on my feet it would be warmer than just
wearing socks. My feet and ankles improved as I walked around in my shoes.
I walked further into Assateague
towards the Ocean side to see where I was. I thought I could see the first line
of dunes from the Ocean. They were close and I could easily hear the ocean
surf. I went back to my Kayak. I moved everything to the sand, which was about
25 yards from where the Kayak was. I made a fire, but there was no protection
from the wind and very little fire wood right where I was. It took me three
tries. The wood was a combination of too damp and seemed to burn too quickly
both. I wasted perhaps 15 to 30 minutes trying to build a fire that provided
marginal warmth. I had stayed warmer moving my equipment onto the sand then
with the fire. The wind just blew the heat around so much I did not get any
benefit. I decided making a fire was pointless.
I emptied the water out of all the
bags and put everything back in. I couldn’t lift the bags with the water in
them so I had to drain them if, during my rescue, I was going to bring my gear
back with me. This took perhaps 15 minutes and I worked quickly. Moving seemed
to keep me warm. I had pulled out the cell phone. After re-packing I tried to
make a call. The cell phone was wet and did not work. At this point I realized
I had lost a lot of time trying to make a fire.
At this point I had to decide whether
or not to pitch the tent or continue walking out for help. I did not look
forward to the prospect of trying to dry my clothes when so far the fire was not
working to create warmth. I was very cold and did not know how long I could
endure the cold. Continuing to endure cold while trying to dry out over many
hours seemed an unthinkable prospect to me at this point. For some reason the
idea of trying to make a fire and pitching camp in a different location did not
occur to me. There were probably other areas protected from the wind and with
more available fire wood. I was not thinking of this option – it simply was not
occurring to me. This was probably a key error in judgment caused by exposure.
In hindsight, I think it would have been difficult to haul equipment around to
another location anyway.
I walked out to the ocean side. I
counted the paces – it was only a 100 paces from where I was. I looked down the
beach in both directions. No sign of anyone. Since I was on the far end of the
park I felt it was not likely someone would happen along. Although trucks are
allowed with permits to drive down the beach I thought it would be unlikely on a
cold, windy day at the far end of the park that someone would come along. I
turned around and went back to my kayak.
I then remembered fortunately two days
before that the guide the ranger had given me had an emergency phone location.
I pulled out this wet piece of paper. I smoothed it out. I had been at
Assateague Island probably ten times boating. I had a good feel for the shape
of the island and the road the ranger’s use. I had generally fairly good map
skills. I estimated that from this map the emergency phone would most likely
be on my way as I walked to the ranger station. I had not passed the emergency
If I missed the phone or it was not
working I would still be heading in the right direction. The thought of walking
out was starting to feel overwhelming. I also knew that I could not stay and
just sit where I was. Better to keep walking and stay warm then to just sit and
do nothing hoping someone would come along. I pushed out of my mind the cold as
I had been doing. I pushed out of my mind the increasing difficulty in
walking. Walking out was something I would just have to do and with luck I
would find the emergency phone – and it would be working. I estimated it was a
ten mile walk to get to the ranger’s station. I wasn’t sure where the
emergency phone would be, but it seemed logical that it should be on the road.
My judgment was impaired and I forgot
to get water out of my “waterproof” bag. After walking a while, I thought I
could see in the distance a pole that might possibly be the phone. I was about
half way when I remembered I had forgotten water. Walking in sand was more
difficult than just the usual walk in the woods. I decided to keep going even
though I had forgotten water. I thought in my mind the in the distance had to
be the phone. I couldn’t face turning around and then having to repeat the
steps I had already taken. It would have been more prudent to go back and get
water. As it turned out the pole I saw in the distance was the emergency phone.
I reached the emergency phone. There
were two buttons. Push 1 for the ranger’s station. Push 2 for the Sheriff’s
office. I pushed button number one. Nothing happened. It was broken. I
thought, I am in real, real trouble if this second button does not work. No
water. I had been exposed for probably over an hour to two hours now. At this
moment sleet started falling. I realized then it was colder than I thought –
probably below freezing. The sleet was not melting. The thought that the
temperature was at freezing made me hike up another notch the danger of the
situation that I was in. I pushed the second button and I heard touch tone
sounds as the phone dialed. I connected and was patched through to the ranger’s
As I talked to the voice at the other
end, my voice finally broke. I felt emotional. I wanted to be rescued from
this ordeal so badly. Would they send a truck to pick me up and my gear? We
lost the connection once, but successfully coordinated getting a truck to pick
me up and my gear. I was grateful that the park service would also help me get
my gear back by sending a pickup truck. I walked back to my site on the Ocean
side. I had left an oar out on the Ocean side before I left to mark my
location. I had passed this information along on the phone in case the ranger
did not see me as I walked back to my Kayak.
When the ranger pick me up, I was so
cold and impaired at this point I had trouble getting into the truck. I had
left about 9 am my camp site and now it was about 1230. I had not eaten and had
very little water. Plus, I had swallowed some ocean water. I had been exposed
somewhere between two to three hours of which about 30 minutes was in cold
After getting in the truck, I pushed
some water down and the ranger gave me a power bar to eat. I warmed up. My
pulse was high and I was feeling light headed. The ranger drove me and my gear
to where I had left my car. When we got to my car, I got out and felt the shock
of the cold again that I had been in. I think I had been purposely trying to
ignore the cold to just keep moving as a self-defense mechanism. As I got out
of the car I could barely walk and was having trouble standing. My feet were
finally getting to the end of this journey. I was looking forward to just
sitting in my car and driving home. I couldn’t believe how cold it felt once I
got out of the warm car. I believe now that at some point in my ordeal I had
passed through the stage of shaking due to cold to the second stage where the
body stops shaking. As I got out of the car I immediately began shivering. I
had to grab the door to balance since my legs still felt numb. I quickly got
into my car and changed clothes.
The ranger was very good and
appropriately “pushy” about whether or not I should go to a hospital. I pushed
back. Since accepting health care is a personal decision after awhile he let
go. He watched a little while as I loaded up my car. Since I was doing well
putting the gear back in my car he left after a little while.
Should I have gone to a hospital? At
the time I did not think so. I decided I could turn up the heat and all I would
be doing is just sitting anyway. If I got tired I would just pull over and
sleep. I stopped to drink and eat as soon as I got to the first food place.
Then, I moved on. Later that night before bed I took my temperature. I had
been cleaning up and feeling a little light headed, but nothing I felt I
couldn’t push through with a little motivation. Another wave of fear went
through me as to the dramatic nature of my event when I saw that my temperature
was 95.7 degrees F. I had not been resting, but moving around. I usually run
about a degree less than most people – around 97.7 or so. It was clear to me
that 95.7 was not good. My body temperature was significantly low and had been
probably lower. Based on looking back at this, I should have gone to the
hospital for observation and stayed until my body had fully warmed up. Even
after about 9 hours of being in warm environments my body was running a low body
temperature. This was a huge wakeup call concerning the event.
Throughout the ordeal I stayed focused
on reality and what was happening immediately in front of me. I focused on only
what was the next most important thing to do and then did that. This was one
reason I forgot to bring water when I started walking to the emergency phone,
but for the most part a focus was very helpful because panic never set in. I
was able to logically go through various options at different points and discard
them when they did not work by staying focused in the present moment. I did not
fully appreciate the physical effort I was putting in and I need to give some
thought to preventing myself from over exerting in such situations.
It was not until a week later that I
experienced fully the fear that would be appropriate for such a situation.
Probably everyone is wired differently in how they process life events. As I
was sharing the experience with an informal group of people, it was at that
moment that the full impact seemed to set in. After that I felt much better the
next day. It seems true the saying one cannot go around emotions, but must go
through the emotions.
The predominant emotional experience I
had while going through this experience was:
A focus on
reality. I felt very grounded in the here and now without thought of past or
future. I purposely focused only on the next task at hand.
as to what it would be like to go through this experience of exposure from start
A sense of
adventure that I was going through something difficult and about to accomplish
A feeling of
confidence that if I kept focused on the next task in front of me I would
successfully get through the experience.
worry and fear. I did not know how this story would truly end. I felt that
since I was “only” a half mile from shore and something around a 10 mile walk
that, although certainly a potentially dangerous situation, if I acted with good
commonsense I would get through it. My worry and fear led to an overload of
emotion when I finally connected with the ranger station. I needed help and my
voice started breaking then.
to severe cold for 2 to 3 hours with symptoms, strongly favor going to the
hospital. 30 minutes of exposure to 45 degree water temperatures followed by 2
to 3 hours of exposure to 25/30 MPH winds at near freezing temperatures
qualifies for justifying medical attention. Body temperature would most likely
be very low.
Do not go
out in high winds. Probably 10 MPH is a limit to having a comfortable time. 15
MPH winds was definitely high. This may mean one or several days delay in
Keep to my
practice of having a shoreline relatively close and do not go out into the
Ocean. Stay in the bays as I had the day I capsized.
in a waterproof case.
sensitive gear in waterproof bags inside a waterproof bag. Waterproof bags
allow water in through the zipper when immersed.
regular times – do not skip meals since you do not know what will happen to you
during the day.
water you need a Kayak designed for rough water with covers for the cockpit.
complete change of clothing in waterproof container(s).
blankets which stay warm when wet.
gear. Easier to manage an emergency situation if you have relatively little
water with you. Set this as a high priority at all times. Stay hydrated during
the day and do not postpone drinking water.