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 ranger’s station.

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 wind. 

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 risk drowning. 

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 and forth.

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 trouble moving.

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 cold.

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 phone. 

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 station. 

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 water. 

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.

A curiosity as to what it would be like to go through this experience of exposure from start to finish.

A sense of adventure that I was going through something difficult and about to accomplish something difficult.

A feeling of confidence that if I kept focused on the next task in front of me I would successfully get through the experience.

Sometimes 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.


When exposed 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 getting back.

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.

Keep matches in a waterproof case.

Wrap all sensitive gear in waterproof bags inside a waterproof bag.  Waterproof bags allow water in through the zipper when immersed.

Eat at regular times – do not skip meals since you do not know what will happen to you during the day.

For rough water you need a Kayak designed for rough water with covers for the cockpit.

Bring a complete change of clothing in waterproof container(s).

Bring wool blankets which stay warm when wet.

Bring less gear.  Easier to manage an emergency situation if you have relatively little stuff.

Always carry water with you.  Set this as a high priority at all times.  Stay hydrated during the day and do not postpone drinking water.



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