As kayaking’s popularity spreads, so do safety risks

Ed White
Associated Press

Port Austin — The conditions seemed ideal: wispy clouds against a blue sky, light wind, temperatures in the high 70s. But two kayakers lasted less than an hour in Lake Huron, making a U-turn back to shore due to choppy waves that couldn’t be easily detected from a marina in northeastern Michigan.

“Better to be safe than to be on the news,” said Jim Schuster, 60, unfastening his life jacket. “We were taking on water like crazy. We’ll live to paddle another day.”

It was a wise concession that authorities don’t always hear.

Kayaking has boomed in popularity, with sales of the small narrow boats increasing by 55 percent in the U.S. since 2009, according to a trade group. While more people are choosing a relatively inexpensive way of enjoying the outdoors, many aren’t taking the proper precautions, say law enforcers, who are rescuing rookies who underestimate the risks of paddling in big open water like the Great Lakes.

They say they’re finding kayakers with no life jackets or a phone to call for help. Some simply get tired and expect a lift. Others ignore weather that can turn dicey in minutes.

“This fad is big time — not just here in Huron County,” Sheriff Kelly Hanson said while patrolling Lake Huron, the world’s fifth-largest freshwater lake, at the tip of the thumb in mitten-shaped Michigan. “When the weather’s decent, there could be 300 kayaks out here. … Those boats were not designed for this lake. I’ll argue that with anybody.”

A 22-year-old man without a life jacket drowned in July. Hanson said his deputies and the Port Austin fire department have assisted roughly 70 people this year, including an experienced paddler who was trapped by ice while in the early stages of kayaking the five Great Lakes. The sheriff pledged to seize the Missouri woman’s kayak if she needed help again.

“What? This was March,” said Hanson, who dispatched an airboat to reach her.

The U.S. Coast Guard says 152 people died in the U.S. while using kayaks or canoes in 2016, up from 139 in 2015. The deaths, mostly drownings, represented 22 percent of all U.S. boating-related deaths in both years.

A 21-year-old Pennsylvania man died after storms swamped his kayak Monday on Lake Ontario, near Niagara County, New York. His twin brother and a friend safely made it to shore.

Lake Ontario, another Great Lake, “will eat you alive,” John Gavenda told WIVB-TV after discovering the two who survived.

Some kayaks cost thousands of dollars, but paddlers don’t have to spend that much to hit the water. Ben’s Great Outdoors, about 35 miles west of Lake Huron, sells them for $129.

“A lot of folks can walk into a big-box store, purchase a kayak, get a paddle and be on the water that afternoon without realizing the dangers that are associated with it,” said Mike Baron, a boating safety specialist at the Coast Guard.

Kayaks are easy to tip because they’re light and typically have an open cockpit that can fill with water. The Coast Guard worked with the Water Sports Foundation this year to produce a safety pamphlet to be distributed when a kayak is sold. It says paddlers should wear a life jacket and pack a whistle and phone or VHF radio. “Have an exit strategy at all times,” the pamphlet advises.

The goal for many kayakers here in Port Austin, 125 miles north of Detroit, is to get to Turnip Rock, a towering rock formation with trees near the Lake Huron shore. The 7-mile round-trip has been widely promoted, even making the cover of Michigan’s 2016 state travel guide.

At Port Austin Kayak, which has more than 100 kayaks for rent, owner Chris Boyle said thousands of people have safely made the trip during his 11 years in business. His staff constantly check the weather and won’t let a kayak leave the shop if winds reach 10 mph.

“I can’t profile people figuring who’s going to make it and who’s not,” Boyle said. “I think this is the safest place to kayak in the Great Lakes in Michigan. You have warm water. You can follow the coast close to shore. And if a storm comes up, you can get to shore fairly easily and out of danger.”

Hanson, the sheriff, acknowledged the risks are much lower on calm days on Lake Huron. But paddlers, he added, must be vigilant. He installed signs along the shore in time for the Labor Day weekend, advising paddlers to know the weather — and their skills.

Lake Huron has “capsized or sunk boats and ships up to hundreds of times bigger than a kayak,” Hanson said.