80 miles out to sea in a Kayak
-- Could this happen to you?
By Wayne Spivak, ADSO-CS 1SR
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
|On July 29th, 2002 John Stockton, went out for a short row in his
new kayak. Some twenty-four hours later, after a Coast Guard HH-65
helicopter, C-130 jet and a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft went searching for
him, he was plucked out of the water.
During this time period, the Coast Guard and Navy search more than 12,000
nautical miles of ocean, more than twice the size of the big island of
Hawaii. Incidentally, that's where Mr. Stockton went kayaking.
case, both the Coast Guard and Navy can chalk up a successful Search and
Rescue (SAR). Not every SAR case is successfully prosecuted, and boaters,
all boaters should understand the dangers, as well as the good times
involved in what is essentially a very safe sport.
While this is an extreme example of what can go wrong, we, and that is an
all inclusive we, have found that truth is stranger than fiction. Problems
while kayaking (or boating or sailing) happen everyday, but thankfully
most victims don't find themselves swept 80 miles out in the ocean.
Let's examine Mr. Stockton's case and see where he went wrong and what he
could have done to minimize the danger he put himself in, as well as the
danger to the rescue crews who went out to search for him. The lessons
here work whether you're going to take your vessel (any vessel, from a
rowboat up to a 65' cabin cruiser) away from the dock.
According to published reports, Mr. Stockton said "…that strong winds
capsized his kayak…It was just real big swells, 10- to 15-foot swells,
wind just howling." Rule one is checking the weather forecast prior to
leaving the dock. And continually check the weather.
If the forecast shows a weather pattern or possible weather pattern that
is adverse to the conditions your vessel is able to handle, stay home! If
the weather begins to turn ugly, head for the nearest safe port.
Weather can turn your four hour cruise in to a twenty-four year nightmare
(just ask the crew of the SS Minow), or ask Mr. Stockton if he'd like to
repeat his twenty-four hour cruise? Somehow, I don't think so…
Safety equipment is an absolute, especially on a kayak. All kayaker's,
indeed all boaters, should wear a correctly sized Personal Flotation
Device (PFD), what many of us still call a life jacket. Should your vessel
capsize, it is suggested that you stay with your capsized vessel, and not
try to swim to shore.
Swimming to shore, in most instances is a very dangerous decision, since
the shore always looks closer than in reality. In addition, without a PFD,
the chances for drowning and/or suffering from hypothermia increase
It's not entirely clear from reports if Mr. Stockton had a PFD (life
jacket), but he at least had a "yellow" jacket and an emergency blanket.
It was reported that Mr. Stockton thought about swimming to shore. At the
speed that his kayak moved away from shore, it would seem that the swim
mostly likely would have killed Mr. Stockton.
Cell Phones vs. VHF radios
entry into the emergency systems was precipitated by his use of a cell
phone. While the Coast Guard frowns upon reliance on cell phones, in this
case, Mr. Stockton's use of his cell phone did save his life.
Unfortunately, he left shore without a VHF radio, which could have
communicated with the CG C-130 aircraft or the HH-60 helicopter.
The reason for the Coast Guard's stance on cell phone usage is three fold.
1. Vessels are required, if they have a radio (for recreational boats
having a vhf radio is not a federal requirement) to maintain a safety
watch on VHF CH 16. CH 16 is the emergency hailing frequency. If you were
to call a May Day, this is the frequency you would use.
2. If you call for assistance, and the Coast Guard doesn't hear you, then
other vessels within the area of your signal might hear you and either
forward your message to the Coast Guard and/or offer assistance to your
3. Use and range of a cell phone is limited off-shore, and no one but the
called party will, under most circumstances, hear your distress call.
Federal regulations require signaling devices on board most vessels.
Signaling devices come in two varieties, audio and visual. Visual devices
are further broken down into daytime and nighttime. Mr. Stockton had none,
but by using his ingenuity, he made a signaling device.
For most kayaker's, a plastic marine whistle and a signaling mirror tied
to your PFD, would enable you to make yourself known during the 'normal'
operating times of the vessel. Kayak's, since they are not required to
have lights, should only be used during the period of sunrise to sunset.
If there is a chance that you'll be out after sunset, a flashlight is
A perfect example of how to use a signaling device, even a makeshift one
is offered by Mr. Stockton. "Finally they got close enough and he flew
right about 1 o'clock high. I had this blanket, a shiny metal emergency
blanket, I tied it on the oar and I stuck it up there and I took off my
jacket and I was waving it around. I was just like, Let them see me."
It doesn't do any good to shoot off your flares, or blow your whistle, if
there is no one to see or hear them. Use them judiciously! Federal law
requires only three (3) flares. Three flares don't last long.
Flares and other pyrotechnics, as far as Federal Law is concerned, are
only good for three years (all USCG Approved flares are marked with an
expiration date). However, they most likely will last longer. Many
Auxiliarists carry some recently expired pyrotechnics with them. These are
the ones that they try to ignite or fire first.
The reasoning is that if the older, expired pyrotechnics works, then you
now have one additional flare or other device to shoot off. If it doesn't,
then nothing ventured, nothing gained.
While not a required item, the Coast Guard strongly advises all boaters to
file a float plan with a friend or neighbor. A float plan is a simple
document that lists all the possible factors in a pre-planned voyage. The
plan should include the type of vessel, its identifying features, make,
model and power plant.
It also includes what extra safety equipment is kept on board, the
intended path that the voyage will follow, including stops and the
intended timing of the voyage (when you think you'll be where, and when).
The float plan also lists who is on the vessel, including names,
addresses, ages and physical condition.
Should you not show up where and when expected, the holder of the float
plan (and their can be multiple holders) can then call the Coast Guard,
who would institute the beginning stages of the Search and Rescue system.
The more information provided to the Coast Guard, the better the search
planning and the faster the rescue.
Stockton is, as previously mentioned, an extremely lucky man. But if he
had taken the proper precautions, his reliance on luck would have been
markedly reduced. All boaters should learn from Mr. Stockton's two days at
sea. Learn what not to leave at home, and learn what to do in an
The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary is charged with assisting the
Coast Guard in its Recreational Boating Safety (RBS) mission, among
others. The Auxiliary assists in RBS, by providing to the public many
different levels of boater education, geared for all ages, from children
Why not take a boating safety course, a sailing safety course or one of
our navigation courses today. You can contact the Coast Guard Auxiliary
either on the web at www.cgaux.org or call your local Coast Guard office.
The Coast Guard can also be found in your phone book or on the web at