Rescue at Pictured Rocks: Anatomy of an Accident
It was meant to be another boy’s trip, the latest in a tradition that stretched back more than two decades for old friends Jim Farrington, Sean Royston and Tolan Annis. It turned into a life-and-death struggle in the chill waters of Lake Superior.
Jim, 49, was an electrical lineman out of Alden, Michigan. Sean, 48, had worked with Jim early in their careers, later becoming and electrical grid systems manager in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. He met Tolan, 53, through their local homebrew club, and became a silent partner in Sanctuary Spirits, the craft distillery Tolan opened in 2014 and poured his heart into. All three were married, Tolan and Sean with grown kids.
Every other year for more than two decades, the friends had done a big outdoor trip together. Early on they specialized in backpacking, but shifted to kayaking as they got older. “At the end of our last end-to-end Isle Royale hiking trip, we all looked at each other and said ‘We gotta find a better way to do this,’” Tolan explained.
The trio bought sea kayaks and began exploring Lake Superior’s classic paddling destinations, including Isle Royale, Grand Island and the Apostle Islands. By 2016, the only bucket-list kayaking trip on Superior’s south shore they hadn’t done was the challenging out-and-back route at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. They planned a weeklong trip, starting on Sept. 13.
A front moved through that morning, bringing clouds and drizzle. The men waited for the weather to clear and launched from the beach at Sand Point, less than 100 yards from the park headquarters. They shoved off between 10:30 and 10:45 a.m.
The forecast called for winds building to 10 knots and seas rising to 1-to-3 feet by early afternoon, and then stronger winds overnight. The trio punched out through small waves and headed northeast. Soon the national lakeshore’s trademark cliffs began to rise on their right. Their next chance to get out of their kayaks would be some five miles ahead, beyond a tourist overlook called Miner’s Castle Point. That was their first escape option and they’d discussed it that morning during what Jim calls their “tailboard”—linemen’s jargon for a safety and planning briefing.
“It’s literally just ingrained in us through our work that you always have a tailboard whenever you’re doing something different to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” Jim said. “So we kind of bring that back into our adventures.”
On the water, the headwind grew to the forecasted 10 knots, and kept rising. The waves built from 1-to-2 feet to 3-to-4 feet. Still, none of them considered turning around. They were making good time—Jim’s GPS showed them averaging 3.6 mph despite the rising headwind—and all of them had paddled in more challenging conditions. Then, quite suddenly, the waves grew to 6 feet and steepened. The wind rose to 20 knots.
“When it went bad, it went bad fast,” said Tolan, who was in the lead about 60 feet ahead of Jim. Sean trailed another 40 or 50 feet behind Jim. He was the first to go over.
Jim’s grip held, but the handle didn’t. The T-grip tore clean out of the kayak, and Sean slid back into the crashing surf.
Sean grabbed for the release strap on his sprayskirt and kicked free of his boat. It was a bad place to swim. The water temperature was 62 degrees, a steep 6-foot swell was running and the wind was pushing him toward the sheer cliffs about 100 yards away. Miner’s Point was a quarter-mile or more dead upwind, and the closest safe landing beach was another quarter-mile beyond that.
Sean had only one good option: Get back into his boat and paddle around the point to safety. Fortunately, he was relatively well equipped to do that. Like Jim and Tolan, he carried a paddle float and pump in the deck rigging of his 16-foot Current Designs sea kayak. He was dressed in waterproof paddling pants and a dry top, and he was wearing a Type III lifejacket designed for kayaking.
He also had help. When Jim heard Sean go over he quickly came to assist, while Tolan held station about 150 feet ahead, keeping his bow pointed into the waves. Though none of the three had taken any formal kayaking courses, they’d all practiced self-rescue and assisted rescue techniques. The drills had become a regular feature of their trips—flipping over into the chill waters of Lake Superior and then clambering back in as the others offered help, advice and plenty of mocking banter. But this was no laughing matter. This was life and death.
Jim brought his boat parallel to Sean’s and steadied it as Sean inflated his paddle float—an inflatable bladder that fits over one blade of the paddle to provide added stability—and scrambled into his cockpit, which was now full of water. He began working the small plastic hand pump, but couldn’t stay ahead of the waves. “The pumping was just no use,” he said. “I’d get close and another wave would come over and just gully-wash us.” As Sean pumped, the paddle float slipped off his paddle. He’d forgotten to clip it on.
Most paddling fatalities result from a combination of small mistakes and unlucky turns of fate, each building on the next. The men were already four mistakes in. They’d launched into bad weather. They hadn’t turned around when they still could. Sean had capsized. Now they’d lost a useful safety item. In the next 20 minutes, the mistakes would come faster, compounded by rotten luck.
As Sean and Jim tried to pump out Sean’s boat, the wind pushed them closer to the cliffs, into shallower water where the waves became even steeper. A wave landed in Jim’s lap and blew out the cheap nylon sprayskirt he purchased with his Old Town Adventure 16 kayak years before.
Soon after that, another big wave rolled both Sean and Jim into the water.
At that moment, Jim says, his first concern was saving himself. “It may sound cold, but it’s kind of like they tell you on an airplane when somebody needs assistance putting on a mask, you put yours on first. You can’t help if you are in the same position they are,” he said. Jim was able to self-rescue without his paddle float, which he’d given to Sean to replace the one that had drifted away. Sean managed to get back into his boat as well—his second re-entry of the day.
When they looked up they saw Tolan in the water, clinging to his boat.
Jim and Sean started toward him. With their kayaks rafted together for stability they each paddled ‘canoe style,’ using one hand to paddle and one to grasp the other’s kayak. But with the boats full of water, facing into big swell and 20 knots of wind, they could make no progress. Tolan was on his own.
“By this time my arms are just giving out,” Sean said. “I looked at Jim and said ‘I can’t do this anymore. We kept getting closer and closer to the cliffs and at some point I looked him and said, ‘We gotta call. We gotta call now.’”
Jim had a handheld VHF radio clipped to his life jacket. “We were trying on Channel 16 and Channel 9, calling ‘Mayday, three kayakers stranded at Miner’s Rock,’” he said. But no one heard the distress calls. The steep cliffs blocked the radio signal from reaching the Park Service headquarters or anyone else on land, and no vessels were on the lake. A small craft advisory had been issued just after the kayakers launched, so the tour boats that normally ply the lakeshore were tied to their piers. Jim and Sean were on their own too.
A few minutes after the Mayday call, Jim capsized a second time. When he got back in his boat the radio was gone, stripped from his lifejacket when he self-rescued, together with his cell phone and GPS unit, which had also been attached to his lifejacket.
Throughout the ordeal, Sean and Jim had been trying to make it around Miner’s Castle Point, about a quarter-mile upwind. Now they realized that even that short upwind distance was impossible in their waterlogged kayaks, and they began looking for an alternative.
The overlook was close enough that he could hear the thump of car doors as families visited the scenic attraction. He hollered until he was hoarse, but no one heard him.
From the water, there looked to be a narrow rocky shelf at the base of the cliffs that rise about 90 feet out of the water. Jim and Sean decided to take their chances on the ledge, where they hoped they could get enough purchase to drain their kayaks before continuing around the point. Getting there was no problem—the wind and waves were pushing them in that direction. But when they arrived, they realized the ledge was an illusion. It was actually a partially submerged strip of sandstone, and it was being pummeled by head-high waves.
Jim was first to arrive, and somehow managed to get to his feet and reached for the plastic T-handle in the bow of his kayak. Jim was 6’3” and 230 pounds, a big man used to working with his hands. He closed his grip around the handle and braced himself to hold his kayak, which was lashed to Sean’s boat with Sean holding on to it. Jim’s grip held, but the handle didn’t. All that weight tore the T-grip clean out of Jim’s kayak. The two boats and Sean slid back into the crashing surf.
“This was the tough part,” Sean said, his voice strained. “I just kept getting rolled. My knees were all scraped up, my elbows all scraped up. I just kept getting knocked down.”
Jim reached out a hand, but could do nothing to help as the waves thrashed Sean, pushing him along the shoreline. The cliff was too steep for Jim to follow, and within minutes Sean was 150 feet away. Sean had lost contact with the boats, which disappeared around a small outcropping. Soon Sean, too, was out of sight.
“The last time I saw him he was separated from his boat, rolling through the waves toward the rock formation,” Jim said. “And in my mind I swore his life jacket was unzipped.”
Jim had been so focused on Sean’s ordeal that he hadn’t even looked for Tolan. Now, from his vantage point close to the water, he could see nothing but waves. Less than half an hour after Sean’s initial capsize, all three men were separated. Sean was in the water without his boat, possibly—in Jim’s estimation probably—already dead. Tolan was nowhere to be seen. No one had answered Jim’s Mayday. Now he was stranded on the rocks, his radio and cell phone somewhere on the bottom of Lake Superior.
Jim tried to follow Sean along the shoreline, walking the narrow strip of shoreline like a tightrope artist. He eventually made it around the small outcropping Sean had been pushed around, but not before the waves knocked him off the rocks three more times.
As Jim clawed his way out of the water the third time, Tolan came floating by. He was holding his waterlogged boat, with one hand on the cockpit rim and his paddle wedged under the other arm. He’d been kicking toward Miner’s Castle Point for the better part of an hour, trying to get around the point to land at Miner’s Beach, but despite that effort had lost ground in the powerful wind.
The men yelled to each other at the top of their lungs, but communication was hopeless.
“I thought he asked where’s Sean,” Jim recalled. “So I yelled back, ‘Last time I saw him, that way!’ and I pointed to the west,” away from Miner’s Castle. Tolan started moving in that direction and soon disappeared from Jim’s sight around another small outcropping.
Jim later found a broken tree trunk and used it to scramble higher, eventually climbing about halfway up the 90-foot face. The Miner’s Point overlook was just above him, close enough that he could hear the thump of car doors closing as families visited the scenic attraction. He hollered until he was hoarse, but no one heard him. Jim knew he needed to make himself seen. He found a spot on a 35-degree slope and hunkered there on his haunches, pulling his sprayskirt over his knees against the blustery wind. It was time to wait.
Sean struggled in the surf zone until the waves finally spat him back into the lake, where he lay exhausted on his back, staring at the clear blue sky. He fastened his life jacket—it had indeed come unzipped in the fray, but stayed on—and considered his options.
Miner’s Point was barely a quarter mile to the northeast, but with the wind and swell coming from that direction it may as well have been on the moon. Sean decided to turn downwind, toward Sand Point where they had launched that morning. It was three and a half miles away, along a shoreline girded with steep cliffs.
“I’m a swimmer and I just said, ‘Well, let’s just start kicking,’” Sean said. “And basically I kicked. I kicked for hours. I kept looking up over my right shoulder and finding a point on that cliff—like there’s a downed birch tree, or there’s a little waterfall—and then I would keep going until it was perpendicular to me and then it was ‘Okay, just pick another spot.’ Keep kicking.”
The water was unseasonably warm for Superior at that time of year, about 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Sean was dressed in waterproof paddling pants and a dry top over shorts and a quick dry T-shirt. The combination wasn’t completely waterproof, but it did slow the ingress of water. Sean didn’t feel particularly cold, but he knew it was only a matter of time until hypothermia began to set in. He needed to get out of the water, and the only way out was to keep kicking.
After about three hours of sustained kicking, Sean had made it most of the way back to Sand Point. The steep cliffs finally gave way to a thick cedar swamp.
“I got to a point where the shelf was probably four feet deep and I could actually walk up and grab some of the branches. But the underbrush was so thick, you would have to be a squirrel to get inside there,” Sean said. He kept going, now wading in chest-deep water, pulling himself from branch to branch. After about half an hour of this, he came to the mouth of a tiny creek, sheltered from the waves by a fallen tree. It gave him just enough of an opening to drag himself out of the water.
He followed the creek bed into the cedar thicket and almost immediately spotted a decked walkway. He started down the trail as fast as he could walk, blowing right by an older couple taking pictures.
“I didn’t say anything to them, I just kept on going. I pop out in this parking lot, and this is no joke—the National Park Service guy is driving by right as I pop out of there, and I wave him down,” Sean said.
“He slowed down and passed me about five yards, and I just sat my ass down in the sand. He got out and says, ‘Are you okay’ and I say ‘No.’”
It was just before 5 p.m. Sean, Jim and Tolan had gone into the water at least four and a half hours earlier. Authorities were only now learning of the accident.
The ranger, Bill Jones, immediately initiated a search and rescue operation. Within minutes, the National Park Service launched its lake patrol boat Arrowhead and began searching the shoreline between Sand Point and Miner’s Castle. The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a 45-foot patrol boat from its Marquette station about 40 miles west of Tolan and Jim’s last known location, and scrambled an MH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopter from Air Station Traverse City, 135 air miles south.
With the cavalry on the way, Sean and the ranger went looking for Tolan at Miner’s Beach. As they drove, Jones repeatedly asked Sean where and when he’d capsized. The ranger was trying to judge Sean’s mental state and whether he’d really been in the water for more than four hours. At Miner’s Beach they found no sign of Tolan. They drove to the next campground—again, no Tolan—and then back to Miner’s, where an ambulance was waiting for Sean.
“It was tough, because I knew I was going to be pulled from the game,” he said. “That was it. I prayed. There wasn’t much else to do.”
Jim hadn’t moved much since becoming separated from Sean. He was wearing his bright red paddling top and lifejacket, in the middle of a clear patch of sandstone about midway up the 90-foot cliff. Though he’d lost his glasses in the water, Jim spotted the Arrowhead’s flashing light bar as soon as the boat cleared Grand Island.
“The biggest relief in my life was seeing them blue flashing lights that no one ever wants to see in the rearview mirror,” Jim said. “When I saw those lights I knew one of them two guys made it to shore, and I really hoped it was Sean because I didn’t have high hopes for him.”
When the Arrowhead arrived a few minutes later, Jim started working his way toward the shoreline. Using the boat’s loudspeaker, rangers told him in no uncertain terms to stay put. A rescue was underway.
“I actually work within sight of the Coast Guard Air Station, and the first thing in my mind is, ‘Please don’t be a helicopter,’ because if it was I knew there’s going to be video of all this stuff,” Jim said, laughing. But with the wind still blowing 20 knots and 6-7 foot waves pounding the coast, there was no way for the Arrowhead to recover Jim. It was going to be the helicopter.
The chopper arrived on station at 6:29 p.m. It wasn’t going to be an easy rescue. Jim was on a steep slope backed by an almost-sheer cliff fringed with tall trees. To pluck Jim from the rocks, pilots Lt. Cmdr. Jason Blyth and Lt. John Reid would have to hover uncomfortably close to the tree-lined cliff and lower rescue swimmer Travis Nash from more than five times the preferred height, in swirling 20-knot winds.
“The helicopter crew told me they normally do a rescue with 40 feet of cable off the drum. There was 210 feet of cable off the drum out of the 260 feet they carry,” Jim said. “There were actually leaves and small twigs flying out of the trees that they were next to down to me on the rocks. So the fact that they were able to do what they did amazes me.”
The aircrew reported Jim safely aboard at 7:06 p.m., and flew six miles to the Munising Memorial Hospital. The town’s streetlamps were already glowing when the chopper set down in the hospital parking lot to drop Jim. After a quick refueling stop the helicopter lifted off to join the Arrowhead and the Coast Guard patrol boat in the search for Tolan, who had gone into the water about 7 hours before.
The search centered around Miner’s Castle where Tolan had last been seen, but he was already miles to the west.
When Tolan capsized, he was about 150 feet from the others—too far away for them to help or to communicate. Tolan tried several times to self-rescue using the paddle-float technique, without success. He tried to pump out his flooded cockpit but couldn’t keep up with the water pouring in. After a few minutes of pumping and multiple attempts to get back into his boat, he decided to get into a stable position and wait for the others to assist him. “I figured Jim would get Sean in the boat, because he’s a stud, and then he’d come to help me,” he said. But the next time he looked for Sean and Jim, they were gone.
Tolan now made a series of judgments, any one of which may have been the difference between life and death. First, he determined he couldn’t get back into his boat unaided. Second, he decided to stay with his kayak at all costs. Tolan knew Jim had a handheld VHF radio and assumed that he’d called for help. He also knew that his 14-foot orange kayak would be far easier for rescuers to spot than a lone swimmer dressed in blue and gray. The kayak offered secure flotation and was packed with the drinking water, food and dry clothes he’d need when he got to the beach. That was his plan—kick with the kayak around Miner’s Point and land at Miner’s Beach. The problem, of course, is that the 20-knot winds were whipping around the point, making progress in that direction all but impossible.
Tolan estimates he’d been kicking for about an hour when he spotted Jim on the cliff. He stopped kicking to let the wind and waves push him within shouting distance. What each of them said, and what each thought he heard, offers a lesson about the way people think in emergency situations.
Jim was fixated on what had become of Sean, whom he had just seen washed out of sight. Tolan’s primary focus was finding a safe place to get out of the water. From the edge of the breaking surf, Tolan shouted to Jim, “Hey where’s a good place to beach?”
Jim thought he was asking where Sean was. “I yelled back, ‘Last time I saw him, that way!’ and pointed to the west down the shore,” Jim recalled. With that, Tolan abandoned his plan to go around the point and began kicking west instead.
Tolan had settled into a secure position with his right hand gripping his kayak’s cockpit rim and his paddle wedged under his left arm. One end of the paddle was tucked into the boat’s deck rigging, and the paddle float clipped to the other end. It was a stable arrangement, but it also meant he had to push the kayak sideways through the water. It was slow going.
“I would kick that way, or turn the boat around and try and lay on my back and pull the boat because you just get so fatigued you’re trying to mix it up,” he says. Like the others, he was wearing a dry top and paddling pants over light synthetic pants and shirt, with neoprene paddling booties. Water had begun to seep in and collect around his ankles.
The hours flowed together. Tolan kept kicking. “Normally when you have a situation go bad on you it happens really fast, and adrenaline carries you through it. But seven hours—there is no adrenaline left,” he said. “I had no sense of time but I’d seen the sun go across the sky. I could start to feel myself becoming slightly hypothermic. I was getting real sleepy, my hands were starting to shake and I thought to myself, ‘You’ve gotta get out of this water soon or it’s not going to end well.’”
About a mile from Sand Point, he saw his chance—a low spot in the cliff with a thick tree root reaching down. Tolan thought he could use the root to pull himself out of the water.
“The boat cockpit’s full of water, the waves are still beating hard, so now all of a sudden as I’m trying to grab this root the boat is becoming a weapon against me. It’s beating me up.” After holding onto the boat for seven hours, Tolan made the difficult decision to let it go. He managed to pull himself up the root to the edge of the thicket atop the low cliff. By the time he got there the boat had drifted out of sight.
Tolan continued along the ridgeline, snapping branches with every step, hoping the boat might get caught up in the underbrush. That’s exactly what happened. When he caught up to the boat Tolan was able to climb back down the cliff and recover a few pieces of essential gear. “I needed food, I needed water and I needed to change my clothes,” he says. “And I needed a sleeping bag because I was going to be in the woods for the night.”
Tolan threw some dry bags up onto the cliff. He changed clothes, gulped water and shoveled handfuls of GORP into his mouth. Then he started along the cliff, knowing it eventually would lead him to the launch beach.
“Fatigue was just immense at that point. I’d take two or three steps and just collapse, then pull myself back up take two or three more,” he said. “And then all of a sudden it dawned on me that I have a dry box and a phone, and I don’t know if anybody knows about Jim and Sean.”
There’s very little cell service around Pictured Rocks, but Tolan turned on the phone and caught a little bit of signal. “The 911 operator knew who I was. She said ‘We’ve already got the other two, so you stay put because I’ve got a GPS on your location now.’”
Tolan’s 911 call came as the Coast Guard chopper was finishing its refueling stop. In the ER, Jim and Sean overheard a Park Service radio call saying they had a status on the last missing kayaker. Before they could hear it, someone turned down the volume on the scanner, perhaps to protect them from bad news. More often than not, seven hours in Lake Superior is fatal.
The helicopter flew to the position the 911 operator gave them, but even circling almost directly above Tolan they couldn’t see him in the gathering dusk. Finally they spotted a pinprick of light through the underbrush. It was Tolan signaling with his headlamp.
The helicopter held station to mark Tolan’s position as a team of NPS rangers made their way to him. “When we finally met up it was well past dark,” Tolan says. The rangers judged him well enough to hike out, and they bushwhacked back to the trail and walked about a half-mile back to Sand Point, where the three friends had launched that morning.
When the rangers took his vitals, Tolan’s body temperature had recovered to within 2 degrees of normal. They asked if he wanted to be admitted to the hospital, and he said no way. “I said my jeep is a block away, I’d just as soon go down to the hospital and pick the other guys up.
“I went down to the emergency room and Jim and Sean are just wearing hospital scrubs—pants and tops—and socks,” Tolan said. “We get out of there, it’s pretty late at night and so we go to a grocery store and all they had were women’s flip-flops with sparkles and stuff, so they bought a couple pairs and then we asked, ‘Hey is there a restaurant open around here?’”
They wound up in nearby Christmas, Michigan, a town of 400 thoroughly committed to a year-round Santa Clause theme. As luck would have it, the town also is home to a small casino. Workers there listened to their story and re-opened the kitchen for them. “The gal comes over and says, ‘What do you want?’ and I say ‘Well, I’ll take a whiskey,” says Tolan, the distillery owner. The three friends toasted their good fortune and gorged themselves on fried-chicken strips, then retreated to a nearby hotel for hot showers and clean beds.
The next day they walked the shoreline—Jim and Sean in hospital scrubs and women’s sandals—and recovered all three boats, as well as wallets, keys and most of their gear. All three would be returning to their families.
The rescue did make the news, and Jim’s colleagues had some fun at his expense. “I came back to work and there was a lifejacket, an oar and a piece of rope on my table, in case I needed to be rescued during our morning meeting,” he said.
Jim took the ribbing in stride, and later went across the street to Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City to personally thank everyone who’d helped get him off that cliff.
“The pilot met me in parking lot. He took me in into the main center, and the co-pilot, rescue swimmer and flight mechanic—who operated the winch—all came in,” Jim said. They introduced him to the commanding officer, who asked if he would thank everyone at the air station. “I’m not a guy who speaks in public, but I went in and thanked 40 or 45 people,” Jim says. To his surprise, they stood and clapped.
“They talked about the rescue—what went wrong and what went right, and what we can learn from it,” Jim said. “They told me the gear and the clothes that we had made this a rescue and not a recovery.”
The men made their share of mistakes, but they also had the equipment, determination and presence of mind to survive a very dangerous event.
- Not turning around when conditions first deteriorated.
- Not taking into account the effect of topography on wind and wave conditions. The wind increased in intensity when it whipped around Miner’s Point, and currents and shallower water caused the waves to steepen.
- Not practicing rescues in dynamic conditions. The men had practiced paddle-float and assisted rescues, but did not know two techniques that may have allowed them to get back into their kayaks and empty the water. First is a T-rescue, in which the rescuer drains the victim’s boat before he re-enters. Second is securing the sprayskirt over the flooded cockpit before attempting to pump it out, leaving just enough of an opening to use the pump. A combination of these two techniques may have allowed Sean to get into his kayak and continue around the point.
- Failing to secure Sean’s paddle float. This probably wasn’t a critical factor, but illustrates how easy it is to make small mistakes in stressful situations.
- Waiting to call for assistance. Jim didn’t immediately radio for assistance, even when Tolan was in the water and both he and Sean’s boats were flooded. It’s not clear whether a Mayday would have been heard if it was issued a few minutes earlier when he was farther from the cliffs, but it would have been prudent to make that call as soon as he and Sean were stable.
- Kit. The kayakers had a full compliment of paddling gear and rescue equipment, including lifejackets, dry tops and pants, pumps and paddle floats. Jim had a handheld marine VHF radio.
- Skill. While none of the three were expert kayakers (none can perform a roll for example) they were all experienced paddlers who had practiced self-rescue techniques.
- Tolan stayed with his boat. Staying with his kayak greatly improved his chance of being seen by rescuers, and gear he had aboard would have been critical if he’d had to spend the night out, as appeared likely.
- Composure. None of the men lost their heads. They all kept their composure and made decisions that ultimately led to a safe outcome.
Determination. None of the three gave up. They knew their fate was in their own hands, and ultimately Sean and Tolan rescued themselves. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.