Two incidents, one of which was fatal, illustrate why fishing waders are a very bad choice for protecting paddlers against cold water.
- May 16, 2020 – a close call in Haystack Rock, Pacific City, OR
- June 12, 2020 – a tragic fatality in Trinidad Bay, Humboldt County, CA
May 16, 2020 – a close call in Haystack Rock, Pacific City, OR
Nicholas Flud and a friend's 16-year-old son launched their kayaks from the beach at Pacific City, Oregon, and paddled out to the vicinity of Haystack Rock, where they planned to go fishing. Haystack is a massive 340-foot-tall rock that lies over a half mile from shore. Both men were wearing PFDs and fishing waders.
When they were done fishing and heading back to shore, Flud was ahead of his partner when an unusually large wave broke further out and behind him. He was able to surf it for a while but then he capsized. His chest-high fishing waders immediately filled with water, making it impossible for him to get back onto his sit-on-top kayak. At that point, Flud and his partner were caught inside the break zone, over 100 yards from shore, as some big sets rolled in.
Flud describes the situation:
“I was actually by myself at first when I flipped. I got halfway onto my kayak twice but the weight of the waders flipped it before I could get on. It turned upside down and I climbed on top of the kayak but a wave quickly knocked me off again.
Then my friend paddled up about 30 feet to the side of me and stopped to check if I was OK. I asked him if he could paddle us in the rest of the way [to shore] and he said he could try.
So I let go of the side of my kayak and swam to his kayak and grabbed the back of it. Just then a strong wave came over my head and flipped his kayak. My kayak was gone and he fell off his. I held the opposite side of his kayak so he could get on and attempt to paddle us to the shore. He's 16 and my parental instinct kicked in and made sure he stayed in the kayak and I stayed in the water.”
At this point, Flud and his partner were caught in a rip current that carried them north and then about 600 yards west, away from the beach to the point of Cape Kiwanda, where waves were crashing onto the rocky headland. It's a very dangerous location, and is absolutely the worst place that paddlers in their situation could wind up.
“I had to have him pull up on my life jacket for as long as he could so I could catch my breath and rest for a second. So many things went incredibly wrong in a blink of an eye. It went from me trying to survive, to me and my friend's son against the ocean. He started to panic after the current was pulling us out and north around the Kiwanda rocks and he said he didn't know what to do. I told him stay calm and don't panic is what we do.
As the current pulled us back out and north from our original location, [my partner] fell off 2 more times before we were rescued and I held the opposite side of the kayak so he could immediately get back on and control us from being slammed into the rocks in front of Cape Kiwanda.”
Note: It’s useful to play this video on the 0.5 speed setting so you can fully appreciate the way that waves behave off the end of Cape Kiwanda. Points, headlands, and cliffs reflect waves, and when these reflected waves bounce back and meet the incoming waves, they can amplify each other. Also, when the reflecting area is irregular in shape, sea conditions can become very “confused”, which often makes staying upright in a kayak quite challenging. It’s also worth noting that this video was shot on a fairly calm day.
As the current was carrying them back out to sea, Flud's partner called 911, and the call was relayed to the US Coast Guard. Fortunately, a Coast Guard helicopter was already airborne on a training mission near Astoria, Oregon and was able to divert to the rescue. It reached them in 25 minutes - an unusually fast response time.
“My friend's son did everything in his power to keep us from getting pushed into the rocks. He [eventually] had no strength paddling forward, so we had him paddle backwards and I was his cheerleader that he could do it. He started falling asleep at one point before the helo came flying over head. (Note: This is a common response to the incredible stress of the situation after an adrenaline surge starts wearing off.)
So many life or death things in such a short amount of time. I was holding onto the kayak thinking about my kids if I would ever see them again and this couldn't be the last time I ever saw them.”
When the helicopter arrived, Flud was clinging to the back of the other kayak. Seas were two feet, and he was cold and exhausted from struggling in the 56F water. The helicopter lowered a rescue swimmer and both kayakers were hoisted aboard around 2:30 pm.
As Flud concluded in a message after the incident:
“The neoprene waders I made the mistake of wearing filled up with water and I couldn't get the extra weight up on the kayak without flipping it over. Waders are a death trap waiting to happen on a boat or kayak in my opinion.”
Loss of Breathing Control
There are many lessons to be learned from reading incident reports. One very revealing comment that Nick Flud made is:
“I had to have him pull up on my life jacket for as long as he could so I could catch my breath and rest for a second".
Cold shock, which he experienced the instant that water flooded into his waders, is best described as a "loss of breathing control". It's component parts are gasping, hyperventilating, and a dramatic reduction in the ability to hold your breath.
When you add the exertion of trying to get back on his kayak, swimming to his partner's kayak, getting promptly overwashed by a large wave, helping his partner get back on his kayak – all of it totally unexpected, very stressful and frightening - those are circumstances that greatly increase the difficulty of trying to get your breathing back under voluntary control.
But why did he feel the need to have his partner pull up on his life jacket? Because the water was rough and the seas were two feet on average. As a BoatUS Foundation study noted, when you're wearing a Type III PFD, your nose is roughly 3 inches above the surface. It's a situation in which people who have lost control of their breathing drown because they inhale water - a very easy thing to have happen in those conditions.
June 12, 2020 – a tragic fatality in Trinidad Bay, Humboldt County, CA
Nicholas Brunner, 19, of McKinleyville, CA went kayak fishing alone in the Pacific Ocean around 6 am. He launched from Boat Launch Beach in Trinidad, which is a popular departure point for local kayakers. Trinidad is located on the California Coast about 250 miles north of San Francisco.
Brunner was paddling a 12-foot-long, camo-colored fishing-style kayak equipped with an efficient pedal drive. As kayaks go, it was the type of boat that offers a very good platform for fishing. He was wearing fishing waders and a PFD.
Brunner took the precaution of leaving a “Float Plan” with his family, and when he failed to return home at the agreed upon time, a family member called 911 and a massive search for him began around 4:30 pm. While searchers were on scene, his kayak was found washed ashore at Luffenholtz Beach, roughly 1.7 miles SE from where he launched. His PFD and other identifying documents were found nearby.
Sunset on June 12 was at 8 pm, roughly 3.5 hours after he was reported missing, and was followed by 60 - 80 minutes of gradually diminishing twilight, all of which searchers used without success to try and spot him in the water or on one of the many rock outcroppings that dot the bay. The search was resumed the following morning, without success, and was suspended at the end of the day.
On June 14, at about 9:35 am, a volunteer team of civilian divers searching for Brunner located his body 350 yards offshore, submerged in the area of Camal Rock, northwest of Baker Beach.
Note: There are two rocks in Trinadad Bay with very similar names: Camal and Camel.
The Humboldt County Sheriff's Department stated that when his body was recovered, he was wearing socks, grey sweatpants, a purple hoody and a black jacket. His family, however, stated that he was also wearing chest-high fishing waders and a PFD when he went fishing.
His drowning is consistent with his waders filling up with water when he capsized. Because of the 51F (10.5C) water temperature, he would have been gasping and hyperventilating due to cold shock.
Just like the kayak fisherman in Oregon, the weight of the water in his waders prevented him from climbing back onto his kayak, so he decided to remove his waders. However in order to do so, he first had to remove his PFD.
Although he managed to remove both his PFD and his waders, without the support of his PFD he drowned before he was able to get back on his kayak. It’s also possible that his kayak drifted away while he was struggling to remove his waders. Swimming failure due to cold shock would have made it impossible for him to catch it.
Fishing kayaks these days are very stable in flat water. Many manufacturers emphasize this feature in their advertising, even going so far as to say things like this:
“You can fish rougher waters and strong wind with confidence. Arguably, the best advantage you have from a very stable kayak is the fact you can stand up and fish”.
With that sort of encouragement, paddlers can easily develop a false sense of security about kayak stability and fail to appreciate the absolute necessity of preparing for sudden immersion due to an unexpected capsize. In addition to wearing a wetsuit or drysuit, paddlers should be proficient in self-rescue. It's worth noting that neither bad weather nor rough water were an issue in this accident.
Leaving a “float plan” with his family was insufficient - which is often the case in cold water fatalities. He drowned long before they even realized that something was wrong. He was paddling alone, no one saw him capsize, and he had no one to help him get back on his kayak. He also had no way to signal for help, and no cell phone or VHF marine radio with which to call for help.
The water temperature was 51F (10.5C) and he had no thermal protection. As a result, he experienced maximum-intensity cold shock the instant he capsized.
To understand how a strong, young man like Brunner could suddenly drown, it's important to remember that cold shock causes an immediate loss of breathing control. A swimmer who has no PFD for support, who cannot coordinate swim strokes with breathing, who is hyperventilating, and who has trouble holding his breath, is very likely to suddenly inhale water and drown. All it takes is one breath when the mouth isn’t above the water.
Search and Rescue Responders
The US Coast Guard, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, California State Parks and local volunteers participated in the Search and Rescue (SAR) operation for Brunner. They conducted extensive searches of Trinidad Bay lasting approximately 20 hours.
Both of these incidents demonstrate that fishing waders (also known as bibs) are a particularly poor choice for protection against cold water immersion.
While it's possible that waders could be used safely if they were paired with a very snug drytop that prevented any water for entering the waders, such a system should be thoroughly tested – with partners as backup, and in safe conditions very close to shore - to make absolutely sure that the waders are watertight.
Many manufacturers and retailers blur the distinction between drytops and paddling jackets, and it’s important to recognize that paddling jackets do not prevent water entry. In other words, although the material is waterproof, a paddling jacket isn’t watertight.
Some paddlers have suggested that having a compression strap on chest waders will be sufficient to keep water out. That seems very unlikely. After all, both paddlers in this report wore snug-fitting PFDs over their waders, and they still filled with water. It’s also noteworthy that these garments are called “waders”. They wern’t designed for paddling or protection against cold water immersion.
The bottom line is that whatever system you use, you should thoroughly test it to make sure that it works properly. If the paddlers in this report had done that, they would have discovered the potentially lethal problem of water filling up their waders.
The National Center for Cold Water Safety lists Five Golden Rules that all cold water paddlers should follow. You can read about them here:
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Moulton Avery is Founder and Director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety. He’s been canoeing and kayaking for over 45 years, and promoting cold water safety for almost that long.
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