On Sunday, Aug 2nd, we set out for a family sail in Penn Cove aboard our 24 foot sailboat, Juan Solo. We were out entertaining my visiting aunt and uncle from Fresno, CA and showing them the best things to do on Whidbey Island.
After sailing from Oak Harbor to deep within Penn Cove we decided to head back around 5 pm. As we headed downwind and crossed the middle of Penn Cove, we came upon something that did not look quite right. I called for my binoculars to get a better look. What I discovered was a tandem silver kayak capsized with two people clinging to it. Less than half of the vessel was visible and looked like a submerged log poking out of the water and an angle. I noticed that it was a male and female in their 20’s. Neither were wearing life jackets and were not making any progress in getting out of their precarious situation. They were petrified from the shock.
I readied my novice crew for a rescue. The first thing we needed to do was to drop our headsail to slow down and assess the situation and communicate to the victims. As we approached, under the mainsail, we needed to find out some critical information. I called out to them to see how long they had been exposed to the cold waters. If they had been there more than a few minutes, we would need to have called 911 as hypothermia can quickly set in. They replied that it had only been about 3-4 minutes. This was good news.
The male had been able to push the female up high upon the disabled kayak to reduce her exposure, taking on the risks himself. I called out to them that I would approach from downwind so that I can slow to a stop if needed.
My crew deployed the rescue ladder on the port side. I did not use my motor as it is too close to the ladder position and did not want to cause any secondary injuries. We grabbed the victims from the water and assessed their hypothermic condition. Neither were in any dangerous state and we grabbed sweaters and jackets to help warm the female. We keep a first aid kit on board with a space blanket but did not need to deploy it this time. We got her down in the cabin where she could warm up and seek any needed emotional support.
We spent a few extra minutes recovering paddles and gear before going back for the kayak. The male had mentioned that his keys were in a backpack that was inside the capsized vessel. He also mentioned that his phone had fallen out of his pocket during the capsize. I felt it was best to not try to flip over the kayak until we were back at the dock. This way it would trap any floating items within the air pocket created inside.
We slowly towed the kayak back to the Coupeville boat launch. My next concern was if we had enough water for me to tie up to the dock as my keel is 4’ below the waterline. To my relief, it was a high tide and we had plenty of water to safely dock. We pulled the kayak to the beach and was able to flip it over. We discovered that not only was his backpack safe in the vessel, but his phone was also in the kayak and still working. How it stayed in there was remarkable.
We loaded the kayak in his truck and sent them on their way home to recover from their day. I certainly hope they and others have learned that life jackets will save your life and give you more time to get out of your situation. Had they had life jackets on, they would have been in a better situation to self-recover if we were not there. It was late in the day and marine traffic was light and not in their location.
This experience has taught me, and everyone involved, some important lessons. A little irony is that I just practiced a Man Overboard (MOB) drill with my race crew just a few days prior to this event. We were able to then retrieve our volunteer victim in less than a minute with a rescue ladder. It might have been a different story if we did not have a ladder. I give some credit to that training to help keep things calm and under control.
We certainly gave my family something to remember on their Whidbey vacation.