Hackensack River Canoe & Kayak Club

paddling for over a third of a century

Western Long Island Sound from Rye Playland to Davids Island and Back......
….not everyone had a great day on the water
by Jim More

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The day was forecast to be light winds, with less than one foot seas and plenty of sunshine. Six sea kayakers: Tony F, Dave M, Cheri R, Kan Y and Ken K met me at Rye Playland by 9 am looking forward to a great day on the water. We passed the parking fee booth and no one was there.... we skirted the parking fee! Then we learned that gate to the launch area would be kept locked until 10, 11 or 1 o’clock, depending on who we asked. Moving on to Plan B, I decided we would alter plans and launch from Norwalk, CT instead. Just then yet another Playland employee drove by and I shouted over to ask if he could open the gate for us. Moments later the gate we up and we were in!

About the same time a Mt. Vernon fireman was loading up his powerboat at a marina in nearby New Rochelle. I'm sure that he was also looking forward to a great day on the water.

Our group gathered on the beach, prepared our boats and gear and then had a short safety briefing. Given the great conditions and the mild forecast, it almost seemed unnecessary to be talking about all the “potential hazards we may encounter on this trip”.

We launched into the LIS and headed west along the coast. There was little traffic on the water and we were entertained by many cormorants surfacing with live fish in their mouths. The birds would go through all sorts of contortions to try to swallow fish that looked way too big to fit in their mouths, but they proved to be quite proficient.

While sea kayaking, typically we monitor the VHF marine radio to be advised of shipping traffic, weather changes, any on the water emergencies or to communicate among ourselves. On my VHF I heard a garbled call from the New Rochelle Marine Police asking “what is the location of the man overboard?” I could only hear the NRMP; I could not hear anyone asking for help. This is not uncommon with VHF radios since often the marine police or the USCG will use radios that are much more powerful than those allowed to be used on recreational or commercial vessels. This went on for what seemed like a long time trying to determine if in fact this was truly a man overboard and if so, where it actually was. There are many boaters on the water who have VHF radios on board (who are required by law to monitor them if they have them), but yet they sometimes don't know to use them. There are also plenty of recreational boaters that haven’t a clue how to give an accurate position of where they are. I don’t know if either of these were the case as I could only hear the Police transmission.

Given the calm sea conditions we couldn’t imagine that if a man overboard situation had occurred, why the person wouldn’t just get back in the boat? Shortly we saw a police launch and helicopter activity and still I was assuming it was a hoax. We then stopped briefly at the very tiny Dog Beach, so named because swimming dogs with tennis balls outnumber humans 2/1.

Back on the water and with radios back on it became apparent that in fact there was a person reported to be missing in the water. We continued on to our lunch stop at Davids Island where part of our group did a bit of island exploring and others relaxed. The island was once home to a Civil War hospital, a coastal artillery defense base named Fort Slocum, Slocum Air Force Base and the control center for Nike-Ajax missiles. Plans for the island have included Con Ed wanting to build a nuclear power plant here and Donald Trump once having plans to build condos here. Almost all of the structures on the island are now demolished and the island is returning to a more natural state.

After our lunch we could see a flurry of search and rescue activity both on the water and in the air. A variety of radio reports indicated that a scuba diver may have become tangled up while wreck diving. Our dive expert Dave M did the math and it looked like too much time had passed for a scuba diver to stay under water. It wasn’t looking like a positive outcome was possible. We continued on our way back to Rye and found ourselves within a very large CG secured search area and were politely asked to avoid the area by a CG Auxiliary vessel. We could now see the anchored powerboat belonging to the missing diver; we had passed within about a ½ mile of it earlier in the day. He was the Mt Vernon fireman I mentioned earlier who like us, was looking forward to a great day on the water. We may have been passing by his anchored boat when the first calls were heard on the VHF radio, but without a position given, we had no idea. We then headed closer to shore to avoid the search area and followed the shoreline back to Rye.

Our group arrived safely back to Rye Playland about 4:30.

Two days later as I write this, the Mt Vernon fireman is still missing. The current news reports at this time indicate he was not wreck diving but that he had just dove into the water off his anchored boat to cool off and he never resurfaced. By all reports he was described as a strong, fit 49 years old. His son said “if there was one person who could come out of a nuclear bomb attack, it would be him”. It was also reported that the initial call for help was made on a cell phone to 911.

If there’s anything we can take away from this, it’s to have appropriate safety equipment on board for where you're paddling your boat and to know how to use it. If carrying a throw or tow rope, GPS, VHF radio or any other safety gear, become familiar with its use. Although a cell phone is certainly better than nothing on the water, they are usually not waterproof and their use will often result in a delayed response as the 911 operator tries to gather information that is more familiar to USCG and marine police. Additionally, by using a VHF radio, other boaters may hear a call for help and respond. If I had heard a position given, we may have been the nearest boats and may have been able to offer some assistance? By using the recently introduced RESCUE 21 system, the USCG may have the ability to triangulate a VHF signal to obtain your exact position should you be unable to provide it. There are limitations on where VHF can legally be used, but the point of this is not to suggest you should go out and buy a radio, but to have some type of a communication plan in place should you be the one needing to make a request for help.

Also, be aware of your surroundings as you paddle. In an emergency would you be able to quickly and accurately tell someone where you are? Whether you’re on Cedar Creek, the Hudson River or the Atlantic Ocean, ask yourself “how would I tell someone where I am?” Maybe a chart or topo map should be on board your boat as well?

Maybe none of this could have helped this firefighter, but in any emergency seconds count. Thinking about what you can do speed things up should you be the one calling for help will keep all of us safer.

Sorry, no pictures this trip.