No Half Measures
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 5 RICK DILLENBECK
Texas State Aviation Office
Texas Army National Guard
Kayaking is a popular way to spend time in the great outdoors. However, being unaware of how the weather can adversely affect your time on the water could turn a fun day on the lake into a nightmare for your loved ones. I witnessed this firsthand a few years ago.
It was a cold and windy January day when two brothers set out on Canyon Lake in central Texas. They’d both received new kayaks for Christmas and, like most folks, were eager to get them in the water. The older brother was 25 and engaged to be married within a year. The 18-year-old younger brother had graduated from high school the year prior. While I didn’t know the brothers personally, my two sons attended school with their cousins, and our families had some mutual acquaintances.
About 10 p.m., the brothers’ aunt called my wife and said they never returned from their outing. Their father had driven to the launch point earlier and found their truck, but it was empty — no kayaks, life jackets or anyone in sight. He immediately notified authorities, and the local sheriff’s department and Canyon Lake Emergency Management Services began a search shortly afterward. After a few hours with no sign of the brothers, the father called his sister, who reached out to us. She knew my family had lived near the lake for many years and wondered if we could help.
I listened to my wife’s conversation with the aunt and asked if the family wanted me to help authorities search. I then called my neighbor to assist me with launching my boat as well as for safety reasons due to the harsh environmental conditions. As we headed toward the lake, I rang the boys’ father to find out where they’d launched their kayaks and which areas the authorities already searched. Based on those details and the current winds, I would be able to narrow my search, as this is a big lake.
It was about 10:30 p.m. when my neighbor and I launched my boat and zoomed across the lake to start our search. About three hours later, we found two submerged kayaks and a paddle banging against the lake’s rocky edge. We tied one of the kayaks to the back of my boat and pulled it to where the father was located. He identified it as belonging to his youngest son. We continued searching until about 4:30 a.m. but came up empty handed. Cold and tired, we called off our search in hopes the authorities, who continued their operation, would locate the brothers.
At 7:30 a.m., I woke up and immediately called the father for any updates, but he had none. I told him if he wanted to continue the search, I would take him out with me. He said he would meet me at the boat ramp and asked if his son’s fiancée could join us. I said that would be fine.
We’d been searching for about three hours that morning when I noticed something in the water that looked like a body floating face down. Initially, I didn’t say anything to the father and fiancée, but as we got closer, I realized our worst fears were confirmed. The young woman became hysterical. As she sobbed and shook uncontrollably, I tried to calm her. Through tears, she identified the body as the older brother. I contacted the authorities and sent them a Google GPS pin of where we located the body. We then continued our search and found the younger brother about 300 feet away, floating in the same face-down position.
Once the authorities arrived on the scene, I took the father and fiancée back to the boat ramp, where several family members had gathered awaiting any news. As I slowly pulled the boat up to the dock, the fiancée’s uncontrollable tears revealed the bad news. Before letting them off the boat, I shook the father’s hand, hugged the fiancée and offered my sincerest condolences.
What began as an enjoyable winter day on the lake turned into a horrifying tragedy for the brothers’ family and friends. Had they paid more attention to the weather conditions, perhaps they never would have entered the water that day. Had either known how to re-enter a capsized kayak, maybe they would have returned home safely — albeit a little worse for wear. Both brothers had succumbed to hypothermia and drowned. While their life jackets kept them floating, they did nothing to protect them from the frigid lake. Based on the water temperature, they could have only survived for a couple of hours in those conditions. Their deaths were a sad reminder that there are no half measures when it comes to safety.
While most folks would probably prefer to hang up their kayak for the winter, some enjoy paddling during times when fewer people are on the water. However, according to the Sea Tow Foundation, your chances of dying from going overboard in a vessel are five times greater in the winter months than during summer. There are many websites that provide important safety tips for winter kayaking, including the proper gear and techniques to use on the water. For more information, visit Paddling.com at https://paddling.com/learn/safe-cold-water-kayaking or KayakHelp.com at https://www.kayakhelp.com/top-ten-winter-kayaking-tips-tricks-for-beginners/.