Tragedy averted…by luck.


     I respect adventurous spirits, especially when it comes to outdoor recreation. But every now and then, I’ll hear a disheartening tale of someone’s misadventure.

     These tales will almost always have two things in common: one; they are almost always tragic, or very nearly so, and two; they almost always could have been benign adventures with more planning or preparation.

     The tale I’m about to relate is true. I’m leaving out the names of those involved; they’ve learned their lessons the hard way and their names are not important to the story.

     Yesterday, April 9th 2011, a trio of adventurous young men set out from a beach on the Texas side of Toledo Bend Reservoir, in a trio of open-topped kayaks. The kayaks they had were well equipped and in good shape, but again I must point out that they were open topped. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll find an image to put in here rather than bore you with what would be an inept description. Their kayaks were similar to this:

     They were not the inherently buoyant, rotomolded ocean kayaks, nor did they have skirts around the paddler’s torso to keep out the water. They weren’t the same brand as this one, and I am in no way saying that the brand of the kayak was to blame. The kayaks were very good, if used for their intended purpose. That’s where a bit of the trouble starts.

     To get back to the beginning of the story, these young men set out from the Texas bank of Toledo Bend Reservoir, near Sam Forse Collins Recreational Park. They had a great deal of fun riding the wind driven waves due north towards South Toledo Bend State Park on the Louisiana side of the lake. The wind is the thing here: the wind was blowing out of the south at 18mph, gusting to 24mph, all day long. So again, they had a great time riding that north.

     At some point during the day, they ended up on the shore of an island off the banks of the park. They then decided to paddle back to the Texas side of the lake. Their view would have been something like this:

That last mass of trees on the left was their destination. It is almost exactly 3 miles distant from the place where they left the park, across open water varying from 40 to 72 feet deep. Yesterday, however, the lake didn’t look like that…it looked like this:

And this:

And their route looked like this.

Just a hair east of due south, almost exactly straight into 18-24mph wind and the waves that go with it.

To make a long story a tiny bit shorter, I spoke with the gentleman who pulled them from the water. He was a fisherman, out in a deep vee hull “bay boat” that looked to be about 24 feet long. Just before sunset he was headed home when, by sheer luck, he saw the trio. He told me that when he found them, two of the young men were clinging to one kayak and the occupant of that kayak was trying his best to paddle towards shore, which was still around a mile away. He also said that when he pulled them into his boat, he saw that the lone kayak was almost swamped. As it turns out, the other two kayaks had gone to the bottom of the lake.

Not one of these men had on a personal flotation device or possessed so much as a scrap of anything buoyant.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that life jackets would have been panacea in this situation. Not even close. These young men apparently didn’t give a thought to the sheer stamina it would take to face a 18-24mph headwind in small kayaks for 3 miles. Their decision to go was a bad one on a number of levels. But had they had suitable (read: inherently buoyant) craft and had they been wearing good PFD’s, then the probable worst case scenario would see them washing up, exhausted but otherwise safe and sound, back on the shores of the park. Where they could have arranged some other way to get back to their truck and come retrieve their kayaks.

     I suppose that in being around and working on this lake, I have gained respect for its treachery. It may seem odd for me to say that a body of water as seemingly innocuous as an inland lake is “treacherous.” After all, it’s not the ocean, or one of the great lakes; it is almost sixty-five miles long, but it only three miles wide at its widest point. Very possibly, its seeming harmlessness is the root of its treachery. Whatever the case may be, I’m willing to bet that those three young men now have that same respect for the lake that I do…but they almost paid for it with their lives.

Now, as I said before, I can respect a taste for adventure. I’ve been accused of having an adventurous spirit myself. But people, there’s adventurous, and then there’s…well, I’ll call it reckless. I don’t have time, and you probably don’t have interest, for me to get into some long tale of all the outdoor adventures I’ve had. But if I had been standing on that shore, or sitting in a kayak very near that shore, contemplating the journey south across that body of water with those winds and waves…it would have looked to me like staring into the jaws of almost certain death.

     I am by no means saying that everyone should sit safely on their couches. By all means, get outdoors. All the best adventures are out there. Hike as far back in the backcountry as you want. Circumnavigate the globe by yourself in a small sailboat. Skydive, go whitewater rafting, trek across the Amazon rainforest. I think you get my drift. Have any adventure you want, but be prepared. That way, if the unexpected rears its (sometimes ugly) head on your trip, you’ll have a good story to tell…and rescue personnel like myself won’t. And that’s the way we like it.

     After all, they do say “all’s well that ends well.”

     Not that we mind helping out – on the contrary, we live for it. But every time we get a rescue call, the gravity of the possible consequences of failure weigh heavily on us until everyone involved is safe and sound. So for us, a quiet day at work is a great day at work.

     I’m sorry if all this sounds a bit harsh, or overly critical or like I’m on some kind of high-horse. I don’t mean it to be, and I don’t mean to sound holier-than-thou. Heaven knows I’ve made my share of mistakes, and then some. If I sound critical, it’s only my desperation showing a bit around the seams. It’s me asking you, “Please be careful out there.”

          Stay safe, and I hope to meet you out there somewhere, having a grand adventure. :)

4 Responses to Tragedy averted…by luck.

  1. reefmermaid says:

    Sidney,
    Great story and lesson. Remind me to tell you of our experience getting home from the TX side on jet skis as a storm blew in from nowhere. It was a harrowing tale. Looking forward to talking with you soon! Kimberly

  2. toledobend says:

    Very great cautionary tale. I’m always on the lookout of lake enthusiasts in trouble, luckily I haven’t seen anyone needing help yet. I needed help the other day. I was riding a jet ski and it was wind (Memorial Day weekend) … that combined with the wake turbulence of a big ski boat, caused the jet ski I was on to flip over randomly. I was in the middle of the lake with a crappy life vest (better than none), and getting tired quick. My buddy jumped off her jet ski and came over and between the two of us we were able to use our weight to get it back upright. She then had to swim with her life preserver on (not easy) back to her jet ski which had drifted away. Then we both had to summon the energy to get back on. The waves made me worried it would tip over again. I was so exhausted when I finally got back on. And it scared the crap out of me. I’m a certified life guard and have been through extensive water training for my duties as a helicopter pilot in the army, and they definitely came in handy. I was able to stay calm and assess the situation and between us we made a plan and luckily it worked out. But I will never go out therea gain without a very GOOD life jacket that fits better.

    The other very disappointing part of this story is that we beckoned to TWO personnel in TWO boats who happened by within 40 – 50 yards of us. They were looking straight at us and they just cruised right on past us while staring. I hope it weighs on their conscience! :(

    That is just shocking that those boys would be out there with no PFD. Sad that parents don’t teach their kids to make better decisions. i saw some boys on Memorial day in a metal boat that had a hole in it. Not a good idea. They were up to all sorts of no good. Every hour or so they would come back to the beach and pack clay in the hole. Boggles the mind that someone would let their teenage boys take off in such an unseaworthy craft! :/

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Dottie says:

    What kind of kayak would you recommend for a beginner on the Louisiana side of TB Lake? Any other advice you could give in preparing for this new venture would be appreciated.

    • Sidney says:

      Hi! Great question, and I’m glad to see you picking up what this wonderful pastime, but that questions has a pretty complicated answer, which depends on your intended usage.

      The only piece of advice I have that would apply in all circumstances is that whatever you choose, it should be positively buoyant. That is, it should float even if it’s filled with water.

      Other than that, not knowing your specifics, I’d say: a brightly colored, sit-inside kayak, probably a touring model (sometimes called a “sea kayak”), and make sure that it has some tumblehome in its design, especially if you’re not overly tall. Tumblehome just means that the body of the kayak is narrower at the top than it is at the waterline. Most of them are made this way, because it makes paddling so much easier, but some are not.

      I realize it may not be possible to do this, but if you can, make an effort actually paddle some different types before committing to buy one. There are so many different types of kayaks, with so many different options, that the feel of one can be vastly different from another.

      REI has an excellent article on how to choose a kayak, which you can find here: http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/kayak.html

      Last, but most definitely not least, is the nature of Toledo Bend itself. I don’t know if you’re new to the lake at all, but she can be…tricky. In the late spring to early fall, storms have a habit of appearing seemingly out of nowhere. I’ve seen the lake go from slick calm to 5-6 foot seas in less than five minutes. The other thing that makes it particularly tricky for us on the Louisiana side is that the majority of those storms come from the west, moving east, which means that if we are caught by those storms we occupy a lee shore. That can be a good thing, if it helps you get into the shelter of a cove – or that can be a bad thing if it slams you against a forest of stumps or a rocky beach.

      The good thing about it is that most of the time when it happens, this is frontal (and not localized) weather. That is, you have plenty of warning if you look at a forecast before you go out.

      So, using that article, choose your canoe. Then just keep an eye on the weather, and you’re in for a ton of fun.

      Hope to see you out there!

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