About this time last year I decided to go find some smallmouth bass off of Port Austin, MI in Lake Huron. Water surface temps were around 72 degrees and while the forecast didn’t mention rain, I was getting drenched by rain showers every hour or so. Just enough time between them to dry off before getting smacked by another one coming across Saginaw Bay. It wasn’t the kind of day you’d think about when the approaching dog days of summer were knocking on your front door. It was cool. So cool, I remember wanting a jacket by ten that morning after being out in the water for four hours, already. The only saving grace was an offshore breeze that made the air feel a lot warmer than what a north wind would have. I fished on.
At that point, I felt as if I was prepared for what would come my way. I packed some trail mix and jerky along with some water. I was raised on the water and have been a strong swimmer since I was little. I have first aid training and a kit that stays on the kayak. I have a cell phone that was inside a waterproof case inside a waterproof hatch. I let people know where I’m going and what time to expect me back. I always have a PFD on board, right under my seat. What could go wrong?
It turns out, more than I had realized.
Have you heard about the “120 degrees” rule of thumb? If the air and water temperature doesn’t equal a total of 120 degrees, it’s a good idea to wear some sort of protective garment that will keep your body warm should you end up in the water. Hypothermia can set in quick whether you’re a strong swimmer or not. It will end up killing you. It doesn’t obey by any rules.
I did the math within the harbor and I was over this rule by a few degrees. I had a few years of kayaking experience in and many more years of fishing experience. I was confident in what type of water I could handle. Besides, the wind wasn’t bad that day. I estimate 1-3′ rollers (a calm day by Lake Huron standards) and there were tons of boats out. So many boats, in fact, that their wakes stirred the predictable rolling rhythm into a pretty good chop. Nothing that would make me sick or bother me but it just wasn’t flat like I expected.
I took a break to eat some snacks. As I was leaning forward to put my cooler in the front hatch of my Old Town Predator, I found myself looking up at the hull of the kayak and thinking; what just happened? It was surreal. Like I was in a dream. The chilly water hit me and I resisted the reflex to gasp. Being in that water and looking around at the rock and sand, I planted my feet on the bottom and shot myself up to the boat. I can’t remember how I got back into the kayak but I do remember sitting there thinking about how fast it had happened. Then it dawned on me; yeah I had a PFD and it was under my seat where I had left it. After all; I was fully in compliance with the law. I had a PFD on board.
I was ignorant.
I figured that if, by chance, a scupper valve failed or my hull was damaged, I’d have more than enough time to throw the life jacket on; worst case scenario. I didn’t expect to lose my balance from boat wake and go for an unplanned swim.
I was wrong. And I was lucky.
From that point on, whether required or not, that PFD is on me. It’s part of my routine. I put the PFD on my seat and before I sit down, it’s clipped on to me. Why take the chance.
As I read so many horrible stories of kayakers bodies being recovered it affirms my decision. These stories didn’t resonate with me before but they do now. It’s a shame it took my experience as inspiration to write this. Learn from others. Put the uncomfortable, bulky, movement-restricting, hot, life-saving piece of gear on. Learn to forget it’s there…you eventually will. I guarantee, it’s better to wear it rather than being in a situation wishing you had one. By then, it’s likely too late and I really don’t want to read about you being “recovered”.