Even Sea Kayakers are Eligible for the ‘Darwin Award’ [40]

By Doug Lloyd, Canada

On July 4th, 1999, a 37-year old man had left his Friday Harbor home to do a little holiday weekend fishing. Somewhere close to Raccoon Point on Orcas Island, located in the American San Juan Islands, something went tragically wrong for the avid fisherman.

Michael Paxson was found dead, upside-down and still seated in his kayak, about two miles west of Point Lawrence. He was located at 11:20 a.m. It was determined he had been dead for about four hours.

I called the County Sheriff’s department and spoke with the detective assigned to the investigation. He confirmed the accidental nature of death by drowning. From that interview I learned that Michael was an avid kayak fisherman, and not a novice.

He had been paddling a normal sea touring kayak with a typical large keyhole cockpit arrangement. His paddle was found inside the kayak with him. He was wearing a spray skirt, though it was not secured around the cockpit rim. He was wearing a PFD, and evidence suggests he was having lunch while fishing. He had tandem fishing poles deployed, both port and starboard, tucked tightly between each side of the cockpit rim and his thighs, respectively.

When Michael was found, his poles were still deployed with lengths of fishing line reeled out. The fishing line had entwined itself around Michael’s upper limbs. It is not known if he had been entangled during some ensuing struggle, or whether the lines entangled themselves subsequently after death.

In what can only be described as an ill-conceived notion on the part of the unfortunate paddler, a miniature carabiner was also found clipped to a line running from bow to stern (possibly the deck line). The carabiner was attached to his PFD by a short line around 4 to 6 inches “at the very most.” Speculation by the investigators strongly indicates this arrangement was a significant contributory factor to Michael’s inability to wet-exit.

The detective agreed with me that the short tether meant exiting the kayak would be restricted to only the side where the paddler had clipped himself to. We both concurred that by pivoting and twisting in a clipped-in state, the user of such a system would be lucky to even get their head above the water surface on that same side. If the combination of entanglement in the fish line and the inability to undo the carabiner was true, Michael was completely helpless while he died from drowning.

I mentioned to the detective that a proper tether system should allow the paddler complete freedom to exit and set-up for a self-rescue. I would add that those fishing from a kayak should determine a safe, efficient way of securing their paddle while attending to the task of fishing, and that the paddle should always be readily accessible. I think tethering is a good idea for kayak fishing, in case the kayak is heartily pulled along by some large specimen of fish — where there is a possibility of exiting and loosing the kayak or other risks of separation exist.

While a good survival knife should always be carried and accessible, multiple fishing lines and even one’s own tether might prevent its deployment and use, and that’s only if the paddler is able to hold their breath long enough to even begin to extract themselves from such a predicament. The use of a super short tether as Michael had employed, speaks for itself above.