Surfskier Death in Lake Michigan Downwind Race

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4 weeks 1 hour ago #40176 by zachhandler
This happened a month ago, but it seemed best to let some time pass before putting the story out there out of respect for Nick Walton's family and all who were involved. I was not there that day but know a handful of people who were. Big conditions, cold water. Cold water kills very fast. Hopefully people can learn something from this. Zach.

This is an excellent analysis by Nick Murray of TC Surfski:


Here is a redit post that has a video and pic from the start:
www.reddit.com/r/Surfski/comments/y1tcma...ce_on_lake_michigan/

Obituary:
www.lansingstatejournal.com/obituaries/lsj083134

Current Skis: Epic v10 g3, NK 670 double, NK exrcize, Kai Wa’a Vega, Carbonology Feather, Think Jet, Knysna Sonic X
Former Skis: Epic V12 g2, Epic V12 g1, Epic v10 double, Nelo 550 g2, Fenn Elite S, Custom Kayaks Synergy

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3 weeks 6 days ago #40177 by LaPerouseBay
Glad he made a detailed podcast to try and get the word out. He knows how dangerous that situation was.

All those little safety tips are easy to overlook, or forget in the heat of the moment, we have all done it.

The only thing I'd add is that when we get in a dangerous situation, the body releases hormones to help us survive. One of them is cortisol. It shuts down digestion, libido and the immune system. It also shuts down our ability to form rational decisions. It's probably a contributing factor to Nick losing his life out there.

That guy interviewing (the one with the terrible audio) kept interjecting 'why didn't he just turn around and go back." Well, it's because of the cortisol. When his body got shocked in that freezing water, his brain started redirecting energy systems to keep him alive. And, he didn't know it in his conscious mind. That's the insidious danger of those fight or flight reactions. They are very complex and driven by evolution. He was probably calm thru the entire ordeal. His reflexes and strength were increasing (for a time), no pain, improved vision etc.

Tragically - in this case - the ability to form rational decisions goes too. It's evolution. Our ancestors that contemplated "what to do" in those situations got eaten before they could reproduce. He wasn't scared and didn't go back because he wasn't thinking rationally. That's what we need to remember as downwinders. If you are not trained in those situations, the first time experiencing it on the water is bizarre. At least it was for me. I'm lucky the water is warm here.

It was educational to hear the guys talk about all the factors leading into the tragedy. Those are rational people debriefing after a mission, just like the military pilots etc. It's standard for them because it works. What went right, what went wrong and what do we do next time...

I often see paddlers describe how the cold water shuts down the muscles, but seldom read about the hormones. Neuroscience and special forces YouTubers talk about it. It's one of those obvious things we deal with all the time. Stress is a killer in small doses too. Out in cold water it just whacks us more quickly. Don't trust yourself to behave rationally out there if things go sideways, you probably cannot. And you won't even realize it at the time.

downwind dilettante

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3 weeks 5 days ago #40178 by DrA5
A huge tragedy for the sport. I don't mean to pile onto the promoters, but I worked in professional motorsports for over a decade. If weather conditions were such that the medivac helicopter could not fly, we didn't race. When the safety jetski couldn't go out, the race should have been called by the promoters. That way, the decision is out of the hands of the competitors. It wouldn't (and shouldn't) matter that some drove 10-12 hours for the race. The race could not be held under those conditions. Then, if the paddlers want to go out and do a group paddle, they could. That would satiate the ones that drove a distance and the formal aspects of the "race" were not in play anymore. Those that still wanted could even do their own mock (informal) race that the event was up until this year.

Would that have changed things? Hard to say. No crystal ball here.

But as we found in motorsports, we left the decision on a return to competition status following a crash up to the series doctor, instead of having the racer or team manager decide, because both of those would push for the racer to compete when they probably should not have if not (medically cleared). For the surfski race, you can't leave the decision to go/no go up to the competitors.

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3 weeks 3 days ago #40185 by mrcharly
I agree with DrA5 here.

The UK has a major river race, the Devizes to Westminster. One year there were floods and the race was cut short to avoid sending competitors onto the more dangerous flows.

The backlash against organisers was severe and nasty. People who I knew and liked were bitter and vocal about it.

Usually people invest at least a year training for the event, so you can understand their disappointment. Still not ok, the organisers were doing their job.

It is good if the likelihood of cancellation is pre-stated in the race conditions.

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3 weeks 3 days ago #40186 by zachhandler
I am probably the one Nick Murray referred to when he mentioned that he knows a paddler who thinks holding races in cold water is ethically not ok. I feel there is just too much incentive to dress for exertion rather than potential immersion. I came to that realization about 10 years ago in a race that crossed a section of lake superior (maybe 5-10 miles off shore). Water was in the 52F (11C), 1-2 foot quartering wind waves, and I had on 0.5 mm neoprene farmer jon. Midway through the race it occurred to be how little room there was for error, and that if I came out of the ski and could not get back in for whatever reason, I would likely die.

In the lake michigan race there were many things that went wrong, but ultimately he most likely died because of hypothermia. From the sounds of it he was not dressed for immersion in cold water. If it had been summer with warm water and he was wearing just a speedo the outcome would have been different I think. It is the cold that kills. He had on what I would consider enough neoprene to stay comfortable while paddling hard while getting splashed regularly with cold water. His kit would have been ok if nothing went wrong. Kind of like my kit in that lake superior race.

As far as rescue boats I think they are a nice thing to have but cannot be relied on. The boat or jetski driver can't be aware of all the paddlers on the course to know which ones are getting into trouble. We all know how hard it is to find someone in big waves and swell. And when the water is cold the rescue has to get there very quickly or it will be too late, depending on how the person is dressed. Also I am not sure a jetski towing a sled can actually rescue someone if the victim is too cold to hold on to the sled. Bare hands do not last long in cold water before they simply do not work. Maybe 5 minutes in ice water and then you couldn't hold a rope if someone tossed it to you.

Current Skis: Epic v10 g3, NK 670 double, NK exrcize, Kai Wa’a Vega, Carbonology Feather, Think Jet, Knysna Sonic X
Former Skis: Epic V12 g2, Epic V12 g1, Epic v10 double, Nelo 550 g2, Fenn Elite S, Custom Kayaks Synergy

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3 weeks 3 days ago #40187 by LaPerouseBay

I agree with DrA5 here.
The backlash against organisers was severe and nasty. People who I knew and liked were bitter and vocal about it.
Usually people invest at least a year training for the event, so you can understand their disappointment. Still not ok, the organisers were doing their job.

I left racing on Maui for that reason. Permits, insurance etc. are set months in advance. If the weather is bad, they go. The experts are fine, they do heavy weather all the time.

downwind dilettante

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3 weeks 3 days ago #40189 by LaPerouseBay

I am probably the one Nick Murray referred to when he mentioned that he knows a paddler who thinks holding races in cold water is ethically not ok.

If you are the guy that went thru the Lake Mille Lacs tragedy, I can't think of anyone more qualified to hold that opinion.

It's been ages since I read about that, but I'll never forget it. It probably saved my bacon back in the day. That story was floating around on Surfski.info when I was searching the web for safety advice.

God knows it's in short supply around here. Here's a story that will live on in infamy. A top paddler - one of the best in the state - jumps into a Maui to Molokai race without registering.

The organizers did a head count back in those days, (in addition to trying to sort the numbers on the boats). They did their best to determine if everyone had finished.

Officials thought everyone was in. Hours later, a fishing boat hauled in and delivered a registered M2M paddler to the party. He was almost dead from hypothermia. He swam for hours. Nobody was looking for him. He had separated from his Oc-1 late in the race and drifted past the finish. He's a former Navy Seal. If anyone was gonna live out there, he was.

The guy that jumped the race and screwed up the head count has an advanced degree - he knew what was going on.

The stories go on and on.

downwind dilettante

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3 weeks 3 days ago #40190 by tve
It's interesting how it almost always takes several compounding factors to create a tragedy. We tend to think that "if X happens I'll do Y" but the reality is that X happens and then P happens, and then F as well, and by that time none of the "I'll do Y" apply anymore. The number of possible failure combinations grows really fast, so it's very difficult to imagine what could happen, let along think it through.

I recently had a paddle snap in half, and at the furthest point off-shore of the course ~1.5 miles out, and elite ski, and in 6'+ waves, and buddy is ahead invisible due to waves, and his cell phone lost reception event though I had talked to him ~2min prior. There your are flipping through the stack of "I'll do Y" options... (Temps were fine and I made it 4.5mi to the planned destination even though I could have pulled out earlier.)

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3 weeks 2 days ago #40192 by downwinda
I was one of the people that was appalled when I first heard the news of the Nick's death and posted to our local Whatcom Paddlers group. My point of contention was that they held a cold water race with apparently no, or very little, water rescue capability in place and had to rely on people on shore calling in the rescue. Where were the safety boats? Zach reminded me that I shouldn't jump to conclusions. Really, though, someone lost his life, so obviously something went very wrong.

Now I'm going to contrast this incident with one we had here at Deception Pass last December. One in which conditions ramped up very quickly, but no one was really in danger of losing their life. Nevertheless, the incident blew up on social media, even making a couple of clickbait news sites. As a result, the race director, and all of us paddlers were lambasted by landlubbers for being fools for racing and being out in such conditions.

Last December the annual Deception Pass race looked like it was finally going to get some "real" conditions, with west winds predicted in the 30 mph range. The race is about 6 miles (10K), and goes out and around an island, in through Deception Pass, back around the island and back to the start.

Rob, the race director, had a huge and varying safety net. It included 3 Search and Rescue boats, 8 people on SUP, OC1 and fat V8 type surfskis, as well as a Coast Guard Cutter that, knowing the race was happening, showed up to monitor the situation, get some training time in and lend a hand if needed.

The race started in 2 heats, with the first heat starting just when the wind decided to show up. By the time the second heat started it was nuking! As we headed out to the island, there were several boats in the water from the first heat and people stopped to help. SAR boats were there, the paddlecraft helpers were there, and many of the second heat racers stopped as well.

I was in an OC2 with a friend and we made it around the island and were having a blast surfing in when one of the escort boats informed us that the race was off. As we headed back, we saw a sit inside kayaker in distress and stopped to help him. He couldn't remount, even with us holding the nose of his kayak. At that point a SAR boat came and picked him up. We, along with several other competent paddlers started doing laps surfing in and out, having fun. By this point, everyone needing assistance was in, and we were just out doing laps. Then the large Coast Guard Cutter headed in and "herded" us to shore.

No one was ever in real danger due to the great safety protocol put in place by the race director. The Coast Guard did send out a RIB to help rescue a few, but then claimed that they rescued "over 20 paddlers in distress", when actually it was the escorts already in place that made most of the rescues. I guess herding the competent paddlers to shore with the cutter counted as rescues!

To make a long story short, you can hold a race in cold water if the proper safety protocol is in place. Ironically, because of the backlash from last year, this year's race is cancelled, but we'll be all heading there for an "informal" race, probably lacking the said safety protocol!

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3 weeks 2 days ago #40193 by tve
Interesting story, downwinda! The rescue authorities obviously know everything better... Had my own "run-in" with that: fire dept water rescue was called for someone else who was out of the water by the time they showed up and so they had to "rescue" one of us who was obviously "in trouble" when he was doing as he expected (sup foil falling in often). It became clear that they had been on the water for about an hour looking for that other guy and needed to get back in and couldn't do that knowing we were still out there. I suspect it was something similar in your case: the cutter finished their training, it was time to go back in, so you had to be in first.
The following user(s) said Thank You: downwinda

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3 weeks 2 days ago #40195 by DrA5
I think the bottom line to all of this is there needs to be a hard set of metrics for a "go/no go" decision. What that is, I don't know. I would leave it up to those that have put on events, but I would think the ONE hard fast rule of a go/no go metric would be if the safety boat cannot operate.

WIth stuff like this, you can't make it a subjective-alone decision. There needs to be some objective interjections. That way the racers know it was a hard decision to make, but one that had to be made. Yes, it would suck if you train and travel and then cannot race. But at least you will be able to race another day, versus competing in a race that is held under unnecessarily dangerous conditions without any safety nets or emergency action plans in place.

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3 weeks 2 days ago #40196 by mrcharly
I'm not sure you can do objective measurements.

Once upon a time, I trained to be a school sport's teacher. During one training session, the instructor said "When a child breaks a bone in your class, you need to know that you did everything possible to prevent it."

The Devizes-Westminster race I mentioned earlier? In recent years, they had a fatality. Inland, calm waters race. Bright sunny weather. Best guess is that it was a heart attack brought on by hyperthermia and dehydration. Fit paddler, just not used to exertion in hot sunny weather (as is the case for most Brits).

Ivan Lawler, multi-times world K1 marathon champ, nearly died on an inland loch race. Weather blew up, got cold, he was in the tippier of his two boats. He said he picked that boat to give him, in his 50s, a chance of keeping up with the young guns. Ego overrode experience (his description).


There is only so much that organisers can do. Maybe we need to take a look at mountain racing events; they have mandatory kit lists. Does the sport need to start enforcing similar lists, possibly including flares, EPRIBS and the like?

My feeling is not.

In a sport enjoyed by thousands, frequently undertaken on rough open water, there are very few casualties.

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3 weeks 2 days ago #40197 by tve
I do believe there are objective measurements. The race announcement/description should have a set of safety measures described. For example, that there will be two safety boats, one in front, one in back. Or that there will be spotters on land every 1km with good visibility of the course. Or whatever is appropriate.

If at the day of the race these safety measures can't be implemented then the race should default to being cancelled. If it's just one of eight spotters that is missing then maybe cancelling is not the required call, but by default it should be cancelled and any deviation should be announced clearly to all racers before launch. Also, at the start of the race the race director must have positive confirmation that all safety measures are in place before actually starting. I believe these are common-sense objective criteria.

In addition, I do believe that it would help tremendously if the sport had:
- a list of "good practice" safety measures, such as safety boat counts in relation to course length and paddler count, positive confirmation of radio contact before start, PFD requirements, visibility requirements, etc.
- a subset of very highly recommended (aka "required") safety practices, i.e., if a race director doesn't even have this in place and something happens all fingers will point to him/her
- a set of requirements on race organizers, such as having co-organized a race before and being reasonably competent in the crafts and conditions of the race or having a non-racing adviser who is on hand at the race

If I were to organize a race I would try and gather all the best practices from people that have experience if only to protect my own conscience in case something happens. C.f. "if a student breaks a bone you want to make sure you did everything to prevent that".

I'm not big into racing (they're practically all flatwater down here in SoCal) but I'd love to see the sport grow and races are a strong motivator for many people. They're also a focal point to gather with other sufskiers. I'd love it if there were non-racing "group downwinders", I'd travel for that.

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3 weeks 2 days ago #40198 by zachhandler

I'm not sure you can do objective measurements.
Once upon a time, I trained to be a school sport's teacher. During one training session, the instructor said "When a child breaks a bone in your class, you need to know that you did everything possible to prevent it."
The Devizes-Westminster race I mentioned earlier? In recent years, they had a fatality. Inland, calm waters race. Bright sunny weather. Best guess is that it was a heart attack brought on by hyperthermia and dehydration. Fit paddler, just not used to exertion in hot sunny weather (as is the case for most Brits).
Ivan Lawler, multi-times world K1 marathon champ, nearly died on an inland loch race. Weather blew up, got cold, he was in the tippier of his two boats. He said he picked that boat to give him, in his 50s, a chance of keeping up with the young guns. Ego overrode experience (his description).
There is only so much that organisers can do. Maybe we need to take a look at mountain racing events; they have mandatory kit lists. Does the sport need to start enforcing similar lists, possibly including flares, EPRIBS and the like?
My feeling is not.
In a sport enjoyed by thousands, frequently undertaken on rough open water, there are very few casualties.

That’s a nice post Mrcharley. I am of the same mind in regards to regulating too much of the sport. The simplicity of the rules in this sport is beautiful. For example the fact that there is no design spec on ocean skis or paddles. I think individual race directors can have whatever safety rules and requirements they want of course. But complex rules blanketed over the whole sport don’t seem like the best solution to me.

Current Skis: Epic v10 g3, NK 670 double, NK exrcize, Kai Wa’a Vega, Carbonology Feather, Think Jet, Knysna Sonic X
Former Skis: Epic V12 g2, Epic V12 g1, Epic v10 double, Nelo 550 g2, Fenn Elite S, Custom Kayaks Synergy

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2 weeks 5 days ago #40203 by [email protected]
Here in South Africa, we're largely self-regulating when it comes to paddling and we so appreciate the freedom to go out in extreme conditions.

Having said that, it is mandatory (i.e. no compliance, no race result) to wear a PFD, to use a leash and to carry a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch with a tracker app (usually SafeTRX) running.

None of those things is a 100% guarantee of safety, but at least they cover the basics and anyone paddling without them is generally frowned upon in the community. I can't remember the last time I saw a paddler here in Cape Town without a PFD. (Actually I can - it was a visitor from Australia where they have rigid rules and, apparently, less inclination to follow them!!)

We are lucky too that we have a very good relationship with our National Sea Rescue Institute - the NSRI monitor SafeTRX 24/7 and we've had a number of rescues made much simpler and quicker because of the app.

We had a downwind race recently - on the (in)famous Miller's Run - in 30+ plus winds. The following basics were adhered to by the race organizers:

- All paddlers had to be registered with (and competency-certified by) Canoeing South Africa
- PFD, leash, Phone + SafeTRX, checked at the start by the organizers
- NSRI sent a courtesy message to give them situational awareness.
- It goes without saying that an exact record of starters and finishers was audited at the finish.

Note that the water is NOT extremely cold - on that day it was around 17-18C. The wind was onshore. The furthest out to sea we get is around 2km. There were observers on shore watching the race.

Rob

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Previously: Think Evo II, Carbonology Zest, Fenn Swordfish, Epic V10, Fenn Elite, Red7 Surf70 Pro, Epic V10 Sport, Genius Blu, Kayak Centre Zeplin, Fenn Mako6, Custom Kayaks ICON, Brian's Kayaks Molokai, Brian's Kayaks Wedge and several others...

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2 weeks 1 day ago #40206 by tve
> Here in South Africa, we're largely self-regulating when it comes to paddling and we so appreciate the freedom to go out in extreme conditions.

I don't know where people saw the word regulation in my post... "Best practices" are not regulations. In south africa the self-regulation is easy 'cause there are so many people that know what it takes. If someone were to organize a race with substandard safety there'd be dozens of people screaming at them instantaneously. I can't help but take away that the race organizers in the event being discussed here didn't quite know what they were doing nor what they should be doing, and I can't help but think that some of the participants probably didn't quite know either. Best practices is the term I'm familiar with from the tech industry to codify what experts in the field think is necessary in various circumstances. It serves to educate all parties involved and can help avoid disaster situations.

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