The Risks of Ignorance
It happened early last summer. An overweight tourist almost drowned. He had been ocean kayaking near Seal Rock off Crescent Bay in north Laguna and flipped. He was with a similar guy in rented kayaks. They had removed their lifejackets.
I was in my own kayak about 100 yards away and could see they might get into trouble even before the one guy flipped. They were clowning away, snapping photos of one another, completely oblivious to the dangers the ocean can pose.
This is common. In Kauai, about 100 tourists a year drown because they do not understand the risks.
Then the first guy leaned too far out with his camera and splash, he went over. The kayak rolled with him. He began flailing. His friend started to paddle to him and I thought, oh no, wrong move. You never get near a drowning guy. Adrenalin gives him super-human strength and he will try to use you as a flotation device. That is why lifeguards always swim with their buoy. They push that at the victim while personally staying out of reach.
I could visualize the first guy seizing the second guy’s kayak, flipping him too. Then both would thrash while their kayaks drifted away. Within 60 seconds both would hit functional exhaustion, maybe take a breathe of water, panic and power-grab each other—and it would be over.
I yelled at guy Number Two, “Stay away from him!! I’ll help, you stay away!” I speed-paddled to the upside-down kayak, righted it, and pushed it at the drowning guy. “The water’s cold,” I told him,” you’re out of shape and need to rest. Don’t try to get back onto the kayak yet.” He grasped it.
“Look at me,” I spoke calmly, loudly, “Look at me.” If he did that, it would focus his mind and stop the panic. “You’re gonna be okay, but you gotta rest first. Look at me!” I kept saying it and finally he did; he looked at me.
By now, he had been in the cold water long enough to shiver. That was bad. It meant that soon he would not be able to control his body or worse, cramp. Crawling back on top of the kayak would be hard enough, even for a guy in good shape. You had to approach from the rear, slither up on your belly, get to the mid-point, and then in a jitsu-move, laterally flip your butt onto the seat.
“Look at me. You gotta do this.” I slid into the water and did it. Even as I was demonstrating, I knew he could not slither up without upsetting the kayak’s delicate balance. I would have to counter-weight him myself. Still, I was afraid to get too close and waited until he was struggling up the kayak’s left stern before applying all my weight to its right bow. I mean all my strength and all my body weight. My muscles shook with the effort
But he did it. He slithered up on his belly. Now was the delicate part: the quick jitsu-move. “Not yet,” I said, “rest,” and showed him how. By some miracle, he succeeded. Then there was the panting. More shivering. The adrenalin was still pumping and all his body systems were quaking.
His buddy paddled over and tried to make light, quickly slipping into a default jocular mode, “Guess you lost your camera, eh?” But there was an empty tone to it.
They both knew how close they had come and faked nonchalance to deal with it. But they knew. As I left them, they were paddling towards shore as if they were walking on eggs.
Michael Ray grew up in CdM and now lives in Laguna Beach. He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.