A kayak drama off Fishers Island

Coast Guard rescuers Michael Hand and Thomas Scott, left, help Tom Fagin and Phil Warner launch a kayak bearing a woman with a medical problem from a beach on Fishers Island on July 4. Tom then paddled the boat to the Coast Guard response boat, rear. At right are Pete Jordan and his son, Will, of Stonington, who were fishing in a powerboat and responded to a distress call Tom sent on his VHF radio. (Steve Fagin/Special to The Day)

Published in The Day July 15. 2021
By Steve Fagin

After shooting through The Race, a notoriously treacherous channel at the east entrance of Long Island Sound, the six of us rafted our three tandem kayaks together for a short break.

“Hardest part is over,” I said, between bites of an energy bar and swigs from a water bottle.

We were in the Atlantic Ocean, a third of the way through a nearly 20-miles paddle around Fishers Island, beginning and ending at Esker Point in Noank.

Our group had timed our excursion on a cloudy Fourth of July so that the ebb tide would sweep us through The Race and along the island’s south shore in New York waters. Then, by the time we rounded East Point, cut through Wicopesset Passage, and reentered Fishers Island Sound, a flooding tide would propel us back to Connecticut.

It was a good plan — in theory — that paid off while we paddled with a tailwind and in relatively calm seas, enjoying one of my favorite views. Just beyond Wilderness Point, waves rolled in at Isabella Beach; Gatsbyesque mansions spread out amid landscaped splendor on the hillside above; sand dunes and cobblestones extended all the way to Barleyfield Cove.

Moments later, though, the shrill blast of a distress whistle from behind shattered my reverie.

Tom and I instantly turned our 22-foot-boat around.

About 50 yards away, Dan Bendor, who had blown the whistle, was dealing with a problem: the woman in the bow of his boat was retching.

When Tom and I pulled alongside, the woman mumbled something about seasickness and a severe migraine headache.

“I’m going to hook up a towrope,” Tom announced, unraveling a line from his life jacket. Within minutes, he and I began pulling Dan and the woman in their vessel.

Meanwhile, Robin Francis and Phil Warner, who had gotten ahead and wondered why we were lagging, reversed course and joined us.

We hastily discussed heading ashore at the nearby Fishers Island Club, but worried that ocean waves would make for a difficult landing.

“If we could make it around to the other side of the island, it’ll be calmer,” I said, “but we can’t wait — the tide is about to turn against us.”

Phil connected a second line to Dan’s bow and set up a V-tow, using both his boat and ours to help pull Dan’s.

“Gonna get bumpy through Wicopesset,” Phil warned. Tides that gush through this narrow gap between Fishers and Wicopesset islands often produce gnarly conditions.

By this time, the woman in Dan’s boat had started to slump, increasing the chance of a capsize.

“We need to do a contact tow!” Phil shouted. In this maneuver, Tom leaned out and held onto Dan’s boat to increase stability while Dan and I paddled our connected kayaks. Phil then hooked his tow line to the bow of my kayak so he and Robin could help pull us forward.

This early in the flood tide, the current was only a couple knots, but against an opposing southwest wind waves were growing increasingly confused. We still had to navigate about a half-mile of rough water to reach the closest beach.

“We’re doing great!” I exclaimed — but I really thought, “This is bad, really bad.”

I was buoyed, though, by confidence in my paddling companions’ skills. Phil and Tom have trained for deep-water rescues with certified American Canoe Association instructors; like them, Dan, Robin and I have years of kayaking experience. In addition, with the exception of the woman in Dan’s boat, all of us have paddled around Fishers on numerous occasions, as well as on longer expeditions, when seas and winds were considerably more daunting.

We previously had accompanied the woman, a strong paddler, on shorter group trips, and felt that on a calm day she would be able to complete the lengthy circumnavigation in a two-person boat. She had asked to join us, well aware of the demanding itinerary.

None of that mattered, though, while we struggled to stay upright. Thankfully, the contact-tow system kept us moving forward without tipping over. After bouncing through Wicopesset’s last choppy stretch, Phil disconnected his tow line so that he and Robin could reach the beach first to help the rest of us land, due south of Latimer Reef.

Once ashore, we pulled the woman from her cockpit and placed her on the beach. She promptly curled into a fetal position and fell asleep. Robin covered her with a warm jacket.

Dan, a psychiatrist with a medical degree, checked her pulse and found it to be weak.

Sometimes, mariners with seasickness can recover after resting on land, but we all realized there was no way the woman would be able to get back in Dan’s kayak for the final five miles to Esker Point.

“We need to call the Coast Guard,” Robin urged.

Tom punched in Channel 16 on his VHF marine radio — each of the three kayaks carried one — and broadcast, “Pan-pan, we are six kayakers on Fishers Island. One of the paddlers is in distress …”

There are three different ways to begin such a call: “pan-pan” (pronounced “pon-pon,” derived from the French word panne, meaning breakdown) is the second most urgent summons. If we were experiencing a minor problem, such as debris in the water, Tom would have begun with “sécurité.” For a full-blown disaster, such as a sinking vessel, he would have announced, “Mayday!”

Coast Guard Station New London replied instantly, requesting our precise position and more details about the woman’s condition. Tom read off the GPS coordinates on his radio and relayed information about the woman’s situation.

At the Coast Guard station, just north of Fort Trumbull State Park on the Thames River, Boswain’s Mate 2 Carlos Cabral heard the call just as he was rolling a 29-foot response boat down a ramp to the water — fortuitous timing.

“I gave the call a high priority,” Cabral said in a phone interview later.

Cabral, the vessel’s coxswain, immediately assembled the rest of his crew: Machinery Technician 2 Michael Hand, who is a certified emergency medical technician; Bowswain’s Mate 3 Thomas Scott; Machinery Technician Lorenzo Morales; and Boswain’s Mate 3 Wilkins Polanco.

After everyone jumped aboard, Cabral gunned twin 225-horsepower outboard engines, and the aluminum-hull vessel sped downriver and into the sound, at 40-plus mph.

Meanwhile, Pete Jordan and his son, Will, of Stonington, who were fishing aboard an outboard boat, had heard Tom’s distress call on his radio, spotted our group, and sped over to help.

Jordan relayed his position to the Coast Guard and offered to take the woman to Stonington on his boat, but was told the response vessel would be there momentarily. To their credit and our enormous gratitude, he and his son remained with us until the Coast Guard arrived.

Because of rocks, Cabral could maneuver no closer than about 20 yards from the beach, so as soon as he cut the engines, Hand and Scott jumped in and swam to shore.

They then helped load the woman into the forward cockpit of my kayak while Tom clambered into the aft seat; he paddled the woman to the Coast Guard boat while Hand and Scott swam alongside.

The vessel shot off and arrived within minutes at Noank Shipyard, where a waiting ambulance took the woman to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London.

She was given fluids intravenously and other treatment before being discharged that evening. In an email later, the woman reported that she had suffered a “vestibular induced migraine that caused profound sleepiness,” and slept most of the time while being towed.

“I remain grateful for all your help, Herculean efforts and concern, and I am glad everyone is safe and sound,” she added.

After the woman departed on the Coast Guard boat, Robin, Phil, Dan, Tom and I still had to paddle three kayaks five miles back to Esker Point. Phil offered to paddle Dan’s boat solo; Tom and I helped tow him with our kayak; while Robin and Dan paddled together in the third boat.

In a little more than an hour, we at last pulled ashore at Esker Point — tired, relieved and conflicted: Had we made the right decisions? What could we have done differently?

After loading kayaks on cars, we held an impromptu debriefing in the parking lot; over the next several days, we continued to debate these and other questions in emails, phone conversations and face-to-face meetings. Some conclusions:

Robin, who prepared a long list of safety gear kayakers should carry, noted that a number of paddling groups used to hold training classes and safety drills several times a year, but for one reason or another have stopped doing so. It’s time to re-instate these measures, she said.

Dan stressed the importance of refueling with food, and especially water, during prolonged excursions.

Phil agreed, noting that the woman had been having difficulty taking in fluids from a backpack system she was using for the first time.

“The complication with the new hydration bag may have started the slide toward dehydration, and with the onset of the migraine (she) went quickly down the slippery slope,” he said.

Tom also prepared a detailed spreadsheet of equipment and supplies every paddler should always wear and carry, even on short trips (a life jacket and whistle), as well as more sophisticated gear for longer voyages in challenging conditions (a tow rope, radio, first-aid kit, warm clothes and food, to name a few).

Cabral of the Coast Guard credited our group for carrying all the proper gear, and for acting as a team to avert tragedy.

Asked if we should have summoned help sooner, when the woman’s symptoms first materialized, he said that it was a judgment call that could be argued either way. Towing a kayak with an impaired passenger through Wicopesset Passage may have been risky, he said, but if we had pulled ashore on the ocean side of Fishers, it would have been more difficult transferring her to the response vessel.

All members of our group could agree on one point, though: The response crew saved the day. Those of us who venture out in open water, whether in kayaks, sailboats, fishing vessels or cargo ships, should be grateful for and reassured by the Coast Guard motto: semper paratus — always ready.

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