The May 17 deaths of kayakers Irina McEntee, 18, and Carissa Ireland, 20, off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, serve as a reminder that being properly equipped and versed in offshore safety is relevant any time of year.
"Our thoughts remain with the women's families and friends during this extremely difficult time," says Capt. James McPherson, commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, in a recent press release.
The two friends left early in the afternoon May 16 for a short kayak trip in Casco Bay, traveling from Peaks Island to Ram Island, Maine. They set off in life jackets - one red and one blue - in 12-foot greenish-blue kayaks, wearing shorts and T-shirts, and bringing no means of communication other than "walkie-talkies." The water was about 48 degrees F and winds were around 20 mph, according to the Coast Guard.
At 5:20 p.m., the women were reported missing by family members and the Coast Guard diverted a 25-foot boat crew from Station South Portland to start searching the area, as well as a Falcon jet crew and a Jayhawk helicopter crew from Air Station Cape Cod (Mass.). The water at the time was 46 degrees with 15 mph winds and seas about 1 foot. As the hours drew on, the Kittery-based Coast Guard cutter Campbell, South Portland-based cutters Jefferson Island and Shackle, and the Southwest Harbor-based cutter Bridle joined the search along with the state Marine Patrol, police and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Rescue efforts continued for more than 15 hours.
The women were found unresponsive in their life jackets at 9 a.m., about three miles southeast of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, seven miles from their destination and a mile from their empty kayaks. They were pronounced dead at Maine Medical Center in Portland after several attempts to revive them.
"That's the problem in New England: The air temperature warms up a lot faster than the water does," says petty officer Connie Ferrell in a phone interview with Soundings. "We always tell people even if it is warm outside to dress as if it was a cold day if you are out on the water."
Charles Sutherland, an expert in cold-water physiology, says boaters should not rely on life jackets alone to save their lives.
"They were not dressed to swim if need be and they had no way to communicate," says Sutherland of Green Lane, Pa. "You need to have the whole package."
Sutherland says kayakers need to keep some basic safety measures in mind in order to stay safe:
• Dress to swim in a wet suit or dry suit and test the gear in cold water before heading out. A Web site for such gear is www.nrsweb.com.
• Have waterproof methods of communication. The Coast Guard recommends having a cell phone, VHF and FM radio, and signaling devices such as a whistle or an air horn.
• Train in assisted and self-rescue techniques.
`"Without proper gear, you can only last for maybe 10 minutes," says Sutherland. "These unfortunate girls were outside the circle of skilled boaters. ... It's important people continue to spread this information and educate others."
For information on the effects of cold water and safety tips on being prepared before heading offshore, visit Sutherland's Web site at www.enter.net/~skimmer/coldwater.html.
This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters section of the July 2010 issue.