Search for N.H. sea kayaker is called off

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Hamilton Wood had been kayaking for a decade, and regularly paddled to the Isles of Shoals

When Lisa Eberhart got a call from her husband’s cell phone at 3 p.m. Feb. 27, she never thought it might be the last time she’d hear his voice.

The Coastguard search for the missing kayaker covered more than 400 square nautical miles.

Hamilton Wood was calling to say he would be making his way home in his yellow 12-foot Perception kayak from the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire.

“He had been whitewater canoeing most of his adult life,” says Eberhart, who lives in Contoocook, N.H., with her two sons David, 19, and Brooks, 16. “He started sea kayaking about 10 or so years ago, and he was really serious about it.”

Eberhart says Wood, 59, was prepared when he left that morning for his annual winter crossing from Odiorne Point in Rye, N.H., to the Shoals. He wore his wet suit and life jacket, and was carrying a GPS, flares, mirror, strobe and a foam floatation device in case of emergencies. The one thing he didn’t have was a VHF radio.

“It was not unusual for him to head out this time of year,” says Eberhart. “The thing that hurts the most for our boys is hearing people on blogs and in the media talking about how unprepared he was. He didn’t take any of this lightly.”

Wood, shown here in an undated photo, was an avid sea kayaker for 10 years. He took the dangers of the sport seriously, says his family.

At 1 p.m. Station Portsmouth Harbor (N.H.) contacted Wood after a good Samaritan spotted him a half-mile from Star Island — where Eberhart says the family often vacations — and told the Coast Guard he may have been in distress. The wind was blowing at 23 to 34 mph, seas were at 4 to 6 feet, while the water temperature was at 37 degrees, according to Petty Officer Connie Terrell.

The Coast Guard launched a 47-foot rescue boat from Station Portsmouth Harbor and located Wood at the island. Wood declined a ride to land and told them he was going to Smuttynose Island for lunch, and would return to Odiorne Point shortly thereafter. He set up a communications plan with the Coast Guard.

“He called us around 3 p.m. from Smuttynose stating he would be back to the mainland by 5:15 p.m.,” says Petty Officer Connie Terrell. “When he hadn’t shown up, his wife called us.”

At 5:30 p.m., Station Portsmouth Harbor personnel found Wood’s car at Odiorne Point and, when they could not confirm his location, they launched a 47-foot rescue boat crew. The crew continued searching into the night with an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and HU-25 Falcon jet crew from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod (Mass.) joining the search. The Coast Guard cutter Reliance from Kittery, Maine, also took part.

At 7 a.m. the following day, Wood’s yellow kayak was found by the helicopter crew in the vicinity of Boon Island, Maine.

“That day the weather had about [20 mph] wind, 3-foot seas, and clear skies – about 10 nautical miles of visibility,” says Terrell. “It was very good weather to spot someone in.”

The search was officially called off at 9:45 a.m. March 1, after the involvement of up to 200 people in state and local agencies who searched more than 400 square nautical miles.

Eberhart says she can tell that her husband attempted a self-rescue out there, because, when the kayak was returned, the hard foam flotation device was attached at the end of the paddle.

“It’s typically called a paddle float,” says Adam Bolonsky, a sea kayaking writer and instructor from Hopkinton, N.H. “You put it on the end of the paddle if you are in the water and then attach the other end of the paddle to the crisscrossing bungy cords that are typically on the top of a kayak.”

Kayakers use this device to then attempt to haul themselves back into the cockpit with the paddle supported by the cords. However, it’s an easier technique to pull off if there is more than one person, says Bolonsky.

“The other kayaker can come parallel to you and hold your kayak, making both vessels solid and stable,” says Bolonsky, whose blog on Sea Kayaking Dot Net (http://paddlingtravelers.blogspot.com) often covers issues of safety.

“It’s ridiculously hard to get in when there’s no one to help.”

Bolonsky always emphasizes the buddy system in his classes, saying sea kayaking is always a risk. “The biggest challenge always present is the very real possibility of complete immersion into the very element that we’re attracted to,” says Bolonsky.

Eberhart says her husband often practiced paddling and swimming in the ocean or freshwater year-round, but mostly enjoyed doing his sport in solitude.

Dr. Charles Sutherland, an instructor of cold-water workshops for the American Canoe Association and avid sea kayaker since 1978, says having a paddling partner is extremely important.

“It’s a lot easier to be rescued if your kayak flips over if there’s someone else there,” says Sutherland, who recently conducted a cold-water workshop in conjunction with the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Norwalk, Conn. (See facing page.) “Many of us do, at times, paddle by ourselves, but the level of caution needs to be … in proportion with the coldness of the water.

“We always recommend that people tie any important equipment to themselves on a 3-foot string, and then attach themselves to the kayak somehow,” he says. “He may have had all the right equipment with him, but once you’re out of that boat all that stuff might as well be in the basement of your house back on land.”

Sutherland says it is also a good idea for kayakers to have a VHF radio connected to their vessel somehow because cell phones can be lost easily. He also recommended that boaters of any type use a dry suit for any water temperature below 40 F — and that they be sure they know how to use it properly.

For safety tips on cold water boating, visit Sutherland’s online brochure at

www.enter.net/~skimmer/coldwater.html.

See related article: "In cold weather, dress to swim."

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.