Beach Watchers rescue kayakers: Activists help pluck pair from frigid Saratoga Passage

While on a whale watching cruise on the Mystic Sea Saturday, the Island County Beach Watchers got more excitement than they bargained for. The group rescued kayakers Gretchen Hall and Kelly Hogan in Saratoga Passage. - Chuck O’Connor
While on a whale watching cruise on the Mystic Sea Saturday, the Island County Beach Watchers got more excitement than they bargained for. The group rescued kayakers Gretchen Hall and Kelly Hogan in Saratoga Passage.
— image credit: Chuck O’Connor

A fundraiser turned into a rescue mission as the Island County Beach Watchers pulled two kayakers from the frigid waters off the coast of South Whidbey Saturday.

The group was on a whale watching tour to raise money for their discovery center. They had cruised just north of Langley when Sherry Asmus suddenly saw something splashing and flapping in the water.

Despite the cold weather, she was outside on the deck of the boat keeping her eyes open for wild life.

“I just didn’t want to miss anything,” she said.

Asmus thought she had spotted an animal.

Still, she decided to alert the captain.

Monte Hughes, skipper of the Mystic Sea, first thought it was a sea lion flipper when he saw a paddle waving in the distance.

“We had 30 knot winds and 3- to 4-foot seas. I thought it had to be an animal,” he said.

However, upon closer inspection, Hughes discovered a paddle plate and a floating cushion. He alerted the Coast Guard.

As Hughes steered the boat closer, the group saw two people holding on to a capsized kayak. The kayak was completely submerged and, at that point, about three feet under water.

Asmus said Hughes did a great job keeping everybody calm and coordinating the rescue efforts.

“It was an absolute team effort,” she said.

The rescuers threw a life ring and pulled a woman from the water.

“The gal was on the verge of going into shock,” Hughes recalled.

The man initially refused to let go of the kayak, said Kristin Cooley, Beach Watcher coordinator.

“It was his grandpa’s,” she said. But the rescuers convinced him to let go of the old kayak.

The couple did not have on life jackets and the woman seemed exhausted, Cooley said.

At that point they had been in the water for seven to 10 minutes. Cooley, herself an experienced kayaker, said people quickly go into hypothermia in the conditions found in Puget Sound this time of the year.

“If we wouldn’t have seen them, they could have died,” she said.

The kayakers’ bodies were severely over-cooled. They did not wear any safety clothes such as a dry or wet suit, Cooley said.

“The woman was wearing a heavy cotton overall,” she said.

The rescuers learned that the couple had paddled to Camano Island earlier in the day and that the weather had turned on their way back.

Cooley said she suspects alcohol was involved.

“You could smell beer on their breaths,” she said. People who found the kayak later confirmed the suspicion. A 12-pack of beer was still stored in the kayak, Cooley said.

The Beach Watchers warmed the kayakers with sleeping bags. Hughes returned the Mystic Sea to Coupeville where an ambulance and a gaggle of helpers and onlookers were already waiting for the arrival of the boat.

The Coast Guard had suggested to bring the kayakers to Langley because of the closer proximity to shore at the time of the rescue.

“But there was no way for a 100-foot boat to dock at the Langley Marina at that time,” Hughes said.

Once on shore, the couple was approached by emergency workers, but the pair refused medical treatment and quickly left.

“They brushed everybody off,” Cooley said.

The kayakers had told Hughes that their names were Gretchen Hall of Langley and Kelly Hogan of Oak Harbor.

Later, the Beach Watchers tried to contact the couple, because someone on Camano had

found the kayak that had washed ashore. But the man had left false contact information. They reached the woman later and made arrangements for the kayak to be returned.

Asmus said she is thankful that events unfolded as they did. Initially, she had been disappointed that the group of whale watchers had to head back to port soon after they had spotted a group of gray whales. But after finding the kayakers, just in time, Asmus said, she knows why circumstances changed.

“It took the grace of God that we went by there and saw them,” Asmus said.

Safety is an important issue when kayaking in Puget Sound.

Ed Young of the Whidbey Island Kayaking Company leads group kayaking tours around South Whidbey. He said it is vital to use common sense when kayaking.

Here are some tips to avoid dangerous situations:

- Alcohol and water never mix.

- It is important to know your area and the currents. Around South Whidbey especially, currents and wind can be tricky.

- The weather can change quickly. Especially, around South Whidbey wind waves that are often about 2 1/2 feet can easily capsize a kayak, he said.

- Training and the right equipment necessary to do a wet exit and a deep water self rescue (re-entry) are also very important. Young said the water temperature around Whidbey Island is only about 53 degrees year-around. After 45 minutes, maximum, hypothermia will disable people in these conditions.

“That’s not a lot of time to be rescued,” he said. This is why it is necessary to know how to help yourself.”

- People should wear life jackets. Kids 12 years and under are required to wear life vests.

- Know your ability.

- Don’t go out alone if you are inexperienced.

- Wear a dry or wet suit, dress in layers of fast-drying clothes depending upon the weather.

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