A Whidbey Island kayaker may owe his life to a sharp-eyed member of the Search and Rescue team from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
The SAR team was responding to a report Sunday night of a hiker in distress on the Pacific Coast Trail in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. On the way there, a crew member in the helicopter noticed an overturned kayak in Dugualla Bay and the rescue team swung into action.
Hospital Corpsman Chief Wayne Papalaski said he happened to look out at the water just after takeoff and saw two kayaks in the water. He noticed that someone was splashing next to one of the kayaks, so he alerted the other crew members.
The crew quickly determined that the distressed kayaker, who was only dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt, was in danger as the kayak was drifting quickly in the wind and fast currents. The other kayaker was trying to help but was unable to bring it to shore.
Richard Haines, a Dugualla Bay Heights resident, watched the whole incident just before 8 p.m. He saw the helicopter hovering at about 500 feet above two kayakers, one of whom was in the water.
“As the helicopter descended, the first guy got the rope from the second kayak and began to pull it away, out from under the rotor wash which was very strong (and must have been cold),” he wrote in an email.
He watched as a basket was lowered from the helicopter and the man in distress got into it. He was hoisted into the helicopter and brought to the base. The man appeared to be hypothermic and exhausted, but was otherwise OK, said Mike Welding, base public affairs officer.
“He was very lucky that the crew spotted him when they did,” he said.
According to Haines, the second kayaker started pulling the empty kayak to the shore, but the wind and current were strong so a neighbor and two others motored out to help.
“He and his little dog (also wearing a life jacket) finally climbed out on the solid beach wet and cold,” Haines wrote.
The man explained that his friend had fallen out of his kayak and was unable to climb back in. He had been in the cold water about five minutes when the helicopter arrived.
After bringing the kayaker to the base, the SAR team continued on to the Pacific Coast Trail. They rescued a hiker who was suffering from severe dehydration.
The Navy SAR unit operates three MH-60S helicopters from NAS Whidbey Island as search and rescue/medical evacuation platforms for the EA-18G aircraft as well as other squadrons and personnel assigned to the installation, the base reports.
Pursuant to the National SAR Plan, the unit may also be used for civil SAR/MEDEVAC needs to the fullest extent practicable on a non-interference basis with primary military duties according to applicable national directives, plans, guidelines and agreements.