Anatomy of a SPOT Messenger Rescue
On September 5th myself and a group of six other experienced paddlers loaded up our 7 NDK Explorers and prepared to make the transit out to Grand Manan Island and the Wolves. The day before saw the remnants of Hurricane Earl push up through the Grand Manan Chanel and the Bay of Fundy before veering to the east and out of our way. The day itself was bright and sunny with the forecast calling for SW 10-15 knot winds. The group discussed the situation and felt these conditions were acceptable for our departure, so off we went.
The first stop was the crossing of the Narrows and through customs before heading out through the narrows and into the channel. As it turned out, the weather was not going to cooperate. Increasing winds, a southerly swell and a generous tide race all conspired to keep us from venturing forward. We instead chose the safe course and rode the swell and following seas up the coast of Campobello island, looking for a safe spot to camp. Shortly thereafter we found a pleasant beach to make camp and settled in for a nice evening complete with a camp fire and good food.
The following day brought calm seas and light winds, perfect conditions for making the crossing. As we broke camp, the group decided to head south about a mile or so before initiating our crossing of the Grand Manan channel. This made for about a 9 mile crossing of what is some of the biggest waters in this area and certainly on the East Coast. Water temps were in the upper 40’s with air temps some where in the 60’s. All paddlers were in Kokatat dry suits, fully prepared for any type of immersion issues that might arise. As it was,about 3-4 miles from shore, one of our paddlers became sea sick and we were forced to initiate a towing line. All went well with this and we eventually reached shore without further issue. The eastern edge of the channel, about half a mile off shore did create a fairly strong tide race that was forming on the new ebb and this did cause us to adjust our landing point to the south ever so slightly. We stopped for lunch before heading out for another 2 mile stretch before making camp at Dark Harbor (a story all toitself).
The next day brought some light winds from the south and a little bit of chop, but the group was enjoying the rolling seas and the little bit of rock gardening that we were able to do along this rough and barren shore line. This side of Grand Manan has cliffs upwards of 200 to 300 feet tall with relatively few landing spots. We made our way over the course of about 3 hours to a small cove with a lovely camp site located up on the tall bluffs. Camping here was going to be hard work but would result in a spectacular view during the evening dinner session. We were all very excited about this spot and set about moving gear up a 200 foot cliff, via a rope and pulley sled system. After moving the gear, we set about moving the kayaks up into the tree line which was about 6-8 foot above the beach.
This is when we realized that something was sadly wrong. One of our party noticed a Coast Guard cutter rounding the southern tip of the island and we all stopped to watch, wondering what was going on. Within a few minutes, it was apparent that the cutter was heading directly towards us and that we were somehow involved in whatever was happening. We quickly grabbed our VHF radios, turned them to Ch. 16 and listened in to see what the problem was. We overheard broken conversation regarding a kayaker with a beacon that was going so we decided to contact the cutter directly.
Upon making contact, we were informed that they were searching for a kayaker with a blue kayak and a beacon that was going off. Instantly everyone turned to me and asked if I had a beacon, to which I promptly replied yes. My PFD had been stored in my kayak up in the trees, so I scrambled up the rocks, got into the boat, and much to my dismay there was my SPOT messenger with the 911 light blinking red. Up until that moment I was still hoping that it was not me who had caused this search, and as I looked at that red blinking light a pit in my stomach formed as I realized that not only was it my beacon, but I knew that my familyhad been contacted by the SPOT service and that they must be in a horrible state of mind.
I have paddled over 4000 miles with the same SPOT messenger and used it religiously to notify my family of my location and my status. I had been blessed with never having had to hit either of the ‘help’ buttons nor had I ever inadvertently pressed the 911 button. However, there were certainly many moments when I had contemplated what would happen should either of those scenarios become reality. So, as this all flashed through my mind in an instant, I was quick to climb back down the bank, get on the radio with the Coast Guard and assure them that it was me they were searching for and that in fact I was fine; that this was entirely and accident. They were grateful that all was well and we all thanked them multiple times before signing off.
My thoughts were immediately on my family and the duress that they were surely going through, wondering if I was ok. We as a group quickly pulled out cell phones and made contact with them, letting everyone know that al lwas well. The Coast Guard and the SPOT service had also proactively reached out to my family letting them know that I was found and that all was well.
The next 4 days as we paddled around the island and worked our way back to home base, all of us had time to reflect on this situation and do some of our own internal analysis. It was only a little ironic that the week before I had posted a link to a group of Netherlands paddlers that had actually truly been in need of a rescue, and now here I was reviewing my own situation, trying to figure out what the lessons learned were and how to best share them with others. Which all leads me to the critical part ofthis event, the analysis and the lessons learned.
First was the realization that every paddler undertaking a trip like this should have some type of beacon on their person or within their group, this includes either a standard EPIRB or a SPOT messenger. I say this because after reviewing all the facts, even with a beacon, it took the Coast Guard over 3 hours to get to our location, and they had our exact GPS coordinates. Why so long? Well apparently the first hour after the beacon went off saw the SPOT service and the Coast Guard making calls trying to determine the validity of the beacon as well as collecting as much information as possible about me and where I was. This data collection was necessary before a search and rescue could be initiated.
This leads to the second big lesson, you must file a float plan with some onethat will be contacted in the event of an emergency. As it turns out, my daughter new of my plans, but she was not on the call list. My family, in their attempt to protect my children, chose not to contact her thus leaving a large information void regarding my location and my actuall paddling plans. Had I filed a float plan with my entire family I could possibly have saved agreat deal of time that was wasted gathering information before initiating a rescue.
Third and possibly most important of all is immersion gear. This ‘non’rescue took over 3 hours before a ship arrived at the scene. Had this been a real emergency and had I been in the waters with a temperature of 48 degrees, even with the dry suit and the wool base layer I was wearing, I would have been in a dire situation. Exhaustion and unconsciousness can occur in as little as 30 minutes without the proper gear. Three hours, even with a dry suit would have been extremely challenging for me to remain conscious and functioning. Immersion gear must be appropriate to the water temperatures and not the air, although as a long distance paddler I do realize the challenge that this can some times create.
I was lucky that this was a ‘non’ emergency that not only tested my gear,but also tested my preparedness and that of our group. I learned some valuable lessons from this experience as did the others in our party. At this point I still do not know how my device was activated. The best guess is that I had taken off my PFD, laid it face down, and that some how it was stepped on thus causing the 911 button to be pressed. It is worth noting that the new SPOT device has a cap covering this button to help avoid this exact scenario. I have always been extremely pleased with my SPOT device, often telling others that this is the way all sea based electronics should perform. I am happy to say that in this scenario, it, and the SPOT team did an amazing job in initiating this rescue.