Coast Guard Concerned as Paddler Deaths Rise in New England

By DAVID SHARP | July 26, 2016

As the popularity of paddle sports surges, the Maine Coast Guard is recommending kayakers, canoeists and paddleboarders to be prepared before venturing out following a rise in deaths in the past year.

Eighteen people have died in New England since October, compared to seven in the 12-month period that ended in October, said Nicole Grolls, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Boston.

The problem can partly be attributed to the growing popularity of paddleboards, kayaks and canoes but too many paddlers are unprepared for changing conditions, don’t have appropriate safety gear and lack skills needed to stay safe when the unexpected happens, said Walter Taylor, a Coast Guard recreational boating safety specialist.

Even taking the normal precaution of wearing a lifejacket may not be enough when the water is cold enough to kill, he said.

“It could be a nice beautiful day forecast in the 90s, but the water temperature where they’re paddling is below 60. They may not account for hypothermia,” Taylor said.

That’s exactly what happened a month ago in Maine.

A licensed guide from Maine and his two clients from New Jersey departed on a pleasant afternoon but encountered a brief-but-violent squall that capsized their kayaks. Ed Brackett, of Gouldsboro, and Michael Popper, of Plainfield, New Jersey, died June 22. Popper’s wife, Cheryl, survived severe hypothermia after being in the water for five hours.

The three were wearing lifejackets, and Brackett even had a waterproof radio. Others knew their plans and reported them missing.

“He wasn’t a seat-of-your-pants kind of guy. He was always prepared,” Town Manager Bryan Kaenrath said of Brackett, who worked for the town.

They were doing many of the right things, but they weren’t dressed for the possibility of going into the water, the Coast Guard said.

They were wearing summer clothes – shorts and T-shirts – instead of something gear to insulate themselves from the cold water, Taylor said.

The number of paddler deaths fluctuates from year to year. Nationwide, paddler deaths have ranged from a low of 144 to as high as 198 over the past 10 years even as the total number of boating deaths has dropped, according to Coast Guard data.

Meanwhile, more people are getting into the sport each year. The Outdoor Foundation says nearly 22 million Americans – about 7 percent of the population – participated in paddle sports in 2014.

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