The deaths of two young women who set out Sunday for a short kayak trip in Casco Bay are a sad reminder of the sport’s dangers and the need to be properly equipped and prepared, say guides and safety experts.
Irina McEntee, 18, and Carissa Ireland, 20, were pulled from the bay Monday morning, about seven miles from their destination and a mile from their empty kayaks. They were rushed to a hospital but could not be revived.
McEntee, a summer resident of Peaks Island, had experience paddling around the bay and had made the 1-mile trip to Ram Island many times, according to friends. She and Ireland, a college friend who was visiting McEntee and her family, set off in the early afternoon, wearing shorts and T-shirts, in 12-foot kayaks.
Without larger kayaks, wet suits and some way to call or signal for help, experts say, the women simply couldn’t survive the 20 mph winds they encountered or the 48-degree ocean water they apparently fell into.
“Assess risks before going out and be prepared for what can and does go wrong on the water,” said Al Johnson, regional safety specialist for the U.S. Coast Guard. “In the world of paddle sports, one should dress for immersion.”
The growing popularity of kayaking has increased the number of searches by the Coast Guard and other agencies, either because people are overdue or their boats turn up without them. In many cases, kayakers end up waiting safely on islands. In others, the search ends as it did Monday.
“The last few years, (kayakers) have just continuously increased the calls for service,” said Maine Marine Patrol Sgt. Daryen Granata. “A kayak is a nice conveyance to roam the coast of Maine. It’s very quiet. It’s very easy. It’s inexpensive.”
But it’s common to see coastal kayakers who are inexperienced and ill-prepared, he said, even though paddling a kayak can be more dangerous than operating a big speedboat.
Even experienced paddlers get into trouble if they underestimate the hazards of a short trip, experts said.
So far this year, there have been 21 recreational boating deaths in the Coast Guard’s Northeast region, 11 of them attributed to canoe or kayak accidents, said Johnson.
“At this time last year we were at eight” recreational boating deaths in the region, he said.
The region stretches from New Jersey to Maine, and the numbers include inland and coastal accidents.
Even experienced paddlers who take many of the recommended precautions can become casualties.
Three years ago, two experienced kayakers set out for a short trip from Biddeford — one wearing a wet suit and one in a dry suit — and were surprised by strong waves near Wood Island.
One of the paddlers capsized and swam to the island, but didn’t have a VHF radio or cell phone to call for help. The other, a well-known professor of mathematics at the University of New England, died.
“We all know that things change quickly,” said Scott Shea, president of the Maine Association of Sea Kayaking Guides. “The conditions pick up, and that’s when people are heading out to that next island out there that looks so beautiful and all of a sudden it becomes a little scary, especially if you are halfway there or already there and have to get back.”
The two women who died in Casco Bay this week did at least two things that experts recommend: They wore life jackets, and told family members where they were going and when they would be back. Those precautions prompted an extensive overnight search, which ultimately found them but could not save them.
Guides and safety experts recommend that kayakers always check weather forecasts before any voyage, get safety training and have:
• Open-water sea kayaks, generally 15 to 16 feet or longer, which have watertight flotation chambers. The boats are more stable in wind and waves.
• Spray skirts that can keep water from washing into a boat and reducing stability.
• Wet suits or dry suits, until water temperatures rise above 60 degrees, or until the combined air and water temperature exceeds 120 degrees.
• A waterproof VHF radio, or a cell phone in a watertight case.
• Signaling devices.
• Life jackets.
• Name and phone numbers written on the boat.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]