Enjoying a quiet paddle in a kayak or canoe is a great way to spend a summer day, but when the tide is running against the paddler, it can turn into a difficult or even dangerous situation – as several kayakers on the Scarborough River learned last week.

Those kayakers were rescued by Scarborough’s Marine Resource Officer Dave Corbeau, but a couple out for an early evening canoe ride in Jonesport in late July were not so lucky and died after their boat presumably capsized.

Saturday’s “perfect weather” drew a number of people to take advantage of the boat launch at the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center on Route 9, which offers easy access to the Dunstan River.

Among them were Debbie Charest and her companions from New Hampshire, who were camping in nearby Old Orchard Beach. It was the first time Charest and her friends had kayaked on a tidal river, but they enjoyed the experience so much, she said, they’ll “definitely do it again.”

Charest described herself and her friends as beginner to mid-level kayakers and said they prefer a kayak to a canoe because it offers more stability and is “easier to manage.”

Charest’s friend, Ray Kennedy, said when they go on a kayak trip, he is always careful to have water, a cell phone, lifejackets and he “always watches the weather and lets someone know where we’ll be.”

Charest said their first experience on a tidal river was great going with the outbound tide, but getting back, it was “a constant paddle. I will definitely feel it tomorrow.”

Mike Hofheimer, a Scarborough resident, is an avid kayaker and is also in charge of the boats at the Audubon Center on weekends.

“There’s always a lot of coming and going on a nice summer day,” he said.

He also said because the Audubon staff want paddlers to have a “positive experience, we always send them with the tide and if it’s an extremely high tide and windy, we don’t send anyone but the most experienced paddlers.”

Hofheimer called the Dunstan River “a great paddle for beginners” because of its “calm water” and the impossibility of getting lost.

He also agreed with Charest that kayaks are good for beginners because they are more stable and “less susceptible to being overturned” by the wind or waves than a canoe.

When Hofheimer goes kayaking, he always wears a lifejacket and brings his cell phone. When going on open water, such as paddling around Portland Harbor and Casco Bay, he also takes extra precautions.

Those include bringing a spare paddle, installing his kayak’s spray skirt and making sure he has a “dry box” with a cell phone, drinking water and a small pump, in case the boat gets filled with water.

In addition, Hofheimer said, if he’s going out on the ocean he never paddles alone.

He said the water in intertidal areas (the zone between high tide and low tide) open to small boaters in Scarborough, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth can be tricky “because it can look calm when it’s not.”

Hofheimer also said that when out on the water, “things can happen very fast, so you have to be aware of that.” He also suggested paddlers wear bright colors, in case the boat capsizes and they end up in the water.

Kevin Battle, a South Portland resident and the assistant harbormaster for Portland Harbor, said that white or bright colors make someone in the water easier for rescuers to spot.

He said boaters should “always, always wear lifejackets” and said the best piece of advice he can give is to “know before you go.”

This includes knowing what the weather is expected to be and pre-planning your route, as well as being prepared for anything, by bringing water, snacks, cell phones and extra clothing.

Battle said kayakers and canoeists should keep their craft out of the shipping lanes in Portland Harbor, where they also should be aware of the tide and general channel conditions.

Overall, he said, boaters must use “common sense, plan ahead, and always head for shore” as soon as the weather begins to turn.

“Never try to bully your way” through rough seas, Battle said.

Another point he emphasized is staying sober.

“Operating any watercraft under the influence is just not smart,” he added.

Battle would encourage people to take lessons or attend boating seminars on local waters before jumping into a kayak or canoe and just taking off.

“You just can’t be too careful,” he said. “If it can go wrong, it probably will.”

While the local harbormasters want people to have fun, Battle also said it’s important to “be alert and do it right.”

Corbeau, Scarborough’s marine resource officer, agreed. He said it’s vitally important for small boaters to “keep their eyes open” and be particularly aware of the tides.

“You simply can’t paddle against the tides around here,” he said.

Corbeau also said paddlers need to be aware of the channels, the currents and where sandbars are likely to appear during low tide.

“I would encourage all boaters to wear lifejackets all the time and I highly recommend that people pay special attention to their return trip,” he added.

Most important, Corbeau said, is that boaters must be “aware of their own abilities and limitations. People tend to test the limits, which isn’t good.”

Paddlers enjoy the Dunstan River in Scarborough during Saturday’s low tide.Staff photo by Kate Irish Collins

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