Sink or Swim? Lessons Learned From a Near Tragedy
By Tamia Nelson
September 25, 2007
Buying a new boat is always exciting, even if
the "new" boat is really somebody else's hand-me-down. Is there a paddler
anywhere who isn't thrilled at the prospect of putting a newly acquired
canoe or kayak through its paces for the first time? If there is, I've never
met her (or him). But there's a downside, too. In our fever to hit the
water, it's terribly easy to throw caution to the winds. Maybe that's why
Clyde Bolter came so near to death in early August of this year. Here's how
There was no hint of danger on the sunny, southern California morning
when Clyde paddled away from the beach at La Jolla and headed out to sea for
some birdwatching. To be sure, his boat wasn't exactly showroom shiny. In
fact, it was practically an antique: a 30-year-old sit-on-top
(SOT) with a plastic viewing window glued over a cut-out in the hull.
Moreover, Clyde wasn't really a model of Be-Preparedness. He wasn't wearing
a PFD, for
one thing, and he had no flares or other means of summoning help in case of
trouble. Furthermore, the shorts that covered his bum were his only
protective clothing. All in all, then, Clyde's planning for his first trip
in his "new" boat was pretty casual. Still, the initial phase of the
shakedown cruise was uneventful. But then Clyde noticed that the SOT was
getting harder to paddle. And it was settling lower in the water, too. In
fact, it was sinking beneath him, as the hollow hull slowly flooded. Was the
seal around the viewing window defective? Clyde didn't know. He hadn't
checked it before launching. He kept his head now, though. To begin with, he
deliberately capsized the SOT, hoping to trap enough air in the molded well
to keep it floating high. But the attempt failed.
Clyde's summer outing was ending badly. His SOT would no longer float
with him aboard, he was miles from shore, and night was approaching. Rightly
or wrongly, Clyde decided to swim for it. And he did. At one point, a
sportfishing boat passed near him as he swam. It came tantalizingly close,
so close that Clyde could read the labels on the beer cans in the anglers'
hands. But his desperate shouts were drowned out by the gutsy rumble from
the boat's engine, and he had no other way to attract attention. The boat
continued on course, its captain and crew unaware of the screaming figure
left bobbing in their wake. Soon Clyde was alone in the water again. So he
kept swimming, husbanding his strength as best he could. In the end, his
efforts paid off. Early in the pre-dawn hours, he found himself just
offshore from Naval Base Point Loma ten miles, give or take, from his
launch site. He clambered up slowly onto a wave-washed rock. Then he started
calling out to anyone who passed by, and at last someone heard his cries.
still wasn't finished with Clyde. Naval security personnel, unaware of
Clyde's long ordeal, refused to allow him to come ashore. Finally, though,
they relented, and civilian lifeguards came to his rescue. They arrived just
in time. Clyde's core body temperature had dropped dangerously low. He was
very lucky to be alive.
And what of his boat? Some days later, it was spotted drifting near the
international border with Mexico, barely afloat and nine miles offshore. The
finders returned it to Clyde.
That's quite a story, isn't it? Imagine yourself adrift in a sinking
boat, miles offshore, with no life vest and no way of calling for help.
You're already tired from hours of paddling, you're scared, and night is
falling. It's almost the worst worst-case scenario possible. Of course, in
any such incident, there are always lessons to be learned. And Clyde
certainly learned a few. In fact, after he recovered from his long swim, he
went public, hoping that his example would save others from making the same
mistakes. You may have seen his story on the news, or read about it in a
paper or on the Web. Now let's dig a little deeper, and see just
Where Clyde Went Wrong
He Went Offshore Alone in an Untried
Boat. As pleasant as it sometimes is to get away all by
yourself, heading out to sea
on your own is never a good idea, and doing so in a new boat is (to borrow
George Orwell's memorable phrase) doubleplus ungood, particularly when the
"new" boat in question is somebody else's old boat. Whether your new
boat is factory fresh or a battle-scarred veteran, though, there's just no
substitute for a sea trial,
conducted under safe conditions and with friends standing by to help in case
His Boat Didn't Have Any Supplementary
Flotation. Admittedly, not too many SOT owners bother with
float bags. But as Clyde's experience shows, older SOTs and any SOT
that doesn't have foam encapsulated in the hull can founder.
In any case, supplementary
flotation is never a bad idea. Plastic is sturdy
stuff, but time and sunlight take their toll, and even a small crack can
let in a lot of water.
He Didn't File a Float
Plan. Telling someone where you're going and when you
expect to be back is always smart. Call it filing a float
plan if you want. Or just call it common sense. Either way, Clyde didn't
do it. Not good.
He Didn't Wear a PFD. Worse yet,
he didn't even have one in his boat. This is illegal in most places, but
that's not the point, is it? Unless you've learned to breathe water, it's stupid to
leave your PFD behind when you go paddling. A PFD won't turn a
non-swimmer into an aquatic star, of course, but it makes even the strongest
swimmer a little bit safer, and it helps to conserve body heat when you're
in the water, too. That can be vital.
He Didn't Dress for the Water
Temperature. According to news reports, sea-surface
temperature off La Jolla was 72 degrees Fahrenheit when Clyde set off.
That's plenty warm if you're just taking a dip, but it's cold enough to
kill when you have to stay in the water for hours, particularly if
you're exhausted by the effort of keeping afloat.
He Didn't Have Any Way to Call for
Help. Shouts often fall on deaf ears. A whistle is
cheap and light, and it's much more likely to be heard. Or are you counting
on being seen? Don't. A swimmer's head bobbing in the waves is almost
invisible, even during the day. And after dark? Forget it! Flares and
strobes, on the other hand, are hard to ignore. Of course, an EPIRB or
Personal Locator Beacon is even better at getting attention. They're not
cheap the cheapest ones cost about as much as a recreational kayak
but in a hard chance
. Is your life worth as much as your
boat? It's a question you might want to ask yourself.
OK. That's the downside. But Clyde must have done something right. After
all, he lived to tell his story. So now let's consider
What Clyde Did Right
He Was Prepared. No, I haven't
forgotten what I just wrote. It's true that Clyde violated almost every rule
in the prudent paddler's handbook, but at least he had enough sense to learn
to swim. It can't have been easy. He did it as an adult, long after the age
when most of us have already learned, or given up trying. But I'm sure Clyde
would agree it was worth the time and trouble. What about you? While many
non-swimmers are skillful canoeists and kayakers, there's no doubt that good
swimmers have the edge when things go wrong. And it's never too late to
He Kept His Head. When Clyde first
realized his boat was sinking, with miles of water between him and the
nearest dry land, he didn't panic. He thought the problem through and tried
to find the best solution. First he flipped his SOT, hoping to trap enough
air to support both the boat and himself. Then, when that failed, he weighed
his options carefully and decided not to stay with the boat. In this he
went against much expert opinion, but he had his reasons, and they were
good ones. His boat was already awash, no one was looking for him, and night
was coming on. The likelihood of his being rescued was therefore vanishingly
small. So he set out for shore, pacing himself to conserve his energy. It
was a calculated risk, to be sure, but it paid off.
He Learned From His
Mistakes. Clyde escaped death by the narrowest of margins.
But as his later public statements made perfectly clear, he didn't blame
anyone else for his misadventure. He didn't even blame fate. He acknowledged
his mistakes and accepted responsibility for the consequences. The result?
It's not likely he'll make the same mistakes again. Learning from your
mistakes that's the most important lesson of all. 'Nuff said?
There's no doubt about it. Clyde Bolter had a very bad day early in
August. And as night fell on that terrible day, he was left with just two
choices: Stay with his sinking boat and hope for a miracle, or swim for
shore, with no guarantee that he'd have the strength to make it back to
land. Sink or swim? Those are choices that none of us would welcome.
But they were the only ones left for Clyde. Worst of all, it was nobody's
fault but his own. Happily, though, he lived to tell his tale. It's a
compelling story. Moreover, it's a story no paddler can afford to ignore.
Copyright © 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights