Coast Guard helicopter crew saves kayakers from drowning in 6-10 foot waves

Traverse City – A U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter crew from Air Station Traverse City, Mich., saved two kayakers who were in danger of drowning near Sleeping Bear Dunes, Friday at about 5 p.m.

An employee with the National Park Service called for help after spotting the men who got into trouble when weather conditions on Lake Michigan deteriorated and their kayaks reportedly began taking on water.

One of the kayaks completely sank, leaving the occupant, who was wearing a life jacket, fighting six-foot waves approximately one mile offshore. The other kayaker, also wearing a life jacket, was able to hold on to his kayak even though it nearly sank as well.

When the aircrew found the first kayaker, they deployed a rescue swimmer, lowered the aircraft’s rescue basket, hoisted the man aboard and flew him to shore where EMS was waiting. The rescue swimmer stayed in the water while the aircrew took the kayaker to safety.

The helicopter crew then recovered the rescue swimmer and went to search for the second kayaker. They located him about two miles away from the other man. He was holding on to the front of his kayak with both arms and legs and was barely able to keep his head above the 10-foot waves he was fighting.

“Without their life jackets, there’s no telling how long they would have been able to fight those waves,” said Lt. j.g. Skylar Swenson, co-pilot aboard the helicopter.

The aircrew dropped the swimmer again and rescued the second kayaker.

Both kayakers were conscious and responsive, but exhausted and shivering uncontrollably while being flown to shore. EMS transported them to a local hospital for further evaluation.

The aircrew estimated that the men were in the water for at least one hour.

In addition to Swenson, the helicopter crew was made up of Aircraft Commander Lt. Matt Keeney, Flight Mechanic Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Izett and Rescue Swimmer Petty Officer 3rd Class Ben Brown.

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  1. kevin Cornett says:

    On Friday the Columbia Yacht club out of Chicago canceled the first leg of the Tri- State sailboat race due to high winds and small craft advisories.
    If it is too rough for 30+ foot sailboats with experienced crew to be on Lake Michigan then what the He** were kayakers doing out there?
    10 footers on Lake Michigan in a kayak? You can’t fix stupid.

  2. Davej says:

    It would be interesting to hear more details. Were these sea kayaks or recreational kayaks, and were these experienced kayakers or beginners?

  3. KrisD says:

    In general, “kayakers” need to be split into two categories: those who have the equipment and training to handle big waves and rough conditions and those who don’t. It sounds as though these two were definitely in the former.

    Also, 30+ foot sailboats are certainly capable of handling 10 footers, but only in survival mode. Sails reefed, jacklines and harnesses. When Columbia canceled the racing, it was surely due to the fact that the conditions were too rough for safe, fun and fair racing.

  4. friendlyfire says:

    Kudos to the Coast Guard, who answered the call. No doubt they saved the lives of these two men.

    One mile offshore is pretty far out and they encountered conditions that were rougher than either they or their boats could handle.

    Sounds like these particular kayaks were of the recreational kind, with less floatation that a seakayak – which would cause them to sink enough that they would be very difficult to empty out and climb back into, even without six foot waves.

    For the kayakers to be separated from each other by two miles is very problematic and could have been tragic, as they were unable to rescue or communicate with each other.

    In most situations, rafting up (staying side by side and holding on to each other’s boats by the rigging) before capsizing creates a kind of catamaran with additional buoyancy.

    But when the first kayaker capsized it went downhill from there.

    I was out kayaking Friday and Sunday as well – Friday mostly in the protection of Platte Bay/Empire Bluffs, Sunday on Crystal Lake (big inland lake south of Sleeping Bear near Beulah). I used a seakayak. Encountered no problems. Gotta know your limits, and be conservative when the weather deteriorates.