Can this really be Happening? by Karen Mirlenbrink, Clearwater, FL

Can this really be Happening?  by Karen Mirlenbrink,  Clearwater, Florida

First, the prelude/disclaimer… Rob and I have been paddling for over 10 years now. We’ve paddled a variety of boats, and have really gotten infatuated with the competitive side of paddling. We both feel that we are skilled paddlers, particularly in rough, choppy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We have always stressed safety first, and felt that our decisions to paddle on this day were based upon weather reports from,,, and We didn’t go out blindly, so we felt. In the year prior to this incident, our safety equipment was inspected and approved by our local Coast Guard.  On that day, we wore our PFD’s and cold weather gear. We carried flares, a cell phone, emergency waterproof thumbdrives called StatKeys, whistles, and money. I also had my paddle leash. We had safety equipment on board and on our bodies. The temperature of the Gulf of Mexico was just under 70 degrees, and the air temperature was in the mid 60’s.

SO, we were attempting to paddle our last long paddle in our double surfski (racing sit on top style racing kayak – which is long and narrow) before our big 72 mile race on March 6th. This training paddle was to be about 5 1/2 hours long, and our plan was to paddle from the northernmost rest stop on the Skyway Bridge to the Clearwater Community Sailing Center on Sand Key. Needless to say, we never made it to Sand Key.

It was a pretty miserable day on that Friday, and we were carefully watching the weather in order to make our decision to go. We waited until the front line appeared to pass (both by sight and by radar) and decided to head out. We crossed the bay from the Skyway to Bunce’s Pass, then turned right (north) to ride the swells up to our destination. The wind was blowing about 25 mph, but that is nothing we haven’t paddled in before. This winter alone has produced some great downwind paddling weather. The winds were out of the south, which produce a more gentle and forgiving chop than what we get out of the north. We felt fine, and were gearing up for a great downwind paddle.

We were heading north, and were just getting past Shell Key on the northwest side of Ft. Desoto when, out of apparently no where, the winds kicked up dramatically. I know I tend to “fluff” my stories, but I am not fluffing this one…. I swear that the wind was blowing at 45-50 miles per hour. At first, the wind blew the waves flat, but they soon kicked up to about 6 feet, steep and breaking. The wind was blowing so hard that we couldn’t lift our paddles without risking the wind taking them from our hands, so Rob steered us along with the wind and waves. Before long, we started going too slow, and a wave picked up the tail of our double surfski and then broached us to the waves (so now we were sideways to the wind and waves). We tried to stablize, but in the next second a breaking wave flipped us out of our boat. We fell in downwind from the ski, and we tried to hold on to our footstraps and paddles. The boat was bouncing off of us like a toy. In the next 10 seconds, another breaking wave washed the ski over our heads and it landed on our downwind side. We tried to hold the boat by the footstraps as hard as we could, but another gust of wind came and blew it right out of our hands. My paddle was leashed to the boat, but it didn’t matter. The 23-foot long, grey and white surfski rolled away from us and all we could do was watch it go. It also left us without Rob’s cell phone, car keys, check card, and some cash that were in a dry bag attached to the deck. Oh Crap!

We could see Pass-a-Grille Beach in the distance, and I estimated that it was about a mile away. We tried to swim towards it, hoping the strong wind and steep waves would push us, but we were catching the outgoing current from Pass-a-Grille Pass, and realized we were swimming but not going anywhere. With a quick regroup, we decided to turn towards Shell Key, which was directly to our right-hand side. It took us about a half hour, but we made it to shore safely. It was a stressful swim, not just because of the waves, but because it was exhausting, we had a paddle to carry, and Rob is not the strongest swimmer. As a competitive swimmer, I have swam my share of miles, but none as tough as this one. Luckily, we were wearing our lifejackets. We stayed close to each other the whole way, and kept encouaging each other to keep going. Once we landed, I was dizzy and barfy, related to the amount of seawater I swallowed and the serious drop in adrenaline I was experiencing. Rob was tired, but seemed fine otherwise.  The crazy thing was, as fast as the wind came up, it went away just as fast. By the time we got to sure, the weather and water was calmer than when we started our paddle.

Now we had to deal with getting off Shell Key, which is a uninhabited nature preserve. I just wanted to sit down and throw up, but Rob encouraged me to stay up and keep going. “This is just the start of our trouble,” he said. He was afraid I would go into shock. Stopping was not an option. So, I swallowed it – literaly…ew – and we traversed Shell Key. We discovered that Shell Key is separated from Tierra Verde (St. Petersburg area) by small channel that is only about 40 feet long. Heck, that’s not even as long as an outrigger canoe! After chucking some coconuts in the small pass to test the current, we dove in, swam across, and climbed some rocks to safety. Thank goodness for those NRS booties!

We ran across to a shopping center, walked into the first business we saw, and asked to use the phone. Rob called all neccessary authorities regarding our lost kayak, he cancelled his cell phone, cancelled his check card. I called the only phone numbers I knew by heart… Mom and Dad. No answer from Mom, I forgot Dad was in NJ. At first Rob and I looked at each other, “What are we going to do??” Then Rob remembered that our new cool canoe club website ( has a password protected membership directory. We got on, and called Terri-Lyn to see if she could come get us. She and Jade came down to save us. They showed up with towels, dry clothes, water, soda, and snacks. What great friends we have!

So the main part of our adventure was over. Terri took us to our car on Sand Key, then we had to take it back down to the Skyway to pick up our truck. After looking at maps, we figured our kayak must have washed up between St.Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille. We started checking the beach accesses – mind you it’s now 9 pm. Rob decided to run down St. Pete Beach between beach accesses and the Don Cesar Hotel to look for it. Sadly it wasn’t there, and we were quite bummed. We decided to go down to Pass-a-Grille to try one more time. We scoped out the beach, and one more time Rob decided to run down the beach. He told me to meet him at the other end with the car. I drove down there to find him waving my paddle around! He found my paddle! Then I saw him hold up the drybag with his stuff in it. Oh my gosh, he found the boat! Apparently, it washed ashore, then someone pulled it up on the beach. It still had my paddle attached, plus the drybag with all of Rob’s stuff in it – untouched. To make it even better, the surfski and paddle are perfectly fine. WOW! However, we are still concerned that no one bothered to call the authorities when an empty double surfski with a paddle and personal items attached wash ashore. Anyway, we moved it into the sea oats, then went and got the truck. We loaded it on and went home – but not without scoping out some Steak N Shake Milkshakes on our way.

After downloading the info from our GPS that was mounted to the deck of the ski, we learned that we fell off about 3/4 of a mile off of Shell Key. The surfski drifted just over a mile straight north to Pass-a-Grille. Looking at the time frame, it made it to shore before we did.

Here’s the map of our adventure:,-82.803268&spn=0.202538,0.307274&t=h&z=12&msid=103079263589844809916.00047f2313494c6218cea

Wow, what an adventure! I can’t believe how well it ended up turning out.

Reflecting on our adventure, Rob and I were both taken by suprise with the outcome of our day, on many levels. Of course, we were scared for our lives when we watched our boat blow away. However, in a few seconds, we realized we could make it to safety, and did what we had to do.

In speaking to friends who are experts in sailing and science, we learned that we may have experienced a weather phenomenon called a “Wet Microburst”.  Here is what Wikipedia says about them:

“A microburst is a very localized column of sinking air, producing damaging divergent and straight-line winds at the surface that are similar to but distinguishable from tornadoes which generally have convergent damage. There are two types of microbursts: wet microbursts and dry microbursts….Wet microbursts are downbursts accompanied by significant precipitation at the surface which are warmer than their environment (Wakimoto, 1998)…..Melting of ice, particularly hail, appears to play an important role in downburst formation (Wakimoto and Bringi, 1988), especially in the lowest one kilometer above ground level (Proctor, 1989). These factors, among others, make forecasting wet microbursts a difficult task.”

What did I learn?

I will never paddle again with out my lifejacket, even in the summer when it’s 95 degrees with 95% humidity. Who cares about the tan line!
-I will keep my cell phone or emergency signaling device on my lifejacket.
-I am pretty prepared for emergency situations like this. Though I was barfy, I never panicked or lost it.
-Weather is far more more unpredictable than I ever thought. We need to avoid paddling in unstable skies.
-I will make a laminated list of emergency phone numbers to keep in my lifejacket.
-I will let someone know when I decide to go paddling.

-I need to activate our Gosh Darn GPS Spot!!! DUH!

-Sharks aren’t always hungry.
-There’s a lot more stuff on this list, too much to type…. thank goodness it all turned out fine!


  • Todd says:

    I’m really glad you shared this experience. I was just out yesterday, off North Beach in St. Pete. As I paddled out into the bay to ride the swells back in, I thought to myself that in my hurry to get out that day, I ended up leaving my cell phone in the car and wasn’t wearing a PFD. Your experience drove home the point of how important safety equipment is.

    Glad to hear you made it back safe, and what a bonus that you actually found the ski!

    • Karen Mirlenbrink says:

      Thanks Todd, actually, this article was from our January adventure in 2010. It changed my outlook on everything, and I am extremely cautious about skies and safety now. I am glad that our experience touched you and helped you learn something.

      • Brian Smiga says:

        Thanks for sharing. Great advice.

        Would a leg leash have been any help to keep the boat or not?


        • Karen says:

          I don’t know if a leg leash would have worked well or not. This particular ski is very old, and it has the old double foot wells, unlike the new single footwell that the new boats have, and I have found that my leg doesn’t fit right when I wear a leash strap. But when the boat went, it went. We weren’t going to win that battle.

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