Routine Winter Paddle on the Sakonnet Gets our Attention!

Tim H on a summer day on the Sakonnet

What started out as a routine training paddle for Tim Dwyer, myself, and novice surfski paddler Tim Hudyncia(Tim H) got  interesting due  to a combination of benign circumstances.  These circumstances surrounding our paddle could have easily happened to most of us.  Tim H, the good sport that he is, said I could post this for others to learn from.

Sakonnet River with Island Park in background on summer day. 2 miles  towards  towers in background was were Tim H capsized.

Paddling on the Sakonnet River(10 miles long, 2.5 miles wide with small bay like conditions) is routine for Tim and I since it is one of our primary training sites.  This day was no different with the exception of having a relatively novice surf ski paddler Tim H paddling with us.  Tim H has been paddling a ski for a few months now. I had paddle with Tim H on a few occasions including a double ski in flat conditions.  Tim H, an excellent athlete in his 40’s,  was running late while Tim and I were already on the water waiting for him. Once Tim H got on the water, Tim and I were chomping at the bit to get going.  So after a few short minutes of paddling together and watching Tim H trying to get stable in his ski, Tim and I set off on a 5 mile time trial. Our message for Tim H was to stay close to the shore like we are going to do since the water temps are in the mid 30’s, the wind was blowing Southwest 8-12 mph and the air temp is 28 degrees feeling like 20. 

Tim H this fall at McCorrie Point after paddling the double.

Tim and I paddled downwind, close to shore toward Island Park and then parallel to Island Park Beach for 5 miles before we turned heading back to McCorrie Point.  After a few miles, I could barely see Tim H about  a mile ahead of us, in the middle of the Sakonnet River while Tim and I were only 20 yards from shore in the lee. We paddled a few minutes more looking for Tim H when I saw him out of his ski. I waited for Tim to get closer to me  and I pointed to Tim H.  Tim yelled,”I will call 911″. I yelled, “let me see how he is doing first”.  At this point I was about a half mile from Tim H and headed for him. Tim headed toward shore to call 911.  Tim watched us closely, and was assuming like I was, that Tim H had to be getting hypothermia despite having a drysuit,pogies, and hat.  I know my hands would have been useless after about 5 minutes and Tim was thinking the same thing. 

When I got to Tim H, he was in the water with his ski  headed downwind.  Tim H remounted in seconds and took a few strokes before he capsized again.  He remounted again in seconds.  I told him  to paddle with his feet out and head toward the shore about  a half mile away. I asked him if he was okay? Was he cold?  He responded that he was not too cold but just could not keep his ski upright. 

So after about 10 minutes of paddling with his legs out, we landed at another launch site and reevaluated Tim H.  In the meantime, Tim had seen Tim H was able to paddle and decided not to call 911 and met us on the water. Tim H was cold,  but said he could paddle the two miles back to McCorrie Point.  Tim and I concluded he could if one of us stayed with him.  I had planned to call Betsy(wife) and have her come get us but  we decided this was not necessary.  So off we went Tim H and myself, paddling together while Tim went ahead to warm up the cars. We landed  about 30 minutes later with Tim H, cold but in surprisingly good shape.  We were lucky  because of  Tim H’s high tolerance for cold, determination, and high overall fitness.  Fortunately, I spotted Tim H when I did and offered some verbal assistance by telling him to paddle with his feet out which enabled him to stay in his boat while slowly turning it upwind and making it to shore.  I was ready to help him remount but this was not the case, since Tim H is an excellent re-mounter.  

Tim H on a summer day on the Sakonnet

Lessons Learned

1.  Having paddled with Tim H a few times before, I over estimated his paddling skills.  He was concentrating very hard in the few minutes we paddled together before Tim and I started our time trial.  While I told him to stay close to shore,  he later said he wanted to avoid any rocks so he stayed out. We all know how hard it is to concentrate in staying upright while  keeping abreast of where you are.  In just a few short minutes, you can be easily blown away from the shore.  This all could have  been avoided if I would have taken the time to tell Tim H exactly what our plan was while on land. Tim and I were already on the water once Tim H joined us.  He was concentrating too hard to hear all of what Tim and I were saying.  So poor communication on our part.  I should have met Tim H on the beach and explained what the plan was, pointed out the potential obstacles, wind direction and  the importance of staying close to shore.  

2. Tim and I should have done our routine “circle backs” after about a mile to make sure Tim H was doing okay.  I assumed Tim H would be fine if he stayed close to shore like Tim and I were doing.   Tim and I were anxious to get moving and focused on our time trial.  We normally take our time with less experienced paddlers but today we varied our routine thinking Tim H would be fine.

3.  As is most often the case in paddling, judgement is called into play.  As an experienced paddler and instructor, I should have slowed things down and treated Tim H like any other novice paddler until I was sure he was fine and then continue to do circle backs to re-access or make the decision that today was beyond Tim H’s skill level.

4.  What we all did correctly was that we had all our safety gear: drysuits, leashes, telephones, VHF, pogies, etc. 

5. Both Tim and I are very experienced paddlers and knew what to do in this situation once we saw Tim H was in trouble.  I went to aid Tim H and Tim went to get help by calling  911 if  necessary. I also had my waterproof phone on my person so I could have called 911 also or used my VHF or as last resort my Emergency Beacon. 

Tim and I on another Winter New England Day out for a cold paddle on the Sakonnet

So in summary,  the biggest decision we can make as paddlers is whether to launch or not, and knowing the conditions and skill level of the paddlers. Having the proper cold water gear is critical in winter paddling because the margin of error is slim in winter surfski paddling.  Lastly, as I told Tim H later at my house, that ultimately, no matter who you are paddling with, you need to prepare like you are paddling alone.  As is often the case in surfski paddling, you can get separated very quickly from the group either purposely or unintentionally.  The less skilled you are, the quicker this can happen.  

This was a great reminder for me to  reaccess my judgement, my gear, and my safety checklist, in hopes to avoid similar situations that could have had a different outcome. 

Geared up for Winter paddling



  • Chris says:

    Good story Wesley, glad to hear everyone was OK. I’m still doing circles up in Island Park Cove until it gets a little warmer!

  • Nick Murray says:

    Hey Wesley, Great write up and many thanks to Tim H for being a good sport and letting you tell the story. Lots of lessons to be learned from this experience. There was also a good story recently on about a guy who had to make a long swim in a dry suit on Lake Geneva. His experience also became a non issue but reinforced how slim the margin is in cold weather paddling. Dry suits are definitely required in these cold weather conditions but they don’t make you invincible and don’t replace the need to paddle together and stay very close to shore. I’ll continue skate skiing here in Northern Michigan until all the snow melts 🙂

  • Wesley says:

    Chris B., where have u been? We have been wondering if you have been paddling your SE Ultra??We look forward to paddling with you once the weather is better. Keep up the training and see you soon!!

    • Chris says:

      Yeah, I’ve really been enjoying the SE! It has been a blast to learn. I’m getting much more comfortable in it, which is great news considering the water temperatures. I’ve been out on the Sakonnet and over to Weaver Cove a few times when it is calm, but mostly Island Park. I look forward to meeting up in a few months!

  • David J says:

    Good to hear that it turned out well for your group. Cold water certainly affects one’s ability to self rescue. Also most expired myself at 23 when kayaking in cold surf with sprayskirt toggle inside. Luckily I pulled off a hand roll learnt a few days earlier. If I ever have a daughter I will name her after my instructor. Needless to say, when in a kayak I now check the toggle about six times before setting off!

  • Mark says:

    Glad that everything worked out, gentlemen. As is so often the case with our sport, it’s all good…until it’s not. Having been part of a few ‘adventures’ myself, reflection upon what could have been done differently is so valuable, assuming it’s used prescriptively next time.

    The wintertime poses another different set of circumstances. Thinking back on our cold weather paddling articles-it’s amazing how rapidly you lose dexterity in the cold, as your blood rushes to your core, drysuit or no drysuit, and how taxing repeated remounts can be, both physically and mentally. I guess here the old adages come to mind: ‘When at sea, no less than three,’ and, ‘Paddle only as fast as your slowest paddler.’ That said, as noted, communication is key, but even that best-laid plan can go to hell in driving winds, for example, when you’re whisked away, concentrating on staying upright rather than looking around to note the whereabouts of your companions, and the shouts of your compadres are lost to the wind. In small craft advisory conditions (the very conditions we surfskiers label ‘fun’), you can be a quarter mile away, before you even realize a paddling partner is off the back, or worse, swimming.

    It sounds like Tim fared extremely well, given the athlete he is, and there was much done right in terms of equipment, and fast, appropriate action once you realized the situation. Once again, so glad you’re all safe and this became, in addition to a good workout, a learning session as well.

  • Bob Heacox says:

    I can relate to Tim H’s experience but I can’t imagine it in weather that cold. Hypothermia is a real killer for even the most fit athlete due to deterioration of both mental and strength abilities.
    I’m glad this story had a happy ending as I’ve heard too many really sad outcomes due to cold conditions and an unfortunate decision or two.
    If you two experienced surfskiers hadn’t been really heads up the outcome could have turned out differently.
    Good job!

  • junkyard ski says:

    Having fallen into the Potomac (a few weeks ago) while already cold, tired and underdressed; I learned that I’m not the same person once I’ve fallen in. The danger of the situation made me an irrational-thinking person. I was gasping uncontrollably, yet worrying about getting water in my kayak (really?). Cold water robbed me of the ability to relax and select a proper course of action. Luckily I wasn’t alone and one of our group was in a motorboat. I was retrieved quickly from the water and taken to our clubhouse.

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