By Petty Officer Andrew Barresi, US Coast Guard
Pierce desperately dug his paddles into the choppy water.
Stroke after stroke, he fought the October wind as the waves battered him. He counted his strokes to stay focused, and set his eye on a goal – a buoy he could see. Two hours later, worn out by the seas and exhausted from paddling, he was no closer to the buoy and no closer to land.
Gary Pierce, an easygoing entrepreneur who lives in the seaside city of Winthrop, Massachusetts, is part of a growing paddle craft community in the Northeast.
Kayaking offers adventure, exploration, and exercise all in picturesque settings, but along with those benefits comes risk and danger, both of which can be reduced by being prepared.
Before he kayaked into Boston Harbor, Pierce took measures to reduce his risk. He filed a float plan with a friend by giving him a map of his intended route, and an estimated time he would return. In addition to the float plan, he checked-in throughout the trip with that friend.
He also brought a life a jacket, but after returning to his kayak after exploring an island in the harbor, he found it had blown away. That gust of wind was the first sign for Pierce that paddling home would be a challenge.
He contacted his friend, and asked for advice on the quickest route back to land.
He set out using the suggested route, but as the wind and seas increased, his progress slowed.
Pierce recalled his strategy: he set a goal of reaching a buoy in the distance, and would do one hundred strokes and then take a fifteen second break.
“I did that for about two hours straight and I never got past the buoy,” he said.
Pierce was exhausted, stuck, and the sun was setting. He decided it was time to call for help.
“When I finally made the decision to start calling 911, I couldn’t do it because I was soaking wet,” he said. His phone was misfiring from the moisture on the screen.
After several attempts, he got through to a 911 dispatcher who transferred him to Coast Guard Sector Boston’s command center. The command center staff quickly went to work gathering essential information such as the nature of his distress, a description of his kayak, and his location.
After two hours of being pushed around by the seas, Pierce had lost his bearings and couldn’t give his exact location.
Operations specialists at the Sector Boston Command Center got Pierce’s general location from 911 based on cell phone triangulation. The watch team also asked Pierce to describe what he saw around him in order to narrow the search.
Pierce described a lighthouse on an island with jagged rocks, which the command center team identified as Boston Lighthouse.
After confirming the location, the team contacted the closest Coast Guard station.
Petty Officer 1st Class Luke Schaffer, a boatswain’s mate at Station Point Allerton was already getting underway with his 47-foot Motor Lifeboat crew for training when they received the call. They set a course for Boston Light and used their search light to try and locate Pierce. Even with the location narrowed down it was difficult to find Pierce in the dark.
Meanwhile, Pierce grew more fearful as the seas continued to build. The water was cold and he was exposed to the elements in his small kayak.
The winds and seas had picked up and the situation was dire.
The command center stayed on the phone with Pierce and relayed information back to the boat crew in an attempt to lead the crew to Pierce.
Pierce grew more exhausted and more desperate with each passing minute. He could see the boat crew’s light, but they couldn’t see him. Pierce tried to activate the flashlight feature on his phone but it didn’t work with his wet fingers. He could see the boat getting farther away and he feared the worst. He held his phone above his head hoping the background wallpaper, a photo of his young son, was bright enough for the boat crew to see.
Exhausted, Pierce feared he had at most five minutes left before succumbing to the elements.
“It was about that time that you start to say goodbye to your family,” said Pierce. “So I just did that, personally. I just told everyone that I loved them, and I just kind of expected that was going to be the end, and that’s what I told the Coast Guard.”
But it wasn’t the end.
No sooner had the thought of death crossed his mind, than one of Schaffer’s crew members reached down and pulled him from the sea.
According to Schaffer, Pierce was close to drifting into a rocky area too dangerous for the rescue crew. If even just a little more time passed, the outcome could have been very different, he said.
Pierce said the rescue was a wake up call. He said he went straight home and researched safety gear for kayakers.
He admitted there was more he could have done to prepare.
His cell phone worked, but a waterproof handheld VHF radio is a more reliable tool for communicating with the Coast Guard. Another life saving tool is a personal locating beacon. This would have allowed Pierce to send his exact position to the Coast Guard command center with a simple push of a button.
Most importantly, according to Schaffer, is wearing a life jacket.
“The biggest risk in this case was falling into the water without a life jacket,” said Schaffer. If he had fallen into the cold water he might not have made it, he added.
Pierce held onto hope throughout his experience and lived to go home. Many kayakers who don’t have a plan or are less prepared don’t make it home. He said his hope is that others in the paddle craft community will learn from his experience.
He said he will continue kayaking and even encourages others to take it up, but he cautions people to have a plan and be prepared.
Having the right gear is not an attack on one’s adventurous spirit, according to Pierce. Instead, “these are things that make you feel like you’re doing it the right way,” he said.