‘A mortal threat to mariners’: Kennedy family canoe
incident highlights danger of small boats, strong winds and cold water
By Jason Samenow
Washington Post April 4
The tragic incident involving two
members of the Kennedy family, who disappeared in a canoe late Thursday
afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay, illustrates how serious strong winds and cold
water are for boaters in the spring.
As reported Friday evening, the extensive search for Maeve
Kennedy Townsend McKean, 40, and her 8-yearold son, Gideon, “turned from rescue
to recovery.” The pair had set out in a canoe in Shady Side on Thursday afternoon,
about 15 miles south of Annapolis, to retrieve a lost ball.
A family spokesman said neither of the McKeans were wearing
life jackets. The spokesman emphasized they got in the canoe thinking it would
take just a minute to get the ball. The canoe was in a protected cove with calm
water, but still got swept out with the wind and strong undertow.
At 4 p.m. Thursday, around the time the McKeans were on the
water, Annapolis reported sustained winds at 22 mph with gusts to 36 mph. Waves
on the water were reportedly two to three feet high.
Such conditions pose a particular, and occasionally
unrecognized, threat to boaters.
An article on “coping with wind” at Paddle.com states that
if large waves run up against the front, or bow, of a canoe, they can break over
and swamp the vessel. Or if crosswinds slam waves up against a canoe’s side,
the boat can take on water “very quickly.”
The canoe and a paddle were recovered Thursday night near
Deale, Md., about six miles south of Shady Side, according to the Coast Guard.
Thursday’s winds were generated by a massive ocean storm
east of New England, which had unleashed gusts up to 70 mph in the North
Carolina Outer Banks on Wednesday and to around 55 mph in eastern New England
The National Weather Service had issued a small craft
advisory for the Chesapeake Bay and Tidal Potomac
Kennedy canoe incident highlights danger of small boats,
starting Wednesday morning and continuing through Friday
for winds up to 30 knots (35 mph) and “hazardous” conditions. “Inexperienced mariners, especially those operating smaller
vessels, should avoid navigating in hazardous conditions,” the advisory stated.
But the winds were not the only hazard the McKeans faced.
Following the winter months, water temperatures are slow to warm. A buoy near
Annapolis reports recent water temperatures around 51 degrees.
The University of Minnesota’s online resource on hypothermia
says exhaustion or unconsciousness can occur in one to two hours in water
temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees. The expected time of survival is less
than 6 hours.
“Boating on cold water is inherently very dangerous for the
unprepared,” states a boating safety website from the National Weather Service
serving the Washington-Baltimore region.
The website explains: “Due to the water being very cold in
spring, hypothermia is a mortal threat to mariners. This serious condition can
occur when boaters are sent into very cold waters due to a capsized boat that
was overturned by a sudden change in weather conditions.”
To avoid this peril, the Weather Service recommends:
Knowing the forecast before venturing out on the water and
having a way to receive updates Carrying a life jacket for every passenger
Watching for signs of changing weather such as increasing clouds and winds,
thunder, or sudden drops in temperature Heading to shore immediately if
conditions deteriorate and/or special marine or other storm warnings are issued