Life Jacket Importance
Travis Smola

How a Close Call Reminded Me About Life Jacket Importance

This is why you always wear a life jacket!

Kayaking is a great water activity, especially now during the dog days of summer when you're looking for a way to spend time outside and cool down in the process.

But today, I'm going to be kind of boring and talk about practicing water safety when you're taking part in any kind of water activity.

I know, I know, who wants to read about that? But I have a personal kayaking story I want to share that proves the importance of a life jacket. This incident only happened a couple months ago, but it may have changed the way I'll kayak from now on.

The Event

Life Jacket Importance

Travis Smola

First, I need to share a little background. For years, I've been involved in the high-tech scavenger hunt known as geocaching. This is where people hide hidden containers called geocaches all over the world and you seek them out with the help of a smart phone or GPS device.

Most geocaches don't have anything valuable in them, maybe a few toys or trinkets. Most just have a paper log you sign to verify that yes, you were there. Most of the fun in the hobby is in the hunt itself.

The thrill of the hunt is exactly why I found myself unloading my kayak on the banks of the St. Joseph River in Three Rivers, Michigan, back on June 23 of this year. For several years now, a whole group of geocachers in southwest Michigan has been getting together for regular geocaching kayak trips.

We float down the river and find anywhere from 20-50 caches and event host put out the week before. Finding the geocaches actually extends your normal river trip and it brings an extra challenge to the hunt you can't get from a standard geocache.

My good friend Gerry was hosting this event. He's been hosting these events on the river for several years now. He basically just posted the date and time on the geocaching website and it was an open invitation to anyone who wanted to attend. Usually this meant a group of 15-30 people from all over different parts of Michigan and Indiana.

On this particular Saturday, the area was just getting over several days of intense rain. The river was high, cold and very fast. In fact, it was sprinkling a little on us as we unloaded our kayaks and stationed vehicles at our take-out point.

Now, normally when I go kayaking, I use my life jacket as a back rest. I don't usually wear it. But for reasons unknown, I decided to wear it on this particular day.

Kayaks and trees don't mix.

Life Jacket Importance

Travis Smola

We quickly got underway and started making our way down the river, finding the new geocaches as we went. The current was swift and the geocaches were hard to find hanging from the branches of trees on the riverbanks, but we were having a great time.

We had found five geocaches and were looking for the sixth when I looked downriver and saw Gerry's kayak moving sideways in the current. He was using his camera to take photos of our group. But it also left him distracted and he didn't see the fallen tree that was coming up fast on his blind side.

Sure enough, he hit it and it immediately flipped him into the river and the branches of the downed tree.

The rest of us in the group started marking our way down to assist. I was paddling next to Debby. Her husband Dennis was just behind me. Gerry was hanging onto the tree for dear life and trying to flip over his kayak with his feet. He wasn't having a lot of luck.

As Debby and I approached the tree, I realized the current was much stronger than it looked. I paddled hard to get to the right and around the top branches of the tree. Debby wasn't so lucky. The current sucked her in and flipped her in the same manner as Gerry.

Unlike Gerry however, Debby and her kayak didn't get hung up in the tree. But her kayak filled with enough water to halfway sink in the river. Thankfully she was wearing a life jacket and had the presence of mind to bear-hug the floating end.

The whole time we were yelling at her not to panic. We were in one of the wider stretches of the river and the water was very deep. There was literally nothing she could do but hold on and nothing we could do to help her.

I floated with Dennis and Debby as the current took her downriver. At the same moment, Debby popped free of the tree, Gerry lost control of his kayak and it started going down river completely out of control. I looked to my right and saw it flying along in the current, completely submerged underwater.

On my left, Gerry's white paddle slowly took on water and sank out of sight to the river bottom.

It was right around this time I looked back upriver and saw Gerry was still clinging to the tree. Another one of my friends, Jason, was trying his best to get to him, but wasn't making any progress against the current.

Suddenly I hear these words from Gerry: "I can't swim!"

Right about now is when my mind starts racing a bit. EVERY drowning story I've ever read has involved someone not wearing a life jacket. Normally Gerry wore one while we kayaked, but guess what? Yup, this day was the one day he didn't wear one. Instead he'd brought along a flotation foam cushion, which of course he lost the second his kayak sunk.

About 15 feet behind Gerry was another set of branches partially jutting out from the same big tree. I realized if the current swept him off the branch he was on, the second set of branches could drag him under. And, as deep as the river was, we would never find him.

The Rescue

Life Jacket Importance

Travis Smola

So, what do you do in this situation? Well, you can call 911, but Gerry would probably be too tired to hang on until they could arrive. We passed a motorboat full of fishermen a little earlier in the day. I briefly considered going downriver to recruit their help to get some more flotation devices and maybe get them to pull him out of the water.

Ultimately, I decided I couldn't just leave him there. He had already been in the cold water for over 10 minutes. So I began paddling my way upstream against the fast current. It was like trying to paddle against a brick wall. I really don't know how I did, but I slowly made headway and got closer to Gerry.

"I'm a little tired of being in the water," Gerry said as I got closer.

Gerry suggested I paddle close so he could grab onto the front of my kayak and I could paddle him to safety. It really was the only option we had in this moment, so I began digging my paddle even harder. It took pretty much everything I had to get close enough for Gerry to grab on and bear-hug the front end of my kayak.

As soon as he was secure, I quit paddling and the current whisked us backwards away from the tree and danger. We had to drift about a quarter of a mile downriver because of the strength of the current. Not even Michael Phelps would've been able to swim in this stuff!

Finally, I was able to paddle Gerry into the shallows where he could stand up in the mowed section next to a set of little league fields.

While I had been paddling to the rescue, Gerry's son Blake somehow managed to retrieve his father's sunken kayak. I'm still not sure how he did this considering it was almost on the bottom the last time I saw it.

Gerry finally got out of the water and once he was on shore he reached into his pocket.

"Well, this camera is no good!" he said.

"Well, that just gives you an excuse to upgrade!" I joked with him.

"I just bought this the other day," he responded.


There's a lesson to be learned here.

Life Jacket Importance

The whole group ended up pretty spread out down the river when the two kayaks flipped. Once we were all back together, I was thankful to find Debby got out of the water all right, too. She'd lost her paddle and a pair of glasses, but those are things that can be easily replaced.

We all realized how incredibly lucky we really were. The two kayaks flipping over had taken only an instant in the high and fast waters. Things could've easily gone very badly, especially when we remembered a teenage boy had drowned just one year earlier only a few hundred yards from where the kayaks flipped. This minor accident easily could've turned into a tragedy.

Gerry couldn't believe it. The one time he brought a flotation cushion instead of a life jacket, this happened. At the same moment, I was thankful this was one of the rare times I'd worn mine.

Life Jackets Save Lives

It's been almost two months since this happened and it really got me thinking that maybe I haven't been serious enough about boating safety. I always thought I was being safe having a jacket onboard. But I've since decided I'll probably never use my life jacket as a simple cushion ever again. I'm going to be wearing it next time I go down the river! It is true, life jackets save lives!

Everyone in our group was an experienced kayaker with years of experience on lakes, rivers and streams. Yet it only took a few seconds for things to get scary. When the unexpected happens, it's sudden and without warning. We were very lucky. But if you aren't prepared, it could be too late.

It doesn't matter if you're water skiing, riding a jet ski or fishing. You need a proper-fitting, U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device. If you have a larger boat, make sure you have several. Make sure you have a throwable flotation device, especially if you have young children on board.

Speaking of young children, make sure their personal flotation devices are of an appropriate size that'll keep the intended user's head above the water. An adult-sized life jacket may be too large and a small child may slip right through it. They should also be under close supervision anytime you're on the water.

You should also know ahead of time who in your group are poor swimmers. I had no idea Gerry couldn't swim before this day because it was never an issue before.

Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye, so you need to be prepared. We owe it to our friends and loved ones no matter what water you're navigating. You just never know when this preparation could save your life!