Another Casualty – Watch Over Your Ohana and Don’t Take Safety for Granted

It’s with incredible sadness that another friend in our paddle community, Josh Hensley, has passed. After another paddle death, the community world-wide mourns. We just can’t believe that it happened. Regardless if you knew Josh or not, you mourn. You wonder if it could happen to you. No, you think, I’m a confident swimmer, I wear my PFD, I wear a leash, my craft is my PFD; whatever your personal position, that’s where you stop. You convince yourself that you’re going to be fine because you think “I wouldn’t do anything that puts myself in that position,” whatever it is, you just can’t imagine how it could happen to you.

This post isn’t following the traditional path and discussions that occur after a sad event like this occurs, this time we are urging you to think differently. Don’t get into debates with your friends regarding or assuming you know what happened. Until this is resolved you don’t, and frankly, you shouldn’t be judging what someone did wrong, but wondering how you can help protect your paddling family members from a similar fate.

Some Facts

As outlined in the US Department of Homeland Security and the United States Coast Guard 2018 Recreational Boating Statistics publication, paddling related accidents in the United States – made up of Canoeing, Kayaking and Paddleboarding – resulted in the following casualties:

Drownings Other Deaths Total Deaths Injuries Casualties
109 19 128 120 248


Additionally, most water accidents as a percentage overall occur in calm water conditions, on lakes and ponds, in light winds in good visibility in the middle of the day.

As you can see from the chart to the left, paddle craft stands out when combined, as a close second to motorboat deaths. This data is surprising and should give us pause in our thinking.

These facts paint a whole different picture and suggest that we can look at this problem differently.

What can you do?

I urge everyone to start thinking differently. Ask yourself, do you really know all that you can about your paddling buddies? Think about these questions and ask yourself:

  • Can everyone I paddle with swim?
  • Do I know the health conditions of my paddling partners?
  • Are we all wearing the right gear and prepared for an emergency?
  • If you wear an inflatable PFD, do you know how to use it? Have you ever actually deployed it and do you know how it works?
  • Are you prepared for the water conditions, especially temperature? Learn more here.
  • Do I paddle alone? If so, what are your plans in an emergency? Is someone aware of your paddle plan?
  • Do I think it can’t happen to me or my friends?

It Can Happen To You…

Speaking from personal experience, the last few months have surfaced facts about paddlers that have shaken me due to the surprise they delivered. From people wearing inflatable PFDs with no cartridge in them to a paddler whose swimming capabilities are severely limited and doesn’t take the appropriate precautions.  NOTE: I’m not advocating that non-swimmers shouldn’t paddle, but many things can impact swimming including cold water, gear, leashes, conditions, etc. However, I am advocating for weak swimmers to take action to learn to swim and become comfortable in the water. Ultimately, it’s about what your paddle community knows about each other’s abilities and being prepared.

Personally, I’ll share a story that will further put this topic in perspective. I’m a solid swimmer, I’m a strong enough paddler and I think about safety, yet last year at Chattajack I allowed my health to put me in jeopardy. As a result of being a Type 1 diabetic, something that I don’t speak about openly, between mile 22 and 26 I started to feel really crappy. A little known fact, when a diabetic has low blood sugar, he/she doesn’t think straight. Low blood sugar actually impairs your thinking unbeknownst to the individual. As it turns out, I was suffering from an extreme low in my blood sugar. Paddling in the low 50’s, which if you are familiar with blood sugar levels, could have left me passed out and drowning on the course. Luckily, I had the senses smacked into me by a paddler in my community that knew my medical condition, realizing what was happening, she forced me to down a few gels even though I wanted to keep pushing. This knowledge and intervention likely protected me from an embarrassing and expensive river rescue event at best and my death at worst.

Additionally, as I’ve been becoming more aware of this gap in our collective awareness and practices, I’ve realized that neither myself nor my paddle friends have ever deployed their inflatable PFD. More on this later, as locally we’re holding a PFD deployment practice in the coming weeks which we will report on.

Take The Time

I urge you to think about this subject and talk to your paddle community. Don’t be shy, don’t think safety isn’t cool. Think about how you would feel if you lost one of your close paddle friends, and whatever you do, don’t get into a back and forth arguing about if a PFD is required, or a leash or any of that typical chatter. Do yourself and your friends a favor and think about the questions above. Know the details, have a plan, practice the plan.

Face it, our paddle friends are our family. Don’t take them for granted, and talk to them. History tells us, someone’s life does depend on it.