December 30, 2020

Recently, a body was found by a duck hunter on the shore of Croatan Sound. The authorities weren’t able to identify it on sight, but a kayaker went missing from Manns Harbor, 10 miles north, three weeks before. His name was Alexander Rush.

Years ago, when I was a professional sailor, I often heard it’s not the first or even the second mistake that kills you, but the third in a row. That may be allegorical, but it points to the fact that it’s a succession of mistakes that prove fatal, not an isolated decision.

Alexander Rush chose to go paddling alone. That’s a decision many of us make, including me, especially on flat water. It may not be a mistake but it is a risk, like hiking alone in the Sierra Nevada or sailing solo. If you get into trouble, there’s no one to help.

In the winter, the water temperature on Croatan Sound is usually in the 50s. Lately, it’s been as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Falling into water that cold is a physical shock. It takes your breath away, strains your heart, and scrambles your coordination. It becomes difficult to think. I’m almost 70-years-old. My body doesn’t have the resilience of a 30-year-old but even youth isn’t a guarantee of survival. Alexander Rush was only 26-years-old.

I have a new kayak, an Oru Bay ST—a folding kayak—that I’m eager to get on the water. It’s a lot more sensitive to weight distribution than the gunboat I have been paddling; I’m more likely to capsize it than the old NuCanoe Frontier. That’s not a problem if the water is 70 degrees, or even 60, but when the temperature falls below 50, the body leaks heat like the surface of the moon.

I was planning on paddling alone on Milltail Creek on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge—a body of water protected from the wind and hardly more than a stone’s throw from any shore—but then I read about the body washed ashore. Croatan Sound borders the Alligator River NWR. It made me think again.

I didn’t have any clothing appropriate for swimming in cold water. I was planning on wearing rain gear. Then I remembered the Rule of Three. Paddling alone was the first risk factor, paddling in winter without a dry suit ideally or a wetsuit minimally was the second. Capsizing in 50-degree water might be the third.

Alexander Rush was wearing a hoodie, sweatpants, and Crocs. He didn’t have a PFD to keep his head above water when the cold numbed his body. He probably never thought of the mounting risks when he launched his kayak from Manteo to go fishing. He probably never heard it’s the third mistake that kills.