Accidents - A Letter from a Survivor

Tuesday, 22 May 2007
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Timothy Gutmann
Brandon Andrusic
I don't know if anybody has noticed but I recently tried to cut down on the number of accident articles posted in the news section of the site. Scanning the news, there are so many and after a while they all start to read the same. If I posted every one, it would look like everybody and their brother is dying out there and the stats show that it just isn't true.

I do however post articles about tragedy if it could be used for learning or teaching. If it just a death article, it's probably going to be a no-go.

On that note, I recently was following a accident that took place a couple weeks ago in Maine where two paddlers went out and only one came home. It was interesting to read because the survivor (Brandon Andrusic) was able to get to an island and spent the night there before being able to summon help. The decision to stay on the island for the night caused some controversy and there was some negative chatter about his decisions.

Brandon recently wrote a letter into the Portland Press Herald telling his version of the story. I posted a copy of it for you to read and learn from it. It gives some interesting analysis into an accident that I know from first hand experience, can go sour in less than three seconds.

Thanks for Leif for the link to the letter.

[Click "Read More" for the letter]
Timothy Gutmann
Brandon Andrusic
I don't know if anybody has noticed but I recently tried to cut down on the number of accident articles posted in the news section of the site. Scanning the news, there are so many and after a while they all start to read the same. If I posted every one, it would look like everybody and their brother is dying out there and the stats show that it just isn't true.

I do however post articles about tragedy if it could be used for learning or teaching. If it just a death article, it's probably going to be a no-go.

On that note, I recently was following a accident that took place a couple weeks ago in Maine where two paddlers went out and only one came home. It was interesting to read because the survivor (Brandon Andrusic) was able to get to an island and spent the night there before being able to summon help. The decision to stay on the island for the night caused some controversy and there was some negative chatter about his decisions.

Brandon recently wrote a letter into the Portland Press Herald telling his version of the story. I posted a copy of it for you to read and learn from it. It gives some interesting analysis into an accident that I know from first hand experience, can go sour in less than three seconds.

Thanks for Leif for the link to the letter.


A letter from Brandon Andrusic:

I want to say that I have been having a terrible time coming to grips with what happened. Tim was my best friend and I will never be able to fill the hole this has left in my life.

I want to say that I have been having a terrible time coming to grips with what happened. Tim was my best friend and I will never be able to fill the hole this has left in my life. I have not wanted to talk to the press because I hate how people feed on tragedy. Tim's life was not a sound bite. He was an amazing person with an unlimited capacity for generosity and kindness.

After a few days or weeks, all of these people who are so interested in what happened will forget all about this event and will move on to the next tragedy or scandal. But for all of the people who truly knew and loved Tim, this will forever color our lives. His mother and father no longer have their son, his sister no longer has her brother, and I no longer have the person who was my rock.

The way things unfolded was we set out around 7 p.m. for what we intended to be a short paddle. It was windy and choppy but did not seem unmanageable. When we got to the ocean side of Wood Island, we saw that the waves were breaking very forcefully on the rocky shore, so we decided to paddle wide to keep from getting caught in those waves. A few minutes later, we found ourselves in the middle of waves tall enough that we had to paddle up a wall of water to keep from being flipped by the swell. We shouted to each other that we needed to try to turn around and paddle back out of the swell.

Tim managed to turn his boat around first. I had to wait for a few waves to come through before I could turn because I knew that if I did not stay perpendicular to the waves, they would flip me. By the time I got my boat turned, Tim and I had been driven quite far from each other and the troughs between the waves were deep enough that when I was in the trough I could see nothing but water, so I only had occasional glimpses of Tim up ahead of me.

We were both struggling to make any forward progress out of the swell.

The waves were breaking west, the tide was running east and the wind was offshore, creating conditions where I know I was struggling to keep my boat pointed so that I would not be rolled.

The waves were tall enough that when sitting on the crest, the whole front of the boat was hanging over nothing but air. I was having to paddle with everything I had to catch the tops of the waves, where I would dangle for a moment over what seemed like a sickening height, and then the boat would smack down on the face of the wave and slip into the trough.

I kept looking over at the lighthouse and could tell that I was really not making any forward progress. It was like being stuck on a conveyor belt. I was terrified and can only imagine that Tim was too.

By this time, the sun was starting to slip below the horizon. Every now and then, I was able to catch a glimpse of Tim up ahead of me when we both happened to be on the crest of a wave. We were really far apart at this point. He was closer to the island and just slightly forward from where I was.

Then the next time I was able to catch a glimpse of him, he had capsized. I was shouting to him to see if he was OK, and each time I slid down a wave, I paddled at an angle toward him until I had to turn to catch the next wave perpendicular. I was desperate to reach him and again felt that I just wasn't able to move in the direction I wanted.

The waves were still bobbing us up and down so that I could only occasionally see him, but after a few minutes, when I caught sight of him again, he had managed to get back in his boat and was pumping water out with a bilge pump. I was still shouting to ask him if he was all right and he shouted for me to get closer to shore. I kept trying to angle in his direction, sliding down the wave, paddling diagonal, then turning to catch the next wave perpendicular. It was still impossible to keep constant visual contact due to the height of the waves.

I never caught sight of him again. I kept trying to angle to where I had last seen him but knew I was getting pushed away from there and toward the island. Then I got rolled. I could not get back in my boat but managed to get to the island.

When I climbed up on the rocks I ran toward the lighthouse to try to break in, hoping there would be a phone or radio to be able to call for help. I was desperately scanning the water but could not see Tim anywhere on its surface. I pulled on the locks and pried at the cages over the doors and windows on the lighthouse but could not get in.

By this time the sun had set. I felt trapped. I could not see well enough to be able to identify what was rock, wave or water. It was my first time paddling in that area so I was unfamiliar with the channel, and although I thought I knew what direction I needed to go in, I was terrified that I would paddle in the wrong direction, and since I could no longer see how the waves were breaking, that I would not be able to keep my boat pointed in the right direction and would be swamped.

I remembered having seen a boathouse on the other end of the island and made my way around the edge of the island looking for it. When I finally found it, I tried to get in, hoping that there would be something to aid me in calling for help. Again, the doors and windows had massive cages over them.

By now it was fully dark, I did not know where my boat was and I didn't know what to do. I was wet and shivering violently, so I paced up and down the dock next to the boathouse to try to keep warm. I cannot begin to describe how aware I was that every second that was passing was going to seal Tim's fate if he had not managed to get the water out of his boat and gotten out of that swell.

All I could taste was the seawater that I had swallowed and my failure to help someone who I loved dearly. There are no words to convey the way it feels to know that despite paddling with every ounce of will and strength I had, I could not reach the last place I had seen Tim.

I paced the whole night, hoping that Tim had stayed in his boat and had made it to shore, but knew that there was no way he could have, since no one came looking for me. If he had made it, he would have been sure to send someone looking for me.

When the sky was light enough to see, I walked the whole shoreline looking for him and located my boat. I paddled as fast as I could for shore and flagged down the first person I saw to call 911.

I spent the whole day with the rescue team trying to help with the search. They found his boat first, about eight miles from where we got into trouble. He had a paddle leash, so part of the paddle had stayed attached to his boat but the other part had broken away. Neither one of us had a radio or cell phone, which I now realize was the worst mistake we made. It was just meant to be a short, easy paddle, and in the end we were too casual about preparing adequately.

I will always have to live with the knowledge that despite my best efforts, I let Tim down and nothing I ever do will be able to bring him back. We were responsible for helping each other and I tried, I tried so hard to help him, but I couldn't. Every morning now when I wake up, I will have to face a day without him in it. A bright light has gone out in the world with his passing and nothing will ever fill that void.

It is painful to read and hear some of the things that people are saying about this incident, and I just want to say that I accept the responsibility and the blame that people are casting. I already put it on myself without their help.

I challenge them, though, to even begin to comprehend what we went through. Have any one of them been in a situation where they were fighting for their best friend's life along with their own?

This is all I am ever going to convey to the press regarding this incident. I am beside myself with grief and would appreciate time and space to try to deal with my feelings.

Sincerely,

Brandon Andrusic


Link: pressherald.mainetoday.com
David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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