Even when you play by the rules,

Mother Nature bats last. From last week’s Bellingham Herald:

BELLINGHAM — A well-liked local doctor who practiced at St. Joseph Hospital died there Saturday, after his surf ski capsized Thursday in Bellingham Bay.

Lanny “Bip” Sokol, 40, of Bellingham, spent three hours in the water before U.S. Coast Guard personnel found him face down and unconscious, approximately one mile from the Fairhaven Cruise Terminal in Bellingham Bay.

Sokol, who was wearing a dry suit and life vest, was rushed to the hospital. He and another man were kayaking from Boulevard Park to Post Point when a gust of wind tipped them over about 5 p.m., Bellingham Police said. The other kayaker was able to recover, get back in his kayak and paddle back to shore to get help.

Three hours in the water is a long time, dry suit or no. I can see a few things I would consider red-flag-ish: 5PM might as well be after dark – what kind of lighting was the pair using? Assisted rescues (where your paddling buddy steadies your kayak while you climb back in) are typically far easier to perform than self-rescues – while the second kayaker may have improved the response time by paddling for help, he might have improved Sokol’s chances of survival by sticking around to see that he got out of the water. And why did he have to paddle for help? Didn’t they have a radio?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I don’t know how much insulation Sokol was wearing under his dry suit. I don’t know if they had flares or radios. I don’t know if conditions were too rough to perform an assisted rescue. I can second guess, but it’s pretty pointless. I can say that I personally probably wouldn’t have gone paddling in Bellingham Bay that late in the afternoon, but it’s something I might have considered as part of a more experienced group.

Sokol sounds like he was an experienced kayaker, which counts for a lot. But in the end, equipment can fail. Weather can change suddenly. Cumulative decisions, good and bad alike, merge, combine, replicate, and resonate; they intersect and interact with external factors such as wind and tide and light conditions. And in the end, even when you do everything right, it’s still just you against an awful lot of water.

[updated to add: the Coast Guard press release has slightly different information in it – according to USCG, the pair turned back because of the weather. It was upon arriving back at shore that Sokol’s friend realized that he was alone, and notified the authorities.]

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