Was Pennsylvania Kayaker's Drowning Preventable?
The death of a Cleona man who drowned this summer while kayaking on the Swatara Creek near Jonestown is a cautionary tale for those who enjoy the sport or are considering taking it up.
Perry Ratcliffe Jr., was with other kayakers paddling down Swatara Creek on July 1 when a sudden storm caused a torrential downpour that turned the usually gentle flowing waterway into a turbulent force that swept him over a low-head dam.
The volunteer firefighter and avid outdoorsman, who was known as PJ to his friends, had kayaking experience. But he was unable to free himself from the churning waters, despite the effort of his companions.
Based on toxicology reports, alcohol and drug use were not factors in the 36-year-old's death. However, according to state troopers who investigated his drowning, he was not wearing a life jacket, which may have saved his life.
With the availability of low-cost kayaks from sporting good stores and recreational outfitters, the popularity of kayaking has boomed in the past several years.
According to a report published in 2015 by the Outdoor Foundation, 21.7 million Americans enjoyed paddling sports, which includes kayaking and canoeing. That was an increase of 3 million participants since 2010.
But the affordability of the equipment and the relative ease of using it has come with a cost, according to Eric Levis, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
At the time of his death, Ratcliffe's drowning was the 10th in Pennsylvania in 2017 and the eighth involving kayakers.
"A lot of what we see can be attributed to operator inexperience," Levis said. "One of the challenges with kayaks is that you can go to the store this afternoon, buy it and go out to your local creek and, hey, you're a kayaker."
The best way to prepare before going kayaking is to take a course and practice in calm water, Levis said.
"First-timers should definitely take a lesson or a course," he said. "Find a local club to see what's available. Then they should go out on a lake, where there is no flowing water and do some practicing."
Too often people will navigate waterways without the proper equipment, including the most essential piece, a life jacket, said Levis. Of those who have drowned in the state so far this year, almost all were not wearing one, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission data.
"I think a vast majority of people overestimate their swimming ability and underestimate the power of flowing water," Levis said.
Life jackets are much more comfortable than they used to be and are not only designed for safety, Levis noted. They also come equipped with convenient pockets where you can keep personal belongings,like car keys and cellphones.
Being properly trained and equipped does not mean you are ready to go into the water, Levis said. Another factor that must be considered before putting paddles in a waterway are the features you will find there.
Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's website, fishandboat.com, has plenty of information about water trails in the state and what to expect when you are on them.
The commission's water trail map is especially useful in identifying low-head dams, like the one near Jonestown where Ratcliffe perished.
An essay about low-head dams posted on the fish and boat commission website explains just how dangerous they are. It reads in part:
"If an engineer designed an efficient, unattended, self-operated drowning machine, it would be hard to come up with anything more effective than a low-head dam under certain flow conditions."
Owners of dams are required by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to post warning signs and buoys for boaters and fishermen, prohibiting them from being within 100 feet of the dam.
But it is important to know where they are before you are in the water, so they don't sneak up on you, Levis advised.
"When you are coming down it appears the stream just keep going but low-head dams just drop and create a deadly boil," he said. "When you fall down it sucks you in and turns you over and over, and it is very difficult to get out of."
It is equally important before going into the water to know what to expect from the weather and its impact on river flow, Levis added.
The Saturday Ratcliffe drowned started partly cloudy but thunderstorms where predicted for the area in the afternoon.
Levis said he uses a free app called Rivercast that uses data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service that gives nearly real-time data on river levels and flow.
Owners of boats with motors of 25 horsepower or more and people with personal watercraft, like jet skis, are required to earn a boating safety certificate but that does not apply to paddlers using canoes and kayaks.
There has, however, been some discussion about pushing for regulations, Levis said.
"Because of the number of deaths this year that have largely involved kayaks, the (fish and boat) board of commissioner and our staff have been discussing what we can do," he said. "Where it goes from here, I don't know. Right now the emphasis is on education. You need to be prepared. But mandatory education -- we are not at that point yet."