A Day of May Day

A list of times the call to action came from boaters

A group of sea kayakers paddling in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Photo: Robert Zaleski

By Eugene Buchanan

While May Day means making baskets filled with flowers and treats and leaving them on a neighbor’s doorstep, for paddlers and others taking to waterways, the words have a different connotation. Stemming from the French phrase venez m’aider, meaning “come help me,” it’s a universal distress signal indicating a life-threatening emergency. To honor its maritime meaning, we’ve compiled the following sampling of sea kayak, raft and other paddling trips throughout the ages where the May Day call has been put to action.

Peter Bray’s North Atlantic Crossing June 2000
When Englishman and former British Special Forces soldier Peter Bray set out to kayak across the Atlantic west to east, without the tropical trade winds to ease his passage, it ended in near disaster. Bray had giant, custom-made, self-righting kayak with sleeping compartment, satellite phone and tracking system, GPS, desalinization units and electric bilge pump and food for 100 days and set out from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Though he was at first making good headway, things quickly worsened after he tried to sleep for the night. When he awoke, he faced a cockpit filled with water and broken pumping system. He then washed out into the ocean twice, inflating an emergency raft, which promptly punctured. Bray survived 32 hours submerged in 36-degree seas before being picked up by the Coast Guard and spent the next four months learning to walk again. A year later, after 76 continuous days of paddling, he completed the journey, landing at Beldereg, Ireland, on September 3.

Derek Hutchinson’s North Sea Crossing 1975
A team led by Derek Hutchinson, who passed away last fall at age 79, tried to sea kayak across the North Sea between England and Belgium. “It was 100 miles of the most unpredictable sea in the world,” he explained of the stretch’s notorious winds and waves. Without electronic navigating equipment, the team lost their bearings, ending up eight miles off the coast of Dunkirk, France. After 34 hours of open sea paddling, they faced hallucinations, vomiting, nausea, hypothermia and dehydration, tying themselves together to keep from capsizing. They finally sent up a signal flare and were retrieved by a passing ferry. The next year, Hutchinson made the crossing with a new team in 31 hours. “The North Sea crossing was a milestone,” he said afterward. “It took the kayak out of the toy boat class and put it into the serious deep-sea craft category.”

Franz Romer’s Atlantic Crossing March 31, 1928
Germany’s Franz Romer set out alone from Lisbon, Portugal, to make the first recorded crossing of the Atlantic in a sea kayak, a 21’6” modified Klepper named Deutscher Sport. Filling end-to-end with food and sleeping in his seated position under a homemade spray skirt with a small breathing tube, the 29-year-old World War I veteran paddled almost 4,000 miles and spent 58 unbroken days at sea before making land in Puerto Rico, using only his compass, sextant, binoculars and a barometer for navigation. After recovering for six weeks on St. Thomas and sailing back to San Juan Harbor in Puerto Rico, Romer left again to paddle up the American coastline to New York. Missing a hurricane warning by one hour, no trace of him was ever found.

The Yangtze, China 1986
While it covered 1,200 of the most remote river miles on earth, the Sino-U.S. Upper Yangtze River Expedition ended short of its goal and in tragedy when Idaho photographer David Shippee died of altitude sickness during the expedition. Expedition leader Ken Warren and cinematographer John Wilcox were later named co-defendants in a court case surrounding Shippee’s death (both were exonerated). Warren’s was only one of five major expeditions—including two competing Chinese teams—on the Yangtze in the mid 1980s, as documented in Richard Bangs’ 1989 book, Riding the Dragon’s Back: The Race to Raft the Upper Yangtze. “There were no fly-over capabilities and there was no safety net,” said Wilcox afterward, rebuking a 1987 Outside magazine story entitled “Mutiny on the Yangtze,” describing how four members left the expedition. Richard Bangs and the usual Sobek suspects, including John Yost, Jim Slade and Skip Horner, were on the Yangtze the following year, portaging Tiger’s Leap Gorge but making it through the previously unexplored lower reaches of the Great Bend.

The Bio Bio, Chile 1981
Three years after the river’s first descent was made, Sheri Griffith and her brother Ron tagged along on a Sobek trip down Chile’s Bio Bio River. Seven days into the expedition, their raft flipped in Lost Yak Rapid, with one of the oars ramming straight through Ron’s leg. “It was one of the longest nights of my life, trying to keep my brother alive before we could get any help,” recounts Sherri, who owns Sherri Griffith Expeditions out of Moab, Utah. “We were finally able to air-flight him out. He could have died very easily. That’s what helped me come up with a program offering new wilderness first-aid training programs for guides.”

The Tsangpo, Tibet 1998
A team of kayakers led by Wickliffe Walker and sponsored by National Geographic tried to make the first descent of the fabled Tsangpo Gorge in one of the most difficult Himalayan expeditions ever undertaken—mountain or river. While the river team—consisting of former U.S. kayak team member Doug Gordon, Roger Zbel and Tom and Jamie McEwan—was well prepared and covered some extremely difficult whitewater, unusually high water made the trip treacherous and, ultimately, fatal. “We were hoping for 5,000 to 15,000 cfs,” said Jamie McEwan. “But it was a lot higher, several times the volume we expected.” The journey ended in a long, difficult hike out after the drowning death of 41-year-old Gordon.

Grand Canyon Raft Rescue Spring 2010
Rafters in the Grand Canyon put out the May Day distress call after their 18-foot raft and three passengers were marooned on the rock garden at Crystal Rapid. The rapid is located just past river mile 98, 11 miles down river from Phantom Ranch, with the rock garden splitting the flow of the river. Due to time constraints presented by the weather, rescuers decided not to attempt a water rescue and instead lifted the passengers one-at-a-time by helicopter and transported them to shore. Rangers later retrieved the boat, bringing it back to shore where the next day the passengers were able to continue on their way down river. In all, 14 park crew and safety personnel were involved in the two-day rescue.

From the Lighter Side
Russell Crowe Sea Kayak Snafu, 2012
Russell Crowe can beat up bad guys in Gladiator. Big whoop. He’s not quite as adept with sea kayaks as he is with a sword. Last fall, according to Entertainment Online, the 48-year-old Oscar winner was bailed out by the U.S. Coast Guard after he and a friend got lost while sea kayaking off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. Crowe and his partner reportedly launched from Cold Spring Harbor and were paddling around Long Island Sound when they got lost and beached their kayaks in Huntington Bay 10 miles away. There, they hunkered down until 10 p.m. when they were spotted by the U.S. Coast Guard, who gave them and their kayaks a lift back to safety. Crowe later tweeted: “Kayak: Cold Spring/Huntington Harbour, thanks to Seth and the boys from the US Coast Guard for guiding the way … ” Crowe also tweeted that they weren’t lost but just “ran out of day. Grand adventure eh.” According to Reuters, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Swieciki said, “It is common for the Coast Guard to assist boaters like this, but it was very cool to help Russell Crowe and his friend.” Crowe was on location in Long Island to shoot Noah, where he’s better start getting used to the water.

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