The following incident was provided to us from a visitor who wished to share his near-tragedy in the hopes of others avoiding a similar experience. We appreciate the contributor’s candor but are especially grateful that he survived to tell his story. For anonymity, we will refer to the contributor as Rob.
The story begins when Rob receives an inflatable standup paddleboard as a gift. The salesperson recommends a leash (a coiled cord connecting the paddler’s ankle to the paddleboard to prevent separation if the paddler falls off the board). Rob, considering himself an intermediate-level paddleboarder on Southern California waters, disregards this advice.
On August 5, Rob vacations at Yosemite and launches his paddleboard on Tenaya Lake with his six-year-old son seated on the board. Rob’s son is wearing a child’s life jacket (PFD), which is required by law. Rob straps his own PFD to the board and does not wear it (as allowed by law). The beach is crowded with visitors.
Not uncommon for Yosemite, afternoon winds pick up and create wind chop on the lake. Rob decides to turn the board around and return to shore.
During the turn and with the wind now at Rob’s back, Rob falls from the board and separates from it. Rob tries to catch his board but the wind blows it away from him faster than he can swim to it. Rob realizes he cannot catch the board, which still has his son on it, as well as his own PFD. The water is cool. Moreover, Tenaya Lake is over 8,000 feet in elevation and while most people will not feel altitude illness at this elevation, anyone who isn’t acclimated will tire more quickly than at lower elevations.
In short, Rob is experiencing exhaustion and he is still about 200 feet from the shore. More to the point, Rob is beginning the drowning process. Out of options, he begins to yell for help and encourage his now-frightened son to do the same. Rob is starting to slip beneath the water.
Drowning is Rob’s probable outcome but three off-duty Yosemite emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and a triathlete are on the beach and respond to their calls for help. The triathlete reaches Rob first, followed by two of the EMTs with a floatation device, and they help Rob safely return to the beach. The third EMT assists Rob’s son back to shore.
This near tragedy ends safely but if Rob had been further from shore or the rescuers were not at the beach at that time, this might have ended differently.
One, in Rob’s words, always wear—do not just bring along—a PFD. Rob’s experience is very typical for small craft; things happen suddenly and if you are not properly wearing a PFD when it goes wrong, it is unlikely you will have time to find it and put it on. In short, skipping the simple step of wearing your PFD might cost you your life.
Two, Rob also points out the importance of wearing an ankle leash when operating a paddleboard. Weather can change quickly and if you fall off your board, you may not be able to catch it.
Three, Rob’s son was wearing a child’s PFD, as required by law. His son never entered the water but had that happened and occurred without a PFD, this would have complicated rescue efforts and decreased the probability of success. Rob might be kicking himself for skipping the simple steps of wearing his PFD and an ankle leash, but he should take consolation that he protected his son.
Finally, as Rob pointed out to us, Yosemite conditions cannot be compared to swimming in warm or salt water or lower elevations. Cooler waters at high elevations can quickly lead to exhaustion and hypothermia.
Unfortunately, too many visitors who find themselves in Yosemite’s waters do not live to tell their story; four visitors have lost their lives in Yosemite’s waters this year. Again, we are glad that Rob did not become our fifth victim and is willing to share his uncomfortable experience with the rest of us so that we can recreate in Yosemite’s unique beauty without suffering what are truly avoidable consequences.