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Rescue on Galveston Bay


A happy afternoon of paddling almost turns deadly for two unprepared kayakers. Fortunately, luck and quick-acting professionals, were nearby … this time.


Sunday, April 19, seemed like any other day. The early evening light was shimmering on the water behind me as I slowly made my way back to the marina aboard my 25-foot Pursuit center console. Then, the VHF crackled to life. It was the U.S. Coast Guard calling “pan-pan,” alerting mariners on Galveston Bay to be on the lookout for two kayakers who were in the water. Overturned kayaks and no life jackets made their situation perilous. An eagle-eyed observer ashore had seen the pair get into trouble and alerted the local police, who in turn called the U.S. Coast Guard.

Consider taking a paddling course to improve your skills on the water. The American Canoe Association offers courses through affiliated clubs in every state. Not just for canoes, it also offers courses suitable for kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

I’m a former Coast Guard coxswain who’s been involved in many search-and-rescue missions, so hearing radio transmissions of this sort always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. After the broadcast, I heard the Coast Guard hailing TowBoatUS As the captain of TowBoatUS Vessel One, I answered the call. The watchstander noted my position on AIS and confirmed that I was about 3 miles from the last reported position of the kayakers. I rushed through the channel and out into the open bay, thankful that the Coast Guard had given me permission to disregard the no-wake zone, saving precious minutes.

I scanned the horizon and sped toward the GPS position relayed to me, searching for any sign of the two kayakers. After a short time, about 2 miles offshore, I spotted a glimmer of yellow to my left. Making my way over, I found a young woman on a swamped yellow kayak, holding on to another swamped kayak. I asked if she was OK and where her friend was. She said she was in no danger and urgently pointed toward the shore. I maneuvered my boat cautiously in the indicated direction, looking for any sign of the second kayaker.

Minutes felt like hours as I moved slowly forward, squinting in the dying light for the young woman. Then I saw her, with her head barely above the water. She had been trying to swim for shore and had gotten fatigued in the current. I pulled up alongside the struggling swimmer. She was clearly exhausted. She tried to yell, but it came out as little more than a whimper. Unable to get her up and over the high side of the boat, I got her around to the stern of the boat, having previously cut the engines. The lower transom made it easier to get her aboard. Hardly able to speak, she collapsed in the bottom of the boat. After making sure she was OK, I headed back to the upturned kayaks.

With the second woman safely aboard, I tied the semi-submerged kayaks alongside my boat and motored slowly back to the harbor. The two young women were tired and shaken but otherwise unharmed. I was grateful; things could’ve turned out so much worse.

TowBoatUS is not an emergency-response service. In this case, it was fortuitous that we were out on the water, and able to partner with the U.S. Coast Guard to effect this rescue.

Lessons Learned

  • Wear a life jacket, and be sure it has a whistle or signaling device attached.
  • Learn kayak self-rescue techniques.
  • Stay together.
  • Stay with your boat. You’re easier to spot, and the boat can be used for flotation.
  • Don’t try to swim for shore. It’s often farther than you think.
  • When kayaking far from shore, remember the sea kayaker’s rhyme: Less than three there should never be.
  • Put your cellphone in a waterproof bag and tie it to your life jacket. Better yet, invest in a ­portable, waterproof VHF radio, particularly for when you’re kayaking in open water.

Captain Michael Windham

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine