By Paul Lang

Just as a great Central California session was wrapping up earlier this spring, a few of us on the beach noticed a kite tumbling downwind outside the surf line. The evening wind had shifted and was now blowing slightly offshore. After crashing his kite, this kite’s owner swam back to shore without it. He had decided to let it go so to avoid being pulled further out to sea.

Back on the beach, he decided it would be too difficult to get the kite back and it continued its tumble downwind out of sight. A few hours later, I received a call from Coast Guard Lieutenant Ana Thorsson, who was coordinating the search for a kiteboarder they assumed was missing.

After the abandoned kite tumbled downwind out of sight, it was found by a lifeguard. From his perspective, all he knew was that he had just found a piece of gear that usually has someone attached to it, but didn’t anymore. He alerted the Coast Guard, gave them the position of the kite, and they launched a Search and Rescue (SAR) mission to find the presumably missing kiteboarder.

A helicopter took off and the nearest Coast Guard vessel was alerted. The lifeguard who found the kite made his way to the beach we were riding at, and a few people were still there packing up. Someone told the lifeguard they saw me talking to the guy who lost his kite (I and another rider actually told him to contact the Coast Guard to avoid exactly this) and the Coast Guard was able to contact me to confirm that the kiteboarder was not lost in the water. At that point they were able to close the SAR case and move on to the next crisis.

As a result of this incident, I was invited to visit the Coast Guard station in Channel Islands Harbor to get a tour of the facility and to learn about the process they go through when they are alerted to the possibility of someone being stranded out in the water. I also wanted to find out what we as kiteboarders can do to help avoid a situation like the one above as nobody wants to be responsible for an unnecessary search.

The Coast Guard’s motto when dealing with SAR cases is to hit it hard and hit it fast. Every time something like a kite, board, kayak, paddle, or something similar is found, they assume that the person who was using that piece of equipment is missing, and they stick with that assumption until proven otherwise.

This is part of the reason why the Coast Guard saves, on average, 17 lives per day, every day of the year, but it also leads to a lot of unnecessary searches because someone’s equipment got away from them. The problem with unnecessary searches is that it diverts the Coast Guard’s assets and might slow down their response to actual cases where someone’s life depends on them responding instantly.

Once the Coast Guard is alerted to a possible missing person in the water, they immediately send assets to begin a search. This usually involves at least two assets, one in the air and one on the water. While these first responders are on their way to the scene, in the command center they are busy calculating the best search pattern and the amount of time someone is likely to survive in the water.

In the case of the non-missing kiteboarder, they calculated that someone could survive up to 13 hours in water of that temperature, assuming he was wearing a wetsuit. Had they not been able to determine that the kiteboarder was safe, they would have searched through the night and into the next day before reevaluating whether to continue the search or not. In the command center, they play the part of detectives to determine whether or not there really is a person in the water in a case like this.

Being able to see the entire SAR process gave me a huge amount of respect for the Coast Guard’s level of organization and their willingness to put their lives at risk when they are called upon. They are a huge resource for us as kiteboarders and it should make everyone who spends time on the ocean feel better that they are out there. However, we shouldn’t take that resource for granted.

Ultimately, all kiteboarders are responsible for their own safety and should never put themselves into a situation with the thought that if they get into trouble, someone else will save them. There are a few simple things that all of us can do to help the Coast Guard be able to help us better.

Help the Coast Guard Help Kiteboarders:

  • Put your name and a phone number on your kites and boards. This will give the Coast Guard someone to contact if your lost gear is found. You might even be able to get your kite or board back if your info is on it.
  • Learn to recognize conditions that are above your skill level and avoid them.
  • If you lose a kite or board, call the Coast Guard immediately and let them know. All you have to do is call 411 and ask for the Coast Guard. This small step could avoid an unnecessary search.
  • As a general rule, if you ever find yourself far from shore with your kite down, don’t ditch it and try to swim in. Your kite is much easier to spot than you are.
  • Avoid riding alone, but if you do, let someone know when to expect you back so that someone will call the authorities if you get into trouble and don’t make it back to shore.
  • Keep your gear maintained. Don’t ride far offshore on gear that isn’t in perfect condition.
  • According to the people I talked to, one of the most effective small pieces of gear that would help us be found in the water is a small signal mirror. If you buy one, make sure it’s plastic and not glass.
  • One of the most effective things you could carry is a waterproof VHF radio. The Coast Guard constantly monitors VHF channel 16 and has an idea where you are when you use it to call them (thanks to their network of radio direction finding towers). Realistically, most kiteboarders would not want to carry a VHF radio, but it is something to consider if you want to make sure you can contact help, especially if kiteboarding alone.