Re: Kayak Fatality

Posted by Sailboy on Mar 3, 2005

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind who's fault this is - the whitewater boater that thought he was an open water marine boater. I'm surprised the CG didn't charge him with not having a captains license.

'Eventually their light disappeared' Teens' canoe slipped away into darkness, survivor of trip says

By NORMAN AREY The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 03/03/05

ROME — Leslie Beninato watched the canoe carrying Sean Wilkinson and Clay McKemie drift away as night fell on the Gulf of Mexico.

Floating with the small cluster of boats in her lost party, the 17-year-old kept her eye on a flashlight beam coming from the 14-year-old boys' canoe until it faded in the darkness about 8:30 Saturday night. T. LEVETTE BAGWELL/AJC (ENLARGE) 'Everybody wants to blame somebody,' says Darlington School student Leslie Beninato, of the trip that claimed the lives of two classmates.


The water was getting choppy, and the wind was picking up. "For a while, it looked like they were getting closer," she said. "But eventually their light disappeared."

The bodies of the two boys were found floating Monday morning miles from where Leslie remembers seeing them off the Florida coast Saturday night. Sean and Clay died from a combination of hypothermia and inhaling seawater, authorities said Wednesday.

Leslie was one of eight Darlington School students on the trip, which was led by two faculty members from the private school in Rome. She recounted her experience Wednesday during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at a Rome restaurant.

The sun was out, and there was a little breeze Saturday afternoon when the group embarked on a weeklong paddling and camping expedition.

Leslie, who took her own kayak on the trip, said the group set out on calm waters for the 4 1/2-mile journey from Suwannee to Coon Island.

"But the wind picked up some when we got away from the marshes," she recalled Wednesday. "It was fairly warm, not 80 but in the 60s or maybe a little more. Everybody had on shorts and T-shirts. We had our life vests on over the T-shirts, and everybody had a rain jacket."

Despite early accounts that suggested the seven boats — three kayaks, three canoes and a motorized catamaran — became separated, Leslie said they stayed close together. "We spread out a little, but we were all within a few yards of each other. We knew where everybody was. And we could easily see the shore."

As the breeze picked up, the group became a little more spread out, she said. She pulled up to the escort boat to check in. Steve Hall, the teacher leading the group, told her the motor on the catamaran — two pontoons spanned by a platform called a "cataraft" — was acting up.

"I asked could I help, and he said, 'No, I'll get it.' "

She told him she was going to go ahead on to Coon Island, which was just over a mile away. She reached the island in about a half-hour. She stayed there for just a few minutes before she saw the lantern come on at the cataraft.

"Everybody knew that was the signal to come to the boat, so I put back in off the island and reached the cataraft in about 30 minutes."

The canoe bearing the two boys had drifted but was still in sight, she said. "It was before 7 o'clock, and I could still see Clay and Sean. Since the lantern was on, they knew to come to us." The boys seemed to be coming toward the light.

"Everyone there tied up to the cataraft and we all started to paddle toward the island because the motor on the boat still wouldn't work," she said. "We were pulling a kayak behind the boat and the rope had gotten tangled in the props and had stripped the gears."

As night fell and the water became more choppy, she said, they could still catch glimpses of light on the shore. And they could still see Clay and Sean.

But then the boys' light disappeared.

'OK, we'll be fine'

Hall took Leslie's kayak and paddled toward shore to see if he could pick up a cellphone signal. He returned, saying he couldn't make it, and took off in a canoe with Darlington senior Adam Moody.

Leslie said she was not yet scared. She cracked some jokes to break the tension. "I had two good friends who were worried," she said. "When [Hall] left to get a cell signal, I told them 'OK, we'll be fine.'

It also was comforting that Bryan Evans, a soccer coach at the school, was still onboard the cataraft.

However, the group became disoriented as time wore on in the dark.

"I think it was sleep deprivation," she said. "Some of us thought we saw the shore and palm trees. Another one thought she saw a dock and almost walked off into the water."

She began to see things herself. "I thought I saw Jerry Garcia. I'm a big fan of the Grateful Dead. I thought I saw dancing bears. Then I said, 'Hey, Jerry's not here. What's happening with this?' "

Waves had risen to perhaps 4 feet. "But it's hard to tell how high they are if you're on the ocean," she said.

After Hall and Moody failed to return, the party grew more anxious. She and Evans tried to remain calm, Leslie said. "He'd whisper to me, 'Hey, I think I see a light out there, I think I see the shore lights,' but he didn't want to say it out loud and get the group's hopes up."

About 1 a.m. Sunday, a distant light appeared in the sky. Over the next two hours, a search helicopter came closer. It found the group about 3 a.m. and circled until a Coast Guard boat arrived.

"They came up and said, 'Hey, y'all need any help?' and we were laughing and said, 'No, we're fine.' "

On the way to shore, Leslie said, she heard on the radio that the Coast Guard had picked up an older man and a student. "We knew that was [Hall] and Adam," she said. "We asked them if they had found two younger guys, but they said no."

Help from strangers

As the Darlington party waited ashore for news of their missing classmates, they were taken in by the people of the town of Suwannee. "Everybody was bringing us food and clothes. I've still got a jacket that I'll keep forever."

Monday morning the Coast Guard brought in their boats. About 10:30 a.m. the word came that the boys had been found dead, floating miles out in the Gulf.

"Everyone was very emotional, but you know, I don't think the shock has hit me yet," Leslie said.

On Wednesday, she wanted to talk about whether her teacher had done everything he could. Florida officials have questioned whether the party had taken the proper precautions given the prospect of rough weather.

"People say 'Well, he left you all.' But if he hadn't, we'd still be drifting. He made a decision, and it was the correct one," she said.

Hall had reached his wife in Rome by cellphone at about midnight Saturday. She was eventually able to contact the Coast Guard.

Hall has not yet commented publicly about the incident, which Florida authorities have ruled an accident.

"Who's to blame?" Leslie said. "Everybody wants to blame somebody.

"It's like that gossip game in elementary school where one person tells another something, and it goes around and you see how easily things can get twisted up."

In Response to: Kayak Fatality by Ice - Phil on Mar 3, 2005