The channel with its steady traffic of big ships, its narrow confines, and its choppy water is one of the most dangerous pieces of water for kayakers in South Florida, knowledgeable people say.
"It's no place to go unless you're up for extreme adventure," says Michael Stillman, a Fort Lauderdale kayaking veteran and cofounder of East Coast Kayak Fishing, which runs a major annual fishing tournament.
Of course, that has never stopped groups of amateur paddlers, wave runners, and small-boat aficionados from testing the water, even as cruise ships or container ships plow back and forth between the port and the open sea. At its narrowest, the channel is just 450 feet wide, a churning, rockin'-'n'-rollin' waterway through which six or eight cruise ships in a row can maneuver during the course of an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.
The South Florida Kayaking Meetup was the group that planned the event for that morning, January 20, Tailpipe learned. The group is an informal collection of recreational kayakers, organized on the meetup.com website by a local enthusiast named Kai Story. Kai, as everybody calls him, generally plans the excursions, and he often rents kayaks to participants at $30 a day, according to people familiar with the group.
Of the eight people who showed up, only two of them claimed any significant ocean kayaking experience. The group got into the water near the Lauderdale Marina, on SW 15th Street, and moseyed south along the inlet channel, making a few stops along the way.
"Conditions were surprisingly calm," Kai wrote in a defensive online account of the excursion, which was forwarded to Tailpipe by a group member. "The water in the inlet on the way out was flat and boat traffic nearly non-existent."
When the group reached the mouth of the entrance channel, it turned left and began to navigate along the northern seawall.
Kai himself wouldn't talk to Tailpipe ("I've taken A LOT of unnecessary grief and stress for that paddle trip," he said in an e-mail), but excerpts and pictures from the group's meetup site, as well as the account of a witness, tell the hair-raising tale.
Instead of hugging the wall, as experienced channel kayakers recommend, the group drifted out toward the center of the channel. It was there that a paddler identified as Jack Bauer capsized. This was apparently an accident waiting to happen, critics of the operation say. Bauer's craft was a recreational kayak, not the more streamlined seagoing model; with its open cockpit and wobbly equilibrium, Bauer's craft was easily swamped in the choppy water.
Two fellow kayakers tried to assist Bauer, who was not wearing a life vest, and, exhausted, he was unable to climb back into his boat. He was hanging on to the end of a friend's kayak when the group noticed a tanker under tow by two tugboats, bearing down on them from the eastern end of the channel.
As the ship approached, it unleashed blasts from its foghorn; the tugboats, also sounding their alarms, tried to maneuver the ship sideways to slow its momentum. According to the Port Everglades Pilots Association, big ships generally navigate the channel at 6 to 8 knots not fast for a vessel but, for an exhausted kayaker treading water in its path, "moving death," according to kayaker Captain Jimbo, who runs excursions locally.
The ship's immediate options were either to run down Bauer and the two kayakers trying to assist him or to run aground on the south side of the channel, releasing thousands of gallons of crude into the ocean and probably shutting down the port.
"You can't stop on a dime out there," Capt. Bruce Cummings, co-manager of the pilots association, says with gruff understatement.
Enter John Estey, captain of a towboat for Sea Tow of Hillsboro and the hero of the hour. Pulling a disabled pleasure boat back to port ahead of the tanker, Estey quickly sized up the situation. Not only was Bauer "not doing very well," Estey says, but the kayakers were being pulled toward the ship by an outgoing tide.
Estey's towboat swooped in front of the bleating tanker, pulled up next to Bauer, and somehow Estey hauled him onboard. The two other kayakers scurried toward the wall with Bauer's kayak in tow. Estey estimates that by the time he got Bauer onboard, the freighter was about 75 feet away, a looming mountain of steel-encased petroleum, coming on strong.