A kayaker who is heading from West Quoddy Head, Lubec, to Key West, Fla., on a mission is lucky to be alive after spending nearly an hour in the water when his kayak flipped over off Bailey's Mistake, Lubec, on Sunday, April 30. Joseph Mullin, 66, of Wareham, Mass., was rescued by Coast Guard Station Eastport, suffering from mild hypothermia, and has since started his journey down the entire Atlantic coast of the U.S. again.
Mullin, who has been planning the trip for two years, started at West Quoddy Head, but he says he fell out of his 17' 6" sea kayak twice on his first day, once when he went into a cove to eat lunch, tried to turn the kayak around and it flipped over. He then made a wet exit. After turning the kayak back over he rearranged his gear and continued on to the next cove, where he beached his kayak, since the seas were getting worse. He again redistributed the weight to make the kayak more stable and went back out to sea. Around 4 p.m. he saw a front coming through, and he was hitting four- to five-foot seas. As he started to turn around, the waves hit him broadside and the weight in the kayak shifted, turning the kayak over again. He then made another wet exit but was not able to right the kayak. He was about three-quarters of a mile offshore and knew he couldn't stay in the 44-degree water very long.
In his life vest he carried a marine radio, whistle, binoculars, knife and other gear. "A lot of people don't think they need all this," he says. But he was able to call the Coast Guard on his marine radio, and he also had a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that can give one's GPS position. Since he was not exactly sure where he was, the Coast Guard was able to pick up the signal from his PLB to determine his location. He was swimming with his kayak toward shore and was within about a quarter mile when he was picked up, which he says was about an hour after he flipped. Mullin also was wearing a four-layer full dry suit, which he says kayakers should wear if they're out on cold waters. Even so, he knew he was in danger of getting hypothermia.
Coast Guard Station Eastport received the call at 4:48 p.m., dispatched its 29-foot response boat manned by coxswain John Magee, Cory Stepien and Bradly Lambrecht and arrived on scene at 5:28 p.m. They picked up Mullin, who was suffering from mild hypothermia, took his dry suit off and placed him in a warming capsule. He was taken to the wharf in Cutler and met by an ambulance crew, who found his core temperature was 94 degrees and put hot packs on him. They took him to the Down East Community Hospital, where he was soon released.
Steven Ruh, officer in charge of Station Eastport, says that Mullin was "extremely well prepared," with a dry suit, life jacket, marine radio, strobe light and PLB, which all worked together to help him. "The only reason he's alive is because he prepared for the worst case scenario," says Captain Michael Baroody, commander of Sector Northern New England, U.S. Coast Guard. "He didn't know exactly where he was, but the beacon did. And that dry suit significantly boosted his survival time."
Ruh makes a pitch for mariners also to file a float plan, letting a family member or friends know where they are going, when they will return and how to contact them, so they can contact the Coast Guard if the mariner becomes overdue. Ruh notes that paddle craft safety is now a significant concern because of the growing number of people who are kayaking or using paddle boards in the ocean. He notes that safety is particularly a concern in areas with lower water temperatures and strong currents.
Despite his misfortunes, Mullin says he is well prepared for the journey. He used to surf in Virginia and Florida and dove for an underwater recovery team that was part of the emergency management agency in Quincy, Mass., as a member of one of the largest professional volunteer dive teams in the country. The recovery work involved finding vehicles, bodies and evidence in homicide cases.
He did kayak training runs for his trip on Buzzards Bay, Mass., and always carried throw and tow lines. He says he would see other kayakers who were exhausted or in conditions they couldn't handle, and at four different times he towed people in.
"If you're not paying attention, you can get flipped. You need the right equipment for what you're doing," he says. His advice to others is: "If you're doing something like this, you need to do a lot of planning and research. It's nothing an amateur should even attempt."
On a mission
Mullin is kayaking down the East Coast for Mission 22, an organization that is working to raise awareness about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the U.S., 22 veterans take their lives every day because of PTSD. A Navy veteran himself, having a back disability from his years in the service, and also having PTSD from his work with underwater recovery, Mullin wants to raise awareness, letting people know that PTSD "is real."
"It may not hit you immediately," he notes, relating that a friend of his who served in Vietnam went to the Veterans Administration years later, believing there was nothing wrong with him. He was asked to speak with a psychiatrist who determined after five minutes that he had PTSD, years after the war. "That's when it hits," says Mullin. "I myself was in denial for years. It's why there are so many from Vietnam. They may suffer from depression but may not know they have PTSD." He notes that Mission 22 uses "a more holistic rather than a pharmaceutical" approach in treating PTSD.
"There's a bond between veterans. You can't explain it but you can't break it. Any veteran in need of help, other veterans will come to his call. It doesn't matter what branch he served in."
His mantra is: "One man, one mission to save thousands." He says, "It's not about me. It's about my brother and sister veterans in trouble. I'm doing it for them and their families. When one commits suicide, it affects the whole family."
After his rescue, Mullin said, "I'm not quitting. I just need to rethink how the kayak's packed and go out again. It's just a minor setback." After a couple of days of rest in Eastport, where he picked up his kayak from the Coast Guard station, Mullin set off on his journey again on May 3 C this time starting in Machias, where the currents aren't quite so strong. You can follow his journey on his website, <www.acske2017.org>.