Kayakers’ rescuer recounts frantic pleas for help

EVERETT — The kayakers were flat-out lucky that Brian Armstrong and his wife decided to stay the night in their boat along the north Everett waterfront.

There wasn’t much stirring at the Everett Marina J Dock as the Snohomish couple looked out on the cloudy and windy Saturday evening.

Normally, at that time of the evening, they would be down below watching a movie. This time they’d brought “Lincoln.”

On the horizon, roughly 200 yards away, they spotted the front end of a kayak elevate a foot or two off the water’s surface. It was a good 20 yards off the east side of Jetty Island where the water is deep.

It was about 6 p.m. They wondered why anyone would be out in such blustery conditions.

A few minutes later, they began to hear what sounded like cries for help.

They couldn’t tell if it was kids horsing around or a real emergency.

Brian Armstrong, 49, went below deck to retrieve binoculars.

Even through the magnified lenses, it was hard to make out exactly what was happening. He would see two people, then three, then two again.

The screams grew louder and more frantic.

“My wife heard the ‘Help! Help!’” Armstrong said.

That’s when Armstrong and his wife, Laurie Turner, realized lives were in peril.

Turner ordered their dogs — Chucky, the pug; Manni, the border collie — into their crates.

“They knew something was up,” Armstrong said. “They knew something was wrong. They didn’t make a peep.”

The couple untied their boat, Ruff Day, from the dock and sped across the channel toward Jetty Island. The sandy, recreational destination draws 50,000 visitors each summer, but few folks in raw, spring weather.

As they approached, they found three people in trouble. One man, around 20, straddled the sit-on-top kayak. He held onto a woman in her 40s who was sprawled out face down in the kayak.

Another man, also around 20, appeared to be in the greatest distress.

“His eyes were popping out of his head,” Armstrong said. “He looked like he was ready to go under the water. He was hanging on and it looked like he wasn’t able to hang on much longer.”

Armstrong and Turner were able to maneuver their boat to within two feet of the wet and weary group.

One by one, the shivering trio was pulled onto the boat and into the heated cabin where they were draped in blankets.

“They were within about 20 yards of the shore,” Armstrong said. “There was no way they were going to get to Jetty Island.”

On the man-made isle, Armstrong found a boy, 10, waiting on the dock. He was dry and the only member of the kayaking party with a life jacket.

That fact was not lost on Armstrong or medics from the Everett Fire Department who checked out the three when they were taken back to shore.

“Firefighters wouldn’t be out on the water, even in a big boat, without personal flotation devices,” Everett fire marshal Rick Robinson said.

Robinson hopes what happened serves as a cautionary tale.

“All boaters should use personal flotation devices,” he said.

Armstrong said the kayakers, who had English accents, did their best to share their gratitude. He estimates they were in the water for up to 15 minutes and struggled to get words out.

“They couldn’t talk other than saying, ‘Thank you,’” Armstrong said. “They were freezing.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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