EVERETT — James Lesemann was wearing a life jacket when his body was recovered off the west side of Hat Island on Wednesday morning. But in the 50-degree Puget Sound water, he still drowned.
Authorities believe it was Lesemann, 37, who called 911 for help at 12:37 p.m. Tuesday. High winds made it difficult for a dispatcher to hear, but they determined the call was made from a phone near Jetty Island, a popular kayaking spot.
An hour later, search-and-rescue teams found a kayak 500 yards off Priest Point. A U.S. Navy crew recovered Lesemann’s body the next morning, around 9 a.m.
The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office classified the Everett man’s cause of death as hypothermia and drowning. Wind speeds were around 20 mph Tuesday afternoon at Paine Field, with gusts over 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Local water temperatures average around 50 degrees.
After 10 minutes in 50-degree water, it can become difficult to move your arms and legs. Then you can’t swim.
It’s unclear what other safety equipment Lesemann had in his kayak because it capsized, Everett police officer Kerby Duncan said.
A close friend of Lesemann told police he was an experienced kayaker.
Lesemann’s death has the local kayaking community reeling. It’s a reminder for Snohomish County watercraft users to stay safe.
Kayaking has grown in popularity as people have looked to the outdoors during the pandemic. For example, the Everett-based North Sound Sea Kayaking Association’s membership has tripled over the past two years, from 60 members to about 180, President Tim Hallmark said. Paddle sport product sales in the United States went up over 50% in June 2020 compared to June 2019, according to market research firm NPD Group.
Despite the harsh conditions, kayakers say going out on drab autumn days can pose an exciting challenge.
“Paddling on a rainy day can be nice,” said Andreé Hurley, executive director of the Washington Water Trails Association.
Hurley last kayaked near Jetty Island in early September. She ran into a couple who said they got free kayaks. When they came back in, they said they encountered wind and rip currents.
For those who do go out this time of year, Hallmark recommended drysuits. Unlike a rubber wetsuit that traps cold water and relies on the body to warm it up, Hallmark likened a drysuit to a “big Ziploc bag.”
“If you dress yourself in layers you’d be comfortable within 50 degrees, and then put on a drysuit, you can stay in the water for an extended period of time,” Hallmark said.
Wearing a drysuit is cozy, Hurley said.
Hallmark noted Lesemann used his cellphone to call for help, not a marine radio. Hurley recommended keeping a radio strapped to your body in case you lose your boat.
Another good tip, especially for those new to kayaking: Go with other people.
“If one of them flips over, you have someone who can help,” Hurley noted.
Taking classes can also be helpful. And before you go out, be sure to check out not just your local weather, but the conditions that could be coming your way.
If the weather looks bad, simply don’t go.
This story has been modified to reflect more accurate wind speeds.