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Throwing caution to the wind, a kayaker shares how she nearly drowned

by U.S. Coast Guard 1st District Northeast on 4 Jun 2017
Pam Gregory and Karla Beckert look out to Cape Cod Bay, Wednesday, May 31, 2017 from a beach in North Truro, Massachussets. The pair are reminiscing about a kayaking trip they took on the same bay nearly a decade ago that nearly ended in tragedy. U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham
Karla Beckert grew up enjoying summer vacations on Cape Cod with her family. She would spend her trips happily romping with her younger sisters and brother on the beaches, in the waves, and on the sand dunes in Truro. She never imagined the hardship she would one day face while at the popular shoreline destination.

As years passed, Karla continued the special summer tradition with her own daughters, and eventually grandsons, sharing time with them on the same beaches she traditionally relied on for a certain escape from everyday life – until that day, nearly a decade ago, when she almost lost her life.

Karla clearly recalls how beautiful and calm the water and weather were that fateful day when she and her long-time friend, Pam Gregory, climbed into their kayaks from the beach in North Truro and paddled out onto Cape Cod Bay. “We took our life jackets, but we were not wearing them – stupid!” Karla confessed.

Both in single-man kayaks, their plans were to paddle out to Wood End Light House, at the tip of the Cape, and then head back to spend the rest of the day with family and friends. “My parents and brother saw us off,” Karla said. “Not expecting to be out long, we tossed our lifejackets up in the bows and took some water to drink. We did not bother to check the weather because it was obviously a gorgeous day.”

Less than a two-mile trip, Karla and Pam left at noon and expected to be gone for about two hours. At the time, Karla would have considered herself an intermediate kayaker, familiar and confident with the bay, but it was Pam’s first time out on a single-man kayak.

About 45 minutes into the trip, Karla felt and saw the water getting choppier. She told Pam she was nervous and suggested turning back. She remembers Pam laughing and saying “Oh, let's throw caution to the wind!” Being the more experienced person, Karla felt if a novice kayaker was not afraid, then she shouldn’t be either. They kept going. The pair arrived safely on shore, dragged their kayaks out of the water and rested on the sand. Ensuing conversation alluded to the peril they would soon both face.

“We were both single moms and agreed that if something bad was going to happen, we would be OK with it because our kids were grown,” Karla admitted. “We sat there laughing and reminiscing for about half an hour.” Karla said as they talked, her eyes stayed focused on the white caps growing in size. Finally telling Pam she was really getting anxious about the trip back, the two climbed back into their kayaks in hopes of staying ahead of the worsening weather. Karla’s lifejacket was still tucked into the kayak’s bow, and sensing her partner’s increasing apprehension, Pam decided to wear her floatation device.

The two began to paddle back toward Truro. Mistakenly sacrificing safety for speed, they decided not to stay along the shore but cut across the bay in hopes of getting back sooner. Karla described the shore as appearing closer than it actually was, and it did not take long to realize she and her friend were in serious danger.

Slowly making way together, waves continued to build as the pair fought to paddle through them, each swell filling their boats with more sloshing sea water. The strong currents eventually pried the two kayaks apart, leaving each woman alone on the water. Karla panicked as the distance between them grew.

“I could hear Pam’s voice fading as she called my name,” Karla distinctly remembers the haunting moments. “Whenever I tried to turn and look for her my kayak would start to tip. Then she was gone.” The kayak Karla was in was designed for lakes and ponds - not the ocean - so as the surf increased Karla’s boat became less steady.

She tried to reach for her life vest down by her feet, she knew she needed to get it on, but the kayak got too off balance and filled with more water each time she tried to bend forward. Karla recalls feeling immense guilt. She described violently shaking in fear, feeling deep regret because she should have known better. She was the one who was supposed to know what they were doing and Pam had trusted her.

Karla also thought about her dad. It was his birthday and she knew he was waiting for them both back on shore to join the family for a birthday dinner. “I prayed to God I would not die on my dad’s birthday,” she said. Approaching three hours on the water, Karla forced herself to keep pushing through to save herself and Pam, whom she desperately hoped was still hanging on, too.

Realizing she was now only about 50 feet from safety, Karla could see people on the beach. Screaming for help, she franticly waved one of her hands while keeping the other hand firmly wrapped around her paddle. Her anticipation and excitement for rescue caused her already unstable kayak to capsize. Disoriented under the water, she figured that her time was up. She was surely about die.

Out of nowhere, strong hands grabbed her and pulled her up out of the water. She next remembers sitting in the back of an ambulance, wrapped in blankets and surround by a crowd of people. To this day, she does not know who saved her from drowning. Pleading with the crowd, she kept repeating her name and begged them to call the Coast Guard for her friend still missing at sea. The Coast Guard was already searching.

“I continued to uncontrollably shake for about an hour after my rescue – from nerves, or a bit of hypothermia, maybe both,” she added. When she finally got to see her family, her brother hugged her so hard she thought she was going to burst! It was one of the few times she has ever seen him cry.

“I was bawling like a baby and still trembling, I was terrified knowing the Coast Guard was still out looking for Pam,” Karla explained.

An hour, which she thought felt like eternity, went by and Karla finally heard someone say a fisherman found a woman up on the rock wall just past MacMillan Pier in Provincetown. It was Pam. Her legs were cut up and she was horribly shaken, but she was going to be fine. Karla added that the fisherman who found Pam had given her his coat, a token of his kindness she still has today.

Rejoicing and relieved after learning the fantastic news, Karla and her family all cried, laughed and hugged each other. Karla still vacations at the same beach in North Truro a few times each year with her family, and although she didn’t think she would, she continues to kayak in the bay, but with a completely different approach.

Now looking back, Karla recognizes most of what they did that day was wrong, and they are lucky to have survived. She hopes others can learn from her mistakes. Yes, the weather was beautiful when they headed out, but weather changes quickly. She wishes she had worn her lifejacket instead of tossing it aside. She realizes she should have taken a cell phone so she could have called for help, and she wishes she was in the right type of kayak, or at least had a kayak skirt to keep her boat from flooding when the waves splashed over her.

Most importantly, she now knows not to head out on the water assuming that something bad couldn’t happen to her.

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