- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

LEWES, Del. (AP) - University of Delaware Capt. Kevin Beam, who pilots the RV Joanne Daiber, was rinsing a net at the end of a scientific collection mission earlier this month when he saw something out the corner of his eye.

“Is that a person in the water?” he asked.

It was. There in the water, a woman was just trying to stay afloat in Delaware Bay off Lewes. He saw her standup paddleboard floating away.

Beam came up beside her, and the first words out of her mouth were, “I can’t swim anymore. I’m exhausted,” he recalled.

Nancy Kupa, 30, of Lewes, said she had just about given up. She wasn’t tethered to the board, wasn’t wearing a life jacket and had no way to signal that she needed help. She was a half-mile off shore.

“I thought that was it,” she said.

Kupa’s experience comes as standup paddleboarding takes on new popularity along Delaware beaches and across the U.S. The sport uses a paddle like that used with a kayak, but the user stands up to push through the water.

An estimated 2.8 million people used standup paddleboards in 2015, compared with 1.1 million in 2010, according to the American Canoe Association, a trade group. The largest number of users are 13 to 17 years old, at 1.8 percent of the population, and 25 to 44 at 1.6 percent.

Delaware law requires people who use the boards, as well as canoes and kayaks, to have a life jacket and sound device such as a whistle on board and a light if there is limited visibility, said Sgt. John McDerby, a spokesman for the state Division of Fish & Wildlife enforcement office.

However, the standup boards offer virtually no space to store equipment. Also, state law doesn’t require those over 12 to wear a life jacket.

A Coast Guard report found that of 428 people who drowned while recreational boating last year, 352 weren’t wearing life jackets. Among boating accidents with canoes and kayaks, drowning is a leading cause of death, with 118 in 2015. Standup paddleboards aren’t listed.

Kupa said she now understands just how dangerous it can be.

It was a perfect beach day on Sept. 17, and Kupa and her family were hosting a German medical student. On his Lewes bucket list was standup paddleboarding.

Kupa, who regularly paddleboards, set out that day with the student and they made their way out through the sheltered cove area between the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal and the point of Cape Henlopen.

They had been out for about two hours when she noticed the waves were getting more and more choppy. She was thinking how pleased she was with herself because she hadn’t fallen off once.

And then it happened.

Usually, she said, she falls and is right next to the board so it’s not a big deal to recover and get back on.

But this time, probably because of the chop, she landed several feet away.

“My board was two waves ahead of me,” she said.

Kupa tried to swim toward it, but the board got farther away.

So there she floated, alone in the water. Her companion had paddled well ahead of her and was too far away to notice she was in trouble.

“Shame on me,” she said. “I didn’t have anything.”

As she floated, she thought about her two young children at home. A power boat sped by and she waved her arms, but it didn’t stop, she said.

Just when she thought she couldn’t hang on any longer, “I turned around and there he was.”

While the story has a happy ending, it doesn’t go in a near-miss file of boating accidents. In fact, state marine police aren’t likely to even know about it, McDerby said.

Even when an incident ends with a fatality, as it did during a recent collision, it is often the unsung heroes who step up with immediate help.

Gerry Aster, 78, of Phoenix, died Sept. 17 when his personal watercraft collided with a pontoon boat at the entrance to the Pot-Nets Bayside community in Indian River Bay.

The pontoon boat operator was flown to Christiana Medical Center and listed in stable condition the day of the accident. Two passengers on board were uninjured. An investigation is ongoing.

In that case, employees at the nearby Paradise Grill at Long Neck jumped in the water to help.

Beam and the scientists he works with also have been in the right place at the right time to help.

A few weeks ago, the College of Earth Ocean and Environment hosted a robotics boot camp at their Lewes campus. The research site was Broadkill Beach and the surrounding waters.

Beam and the team had just deployed the Naval Academy’s EcoMapper autonomous robot and spotted something floating in the water. It looked like a raft, and he wondered if it might be a cool toy he could grab and take home for his two boys. Then he noticed it was two men in kayaks trying to wrestle the raft in.

They seemed a little too far off the beach.

He kept watching and realized the raft was caught in the current and getting further and further from land.

They motored over to check on the two men. Neither was wearing a life jacket, said Capt. Jon Swallow, director of marine operations at the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment.

“They were blown about a quarter-mile off the beach,” Beam said. “I said, ‘You guys need a hand?’”

They took Beam up on his offer, but he isn’t certain they realized how difficult it was going to be to get back to the beach.

“Once you’re out a mile-and-a-half, you get tired quick,” he said.

And in Delaware Bay, with so much shipping traffic, paddlers, even when they are in their boat, can be hard to spot,” Swallow said.

“You are so low to the horizon,” he said. “And it can go from nice to treacherous in a matter of seconds.”

For Beam, such rescues are just something boaters do, although he does advise those on the water to have the right equipment. Specifically, he said, he would encourage paddleboarders to use an ankle tether so the board won’t drift away.

“You help other people on the water because one day, you will need someone to help you,” he said. “A lot of guys have pulled people out of the water,” he said.

Kupa said she now understands just how dangerous it can be and plans to get a board tether and use the other safety equipment. She said Beam saved her life.

“I thought I was going to drown … he was my saving grace,” Kupa said.

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

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