Kayaks involved in 37% of Iowa fatal boat incidents

As popularity soars, state says wear a life jacket

Life jackets are displayed for sale Wednesday at Up a Creek kayak and canoe sales in Central City. Iowa law requires eve
Life jackets are displayed for sale Wednesday at Up a Creek kayak and canoe sales in Central City. Iowa law requires everyone riding in a boat, kayak or canoe to have a life jacket. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

When people shopping for kayaks and gear ask Eric Grodt, owner of Up a Creek kayak and canoe store in Central City, about his recommendation for the best life jacket, he tells them “the one you’re wearing.”

That’s because kayaks skim close to the water’s surface and can tip easily. A paddler who has his or her life jacket in the bottom of the boat or tucked into the front rigging likely won’t be able to find it if the kayak flips, Grodt said.

Kayaks were involved in 10 percent of boat incidents in Iowa over the last three years, but 37 percent of fatalities, according to data from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

“People do not feel that canoes and kayaks are boats,” said Susan Stocker, Iowa DNR boating law administrator. “Therefore, they don’t connect that you have to have the same safety equipment.”

State trains retailers

Iowa law requires everyone riding in a boat, including a kayak or canoe, to have a life jacket. Kids 12 and under must wear one when the boat is moving, but Stocker would like to see everyone follow that rule.

Stocker and Todd Robertson, river programs outreach coordinator, planned earlier this year to visit many of Iowa’s 48 paddle sports retailers and train sales people about how to educate would-be paddlers to use safety gear and avoid hazards on the water.

But then COVID-19 limited in-person interactions, so Stocker and Robertson made a video they shared with all retailers. Grodt watched the video and one part stuck in his mind.

Robertson described a test he did in which he wore a life jacket in a kayak, but strapped another to the stretchy rigging over the front of the boat. He then intentionally tipped on a river and timed how long it took to free the additional jacket.


“It took me 45 seconds to get that out of the deck rigging,” Robertson said on the video. And that was while he was buoyed by the vest he wore.

Boating crash data

The Iowa DNR reported 88 boat incidents from July 1, 2017, to June 30, with the largest share — 61 percent — involving open motorboats. The DNR is required to track incidents that cause death, personal injury or property damage of $2,000 or more.

Motorboat crashes were linked to nine deaths, or 47 percent, of the total 19 fatalities in Iowa for the three-year period. Kayaks were the next highest with seven fatal mishaps, and then there was one fatality each for personal watercraft, canoes and sailboats. One fatality listed in the database had an unknown boat type.

Other injuries reported include broken bones, hypothermia, concussions, burns and a hand amputation.

Alcohol was involved in 27 percent of all crashes, although that data often is underreported as some accident investigations don’t happen immediately after the crash, officials told The Gazette in 2017.

The bulk of boat crashes happened on Iowa’s most popular water bodies, including Okoboji, Clear Lake and Coralville Lake. Multiple crashes also were reported on the Mississippi River, Des Moines River and Cedar River.

Two years ago on Labor Day, an Eastern Iowa man drowned after his kayak capsized on Indian Creek in Linn County. John Michael Conley, 34, and his wife, Samantha Conley, went into the water when their kayak hit debris in the swollen creek, officials said.

Samantha Conley climbed onto the debris and was rescued, but John Michael Conley’s body was found in the creek a few days later. Neither was wearing a life jacket.

A Florida woman who drowned in the Upper Iowa River in July 2018 was found with her life jacket partially off. Susan Ann Fechhelm, 65, of St. Petersburg, was wearing the life vest when she left the access point on July 22 and officials didn’t know when or how it came off, the Mason City Globe Gazette reported.

Popularity explodes

Interest in paddle sports was increasing before 2020, Stocker said, but COVID-19 has caused more people to invest in outdoor recreation gear, including pools, bikes, tents and boats.


The Iowa DNR has turned several low-head dams into white-water courses in communities including Manchester, Elkader and Charles City, which brings out more paddlers.

Many Eastern Iowa kayak retailers have struggled to keep boats in stock.

“I have not had a kayak to sell since July,” Grodt said. “This year, the demand has far outweighed the supply.”

Grodt continues to order kayaks for his customers, but it is taking a couple of months for the boats to come in because many manufacturers are working at half staff to maintain social distancing because of COVID-19, he said. Grodt sold his set of rental kayaks earlier in the season, thinking he could get more, but the new ones haven’t come yet.

Stocker said the Iowa DNR wanted to make the kayak safety video because the number of stores selling kayaks has boomed, with Walmart, Menard’s, Fleet Farm and other general merchandise stores joining sporting goods stores.

Sales people at big-box retailers often don’t have the same expertise as paddlers like Grodt.

The Iowa DNR is seeing a lot of used kayak sales, Stocker said. Buyers need to make sure the kayak they are purchasing on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace has everything intact. Stocker has seen some inflatable kayaks sold without plugs.

She also advises kayak owners not to leave their boats unattended.

“You can’t find any kayaks on the market, so we’re having challenges with people getting their kayaks stolen off the roofs of their cars because they aren’t locked down,” she said.

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Tips for better kayaking safety

Todd Robertson, river programs outreach coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said kayakers and other paddlers need to watch out for these hazards on Iowa rivers:


• Low-head dams: Iowa has about 200 low-head dams on rivers throughout the state. These small dams, which the Iowa DNR calls “death machines,” have recirculating hydraulics that can trap and drown river users. Although the state has removed many of these dams, the agency recommends paddlers get a copy of the map of remaining dams so they can avoid them on river trips.

• Strainers: A strainer is a pile of fall tree branches and logs that collects along the sides of rivers. When the channel gets narrowed near the strainer, the current and pressure increases and it can be tough for kayakers or canoers to get out.

• Sweepers: Sweepers are tree limbs stretching over the river that can knock someone out of a boat or catch on a person’s life jacket.

The Iowa DNR also released these boating safety tips ahead of Labor Day weekend:

• Wear your life jacket. Children 12 and under must wear a life jacket at all times on a vessel underway in Iowa.

• Every boat or vessel must have a wearable life jacket for everyone on board. A U.S. Coast Guard-approved throw-able flotation device is also required on vessels 16 feet or longer.

• Alcohol and boating don’t mix. Wind, sun glare and heat can enhance the effects of alcohol, hindering the operator’s ability to make necessary decisions.

• The same limit of 0.08 for operating a motor vehicle under the influence applies to boating.

• Make sure there is a charged fire extinguisher on board, as well as a horn/whistle.

• Slow down and watch for other boaters or personal watercraft; have patience.

• Obey posted warning signs and rules.

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