Kayaker swept into sea off Oak Bay recalls hours-long wait, thoughts of death

Jim Cliffe narrowly escaped death when a day-trip paddle to Discovery Island in a rented kayak went terribly wrong.

Cliffe, a 56-year-old civilian employee at HMC Dockyard, set off Monday morning from Cattle Point in an open “sit on” style kayak, the kind that does not have a skirt to keep water out of the passenger compartment.

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“I was going to go down to Discovery Island and come back around,” said Cliffe from his hospital bed at Royal Jubilee Hospital Tuesday evening.

He had some experience with this style of kayak and felt he could complete the paddling trip safely.

“I was timing it so the incoming current would carry me back up to Cattle Point. I miscalculated the level of turbulence and tidal eddies that come around that corner.”

At about 3:30 p.m., Cliffe was trying to paddle through rough water when a wave tossed him into the sea. He had a good life jacket on and was wearing clothing made of wet-suit material.

He tried to get back into the kayak. But, “it was like trying to climb onto a cork. It flipped over on top of me two or three times.”

Cliffe was within a few hundred metres of Discovery Island and tried for a while to push the kayak toward shore. “I kept running into kelp beds. I tied myself off to the boat so I wouldn’t get separated from it. I found I could get a leg and an arm onto the kayak.”

The light faded and Cliffe got concerned.

“I knew it was a life-threatening situation and I knew all the possibilities. I teach with the Power Squadron and that’s one of the things we always stress — safety and what happens if you go in the water.”

He had filed a float plan with his wife Diane and Ocean River Sports, where he rented the kayak from, and knew a search would be called when he didn’t return.

The cold was hitting him in waves, so he just tried to be patient and trust he would be rescued.

A search and rescue crew from Oak Bay spotted Cliffe at 7:30 p.m.

“I saw the flash of light across my boat. I knew it was over, that they would find me,” he said.

He had no energy to get himself out of the water and was feeling the effects of his exertion on Tuesday.

He urges others who want to get on the water to be properly prepared. He had a cellphone but it didn’t work once it was wet. He had a VHF radio but it sank when the boat overturned.

Cliffe said what saved him was letting people on shore know to call for help if he didn’t return on time.

He was suffering from moderate hypothermia and taken by ambulance to hospital where he was listed in stable condition Tuesday.

Cliffe was emotional when trying to express gratitude to his rescuers. “The amazing thing is these people are all volunteers,” he said.

First responders said afterward they were surprised and grateful Cliffe survived and they cautioned others who plan excursions to take flares and a working cellphone.

“It’s unbelievable — he’s very, very fortunate,” said Oak Bay police Deputy Chief Kent Thom.

Police assisted the search by scanning the ocean using night-vision goggles and checking the shoreline.

“A lot of credit should go out to the people who did locate him,” said Thom.

Thom said the waters off Greater Victoria deserve respect, and urged anyone heading to sea to go with a buddy “but at the very least, have some means by which you can contact somebody if something does happen to you.”

The water off Oak Bay near Discovery Island can be extremely turbulent, he said.

“It must have been a very frightening experience for this paddler, who we found in the dark, drifting out to sea,” Kim Bentzon, spokesperson for the Oak Bay marine search and rescue, said in a statement.

“It’s a reminder that what looks like a short, easy paddle can go very wrong, and it’s important to have some means of signalling distress if you get into trouble.”

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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