Equipment, conditions linked to tragedy

Kayaker lost off Port’s south beach last week lacked proper clothing, equipment and should have never gone off shore in March gale, instructor says

A kayaking expert said the conditions on Lake Michigan were fierce and unforgiving last Wednesday when two brothers set out from south beach in Port Washington.Kayaker

“I would not have gone out paddling on Lake Michigan last Wednesday,” said Sherri Mertz, an American Canoe Association open water instructor with 25 years experience. “I’m sure they didn’t realize what a huge mistake they were making.”

Marcus Beilman, a 27-year-old West Bend man, was lost after his kayak capsized March 16. His brother Kevin, 24, managed to make it to shore after his kayak also flipped in the frigid water.

A 16-hour search for Marcus Beilman by the Port fire department and dive team, Coast Guard vessels and  helicopter, as well as a Department of Natural Resources plane equipped with an infrared detection system, was suspended Thursday morning, March 17. 

The situation was eerily similar to that four years earlier when 24-year-old Peter Dougherty of Port Washington died on March 10, 2012, while kayaking off south beach, authorities said.

In both cases, the men went out on a wind-whipped lake when the water temperature was around 40 degrees. 

Both were wearing street clothes, authorities said, not a wet or dry suit that would have offered protection from the elements.

And both men are believed to have been in recreational kayaks, not the sea kayaks that are more appropriate for the rough waters of Lake Michigan, officials said.

“The kayak he (Marcus Beilman) is in is totally inappropriate for Lake Michigan,” Mertz said, noting the kayak pictured on Marcus Beilman’s Facebook page appears to be a recreational model. 

Recreational kayaks are typically 9 to 14 feet long and wide, designed to give a feeling of stability on calm water, she said. 

“But what makes it so stable on small lakes make it unseaworthy when you get in situations with waves,” Mertz said. These kayaks follow the surface of the water, and will try to follow the waves as they roll.

They also have large open cockpits that tend to collect water as waves crash. Once they flip, Mertz said, they are difficult to right.

“One you flip, your option is to swim to shore,” she said. “Attempting to flip the boat upright is a waste of energy.”

Sea kayaks, in contrast, are longer, generally 16 to 18 feet, with sealed compartments in the front and back to help keep the boat afloat, Mertz said. The cockpit is generally  more fitted, so less water gets inside.Mertz also noted the brothers were not dressed for the weather, saying a wet or dry suit is essential in cold water.

“I wear my dry suit most of the year,” she said. 

Comparisons of the Dougherty and Beilman incidents are inevitable, officials said.

“It’s tough to know this could have likely been prevented if they had the proper equipment,” Fire Chief Mark Mitchell said.
“That lake’s wicked all year round.”

It certainly was rough on Wednesday, March 16. Mitchell said there were sustained winds of 35 to 40 mph gusting to 50 mph.

 But he noted that the lake looked  deceiving along south beach, where the Beilman brothers launched their kayaks.

Mertz concurred, saying the brothers may have felt protected from the strong westerly winds, not realizing that it doesn’t take long before the wind will hit and push boaters farther out.

“The water’s going to look flat near the shore,” Mertz said. “But as you get on the water and the wind pulls you away from shore, you’re going to get hit with the full force.”

In those conditions, the wind will push a boat out and make it difficult for any kayaker to paddle back to shore, Mertz said.

“Swimming to shore would have been easier than paddling to shore,” she said.

Kevin Beilman told police that he and his brother launched their boats about 3:30 p.m., Police Chief Kevin Hingiss said. 

Kevin Beilman said his kayak overturned a short time later, and that while he was in the water he saw his brother’s vessel overturn as well, Mitchell said. He then lost sight of both his brother and his brother’s kayak.

“We believe the wind knocked them over,” Mitchell said. “He (Kevin) said they weren’t out that long when they tipped over. He figured he was in the water for 15 to 20 minutes.”

Kevin Beilman said he and his brother were never out past Coal Dock Park, Mitchell said.

It’s not known whether Marcus Beilman had a life vest on at the time, officials said. Kevin Beilman had one on when he reached shore, Hingiss said, but was unsure if his brother was wearing one.

“He kept saying he wasn’t sure,” Mitchell said. “He was distraught and hypothermic.”

Kevin Beilman, who swam to shore somewhere near the bird sanctuary on the south end of Coal Dock Park, said it took him about a half hour to get to south beach, Mitchell said.

A bicyclist passing by the area saw him come out of the lake and called police.

A life jacket is essential, Mertz said, saying the fact Kevin Beilman wore one likely saved his life.

Life jackets keep people afloat during the first few minutes when cold shock takes effect, Mertz said. That’s when, due to the sudden submersion in cold water, a person gasps and can swallow the cold water. He can hyperventilate, causing light-headedness and disorientation and ultimately panic.

“Panic is the worst thing you can do,” she said. “People’s swimming skills disappear rapidly then.

“If you’re wearing a life jacket, if they make it through those first couple minutes, their breathing settles down and the chances of survival increase.” 

Kevin Beilman, who was suffering from exposure and hypothermia, was taken to Aurora Medical Center in Grafton and is expected to make a full recovery, Hingiss said.

“I think he’s pretty lucky,” he said. “He was having a hard time thinking clearly at the time.”

The fire department launched its inflatable boat and began search-and-rescue efforts, Mitchell said, joined by a Coast Guard vessel from Sheboygan.

Later a Coast Guard helicopter from Traverse City, Mich., and a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources plane joined in the search.

The plane’s infrared detection system, much like the fire department’s thermal imaging units, uses differences in temperature to detect people and objects, Mitchell said.

The search for Marcus Beilman, which covered 106 square nautical miles, was discontinued after Coast Guard officials spoke to members of Beilman’s family, officials said.

According to a GoFundMe page set up for the Beilman family, the brothers often went kayaking together. 

“It was something they both loved to do together,” according to the page. “On that day, their passion turned to tragedy. The brothers’ kayaks flipped over and only one was able to get to shore safely. Marcus still remains missing. The pain this family is carrying is unimaginable.”

Authorities have not recovered either kayak. Hingiss asked that if anyone finds the gray Emotion brand kayaks, they call police at 284-2611.



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