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The life jacket Ryan Florek and first responders credit with saving Florek's life. Photo courtesy of Ryan Florek.

Kayaker airlifted from beach tells story of good luck and a life jacket

A week ago, a kayaker wearing a life jacket was found wet and exhausted on a south Lummi Island beach. Aid units responded and he was airlifted to PeaceHealth St Joseph Medical Center. At the time, little more than that could be reported due to privacy laws.

Now the man, 27-year-old Ryan Florek of Seattle, has come forward to tell what happened in the hope it may help others avoid getting into the same situation.

During a phone interview, Florek said he drove from his parent’s Ferndale home to the south side of Lummi Island with his 9.5-foot long kayak the morning of Saturday, March 17th. He was no stranger to kayaking he explained, having kayaked a few dozen times in the Puget Sound and nearby lakes over the past few years.

Around 10am, he launched his kayak from Village Point Marina intending to make his way to Clark Island, a 2.25 mile trip, to spend the afternoon before paddling back.

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“The weather was nice when I launched but halfway across the wind suddenly picked up and I found myself in 3 to 5-foot swells,” Florek said. His kayak started taking on water from wave spray being blown across it. At some point, Florek explained, a wave knocked him over and out of the kayak. He estimated being halfway between Clark Island and Lummi Island at that point.

He started holding on to the kayak but quickly realized it was too heavy to drag along. Letting it and the paddle go, Florek began swimming back toward Lummi Island buoyed by his life jacket.

“Several times I realized how possible it would be to die out there,” Florek said. “It is amazing how motivating those thoughts can be when you really don’t want to [die].”

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He said he tried yelling at some boaters he could see and even tried to get the attention of a low-flying plane but got no response. He said there was no question in his mind about the severity of his situation. “It was up to me, only me,” he said.

Florek said, “I knew I had to keep swimming, to keep moving, to keep warm.” He later learned the water temperature was in the mid-40s.

It was about 11:30am when he crawled onto the Lummi Island beach near the corner of Legoe Bay Road and W Shore Drive, near where he had earlier launched his kayak.

“A woman walking her dog saw me. She came over and asked if I was okay and I couldn’t even respond. I was too exhausted,” Florek said. “She flagged down a car and the next thing I knew aid crews had cut off my wet clothes and wrapped me in warm blankets.

Soon after aid crews arrived, Florek said he overheard someone say airlift (an Airlift Northwest medical transport helicopter) had been dispatched.

Whatcom County Fire District 11 Fire Chief Duncan McLane reported the helicopter left the scene with Florek aboard only 33 minutes after aid crews were first dispatched. When asked to describe the ride, Florek said simply, “It seemed like a quick 5-minute flight to the hospital.”

Ryan Florek in peacehealth st joseph medical center er 2018-03-17 photo ryan florek
Ryan Florek smiles for the camera while recovering in the PeaceHealth St Joseph Medical Center emergency room (March 17, 2018). Photo courtesy of Ryan Florek

Florek estimated his stay in the hospital emergency room lasted 2 to 3 hours before he was released. “They kept pumping the intravenous fluids and had me wrapped in blankets to get warm,” he explained.

Looking back, Florek says he should have been wearing a dry suit which would have protected him from the cold water. “But, at least I was wearing a life jacket I had bought 2 years ago on Craigslist.” Florek said several of the aid crew and hospital staff told him the life jacket saved his life. He agreed. “I got lucky. There were a few moments when I realized how close to death I was. I have since read about others who found themselves in similar situations who were not as lucky.”

What become of his kayak? “I think it is somewhere in Canadian waters by now,” Florek said.

When asked why he was coming forward and being so frank about the incident, Florek said, “I am hoping a few people will read this and be better prepared when they head out on the water.”

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