San Juan County employee saves capsized Orkila teens

It was almost impossible to see a waving paddle and a capsized kayak with the water tossing around like a washing machine.

While out on a routine check of the islands for derelict vessels on the morning of Friday, July 13, Mark Herrenkohl, county solid waste program administrator and volunteer EMT for Lopez Island Fire and EMS, stumbled upon kayakers in distress near the shore of Obstruction Island off the southwest point of Orcas.

“When the winds are coming out of the north and the currents are coming from different directions, it gets very nasty right there at that point,” said Herrenkohl, who was on a county-owned 21-foot aluminum powerboat. “So you couldn’t see very well, but as I cruised by I saw a paddle.”

Eight teenage campers from Camp Orkila on Orcas were on their last day of a five-day kayaking tour when they entered rough waters near Obstruction. Two teenage girls had fallen from their tandem kayak while trying to navigate the tumultuous waves, and were being kept afloat by their safety equipment as the group’s supervisor attempted to get help.

“I guess he had tried, and maybe other boats hadn’t stopped or hadn’t seen him, which I can understand because of the wave action,” Herrenkohl said. “The challenge for me was trying to get in there close to throw them a rope because of the wave action and not run into them.”

Herrenkohl maneuvered his boat as close to the girls as he could and tossed a rope to them. They had been in the water for an estimated 15 to 20 minutes, and hypothermia was setting in. He pulled both girls aboard his vessel and helped them into warm, dry clothing from a waterproof bag the camp supervisor had brought.

Herrenkohl called in the incident to dispatch and told them he and the girls would meet EMS at Spencer’s Landing Marina on Lopez. He explained that though Orcas Island was closer, he knew that medical technicians would be able to respond to the landing on Lopez faster than they would from Eastsound on Orcas. He told the teens to hug each other to stay warm, and once they landed at the marina, Herrenkohl kept their body temperatures up until more help arrived.

“I was just bear-hugging both of them, rubbing them, trying to get them warm because they were pretty cold,” Herrenkohl said.

The girls were transported to Lopez Fire Station 41 where they remained under medical supervision while allowing their bodies to heat back up to normal until they were able to rejoin their group at Camp Orkila. With the exception of acute hypothermia, the teens sustained no additional injuries.

“Mark’s rapid, safe and appropriate actions in the initial rescue and treatment of the hypothermic teens kept not only a bad situation from getting worse but facilitated a quick recovery for the patients without the need for a higher level of medical intervention,” said Susan Sanchez of Lopez Fire. “This incident is a reminder that the waters in the San Juans can be cold and hazardous for inexperienced boaters. Fortunately, in this case, the kayakers wore personal floatation devices and received timely help from EMT Mark Herrenkohl.”

Herrenkohl said he’s glad the whole ordeal ended well. He hopes the experience didn’t ruin the kayakers’ time at camp and is thankful for nice weather that day.

“If you’re going to be in the water, it was a good day because it was hot outside. We were able to warm them up relatively fast,” Herrenkohl said. “Everything turned out well. It was great that I was able to help.”