A Silly Way to Die - Friends Don't Let Friends Teak Surf

Drawing of teak surfing.

Image courtesy of California Department of Boating and Waterways.

It may sound like just another fad, but a recent near-tragedy for two youngsters at Grand Teton National Park offered a grim reminder about the dangers of "teak surfing." Some people are still unaware of the risks, so here's why you shouldn't let your friends or family try this deadly "sport."

You may not be familiar with the term "teak surfing" or its hazards—and that's part of the problem. Their lack of awareness can lead otherwise responsible people to try an activity that's hyped via word of mouth and in videos posted on the Internet as just one more way to have fun on the water.

So, what is teak surfing, and why is it such a problem?

Some boats have a "swim platform" attached to the stern (the back of the boat). A wide step of sorts, these platforms were originally intended to make it easier for people to get in and out of the boat to swim—when the vessel is not in motion. The platforms are often made of teak, a type of wood better suited than most to wet environments.

In “teak surfing," a swimmer hangs onto the swim platform on the back of a moving boat and is pulled through the water while the boat builds up a wake on which he or she can body surf. The above drawing illustrates the activity.

According to Captain Scott Evans, Chief of the Office of Boating Safety, U.S. Coast Guard,

This puts that individual directly in the path of the vessel's exhaust and poisonous external carbon monoxide. If that in itself is not dangerous enough, the individual is now in a position that a slight miscalculation may throw him or her into a whirling propeller. Still ... it doesn't stop there. In order to "Teak Surf" you don't wear a life jacket; the two do not go together... all this is a recipe for a tragedy.

Is this really dangerous, or is it simply a case of over-zealous government regulators trying to spoil the fun? Victims of the fad include:

• a 22-year-old woman, a standout basketball player in her college in Washington State;
• a girl, age 15, who died while "teak-surfing" behind a friend's ski boat;
• an 11-year-old boy who died behind the boat his father was driving in California; and many others.

The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection explains the dangers of carbon monoxide:

Carbon monoxide (CO) itself is tasteless and odorless. The major symptoms of CO poisoning are headaches, dizziness, nausea, seizures, and sleepiness, which inevitably lead to unconsciousness and death if the victim is not removed from its source to fresh air. The symptoms can often be mistaken for seasickness or flu. Many victims who survive have permanent brain damage. Anyone in the water without a PFD who is rendered unconscious will drown immediately.

CO poisoning is not restricted to swimmers being towed behind a boat; it's a risk anywhere near a boat when the motor is running. An example occurred at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah in 2007:


Megan Evans and her friend, Kayleen Tubbs, also 7 years old, were swimming near two 30- foot cabin cruiser boats at their campsite on the shoreline of Lake Powell in Padre Bay. Both boats’ engines were running with the propellers disengaged to recharge their batteries.

Kayleen was apparently overcome by CO in the engine exhaust; her mother noticed that the youngster had become unconscious and jumped into the water to rescue Kayleen.

Kayleen quickly regained consciousness once she was pulled from the water. As the group was attending to Kayleen, they realized Megan was missing. A search was
organized to look for Megan. They found her unconscious at the bottom of approximately 5-10 feet of water.

Sadly, she did not survive.

Finally, CO poisoning can occur whenever air currents pull the exhaust back into the cockpit or cabin of the boat or below decks when there is a faulty exhaust system. Any boat with an engine or other devices powered by gasoline, diesel or propane should be equipped with a carbon monoxide detector.

The staff at Glen Canyon offers some good advice: "Boat generators, engines, and gas appliances produce deadly carbon monoxide gases. Ensure proper ventilation. Don't swim, sit, or work near exhaust."

A little CO goes a long way. Media reports of teak-surfing deaths in the Seattle area quote Coast Guard sources that carbon monoxide concentrations released from the backs of ski boats can be high as 40,000 to 80,000 parts per million; concentrations as low as 200 parts per million can be fatal.

At such high concentrations, it doesn't take long for CO to be deadly. A study by The Centers for Disease Control cites a 2001 incident at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area:

... after only one to two minutes, one of three teak surfers lost consciousness, sank beneath the surface, and died.

Teak surfing, also known as "platform dragging," "drag surfing," and "teak boarding," is now illegal in all units of the National Park System and several states, including California, Nevada and Pennsylvania. The California law was spurred by the deaths of 11-year-old Anthony Farr and 15-year-old Stacy Beckett, who died as a result of the activity.

An excellent discussion of the hazards of teak surfing and the problem of CO poisoning in general can be found in "Carbon Monoxide Dangers in the Marine Environment." Any boater should be aware of this information.

One of the recent cases occurred earlier this summer at Grand Teton National Park, and was previously reported in the Traveler. The good news is that both of the youngsters who suffered CO poisoning in that case survived their close call.

Others haven't been so fortunate, including Anthony Farr. His father said after the tragedy, "Had I known this was dangerous, had I heard of the dangers of doing this, I would never have put my son or myself at risk."

Now you've heard about it. Don't let your family or friends make the same mistake.

Comments

His father said after the tragedy, "Had I known this was dangerous, had I heard of the dangers of doing this, I would never have put my son or myself at risk."

*sigh*

Kayleen's mother was not showering and was not using a shower on the boat. She had been in the water behind the boat washing her hair. She was on the back of the boat watching Kayleen and Megan when Kayleen fell unconscious from the ladder on the boat. The reports were incorrect, and just keep resurfacing.

If you want the full story of the Evans/Tubbs incident go to http://www.parentdish.com/2007/07/10/girl-drowns-after-being-overcome-by-boat-exhaust/ and scroll down to comment #4. This same problem can exist on a boat with canvas up and going downwind. The wind keeps the fumes with the boat and the canvas (bimini), especially with a dodger, concentrates the fumes in the cockpit. It can be very dangerous. I have been on Lake Powell in a boat and the problem here is the long narrow nature of the lake with many narrow, high, side canyons and very little wind.

As to the teak-surfing; I have been a boater for many years and I must admit, this is the first I have heard of this. I cannot even imagine a sane person wanting to do this. My main fear would be the propeller. It is amazing to me all of the "jackass" stunts people come up with, especially on the water.

Anonymous -

Since there's some question about the details you mentioned in the incident cited at Glen Canyon, I've modified the text. The key point in this tragic story is how quickly CO can affect people who are in the vicinity of a motor which is running.