Reader view: Thinking kayak safety

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

It was so sad to see the news about the missing kayaker off Edmonds this past Sunday. My heart goes out to his family and friends. That very same day I was looking out my front window and watched three kayakers trying to do an assisted rescue off the marine dive park; it took them 15 minutes before they were able to get back into their boats and paddle back to shore. I am sure by then they were freezing. And a couple of months ago, my husband and I had a bit of a harrowing experience in Nanaimo Harbor (off the east coast of Vancouver Island). These events made me think about all the lessons I have had on kayak safety and thought I would pass on some things I have learned, in some cases the hard way.

Be Personally Aware

One of the things people are often taught is never hike, bike or kayak alone. However, while there is often safety in numbers it can be safe to paddle alone if you have the experience and the gear. If you are alone or with a group, it is important that you are always personally aware of the situation you are in and your capabilities and that you take personal responsibility for your safety. All too often paddlers with a group rely on the group leader to bear the responsibility for the group and your personal safety. That’s unfair and unrealistic. If you are with a group, it is important that you speak up and let the group leader know if you are comfortable and having fun or if you are not. If you are alone, it is critical to always have an exit plan and be prepared to execute said plan at a moment’s notice.

Have the Right Gear

I separate the gear I carry into two categories — what I have on me (i.e., what I’m wearing) and what I have on my boat.

What I Have on Me

I try to make sure that I have as much of my vital gear on me as possible. The single most important piece of gear that I am wearing is my PFD (personal flotation device, previously known as a lifejacket). And the operative word is wearing it — it doesn’t do you any good strapped to the front of your boat or standup paddleboard (SUP) when you are in the water and said boat or SUP is somewhere else. Equally important is making sure that your PFD fits and is adjusted correctly. No, they aren’t particularly comfortable when they are cinched up around your waste and armpits. But they don’t work very well when they are up around your ears and your head is bopping around and under the surface.

The cool thing about a good PFD is that they have lots of pockets. And I fill those pockets with the rest of what is vital gear — the old mountaineers 10 essentials. This includes a corrosion-proof knife and waterproof matches (in a waterproof container). My essential first aid kit consists of duct tape (I use Gorilla brand because the adhesive still works even if it is wet). It is good for boat repair as well as Band Aids. Instead of a headlamp or flashlight I carry a strobe light; this gives me extra protection if I end up in a fog bank and I want to be seen as well as see. I also carry mini rocket flares (in a waterproof bag) and a handheld compass. (More on the compass next but I put my handheld compass in one of my pockets just in case). Finally, I bring extra food (a protein bar in a waterproof sack) and water (I have a hydration pack that attaches to my PFD).

Communication equipment is key. At a minimum this includes a whistle. I also carry a signal air horn and a marine radio. I noticed one of the My Edmonds News commenters suggested carrying an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon). These are great but don’t allow you to talk to anyone, including nearby boaters, members of your group or the Coast Guard. My marine radio has an EPIRB built in that is activated if I hit the water and don’t respond to a call. It can also send my exact GPS location (lat / long). You can also use a marine radio to get weather updates.

At a minimum summer and winter, I wear some kind of neoprene top and bottom (yes, basically a wetsuit). In colder weather I add a dry suit. To decide when I need to add the dry suit, I follow the 120-degree (Fahrenheit) rule — a formula that adds together the air and water temperature to decide when thermal protection is needed. If the combined temps are above 120 degrees, no dry or wetsuit is needed. However, given that the average water temperature in Puget Sound hovers around 50 degrees and the summer air temperature on the water is around 70, you are well advised to always wear some kind of thermal wear. Last Sunday’s water temperature was just under 50 degrees and the air temperature was about 40 — for a combined total of 90 degrees — most definitely in the dry suit category. For those of you who are wondering what’s the difference between a wetsuit and drysuit: Wetsuits keep you warm by trapping a layer of water between the suit and your skin and are better at keeping you warm if you are in the water or if the water temps are mild. Drysuits use air to keep you warm and they also keep you dry. You can add layers with a dry suit for added warmth. If you plan to paddle in Puget Sound or any open water in the winter months, a dry suit becomes an essential piece of gear.

The last thing I have on me is a tow rope. I’ve been lazy and attached it to my boat. But after my recent harrowing experience off Vancouver Island, it’s going around my waist where it belongs. You might ask what I would do with a tow rope and I am alone. Remember that marine radio – it’s generally pretty rare that there isn’t a power boat or even another paddler or someone on shore nearby that won’t come by to lend a hand. However, they often don’t have a rope. If you have to get yourself ashore and you can’t get back in your boat, it is a lot easier to tow your boat and have two hands/arms to swim than it is to try to hang onto your boat and kick.

What I Have on My Boat

There are some other essentials I carry on my boat. The first is my basic rescue gear — a pump and a paddle float. More important than carrying these things is knowing how to use them. If you haven’t already done so, I strongly recommend taking a wet exit and rescue training class. It is lot harder to get into a kayak than you think, and you want to be able to do it in under a minute after hitting that cold water. Even if you have taken a class, I recommend taking refresher courses or at a minimum practice at least once a year. It’s amazing what you forget and every time we take a refresher, we learn something new that makes it easier. The second is a deck compass. As I was writing this today, I watched the weather change from seven-mile visibility (all the way across to Kingston) to less than 700 feet (the length of the ferry dock) in less than seven minutes. There is no weirder feeling than being in a kayak when you can barely see the end of your boat, and everything is the same color. Having and knowing how to use a deck compass is the only way you are going to get to shore safely. And remember that very first pointer — be personally aware. It is a good idea to have a bearing in mind at any given point in time that will get you to shore. And don’t forget to pull out that strobe light you have in your PFD and turn it on.

I also have a deck bag that I use to carry extra clothing and food as well as a good old-fashioned space blanket that I can use for lots of things (shelter, signaling, etc.). If I’m crossing open water or around lots of islands, I make sure I have a good chart. I also might carry an extra paddle.

Above All Else, Have Fun

Paddling is a great sport and is meant to be fun. Making safety an simple and integral part of your trip will ensure that it is just that — safe and fun.

— By Rebecca Elmore-Yalch

Author Rebecca Elmore-Yalch is a kayaker who lives in Edmonds.

  1. I would also suggest a tall flag like we used to have on our bikes as kids also bright colors we have a lot of power boaters and a kayak can be hard to see. If there is a lot of boat activity maybe stay closer to shore and like being a pedestrian keep your head on a swivel and be prepared to paddle away if you have a boat coming your way and it looks like they don’t see you.

  2. We took classes in Seattle after purchasing our boats and safety devices. We practiced using floats and our oars, to get into our boats, after a roll. It’s easy to be hit by an unexpected wave or sudden movement to capsize, so practicing the skills in the water is important. When I saw the rental kayak business down at the beach this summer, I worried for people renting kayaks, without experience or proper gear.

  3. All good points. Werner Furrer, the founder and designer of Werner paddles (a revolutionary Paul design dating back to the 1980s) was a pioneering seeker in the northwest. He had two rules that he lived by: (1) minimize crossings (2) “paddle with one fur on land.“ By this he meant stay close to shore because the currents are less and if something goes wrong, and you can’t get back in your boat, you stand a better chance of getting to land and surviving. Still good rules to paddle by.

  4. Good to see other people’s ideas re: safety; hope to see more. A couple of points / ideas. @Jim. Color and kayaks actually make little difference; we are just to low to the water to be easily seen and no color really stands out. Hence the old metaphor — to power boats kayaks are speed bumps. @ Jim and @Bob. One thing that is a really good idea is to add color to paddles; they are moving so are quite visible. Werner paddles are invariably black but even those with colored blades are difficult to see unless there is something reflective on them — so that when they move they catch the light and shimmer. A relatively inexpensive solution is to add waterproof reflective tape to them — such as or Fluorescent orange or green are the best. Reminds me I have some downstairs in my kayak gear box–doesn’t do any good there. Think I will go put it on my paddles right now.

    1. Where do you put the reflective tape? A long strip on both sides? Does this effect the performance of the paddle at all?

  5. Color does matter why do you think they make life vests orange? Yes being low to the water does make it harder to spot hence the flagpole. From spending many a day combat fishing with kayaks bright color orange yellow and a flag make a big difference. Reflective tape on the paddles great idea.

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