STAYING SAFE ON THE OCEAN
Kayaking, to me, is about freedom. It's about leaving the cares of daily life behind.
However, this hardly means that ocean kayaking is care-free. On the contrary,
many dangers await you when you bring your kayak onto the beautiful, volatile sea.
This list is a summary of things you need to do to keep yourself safe on the ocean
(the list also, for the most part, applies to any kayaking trip). The list is not
exhaustive, but I highly recommend following all these guidelines whenever you take
- GET A WEATHER FORECAST
- DO NOT paddle without a reasonably current MARINE weather forecast.
- this forecast is preferably obtained via
NOAA weather radio on the day of your trip.
Weather radios cost only $40 for a
hand-held unit and receive signal in the vast majority of the country
(see the web site for coverage info).
- forecasts are also available from the NOAA
web site but this information
is not guaranteed to be the most up-to-date forecast.
- learn how to relate the forecast to actual conditions on the water.
For example, what will the ocean look like if the forecast calls for
"wind 15-20 knots; seas 2-4 feet"?
- I don't recommend paddling in any wind
over 20 knots, or over 15 knots if you're on open water.
- HAVE A CHART AND COMPASS AND KNOW HOW TO USE THEM
- having a chart of the area you are paddling is essential for your
safety. Know what all the common symbols mean before you get on the water.
A wonderful resource for learning navigation is David Burch's book
Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation.
- topo maps, road maps, tourist brochures, etc. are unacceptable for
marine navigation. You need the unique information that only a nautical chart
- have a compass and know how to use the chart and compass to find your
location on the chart.
- make sure you can use the chart and compass to paddle to another
location if it suddenly becomes foggy.
- WEAR A P.F.D. AND APPROPRIATE CLOTHING
- a personal floatation device (PFD or lifejacket) is absolutely required
for kayaking on the ocean.
- if the water temperature is less than 50-55 degrees, WEAR A WETSUIT,
no matter what the air temperature. A wetsuit will double your
survival time in the water and give you more time to recover from a capsize.
- when the water is warm enough, wear synthetic technical clothing that
dries quickly, like nylon shorts or pants, polypropylene or polyester shirts, etc.
DO NOT wear cotton, because wet cotton draws warmth from your body five to ten
times faster than if you were not wearing clothing at all.
R.E.I. or any real gear store will have technical
wear that is appropriate for kayaking.
- a spray skirt is highly recommended in any but the calmest conditions.
Getting water in the cockpit makes your boat unstable and increases the likelihood
of a capsize.
- KNOW HOW TO RECOVER FROM A CAPSIZE
- the North Atlantic remains fairly cold all year round, and any kayaker
who spends time in this water will quickly lose the use of their arms. Therefore,
getting back in the kayak as soon as possible after a capsize is required.
- know and PRACTICE at least one rescue technique that does not require the
aid of another kayaker. Techniques include the paddle-float rescue
or the eskimo roll. Do not rely on your paddling buddy to save you.
- HAVE EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT ON BOARD AND ACCESSIBLE
- the Coast Guard requires that every vessel (yes, your kayak is a vessel)
on all waters between sunset and sunrise and during periods of reduced visibility to show a white light visible in all directions.
A white Glowstick around your hat, or a headlamp and another light visible from behind, will probably suffice.
- the Coast Guard requires that every vessel
travelling on the ocean between sunset and sunrise have 3 visual distress signals to get the attention
of other boaters in case of an accident. These devices include a distress light and flares
(a complete discussion can be found on the
Coast Guard Boating Safety web site).
- all kayaks must carry a sound-producing device like a whistle (air horns fail when wet!)
to announce your location during periods of reduced visibility.
- know how to use these devices to signal an emergency, and NEVER use them
in this manner except in an emergency.
- KNOW THE TIDES
- in Boston, where the tide range approaches 10 feet, the land
looks very different at high vs. low tide. Because of this, the depth of the water
shown on the chart is not always the actual depth.
- your chart gives you much information
about the changes in shoreline, but in order to relate what you see on the water to
the chart you need to know the approximate height of the water.
- David Burch's book Fundamentals of
Kayak Navigation covers the topic of tides in detail.
- KNOW THE CURRENTS
- in Boston, where the tide range approaches 10 feet, large amounts of
water must move into and out of the harbor to change the water level so much.
This movement of water creates strong tidal currents that can approach or exceed
the maximum speed you can paddle.
- it is therefore prudent to know what these currents will be like before
you get on the water. It also makes for much happier paddling if you plan
your trip to take advantage of favorable currents and minimize your time paddling
against strong currents.
- David Burch's book Fundamentals of
Kayak Navigation covers tidal currents in detail.
- once you understand how these currents work and how to use the NOAA
Tidal Current Prediction Tables, try out my
planning a bit easier.
- KNOW YOUR LIMITS
- most importantly, don't put yourself at risk by paddling in conditions
that are beyond your ability. If you get on the water and conditions are too rough
to be safe, then lose the ego and return to land. That way, there will be other
days to kayak.
- the only time you should paddle in conditions beyond your ability is
when accompanied by kayakers (PLURAL) who are WELL WITHIN their ability and
will be able to save you if you get into trouble. Make sure they know that you
feel unsafe and that you will rely on them to save you. If they object,
go back to land.
- don't play the "safety in numbers" game -- if everyone is beyond
their ability, an accident will simply put EVERYONE in more danger.
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© 2003 Daniel E. Smith. Last updated 9/26/2003