Enhance Safety on the Water

by Wes Kisting

One of the most often overlooked aspects of paddling, particularly among new paddlers, is the importance of being visibile on the water. Kayaking gear doesn’t come in a whole array of motley colors to make you look good; it comes that way to help you stand out among the waves. Unfortunately, the vital importance of this concept doesn’t usually hit home until you’re on the verge of being run over by a jet-ski, boat, or barge. Here are a few tips that could easily save your life.

When buying new equipment (kayaks, PFDs, hats, paddles, clothing, etc.) seriously consider buying bright colors. Oranges and reds offer the greatest visibility. (That’s why safety cones, warning flags, and slow-moving vehicle signs are almost always flourescent orange in color.)

Put some red reflective tape on the front and back of your left paddle blade, and some green reflective tape on the front and back of your right paddle blade. The red tape will be very visible in the daytime, and at night, boats will be able to tell where you are and what direction you are paddling based on the red and green reflective tape on your paddle. We also recommend wrapping part of your paddle shaft with white reflective tape for even better visibility at night. By doing so, boats will be able to see the reflection of your paddle shaft, too. This will help them realize you’re a paddler, not a powered craft. Otherwise, as you paddle, the disappearing red and green blades might look confusing from a distance. We recommend 3M Scotchlite Reflective Tape.

Put some white reflective tape on the deck and sides of your kayak: perhaps a long strip running the whole length of the kayak on both sides, or at least a few patches at the tip and tail. Additionally, near the bow, you might put a strip of red reflective tape on the port side (left) and a strip of green reflective tape on the starboard side (right). This will allow other boats to judge what direction you are paddling at night.

Put reflective tape on some of your gear, too. Stick or sew a few strips on your hat and PFD. Wrap a strip around your bilge pump, or stick a piece to your paddle float. Not only will this increase your visiblity to other boats, but if these pieces of gear should ever get washed off your deck at night, you will be able to locate them quickly and easily by shining a flashlight over the water.

Keep an orange safety flag close at hand to use for signalling in an emergency. Make sure it is at least 12 in. x 12 in., but preferably larger. Sew a couple of velcro loops along one edge so you can attach it to your paddle to raise it high up for signalling.

Carry a few chemical glow-sticks or glow-necklaces whenever you expect to paddle at night. Since they are cheap and last a few hours, they can be attached to your PFD or worn around your neck to improve your visibility to other boats. They also make a handy way of keeping track of the other paddlers in your group at night.

Keep a loud plastic whistle attached to your PFD at all times. It won’t improve your visibility, but it will enable you to give audible warnings at a moment’s notice, and they are far more effective than yelling. We highly recommend the Storm Whistle manufactured by the All-Weather Whistle Company of St. Louis. It is the loudest plastic whistle we have ever used, and it should be available in the marine section at most Wal-Mart stores.

If your PFD has a zippered pocket, stuff in a small signalling mirror for use in emergencies or for signalling your fellow paddlers from a distance. Just make sure you get a sturdy plastic mirror, not the glass kind which can shatter.

Attach a sharp stainless-steel knife to your PFD for use only in emergencies. Don’t cut cheese and sausage with it. Don’t whittle with it. Don’t use it to dig in the sand. Just keep it on your PFD and only use it to cut yourself free of snags, tangled lines, kites, or other unforseeable dangers when a knife suddenly comes in handy. Alternatively, some kayakers have taken to carrying a sharp set of “bandage” scissors (the lightweight, blunt-tipped, ultra-sharp scissors used by emergency paramedics) because they cut more easily through fishing line, nets, and other abrasion-resistant materials that knives may have difficulty cutting.

Keep a compressed air horn in a clear plastic bag on the deck. Most compressed air horns—even those which claim to be for “marine” use—do not function properly if water gets inside the horn, but if you keep it in a clear Ziploc freezer bag, it will stay dry and still be ready for use at a moment’s notice. You can activate the horn without even removing it from the bag!

Keep a container of three or four flares behind the seat of your kayak for use in an emergency. Remember to check the expiration date and replace them when necessary.

Carry a waterproof strobe light (blinking distress signal) and replace the batteries before every paddling trip, even if you never turn it on. Also, test it before every trip to ensure the switch and bulb are in perfect working order. Since you may get separated from your kayak in adverse conditions, the best place to carry a strobe light is attached to your PFD, if possible.

Carry a Rescue Streamer (a.k.a. See/Rescue Banner) behind your seat, to be deployed in the event of an emergency. Rescue Streamers are more effective than dyes and are not dependent upon batteries, chemicals, or moving parts, all of which can fail. Visit the Rescue Streamer Distress Signal website for more information or to purchase a Rescue Streamer. We recommend purchasing the “Mariner” version of the Rescue Streamer (11 in. x 40 ft.), particularly if you paddle on the ocean. It is considerably wider and longer than other versions of the Rescue Streamer, and has a much better chance of being seen in those situations when you may need it.

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by Wes Kisting