The sun is shining, the kayak is on the car and the destination is set. Before any paddling activity, planning is key. Have you checked the weather, shared your paddle plan with someone who isn’t going on the adventure and packed the essentials?
The essentials can save your life. Do you have a buoyancy aid or life jacket; will you wear the correct clothing, i.e. clothes that can tolerate immersion? The sun may be out and feel warm as we sit in our boats, should we end up in the water however due to a rouge wave, jet ski wake or misplanted paddle blade, the conditions can change rapidly leading to hypothermia as in the case with the North Face Founder, Douglas Tompkins –http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151213-doug-tompkins-chile-north-face-rick-ridgeway-patagonia-yvon-chouinard-death-general-carrera-lake/. Even experienced paddlers run into difficulty when least expected.
Know your limits. If you are on a paddle and start to feel out of your skill range head back, ensure your paddling partners accompany you. Exhaustion on the water can lead to difficult situations and the lack of ability to get back into your boat, even if you’ve practiced self-rescue a thousand times. Paddle with at least two friends, preferably five so that if help is needed, two can paddle back to get help and two can stay with the injured paddler.
Why is safety so important? Kayaking is a risk sport and anything can happen on the water. In my paddling career, I’ve rescued sailboats, rowers and other kayakers. Hypothermia was a factor due to lack of correct clothing. Having experienced hypothermia first hand, I can attest to the seriousness of being prepared on the water.
Why not take a course to get you started? NY State parks offers smart start paddling as part of their education programing. You can also take a safety and rescue or a skills development course with local American Canoe Association instructors, http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.americancanoe.org/resource/resmgr/SEI-documents/Instructor_List_-Kayak.pdf. Paddlesports North America also has instructors who are able to offer these courses, http://www.paddlesportsnorthamerica.org/coaches.
If you are new to the sport and want to try kayaking, ensure that the company you choose to paddle with employs qualified instructors and licensed guides. You can check on the DEC licensed guide list- http://www.dec.ny.gov/cfmx/extapps/DECLicensedGuide/, guides are also listed with the NY State Outdoor Guides Association http://www.nysoga.com
Your safety is paramount! When going out on the water for instruction or a guided tour, ask to see proof, i.e. the licensed guide card and instructor qualification card. Being on the water with someone who is not only qualified but knows how to rescue you and will follow safe practice is a great start to your paddling career.
Before venturing onto the water, learn the ‘rules of the road’. The American Canoe Association has great information to help you on your way, http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.americancanoe.org/resource/resmgr/sei-educational_resources/brochure_rules_of_the_road.pdf
Practice your skills with your kayaking friends and never paddle alone. Always wear your pfd/life jacket and let someone know where you are going. Always carry a spare paddle, have a repair kit, marine radio, cell phone in water proof case, high energy snacks and fluids, a whistle, chart and compass, pump, signal, spare clothing in a drybag, be able to swim with your boat, depending on your ability- paddle close to shore and always check the weather before starting the car. You can download a packing list in downloadable forms on the bottom right of the page- http://seabirds.co/courses.html
Learn how to use a spray deck/spray skirt if you are planning on paddling on the lake or ocean, even for trips on rivers. The deck helps keep your boat dry, when paddling in waves or rough conditions without a deck water can enter your cockpit and cause you to loose balance as the water quickly fills up your boat.
Taking a lesson from a qualified instructor will insure that you know what to do in any situation whilst wearing a deck or not. The spray deck can be a trap hazard if the toggle at the front of it is not out of the boat, always check it’s on top so that you can grab it as you lean and pull the toggle towards the bow to exit your boat. If it is trapped, you can release the deck from the side of the cockpit and pull it up to free yourself.
As it’s the start of the season and many of us are rusty from lack of paddling over the winter, practicing rescues and working on improving your paddling skills will help you avoid the ‘catastrophe curve’. This is something that can happen very quickly on the water with or without paddling partners.
An incident happens leading to the curve, i.e. someone comes out of his or her boat, other paddlers go to assist and others end up in the water as the weather changes, lack of experience and exhaustion kicks in, we know what happened to Mr Tompkins. A few months prior, a University of Buffalo student also died from hypothermia whilst kayaking in New Zealand http://wivb.com/2015/09/28/ub-student-dies-in-new-zealand-kayaking-accident/. And sadly closer to home a solo paddler got into difficulties, http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/evans/missing-kayakers-body-found-in-lake-erie-20151207. This is not uncommon for the sport and can happen to anyone at any time, be prepared!
As a paddler you have a duty of care to others on the water. As your safety, rescue and personal paddling skills develop so do your responsibilities within the group. Those in the group with the highest level of training and experience can be held accountable in the event of an incident. When paddling in groups, it’s important that the group works together so that the ‘unknown unknowns’ can be met and dealt with swiftly and safely. Know your group and ensure everyone’s paddling skills are suited for the activity.
When working in groups, Instructors follow strict ratios, one instructor to five paddlers (sometimes the number of paddlers is smaller due to the conditions)- this is to ensure safe group management. Paddlers are no more than two boat lengths away so that a rescue can be dealt with quickly. If you are with a large group, identify who the competent paddlers are and know your limits! There are five coaches in the picture below making the ratio almost one to one for the sea environment we were paddling in.
While out enjoying the waterway, always consider your impact as this can have safety implications with wildlife. There are reports of bear encounters in the Georgian Bay islands (http://www.whitesquall.com/pdf/Bear_Warning_for_Franklin_Island.pdf) and on the Allegheny River corridor. Black bears have learned that kayakers carry food, dry bags have been removed from boats and bears wanting to share the food have approached paddlers refueling. Be bear wise and don’t leave food unattended, never throw food at a bear in an effort to distract the animal as this practice has helped the bears to associate paddlers with food, use a bear vault and/or bear hang on your adventures. www.lnt.org
The sun is out, the kayak and gear are packed, the paddle plan has been shared, marine radio and cell phone are charged up, long term forecast is clear and conditions are perfect. With everything planned and packed, the paddle is a go!
Paddle safe, paddle smart and enjoy the season 😉