Kayaks Owner's Manual on:
SEA KAYAKING SAFETY
Sea Kayaking offers physical exercise
from relaxing to strenuous. Its participants seek adventure exploring local waterways or
staging expeditions to the most remote areas of the world. It is a sport for a lifetime,
with active participants well into their 80's still enjoying the wilderness. Their gear is
supported by the water rather than their backs and there is no elevation to gain.
important factor to safe sea kayaking is having the knowledge and experience to judge the
level of potential danger and the ability to accurately compare it to your groups
capabilities leaving adequate margin for error.
Paddling a sea kayak is easy to learn, perhaps too easy. A novice can easily paddle
(blunder) into many situations a more knowledgeable kayaker would avoid that could require
expert paddling skills to survive. In skilled hands kayaks are extraordinarily seaworthy
craft. Sea kayaking has proven to be a safe form of recreation for those who have taken
the time to learn the basic skills and understand the potential hazards. What follows
provides information on some skills and equipment necessary for safe paddling. Also
included is information on many hazards that might be encountered. It is presented in the
hopes that the reader may become a safer participant in this great sport.
The most likely fatal accident is due to hypothermia following a capsize and subsequent
failure to execute a rescue. Winds and/or rough seas will cause the capsize, the rescue
failure will be due to lack of practice, insufficient rescue equipment, inadequate
flotation in the kayak, or separation from the kayak or paddles. Most often the victim is
paddling alone and carrying no distress signals or an entire group is in trouble making it
impossible for the paddlers to take care of each other.
You must have skills, knowledge, and
equipment adequate for whatever conditions you might encounter.
You need a clear understanding of the
potential hazards and you must stay alert for them. This includes knowing the latest
You must practice in advance with safety
equipment and rescues.
You should be able to swim and know when
not to swim (when the water is under 60 degrees F.)
If capsized on a windy day you must never
lose a firm grip on your kayak and paddle. Losing them is frighteningly easy as your kayak
can blow away faster than you can swim.
You should have a plan of action (and a
back-up plan) worked out in advance for any emergency including capsize and separation
from your kayak or separation from your group. A plan will help prevent the panic and
feeling of helplessness that can immobilize the unprepared.
You should be wary of goals which may be
clouding your judgment. Getting to work on time or preventing your friends from calling
the Coast Guard is not worth the risk to life. You should get a comfortable life jacket
and wear it whenever you paddle. You must have plenty of secure flotation in both
ends of your kayak.
PADDLING IN GROUPS
The paddling ability and judgment of the group
members is more important than group size. While many consider three kayakers to be the
absolute minimum for anything beyond an easy shore paddle, there is not necessarily safety
in numbers. For example, an expert is probably safer alone than with two or three novices
involving him or her in their troubles. With each additional member the chance of trouble
due to one of the group having difficulties increases. Ultimately YOU are responsible for
your own safety so don't blindly follow another paddlers lead. When you are no
longer dependent on others you will be welcomed in a group as an asset rather than seen as
a liability. Please don't consider this as permission to paddle alone. Paddling alone is
far more dangerous than paddling with a partner. Three is safer yet providing more options
with which to meet an emergency. With four paddlers one could stay with a disabled paddler
(on shore) and two could go for help. Even though the group was forced to split up each
member still has a partner.
Groups larger than three should pick a leader to be responsible for keeping the group
together, picking a safe route, and assessing the physical and psychological state of the
group members. When inexperienced paddlers are involved the leader should check that they
have the necessary gear and proper flotation in their kayak. Before embarking the leader
should inform the novices of what they will be expected to do if they are involved in a
capsize or other emergency and an explanation of what kind of rescue to expect. If a
problem arises this information should serve to give the novices hope to help avoid the
panic that could cause an emergency, delay rescue, or endanger others. It will also make
the entire group aware of the possibility of trouble and force them to see if they have
the skills and equipment necessary to meet an emergency.
While all group members should be consulted concerning important decisions, the leader is
charged with making the final decision and making sure all the members know the plan. It
is important that all members be included in the decision making process as this is one of
the prime learning opportunities for the less experienced. By agreeing on a leader in
advance and having discussed the hazards a group can minimize the chances of serious
disagreements arising at a time when they could threaten everyones safety. Large
groups should use the buddy system, linking novices to experts. This helps keep the group
together and makes the responsibilities of group members clear-cut. If larger groups are
divided into subgroups it is important to distribute the experienced paddlers so a weak
group is not formed. Never leave a novice or group of novices by themselves. Some paddlers
have paddled for years but only in calm conditions. If there is a chance of rough
conditions these paddlers should be considered to be nearly novices.
Be prepared to voice your strong objections to any plan you think would be risky for you
or some other member of the group. Novices can easily be led into trouble by those who
have forgotten how vulnerable the were as beginners. Conditions can get so bad that the
experts will have trouble taking care of themselves. Don't count on them being able to
rescue you. If the plan appears to be dangerous if you were on your own insist on a safer
course of action. In a group paddlers should follow the lead kayak and not branch out at
some angle without first notifying the leaders of their intentions. The lead kayak must be
certain it is not leaving anyone behind. A meeting place should be agreed on in advance in
case the group is accidentally separated.
KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENTBe careful with your equipment so as not to
create a trap with your ropes, loose gear, spray deck, paddle leash (don't use one in
breaking surf), PFD's straps, or footbraces (shoelaces and some sandals) that could hold
you or your feet and prevent a "wet exit".
Carry repair kits for your kayak and
paddle, as well as for yourself (first-aid kit).
Check your equipment for damage and wear.
Check that your kayak has flotation, secured
both in the bow and stern adequate to float a swamped kayak level and minimize the
amount of water that must be removed. Flotation in only one end will allow your kayak to
become vertical in the water, Making reentry virtually impossible without the help of a
Check that your spray deck fits tightly
enough on the cockpit rim so as to be resistant to being popped off by a wave dumping into
your lap. Shock cord loses its elasticity and stretches with time and use so it may need
to be readjusted later. Make sure novices don't use a spraydeck until they can show they
know how to remove it.
Practice capsizing and "wet
exits" so you know how to remove your spray deck and climb out (if you wear gloves,
can you find the grabloop with them on? Underwater with your eyes closed?). Practice
alternate spraydeck removal methods in case the primary one is unavailable. Some include:
grasping the shock cord in back, reaching down inside through the waist tube and with palm
up pushing the straight fingers out to one side, leaning to the side at the hips to create
a fold in the fabric to grab, pressing down on the coaming rim and pushing the fabric out
to the side to grab with your fingers. Since none of these will always work practice them
all and place them in order of likelyhood of success for you and your equipment.
IMPROVE YOUR SKILLS
Those who come to sea kayaking by way of river
kayaking have an advantage in that whitewater conditions have forced them to develop
several reflexive paddle braces. As a result they are not dependent on the inherent
stability of the kayak to keep them upright. The high and low brace are the most important
physical skills in kayaking. You should work at developing them. The high brace is
basically a bracing forward stroke and the low brace is a bracing reverse stroke. Practice
in warm shallow water where you won't be afraid to capsize. Throw yourself progressively
further and further off balance and use your paddle to recover. Once youve gotten
the idea, have a friend or two stand at the end(s) of your kayak and purposely try to
capsize you. You should be able to remain upright no matter how hard they try.
Also practice a sculling high brace and
alternating between a high and low brace to support you while you lean over to one side.
When you've practiced this enough you'll find you can slowly lean your body over until
your ear is in the water, then slowly bring yourself back upright. If done quickly you can
manage it all with a single sweep. Work on your bracing strokes and you may never have to
resort to an Eskimo roll.
In order to know what to expect and what to do when faced with a difficult situation, its
best to have practiced in a similar situation. With this in mind we suggest you paddle in
progressively stronger winds and rougher waves, but in safe locations such as near an easy
landing beach towards which the wind will push you should you capsize. You should be
dressed for a capsize and have a source of help, shelter, and warmth at hand. Try rough
conditions with your kayak loaded with gear as well as empty. Kayaks and paddles can
become extremely difficult to handle in severe conditions. This practice will not only
improve your paddling skills, but also give you some experience which will improve your
Another skill you should master is crossing eddylines. Learn to lean your kayak away from
the current you are moving into by using a paddle brace downstream for stability. This
lean is to counteract the force of the water sliding under your kayak which often causes a
capsize to the upstream side. Find a safe place on a river or tidal stream where an
obstruction in the current forms an eddy and practice crossing the eddyline both ways.
Expect to capsize. Practice with a group containing some experts (for instruction and
rescue). Have a source of warmth at hand and wear a wetsuit or drysuit.
We recommend you learn to Eskimo roll your kayak. This skill is potentially more valuable
to sea kayakers than river kayakers because the distance to shore can be so much greater.
Because capsizes are so rare while sea kayaking the value of learning to roll is not
nearly as obvious as it is to a whitewater paddler. You will probably need expert
instruction. Contact a club or kayak shop to find classes. Incidentally, it is easier to
roll most gear laden sea kayaks than it is to roll an empty river kayak. At least if the
gear cant seriously shift to one side, side support at the seat keeps you from
shifting to the side, and adequate knee braces are present. The additional weight acts as
ballast and helps finish the roll. Although the motion is slower getting started--it is
more like a thigh pull than a hip snap--once the rotating motion is present the momentum
can pull you up out of the water like a punching dummy. Please quit using that sorry old
"heavy gear laden kayak" excuse I hear so often for not learning to roll. Learn
to roll the kayak you will actually be using both with and without a gear load.
Practice other rescues to back up your ability to Eskimo roll. Even the best rescues are
marginal if they haven't been practiced. Rescue practice in a pool can be very valuable,
but you should understand that a rescue which works in a heated pool with empty kayaks can
give one a false sense of security. Wind, waves, cold water and 150 pounds of gear create
a far more difficult situation. There is a wide variety of rescue techniques described in
kayaking books, and it is nice to be aware of them; however, many work only under ideal
conditions. Rescues that require the lifting of one kayak and rocking it over another to
empty it of water risk serious damage to many kayaks and become nearly impossible with a
The best rescues require little or no help and do not require lifting and dumping the
kayak. They get you out of the water quickly to minimize your exposure to hypothermia and
allow you to aid in the pumping or bailing of your kayak. They should also be simple and
easy to execute with a minimum of extra gear if any. The best rescues are still a poor
second to Eskimo rolling.
Do not let confidence in the ability to Eskimo roll or perform rescues cause you to place
yourself or your companions in a position where you are depending on it. Rolling and
rescues are only safety back-ups. If you need to use them it is a sign you have already
made a serious error in judgment.
Finally, practice paddling while pretending to cripple yourself or your equipment in some
way. Try paddling and bracing using only one blade of your paddle to simulate a broken
paddle (and maybe convince yourself to carry a spare). If your kayak has a rudder or skeg,
you should learn to control your kayak without it in difficult conditions. Paddling with
your kayak one-half full of water will give you an idea of what it might be like during a
rescue. It may also help you to practice your paddle brace and teach you the value of
carrying a pump and bailing container and having a partner (or a paddle float for the
Mariner Self Rescue) to stabilize the kayak while you are pumping or bailing.
USE SAFETY EQUIPMENT
Obviously a day trip along a protected urban
shoreline will require much less equipment and skill than a week long journey along an
exposed wilderness coastline. You will have to decide what you may need and when you may
The Coast Guard requires there be an approved
PFD (personal flotation device) for each person in a boat. You should wear it because if
the wind and waves come up you may find it very difficult if not impossible to put it on
while in your kayak. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can put it on if you capsize.
You can quickly become separated from your kayak (and PFD) if you capsize in wind and
waves. Because a kayak can blow away faster than you can swim many kayakers fasten
themselves or their paddle to the kayak with a length of cord or shock cord. If faced with
breaking waves any leashes or loose lines should be safely stowed so they can't tie you to
your kayak. You should practice "wet exits" while never losing your grip on your
kayak and paddle.
Maximum flotation in both ends of your
kayak is a must. The flotation needs to support the kayak level while you sit in the fully
swamped cockpit. It must also provide enough freeboard at the cockpit to minimize further
water entry during pumping. The flotation could consist of large airtight float bags,
waterproof gear bags, truly watertight bulkheads and hatches, or a waterproof cockpit sock
you wear around your legs that seals at the cockpit rim. Prudent paddlers back up
bulkheads with float bags (or gear bags) or use bags and sea socks together so the failure
of any one system isn't critical.
Lifting and dumping water from a gear laden
kayak is virtually impossible from other kayaks, so a means of removing water from the
kayak once youve gotten yourself up out of the cold water is a must. A high capacity
electric, hand held or deck mounted pump is better than a "bailing bucket"
because they can be used with the spray skirt closed to further water entry. Slip the hand
pump through the top of your spray deck at your chest. A large sponge is nice for the last
inch. These items should be readily available but stored securely so they won't float (or
sink) away. A hand pump full of water will sink so tether it or add a float collar to it.
Consider carrying a back up water removing device such as a bailing container or even
Nylon braided line and parachute cord are strong
and stretch to absorb shocks, but nylon sinks so needs a float attached. A piece of
closed-cell foam can serve as the float as well as a place to wrap the line to keep it
from tangling. The tow point should be near the paddler (or attached to a harness worn by
the paddler) so the towing kayak maintains maneuverability and the line can be quickly
jettisoned. in rough seas forty feet or more of line may be necessary to minimize the
danger of the kayaks colliding.
Equipment to help maintain or regain body heat if immersed
These include a wet suit, dry suit, survival suit
or coat. Also helpful are your life jacket, rainwear, long underwear and pile clothing.
Extra dry clothing, a sleeping bag, tent or shelter, and fire making materials in
watertight containers should be carried.
A first aid kit adequate to your situation should
be readily available from the cockpit.
A roll of duct tape (kept dry and with the kayak)
can temporarily repair almost any damage to a kayak, paddle (with a splint), or even
flotation and gear bags. A more extensive repair kit would include spare fittings and more
permanent hull and float bag repair materials.
Emergency Locating devices
Equipment for signaling an emergency and your
location should be handy, or better yet carried on your person. Locating devices have
saved many kayakers. They include: flares (hand held and aerial), smoke canisters (day
only), dye marker (day only), orange distress flag, foghorn or airhorn, signal mirror,
strobe light (night only). Many of these items are made quite small, inexpensive, and are
available at outdoor equipment or marine supply stores. If you paddle at night, the U.S.
Coast Guard requires you to carry a white light. It must be visible for one mile and
available to show in time to avoid a collision. When on international waters three flares
are required (or a distress beacon that will automatically flash SOS in Morse code). Lakes
with a connection to the sea are considered "international waters". On inland
waters a high intensity strobe light that flashes 50 to 70 times per minute can replace
the SOS signal or the three flares.
A device called the 406 MHz EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) transmits
an emergency signal that SARSAT satellites can home in on to locate your position within a
one mile radius. The Category II version is manually deployed so would be best for
kayakers. The price has fallen into the $800 range. Class "B" EPIRB's also
transmit to satellites but arent nearly as accurate and require much longer to get a
fix on your approximate position. Far to long for a kayaker in the water. The class
"C" EPIRB transmits an emergency signal on the Marine VHF band (channel 16)
monitored by coastal ships, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and the U.S. Coast Guard. This
signal alternates with a locating signal (on channel 15). Kayakers in trouble on the water
have been rescued within 45 minutes using a Class "C" EPIRB. They have a range
of up to 30 miles, are waterproof, float and some have a built in strobe light that works
at night. Although cheaper they are much less reliable than the 406 EPIRB and will soon be
Handheld VHF radios have a lesser range but the
U.S. Coast Guard maintains repeater stations at high points all along the U.S. coast which
may vastly increase VHF's useful range. A VHF transmitter/receiver and/or an EPIRB should
be strongly considered by anyone traveling in sparsely populated areas. They should be
considered essential by commercial tour guides, trip leaders and solo paddlers. A VHF
transmitter allows one to contact potential rescuers on the emergency channel (#16) and
give a description of the situation. Some channels receive weather stations and others can
be used to talk to boats or ships in the area. The range is about one-half that of a class
"C" EPIRB. A flexible waterproof case is available for some hand held VHF radios
that allow them to be used without exposing them to salt water. Unfortunately, these cases
have had a high failure rate, especially at the welded seems. Check its airtightness (and
therefore watertightness) by gently squeezing before a trip and anytime it may soon get
wet. Some VHF radios are advertised as "waterproof". Even with these limit their
exposure to water as much as possible. Maybe some ziplock freezer bags.
At under $25 a simple weather radio can be quite inexpensive. One could be invaluable to
warn a paddler of impending bad weather. However, in my experience most dont have
the "range" of the weather channels on a VHF radio. Lower priced VHF radios can
be had for under $150. A VHF seems to be the most versatile and cost effective locating
Spares of Critical Items
Paddles, pumps, charts, tide and current tables,
timepieces, and compasses. Many of these spares could be shared among a group, but you
would be wise to be the person who brings them. It is a good idea to carry two compasses,
but make sure they are far enough apart to not interfere with each other. Use one to
navigate and the spare to convince you the first one is correct if you get into thick fog.
We use a domed compass attached to the kayak's foredeck for course keeping and a small
orienteering compass for plotting a course on the chart and as the spare.
BE AWARE OF THE POTENTIAL HAZARDS
AVOID HYPOTHERMIA (Cooling of the body's core temperature)
In arctic and temperate regions, this is the
greatest danger to sea kayakers. In fact, hypothermia is a leading cause of death related
to outdoor activities and therefore demands serious study by anyone interested in any form
of outdoor recreation.
Paddling in wind and rain or wet rough seas without adequate clothing can lead to
hypothermia, but the greatest danger is from total immersion in chilling water as the
result of a capsize. It is imperative to get a capsize victim out of the water as soon as
possible and then to add clothing and watch closely for signs of hypothermia. The victim
may not recognize the symptoms in himself and if hypothermic may even become belligerent
towards your concern.
The symptoms of hypothermia: (in order of severity)
- Sensation of cold
- Shivering and shuddering (core temperature 98 to
91 degrees. Rapid breathing and rapid pulse)
- Vague, slurred speech
- Memory lapses
- Lack of coordination (fumbling hands or erratic
paddling and inability to stay on course)
- Indifference (even to discomfort)
- Blurred vision and drowsiness
- Ashen face and hands
- Muscle rigidity and loss of manual dexterity
replaces shivering (core temperature 93 to 86 degrees. The situation is now extremely
critical. Breathing and pulse very slow and shallow
- Incoherence and collapse
- Unconsciousness (core temperature about 86
degrees. Chances of survival less than even.)
- Death (if not from drowning when unconscious then
due to heart failure at a core temperature of approximately 80 degrees)
TREATMENT OF HYPOTHERMIA
Prevent heat loss in the first place. It can take
several hours to rewarm a victim of even mild hypothermia. Prevent heat loss by wearing
warm dry clothing including a hat, or warm-when-wet clothing such as a wet suit or
drysuit. Eat sufficient carbohydrates before and during paddling.
If you capsize and are out of your kayak, try to get out of the water as quickly as
possible. The more of your body you can get out the better. Get out of the water first
then get the water out of the kayak. Do not remain in cold water while attempting to first
empty out the kayak unless conditions are such that this can be done in two minutes
maximum (or the water is warm). The more heat you lose the harder it will be to aid in
your own rescue and the longer it will take to warm up. Even worse far before your core
temperature begins to cool your body will divert the blood from your extremities to your
core to slow down the cooling process. On one level this is good but the lack of blood
feeding your muscles quickly makes them very weak, perhaps too weak to get yourself out of
the water and into your kayak. Do it while you still can.
Decrease your rate of cooling by getting as much of your body out of the water as
possible. If you must stay in the water keep relatively still with your head and neck
covered and out of the water. Your hands will function longer if you can keep them above
water as well. A fetal position is best if you are alone, huddle together if in the water
with others. A PFD helps keep your head above water, decreases the need to swim or tread
water (which will speed cooling) and provides some insulation for your core. Your rate of
heat loss can be doubled by using energy struggling, swimming, or by immersing your head
when in 50 degree water (50 degrees is a common sea water temperature from California to
Alaska). You probably can't swim one-half mile before being overcome by hypothermia even
if you are an excellent swimmer --- for most people the distance is far less. Don't swim
for shore in cold water unless it is very close or you have no other hope for rescue. Even
if you cant get back into the kayak you probably can lay over it. That is, if the
kayak has enough flotation to support you. Try to straddle the overturned kayak in a prone
position, spread your legs for stability and paddle to shore with your hands.
Once back in the kayak a victim who shows any symptoms beyond shivering should be dressed
as warmly as possible and then be carried as a passenger or towed in his or her kayak to
the nearest place offering shelter and insulation, such as a tent and sleeping bag (or
even a large pile of leaves). Someone who is severely hypothermic must be handled gently
like a stretcher case to avoid exertion and possible heart failure. Refrain from
stimulations such as shaking or rubbing the limbs. Avoid alcohol or hot drinks, which
might speed the return of chilled blood from the extremities to the core, dropping the
core temperature even further (or cause the victim to choke and cough).
When shelter is obtained, carefully undress the victim (especially wet clothes) so warmth
can be applied gently but directly to the head, neck, sides, chest, and groin.. This
warmth can be first supplied by others warm naked bodies in the sleeping bag and
then (if more help is available to heat water) by applying very warm, but not scalding,
compresses. Soak articles of clothing in hot water to make compresses. Keep warm
compresses confined to the core area and change them often to keep transferring heat to
the victims core. If possible prewarm the air the victim breathes. The steam from heating
the compresses could also be a source of warm air. These are obviously wilderness
treatments, if a hospital is available the victim should be insulated against further heat
loss and evacuated immediately. In fact, some experts advocate only insulating the
seriously hypothermic victim against further heat loss to stabilize them in order to
minimize disturbances that could set off heart problems. Evacuate a seriously hypothermic
victim even if they have already rewarmed because electrolyte imbalances that were caused
by the hypothermia continue to put the victim at increased risk for heart problems.
KNOW THE WEATHER
Wind is one of the sea kayakers most dangerous
adversaries, it can increase in velocity quickly and make control of a kayak and paddle
difficult if not impossible. Making headway into very strong winds is a struggle. It is
possible you could be blown offshore or blown onshore into dangerous regions, such as big
surf or a rocky coast.
In mountainous areas the terrain can deflect and funnel the wind creating strong gusts,
downdrafts, and twisters. Also, cold air can build up in the mountains over vast
snowfields (or in the cold interior behind a mountain range) on a calm day and be
triggered into an avalanche of cold air that spills down the valleys and out a fjord,
creating extremely high winds where a few seconds before it was dead calm. Strong winds
and gusts are also often associated with rain squalls. When the wind approaches gale force
it can snatch a paddle out of your hands or catch a paddle blade squarely from the side
and cause a capsize. Unexpected gusts can be much more "upsetting" than a steady
wind of equal velocity.
Securely attaching a three foot long shock cord from the middle of your paddle to your
kayak at the front of the cockpit will insure that if your paddle gets away it will be
easy to retrieve. Eskimo rolling and the Mariner Outrigger Self Rescue are still easily
done without untethering the paddle. If you capsize and wet exit, and have this safety
line attached, as long as you can hang on to your paddle or your kayak you will still have
both. A tether makes it much easier to hang onto the kayak while fastening your paddle
Shock cord stretches to twice its length so only half as much is needed to avoid limiting
your range of motion. A longer cord or a curly "telephone" style cord is much
more likely to snag, drag, or otherwise interfere with your paddling. Shock cord does not
hold knots as well as cord so make sure you test your attachments severely (but carefully
so you dont accidentally snap it into your eyes).
The forces of both the wind and the waves tend to turn and hold long objects such as
kayaks into an orientation sideways to the wind and waves. It can be very difficult to
fight these forces and turn a kayak into or away from a strong wind. This is especially
true if your kayak is empty so that the ends are light and therefore easily blown around.
Another factor is the amount and location of windage and weight. How hard a kayak is to
turn in calm conditions (relative to other kayaks) is probably the most important factor
in how hard it will be to turn in a windstorm.
The most powerful method of turning in strong winds is to get speed up across the wind to
take advantage of the weather cocking effect of a hull moving across the wind. Paddle
forward to turn the bow into the wind and backward to turn the bow downwind. Use powerful
sweep strokes to one side that finish by strongly pulling the stern over. Avoid any
reverse or braking strokes on the other side, they will only hinder you. Surprisingly, a
rudder will probably do you more good if lifted into the air for more windage at the stern
when turning into a strong wind. If left in the water take care not to angle the rudder
too much or the braking effect will actually hinder your ability to turn by slowing your
speed, reducing the weathercocking effect. If you are comfortable with the technique, lean
the kayak towards the sweep stroke (using a skimming low brace on the return for support).
If your not comfortable tilting the kayak until the cockpit is in the water practice it
until you are.This tilt should significantly improve (cut nearly in half with the average
kayak) your turning speed and therefore your double your ability to turn into a strong
wind. One kayaker can help another turn or stay on course in a strong wind by placing
their kayak and torso ten to twenty feet upwind to shield the bow or stern half of the
other kayak. If the problem is severe a towline (stern to bow) can help both kayaks to
turn into the wind and hold a course into it..
UNDERSTAND WAVE HAZARDS
When the wind picks up the waves soon follow. Waves
make a capsize more likely and can get you wet from splash or spray. Waves can create
difficult control problems and broaching if they are approaching from the side or from the
stern quadrants. You should always wear a spray deck. Waves are most difficult when they
are steep and have a wavelength roughly the same as your craft. When waves are reflected
from a cliff or wall (or are arriving from different directions for any reason) they can
create a very steep and confused sea. Large waves meeting from opposite directions can
throw water upwards (clapotis) with sufficient force to lift a kayak into the air.
Clapotis is most likely next to a wall or cliff that is reflecting waves straight back on
themselves. In confused seas care must be taken that your paddle reaches the water. A
surprise "air" stroke or brace can throw you off balance. Large waves created by
distant storms can be huge but of such long wave length that they will only slowly carry
you up and down, causing no real problems unless you are in water shallow enough to cause
them to become breakers.
The size of surf is difficult to judge from
seaward, but you should be able to differentiate the less violent spilling surf from the
abrupt dumping surf more likely to damage you or your kayak. A dumping surf on a steep
beach can be extremely violent. You should avoid surf if possible. You can often find a
much smaller surf, and a place to land in an area protected by a point of land or an
island. If landing in surf is a possibility bring a helmet.
Stay well outside the surf line while
paddling because larger waves break farther out. This can occur quite intermittently and
come as a real surprise. Waves can break in any shallow place, not just near shore. Most
rivers and many bays have a sandbar well offshore where breakers form under the right
conditions. Be especially careful of a falling tide since the outgoing current will
steepen the waves and the water will be getting shallower. Both make the waves more likely
to break. Underwater rocks, plateaus, or shallows well offshore can cause intermittent
breakers (called boomers) which might not be noticed unless you have been watching far
ahead. Other clues to the possibility of boomers include: steepening of the waves, an area
of foam, a change in water color, a patch of kelp, or underwater rocks and shallows marked
on your chart.
If you capsize and wet exit in the surf near shore, your kayak could be a great danger to
you. Swim to one side to get well clear of your kayak, and only then swim for shore. The
breakers should deliver your kayak to the beach if you have proper flotation in it. If you
can't make progress swimming for shore you may be in a beach rip. A beach rip is formed by
the water that builds up behind a sand bar flowing back out to sea in a narrow channel
through the bar. Swim to one side before again making for the shore. Continue to angle
away from the rip as you approach shore so the lateral currents near shore that feed the
rip dont carry you back into it.
UNDERSTAND TIDE & CURRENTS
Novice paddlers who might be easily intimidated by
the large but relatively harmless swell on the open ocean can be lulled into a false sense
of security by the apparent calm of inland waters. This might be justified in good weather
on a warm lake, but some areas affected by tidal currents can become treacherous. In some
locales the effects of tidal currents can intimidate even the best whitewater river
paddlers. A calm place can become very rough in a few minutes. Even mild currents can take
you well off course. (If possible, line up two distant landmarks with your course and then
try to keep them lined up--or look back to check if you are still on a line between your
point of origin and your destination.) Currents can significantly slow or stop your
progress so plan paddling times to take best advantage of them. If you must paddle against
a current you may be able to take advantage of back eddies and the usual slowing of the
current in shallows near shore.
Currents can create rough and confused water where they meet. This is called a tide rip.
When a current is moving in the opposite direction of the wave motion the wave length is
shortened, steepening the waves. A current changing with the tides to run against the wave
direction can turn what was a mild sea into a rough one. This combined with shallow water
is what makes the bar off of a river or harbor such a dangerous place. Underwater
obstructions, headlands, narrows, and shallows can combine with a current to cause waves,
eddies, boils, whirlpools, overfalls, and water so agitated that it hisses or gives off a
steady roar. Headlands, narrows, and shallows also can increase the speed of the current
locally. Your chart will label these areas "tide races". River kayaking
experience and skill at bracing can be a great help in dealing with some of the effects of
In some bays and river estuaries where the tidal differences are great and a narrowing
channel is present, a tidal bore can form. The tide front is a tumbling wall of water or a
high cresting wave that lies across the entire channel and moves inland rapidly with the
tide. Large tidal bores (up to 25 feet high on the Amazon) are a rare local phenomenon but
they demonstrate the need to get information on local conditions and hazards if you travel
to unfamiliar areas.
If you paddle in areas where currents are a factor to consider get the best current tables
and current charts you can find and learn how to use them. The "Tidal Current
Charts", showing changes on an hour by hour basis using many direction arrows, are
far better than most charts for predicting current strength and direction. "Tidal
Current Charts" are available through NOAA or chart dealers. They are available for
these areas: Boston Harbor, Narragansett Bay to Nantucket Sound, Narragansett Bay, Long
Island Sound and Block Island Sound, New York Harbor, Delaware Bay and River, Upper
Chesapeake Bay, Charleston Harbor, S.D., Tampa Bay, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound--North
Part, and Puget Sound--South Part.
The book Current Atlas published by
The Canadian Hydrographic Service is good resource. It gives hour by hour detailed charts
of the speed and direction of the currents in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, San Juan
Islands, Gulf Islands, and the Straits of Georgia for three different tidal ranges. With
this book, Washburne's tables (or the tide tables for Vancouver, B.C.s Pt Atkinson)
and some knowledge of what causes rough water (currents colliding, wind against the
current, headlands and shallows, etc.) many danger areas in this popular paddling region
can be spotted in advance on the chart and avoided at the times during the day when they
are most dangerous.
Other Tidal Hazards
On an outgoing tide you could become stranded in
tidal basins with wide areas of muddy shallows such as often occur where a river enters a
bay. A long shallow beach could mean a long carry to a resting or camping place at low
tide. Also on this shallow type beach the tide comes in very rapidly so you must be
especially careful not to leave your kayak unsecured for even a few minutes or it could
float away. Carry your kayak and equipment well above high tide line and then tie it to a
fixed object in case you misjudged the tide.
WATCH OUT FOR OTHER CRAFT
Ships are deceptively fast. Never try to
paddle across the path of a ship. Busy shipping lanes if crossed at all should be crossed
at an angle nearly perpendicular to minimize the time in them. Groups should stay close
together in order to make it easier for a large craft to notice them and avoid them. While
assuming that ships, speedboats, and sailboats won't see you, give them every chance. Make
yourself visible: bright colors on the kayak, spray deck, life jacket and hat all help,
but the most visible thing from speedboat eye level will probably be your paddle blades
waving up and down. Paddle blades that are a light bright color such as yellow, orange,
pink, light blue or white will probably be your best warning. Try to avoid being in the
path of any larger craft. While you may legally have the right of way, to take it is
foolhardy. Wait and cross behind power or sailboats unless there is no possible way they
could reach you. Make sure tugboats do not have something in tow before crossing behind
BE PREPARED FOR FOG
There are no landmarks in a thick fog, only a small
circle of sea inside a luminous dome with you at the center. Without a compass or some
means of judging direction, such as wave angle or a distant repeating sound, you will
paddle in circles. However, wave direction can be altered close to shore or behind an
island due to refraction or if the waves are small by a change in the wind. Also, that
distant repeating sound could be a moving ship. In fog you will need a compass (or a GPS).
In fact you can become so disoriented that you may need two compasses pointing the same
direction to assure you that the first one is not broken. Groups should stay very close
together since separation is a constant possibility in thick fog.
Paddling in thick fog can be dangerous because its much more difficult to see or even hear
hazards until you are very near it. Also, your judgement of size and distance is distorted
by fog. In some areas shipping is a hazard in fog. It would be prudent not to cross even
seldom used shipping lanes in fog, mist, or rain that limits your vision. Even if you have
a radar reflector held high above the kayak the "noise" caused by the mist or
rain will probably blot out your echo on the radar screen. In a fog a moving ship is
required to sound one prolonged (4 to 6 seconds) blast on its foghorn at least every two
minutes. A ship at rest will sound two prolonged blasts in close succession. If possible
answer a moving ship with one prolonged and two short blasts. This means, "I can only
maneuver with great difficulty."
If your destination in fog is an island you must also plan what you will do if you miss
it. In addition to a compass you will need a watch, a good idea of your paddling speed,
and the effects of wind and currents so you will know when to implement your alternate
plan or make a required course change. If your destination is on a long shoreline you can
navigate to intentionally miss your goal somewhat to one side so you will know which way
to turn to find it when you reach the shoreline. If possible avoid paddling out of sight
of the shore in a fog.
Inland paddlers who have grown up in areas where radiation fog that forms over land in the
morning is common, associate fog with lack of wind. Sea fog which is found over water in
coastal areas during the summer is different. It forms when winds up to 25 mph bring warm
air over colder sea water and once formed can persist even during much higher winds.
SPECIAL LOCALIZED HAZARDS
We have listed many of the hazards that might be
encountered in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada. Other parts of the
world have their own hazards many of which will be different from those encountered in
this area. For instance, in the tropics hypothermia is not likely to be a problem but
sunstroke, coral reefs, sea snakes, crocodiles, and sharks might be. In the arctic a
paddler may have to deal with icebergs, sea ice, calving glaciers, frigid water, and the
more likely occurrence of katabatic (gravity powered) winds.
Find out about local hazards while planning a trip to a distant location. If you can, talk
to local kayakers, fishermen, or others who live, play, or work where you will be
Most sea mammals are not a threat to a kayaker if
they are left alone. Exceptions might be Polar Bear, Walrus, and territorial bull Elephant
Seals and Sea Lions at rookeries. You will be happy to hear that unprovoked Shark attacks
are rare north of the 42nd parallel (California/Oregon border) and are rare in any waters
less than 68` Fahrenheit (20` C.) (but maybe the reason is less people are in the colder
water so the sharks have less opportunity). If you are going to be in unfamiliar territory
check with the locals about potential hazards and animal pests. On land, in North America
at least, bears seem the only major threat. Bears are especially dangerous in parks where
they are protected from hunting, and therefore have little fear of man. Many may even have
developed a taste for campers food. Keep food and the smell of food away from your
sleeping area and wash up before retiring. In Grizzly country it is recommended you cook
below the high tide line if possible. Hang your food out of reach of a bear and well away
from your tents. Camping on a small island may lessen bear hazards (as well as
mosquitoes), but bring plenty of water and still maintain the above precautions, bears are
PARALYTIC SHELLFISH POISONING (P.S.P.)
Sometimes in the summer and fall filter feeding
shellfish eat a lot of a certain type of microorganism store and concentrate the nerve
poison it contains. A person eating the contaminated bivalves (clams, oysters, mussels,
and scallops) is then poisoned. Some of these shellfish, such as butter clams, store the
poison for years. A tingling or numbness of the lips and tongue is usually the first
symptom. Soon this spreads to the fingers and toes. In severe cases this progresses to
difficult breathing, loss of coordination, and death due to the paralysis of the breathing
muscles. P.S.P. or "Red Tide" warnings are often posted at access points in
contaminated areas. There are no other clues to contamination and detecting the poison in
shellfish is a very complicated process ending with how long it takes a rat injected with
the concentrated poison to die. Those who think they can tell by the months of the year,
color of the water, or apparent health of the clams are fooling themselves and have been
lucky. Always check with the authorities. In Washington State the Dept. of Health Services
has a toll free recorded message listing closed areas (1-800-562-5632) and a
At the first sign of P.S.P. poisoning
induce vomiting, take a strong laxative, drink a solution containing baking soda or baking
powder and get medical attention as soon as possible. If breathing stops begin CPR
immediately and don't stop until recovery of the victim (which could take a day or more).
BEWARE OF RIVER HAZARDS
Since a sea kayak is right at home on unobstructed
rivers that don't require the maneuverability of a whitewater kayak, we should mention the
most dangerous moving water hazards. Stay out of reversals (the white water behind an
underwater rock or dam). Stay well away from "strainers" (log jams, fallen
trees, or brush) which can pin you underwater, even in a mild current. Although the
temptation is strong to stand up if you are swimming you must always swim with your feet
at the surface even in a shallow current. If you do not your body could be hooked by a
underwater branch or log or your feet could get caught between two rocks. In either case
very little current is required to pull you under and hold you there. Wear a helmet on all
but the most sluggish rivers.
This was not meant to be a compete how-to guide
to sea kayaking, just a fairly extensive list of some hazards and safety information that
we as manufacturers of the equipment you may be using would like you to understand.
For further information on sea kayaking we
recommend the following books:
- FUNDAMENTALS OF KAYAK NAVIGATION by David Burch
- SEA KAYAKING by John Dowd
- THE COASTAL KAYAKERS MANUAL by Randel
- NIGEL FOSTER'S SEA KAYAKING
- NIGEL FOSTER'S SURF KAYAKING
- SEA KAYAKER'S SAVVY PADDLER by Doug
- SURF KAYAKING FUNDAMENTALS-Video by John Lull
- SEA KAYAKING SAFETY & RESCUE by John Lull
- SEA KAYAK RESCUE by Roger Shuman & Jan
- SEA KAYAKER'S DEEP TROUBLE by Matt Broze
& George Gronseth
Ó copyright 1983 & 2001 by Matt Broze
For those who arrived at this page
from another website's link, several other Mariner Kayaks owner's manuals
are at www.marinerkayaks.com
(open the "manuals" menu).