Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Advice: Safety is a Mindset - 10 Tips for Kayaking Safely

USCG finds a swamped kayak
U.S. Coast Guard approaching a swamped kayak 

Safety, in the end, is a mindset. Preparation, experience, equipment, planning - these can all lead to a safer experience. Given the unknown nature of random events, however, no amount of any of them can avert a potential emergency situation. There are just too many variables. Water sports in general, and kayaking in specific have one major challenge that complicates the safety scenario: water. Humans can't breathe it, can't last for long in it when it's cold, and often aren't strong enough to withstand its power. The biggest challenge in water sports isn't the water, though. It's the human mind, and its inability to properly assess risk (see my post Please, Stop the Kayaking Deaths! (proper risk management)). As the saying goes, "no risk, no reward". Kayaking can be a very rewarding activity, but proper risk assessment can mitigate how risky it can be.

That being said, I have a confession to make. For several years, when I first started kayaking, I could not successfully roll my kayak. I took my 17' Perception Eclipse on many adventures over long distances of cold, open water without one of the most important skills necessary for responsible kayaking. And, I still can't. I'm working on that, but meanwhile, I sold my closed hull/cockpit boat for a sit-on-top designed for touring and expeditions. An SOT specifically designed for that purpose is not easy to find - most are made for fishing, and therefore are wider to provide a more stable platform. I was able to locate a used Heritage Sea Dart (see my post entitled Kayak Repairs That Last ), that I can climb back onto if I get capsized - and I have been required to do just that, once. My Sea Dart is fitted with thigh straps, which I think will allow me to roll this boat with practice. You see, even with an SOT, I still believe that learning to roll is a valuable skill. I mention all of this to demonstrate a key component of proper risk assessment: adaptability. I recognized that I did not have an important skill required for my safety. I am working to acquire that skill, but I took the added measure of removing a cockpit, that can fill with water and submerge my boat, out of the equation. In short, I adapted.

So, here's my list of top safety measures and principals to keep in mind if you kayak, or are thinking about it:

1. Accurately assess your abilities and conditioning. Are you a beginner? Great. Learning a new activity can be a lot of fun. Just make sure you learn correctly and safely. Take a tour with a kayak touring company, read everything you can, watch videos, attend kayak equipment shows and ask lots of questions, take a kayak rolling class at the YMCA. Whatever you do, don't bite off more than you can chew, and by all means, don't paddle alone until you have some experience under your belt. If you're experienced or getting there (like me), don't get cocky. Prepare for the worst. Have a game plan if something goes wrong. And - make sure you're in shape for that multi-mile trip before you go. Maybe you could schedule it for later in the season rather than the first warm day of spring.

2. Wear a PFD (life jacket) always. It may be hot, you may be sweaty, and the water may be calm as glass - but what if you have a medical emergency that causes you to capsize? Add "no life jacket" and that could add up to the last time you paddle or do anything else. Just wear it, make sure it fits correctly (snugly) and is buckled or zipped. It could make all the difference. I've had good performance from a Stohlquist model. GET ONE HERE 

3. Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Every springtime in New England, the heartbreaking stories of kayakers and canoeists who drown after capsizing start to seep into the news feeds. Each time I hear about one, I know what the main culprit was: 70F degrees air temperature with 50F degrees water temperature. Someone fell out of his boat, or was capsized somehow and was not prepared for the cold water (read my post Spring is Back! Plan Accordingly.). The U.S. Coast Guard lists functional disability in cold water at 2-15 minutes immersion time, depending on the water temperature US Coast Guard cold water survival . They list hypothermia occurring at 15-30 minutes immersion time. With a cold water shock period of a couple minutes, you really don't have much time to work with. The USCG states if you are not out of the water within 5 minutes under your own power, you may not be able to get out at all. Check the water temp. before you go. Invest in a drysuit FIND ONE HERE or wetsuit separates to mitigate a cold water immersion. Don't paddle alone in very cold water conditions unless you are well experienced and well prepared - and think twice about it even then. The early warmth of a sunny spring day can lull you into a false sense of ease, but the cold water lingering from winter can kill you - fast.

4. Research where you'll be paddling. Is the area influenced by tides? Even river sections well upstream can have tidal changes affect the current flow. Are there choke points? (see my post entitled Where Should I Paddle? ) Bridges, islands, and other barriers can narrow waterways and increase flow speed. Is there heavy boat traffic? Crossing boating lanes between frequent boats can feel like crossing a highway - not to mention dealing with boat wake waves. Is landing possible if needed? Low tide in a marsh river might surround you with 6' high mud walls - a sandbar or rock outcrop could be handy if you need to stop for a bit. A rocky coast could be a very dangerous landing spot if waves are crashing on the rocks. Will there be other kayakers? They can provide great real time updates of conditions where you are headed, and confirm the area as a known kayaking location. Has there been a period of heavy rain? River flows can be surprisingly affected by recent rains, and water quality at beaches can suffer. Are there areas that are "off limits"? There may be facilities that require a designated "no-go" boundary, there may be private property that doesn't allow you to land - heck, there could be a shooting range close to the water. Be aware of who's there, and how that could affect you.

5. Plan your trip to your abilities. You're not in great shape, maybe a little heavy. You're on a low quality discount recreational kayak. You can't swim well, and maybe you've had a drink or two. You are not making good decisions. However, if you're at the lake with family, and you're paddling back and forth over 3 feet of water on a hot July day, and you could stand up if you fell in, you're probably going to be alright. Now you get the idea to sit your 2 year old on the kayak with you and paddle to a nearby raft that's in 10 feet of water. Do you see how quickly the danger level can rise? Would you be capable of rescuing the 2 year old and yourself? Are you both wearing life jackets? Either commit to developing the capabilities and skills required to handle challenging conditions, or stay close enough to shore in flat water so you can walk out. Honestly assess yourself, and assess the conditions as accurately as you can - then use those parameters to decide where to paddle (see my post Where Should I Paddle? ). 

6. Watch the weather and the time. If you're on the water in a lightning storm, you are in serious danger. You are the tallest point on an otherwise flat surface, and are courting a lightning strike like the key on Ben Franklin's kite. Lightning can be present without rain, and should be considered with the utmost caution. Storms can whip up the wind, causing you to paddle into one if your landing point is in the direction it's coming from. They can also whip up choppy surface conditions on the water that can capsize you. If you're on a long trip, you should be prepared with extra clothing and rain resistant gear in case a surprise storm hits. Keep your eye to the horizon as you travel, and be aware of the direction storms most often travel in the area - you might see one coming in time to avoid it. Also, know what time the sun will set on the day of your trip. Mark your departure time, and check it often to ensure you have enough time to backtrack and get off the water before dark. Fore and aft lights are available, and are not a bad idea (as well as a head lamp) in case you misjudge and get caught in the dark.

7. Consider your gear with safety in mind. Other than paddling a quality kayak (see my post entitled Which Kayak Should I Buy?  ), carefully considering you're gear selection is one of the more important influences on your ability to deal with unforeseen conditions. Have you stowed an extra paddle? If you've lost your paddle, and it has floated away or sunk, how will you propel yourself? Hand paddling is tough work, to say the least. Do you have rope to tie off your boat, or to tie a tow line to your buddy's boat, or to throw to someone as a safety/rescue line? Do you have a dry change of clothes in a dry bag, in case you get wet and cold? Do you have extras of any critical hardware that, were it to break, would render your kayak's performance ineffective? Do you have something that could reliably start a fire to warm you up and/or signal for help in a worst case scenario? Do you have a mirror you can signal with? Also, consider marine communication equipment to raise the Coast Guard if you're planning open ocean adventures. 

8. Tell someone where you'll be. Leave a note, send a text, tell someone who will remember - whatever it takes, just let someone know where you will be putting in and where you will be landing, and roughly what time you expect that to be. And, make sure also to communicate when you're safely out of the water.

9. Keep your cool. If you find yourself in a dicey scenario, don't panic. I know; more easily said than done. Panic will only interfere with your decision making and make things worse. Assess the situation you're in quickly, determine the quickest means to improve the situation, and, once you have done that, do it again - until you are safe. Then, you can calmly consider how to work around the danger and get out of there. A nearby landing spot, a calmer section, even an object to hold onto or brace against can provide a temporary reprieve, and give you a chance to regroup. I've been in a couple of those situations, and if you paddle long enough, you will too. 

10. Learn and adapt. The beauty of experience is that it gives you the opportunity to improve your abilities for the next time. If you overcame a challenge or dealt with a dangerous scenario successfully on a past trip, use that experience to help prevent a similar situation.Think about how the event occurred - what was your role in it? Could you have avoided it? Could your response have been better, maybe more efficient? Was your gear selection helpful or lacking? It may sound morbid, but allow your mind to wander to the worst case of what might have happened - because it could have. Consider the impact on your loved ones. Think carefully about the choices that led you to find yourself in that situation, and how they could have led you to an even worse one. Then, use your imagination to think what would keep you out of, or get you out of the worst case - and prepare for that. Do that over time, and your capacity to safely operate your kayak will improve exponentially.

Safety is not the most exciting part of a kayaking experience, but here's what is: the confidence to know you are prepared to respond to challenges and issues as they arise, and the wisdom to make the choices that maximize the good, and minimize the bad outcomes. The water is not to be taken lightly, but that's the point. That's why interacting with it is so rewarding. Maximize your enjoyment by carefully considering all and any safety challenges - there are undoubtedly more than I have noted above. Then, relax and enjoy the water, the sky, and the sun on your face.

- TB on the Water




Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Advice: 10 Tips for Which Kayak You Should Buy (hint: maybe none at all)

Upon engaging in conversation about kayaking with non-kayakers, I have often been told "I've always wanted to do that", many times followed by "what kind of kayak should I buy?".The real answer is maybe none. Kayaking is one of those activities that people romanticize - and, with good reason. It can be an amazing experience that provides great exercise, a sense of adventure, and the opportunity to get closer to the natural world. If you have salt water in your veins like I do (see my post Why I Love the Ocean), the ocean always beckons, and lakes and rivers offer freshwater adventures as well. Throw in the occasional kayak fishing trip, or island hopping across an expansive bay, and the reasons to do it become more and more compelling. However, the reasons not to do it can be compelling as well.

No one likes to have practical challenges put a hole in their fantasy balloon, but those challenges are exactly the reason why lots of folks buy a kayak that ends up gathering dust in a garage, shed, or basement - or is sold at a discount on Craigslist (of which I have been the happy buyer on more than one occasion). Let's examine a few of them:

1. Can you swim?  For real, there are people who can't swim or swim well that think about buying a kayak. Yes, that's nuts. If you want to play in water other than a kiddie pool, learn how to swim first. You could find yourself in an emergency situation on the water that requires having to "swim for it" easily. So, don't be nuts.

2. Who will you be paddling with? How likely is it that you will venture out on your own to paddle? If you don't have a friend or family member as committed as you are to the activity, will you be willing to join a paddling group of some kind? If not, and you do paddle solo, are you skilled enough to get yourself out of a jam, and knowledgeable about the water conditions? You'd better be.

3. How will you get your kayak to the water? Do you have a vehicle suited to carry a kayak or two? If you're thinking about paddling in the ocean, can your vehicle carry a 15-17 foot (or longer) boat? Also - are you capable of handling your kayak physically to get it on or in your vehicle? You can get a wheeled kayak carrier to help you get it to the water's edge, but you still have to get it on and off (twice at least for each trip) your car or truck. Sometimes, that's easier said than done. Furthermore, does your vehicle have existing roof rails? If yes, your factory crossbars are not generally designed to carry the weight of a kayak. You may need to look into beefed up crossbars and/or some other kind of roof rack system. Sometimes, you can get away with foam pads underneath. But remember, you will need to strap your boat down in a secure enough manner to handle highway speeds, if you live any distance from your put-in location. Racks and roof carriers can be expensive. You can find used gear on Craiglist and eBay, but it has to fit your vehicle. Take some time to consider what your transport options are. They could affect which kayak you choose, or whether you're up for the challenge at all.     

4. How many times have you paddled before? Surprisingly, there are people willing to purchase a kayak (or gear of any kind, for that matter) who have never actually tried it. Do yourself a favor - try a rented kayak (a group tour might be a good idea for safety), or a friend's kayak at least a couple times to make sure it's something that you enjoy enough to commit to. Remember, if it's something you think you'll only do once in a while, you can always rent one then.

5. Do you have a place to wash off your gear and stow your kayak? If you live in a condo or apartment with no storage, where is your boat and gear going to reside when not in use? Also, you will need access to fresh water outside to wash your boat and gear down, especially if it was used in salt water. There are creative ways around these challenges. I have personally kayaked routinely while living in rental properties. You could go to the extreme of washing your gear off at a manual car wash, and storing your kayak on top of your vehicle semi-permanently. At least think it through before you commit.

6. How much money do you want to spend? This one's right up my alley. As I stated in a previous post, I'm cheap - but creative. I have sourced my kayaks used and saved hundreds, but it took legwork, research, and negotiation to get it done. Are you up for that? If not, then your cost of entry just went up. Also, there are items that might shock you by how expensive they are. My first kayak was a $1200 Perception I bought 1 year used for $750. However, I also spent almost $300 on a carbon fiber paddle GET ONE HERE (an upgrade I deemed worthwhile). Add in another $150-200 for a PFD (personal flotation device - life jacket), dry bags, paddle leash, broad brimmed water resistant hat, sprayskirt, etc. and the cost can add up quickly. Remember, you get what you pay for. "Toy" kayaks sold at discount stores may seem like a great deal, but they have no place in a scenario that requires any performance (see my post The "Kmart Kayaker" - Why More People Are Dying from Paddle Sports). Your safety may be at risk. Do your homework, price out quality gear, and decide if you're willing to make the investment. And please, for the love of Pete, don't waste time on an inflatable.

7. What kind of kayaking are you planning to do? Are you planning to keep a "fun" kayak at the lake, paddle on rivers (or maybe even white water), or get out in the ocean? Where you paddle will determine what kayak you buy. They are not all the same. The types and designs of kayaks are multiple, and each has its' merits and downsides. Length, sit-on-top (SOT), enclosed (cockpit - sit inside), rudder/no rudder, hull shape, material - the list goes on. Only you can decide where you're going to paddle most - and you'll probably end up changing your mind at some point (which is why junkies like myself go through several boats). After years of paddling an enclosed hull kayak, I sold it and located a touring style SOT (which was not easy, as few of them are manufactured) - the Heritage Sea Dart I bought used and paddle today. I made the change to maximize my safety, as an SOT can be climbed back onto - contrasted to an enclosed hull that needs to be "rolled" or bailed out after a wet exit (see my post Benefits and Weaknesses of SOT (Sit-On-Top) Kayaks).

8. If you buy an enclosed hull kayak, you will need to learn how to roll it. Period. I cannot overstate the importance of safety in general, and the capacity to deal with a capsized boat more specifically. You must commit to learn how to "roll" your enclosed hull kayak (to stay inside the kayak when capsized, submerge under the water, and use your paddle technique, body position, and momentum to emerge upright from the opposite side). Remember, whatever conditions caused your capsize might still be happening, and you may need to do this repeatedly. I'll tackle safety more thoroughly in a future post (see Safety is a Mindset), but know ahead of time that this will be a requirement. It might make you consider an SOT instead.

9. Do you have access to the water? Are there launches, boat ramps, beaches, etc. for you to launch your kayak? Also, is there safe parking available at these locations? Landing after a 3 hour paddle to find your vehicle towed would ruin your day.  

10. Are you independent minded? When your buddy was all fired up about kayaking, but after a trip or two, decided he was too busy, will you be willing to join a group or go it alone? If not, then reconsider a purchase. Going on a rented tour with others might be a better scenario for you. And, never buy a tandem kayak (unless you're planning on paddling with a child or your dog). When you break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your wife or husband loses interest, hauling and paddling a big tandem by yourself will not be a labor of joy. 

I love kayaking. Over the past few years, I've loved surfing a waveski (see my post What's That Thing Called?) even more. Water (and for me, the ocean in particular) is a miracle. Just remember, you can enjoy it in all kinds of ways. Kayaking may be your way, or it might not be. Sometimes, the best purchase is none at all.   

- TB on the Water



Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Gear: Kayak Repairs That Last - 10 Tips for Maintaining Your Kayak

I got into kayaking many years ago, after paddling rented tour boats a couple times to make sure I liked it enough to buy one. I've always loved the ocean (see my post Why I Love the Ocean), and sea kayaking offered a new way to explore it. When I did buy my first sea kayak (a 17" foot Perception Eclipse), I bought it used, after the season, off one of the tour companies I previously paddled with. Since then, I've purchased other boats and gear on Craigslist (after having done a fair share of research online to know what I'm looking for). In short, I'm cheap. And, I like things that last - and that I can fix myself with materials that won't break the bank, and hopefully, won't break at all. 

For several years now, I've expanded my paddling to include surfing a late model plastic waveski (for those who don't know, it's a sit-on-top kayak with a planing hull and fins - specifically designed to surf waves (See my post What's That Thing Called?). I was able to pick up a barely used Walden (the original/defunct Massachusetts brand, not the current brand) "Milo" model on Craigslist. It's banana yellow, which really makes me stand out in the lineup, but at least they can see me coming­čśĆ Surf conditions have added additional stress to materials and gear, and have taught me a lot that is transferable to flat water paddling (and sometimes the ocean can be anything but flat). I've also had the excellent advice of Joel at New England Small Craft (sadly, now out of business) to help with ideas and gear. I've often gone my own way with repairs, but his input has been appreciated. 
Walden "Milo" waveski
Here's a few things I've learned:

1. Store your gear out of the sun. I can't count how many times I've seen kayaks and related gear left outside to bake in the sun. The sun will deteriorate plastic boats over time, and, maybe more importantly, won't do the nylon fixtures on your boat any good. True, you'll be paddling in the sun, but when you're out of the water, wash your gear off and store everything in a cool, dark, dry place (or as close as you can get to that). If you have to leave your boat outside, put it up on a couple of saw horses with a tarp over it.

2. Nylon fixtures WILL break. It is inevitable. Repeated stress will cause nylon pad eyes (where you typically clip or tie lines), nylon slides (the buckle-like rectangular pieces used to adjust straps/webbing), and even the threaded rings (that you screw your deck hatch covers into) to fail. I have had all of these break - and mostly at inconvenient (to say the least) times. I remember calling Surf to Summit to complain about a slide breaking on their thigh straps for the second time, and being told "that's the first we've heard of that". I didn't believe it and neither should you. All manufacturers use nylon - so either keep extra fixtures and a screw driver on hand, or consider better materials. In my opinion, nylon fixtures are simply under-engineered to save on cost.

3. Better materials exist. There are 2 types of metal that can withstand salt water conditions without rusting/rotting quickly: brass and 316 stainless steel (not 3/16 stainless steel - that's a size, not a type. If anyone you speak with doesn't know the difference, walk away or hang up). Brass has historically been used in marine environments, and 316 stainless resists pitting and corrosion. I have sourced 316 stainless pad eyes on eBay and brass slides GET THEM HERE for webbing at STRAPWORKS. Sometimes, especially if you live near a harbor town, your local hardware store will carry brass, but less often 316 stainless steel. Bring your original nylon pieces with you, and match them for the right size. And don't forget your screws should be the same metal type, or they'll rust - save and reuse the originals if you can. The additional cost of metal over nylon is marginal, and I have not had one metal piece break yet.   

316 Stainless steel pad eye (plus some seaweed)
Brass slides used to replace nylon buckles

4. Webbing (straps) wears like steel. So long as your webbing hasn't been cut or frayed at the edges (and sometimes even if it has), it will last. Just wash it out with fresh water and store it out of the sun.  

5. Some things just have to be replaced over time. Drain plugs have a rubber gasket ring that helps to keep them water tight. These will eventually tear - especially if you over tighten your drain plug (so don't). They're cheap, available in the plumbing section of your local hardware store, and don't require tools to install. So, carry a couple extra with you.

Drain plug with gasket "O" ring
6. Consider repairs that will solve the problem long term. A couple years back, I bought a Heritage Sea Dart sit-on-top touring kayak from a seller on Craigslist. What he didn't tell me, and I couldn't assess when I bought it, was that the internal bulkheads were leaking. This condition trapped water inside the hollow middle section of the boat. I could have re-sealed the bulkheads, which were hard to reach. I could have drilled a few holes in them to let the water freely drain to the front or back compartments. What I chose to do, instead, was to install a drain plug in the top deck over the middle compartment. I located it at the highest point I could, which would be the lowest point when the boat was turned upside down. This way, I could drain any water that leaked through the bulkheads at any time, and I wouldn't have to re-seal them again, inevitably, in the future. The drain plug was cheap, and I just needed some sealant and a big enough drill bit to install it. As for any flotation lost by leaking bulkheads, I just bought dry bags with an air fill tube attached. Now, they would do double duty to store gear and be blown up to act as float bags fore and aft. Problem solved. 

7. When buying your boat, pick a material you're comfortable working with. I buy plastic boats - period. I know, they're heavier. I know, they don't perform like fiberglass or Kevlar. But, guess what - I don't care if I scratch them (and I do occasionally bump rocks), they're cheaper to buy, they're more plentiful used, and they're easy to work on. With the addition of some metal hardware, you could drop my boats out of a helicopter and they would be ready to go.

8. Be creative with repair solutions. My Sea Dart was molded with the weld line half way down the drain hole in the cockpit. I know this because I made the mistake of tightening straps (to hold the boat on my truck roof) too tight - this pulled the weld line apart, causing a small gap. This gap then leaked water into the hull while I was paddling along the rocky coast (why did my boat seem like it was trimming lower in the water? - duh). What to do, what to do. I could try to get the weld line re-sealed (but, it was still separated). I could patch it up with some sealant and maybe a tape of some sort. Then, it hit me - I could install some sort of ring just slightly narrower than the diameter of the drain hole. I went to the hardware store to research my options, starting in the plumbing aisle. There, I found a 6" plastic basin drain section that looked right, and it only cost a couple of bucks. When I tested it on the boat, the diameter was perfect. I cut it down to 4" so the drain plug could still fit at the top of the hole. Then, I roughed it up with sand paper, covered it liberally with sealant, and gently tapped it into place with a hammer. It pushed the weld line back together and fit like a glove - and it sits there today without issue. Creative thinking solved a problem and saved me a lot of money. 

9. Listen to professional advice, but be skeptical. Well intentioned folks might offer a solution to your problem that is more than you want to pay for, or seems like you'll just have to repeat at some point in the future. If you're like me, and you'd rather spend your time in/on the water than waiting for a repair to be completed, then use my suggestions above to avoid issues, and to fix them when they occur. There are thousands of solutions I haven't thought of, and you might just be the one to come up with the next one. But in the end, if you have to get a pro. to do a repair, ask if you can watch. If there's a next time, you might be able to do it yourself.

10. Have fun with your repairs. The challenge of coming up with a low cost, functional solution can be a fun puzzle to crack. The satisfaction of creating an elegant solution can make your next paddling adventure a greater pleasure - because you know your boat much better than before. Plus, now you legitimately have a custom boat. After all, how many Sea Darts have a basin drain pipe fitted into the cockpit drain hole? - mine does.  

- TB on the Water 

Follow up:

Per request of Tom at Top Kayaker, here are some pics of the fins on my Walden Milo Waveski. They are set up in a sort of thruster/tri-fin arrangement, and aren't in fin boxes, so they can't be moved, unfortunately. For the most part, though, they keep the back end from sliding out - them and some paddle technique.

Thanks for the question, Tom!