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




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