Kayak Safety and Survival Considerations
Personal Flotation Device: The U.S. Coast Guard requires there be an approved PFD (personal flotation device - type I, II, III, IV or V) for each person in a boat. Each must be in good and serviceable condition, and of appropriate size for the intended user. You should wear it all the time (note: inflatable PFD's must be worn) because after conditions turn bad you may not be able to get it on. 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 to the kayak with a length of cord or shock cord. However, they must be careful not to get entangled with their kayak.
White Light: If you paddle at night, the U.S. Coast Guard requires you to carry a white light. It must be visible for one mile in all directions and available to show in time to avoid a collision. A strong flashlight or headlight pointed up may be sufficient but not a chemical light.
Sound Producing Device: A U.S. Coast Guard approved sound-producing device such as a storm whistle or airhorn must be readily accessible to warn oncoming vessels of your presence.
Visual Distress Signal: All vessels used on coastal waters, territorial seas and those waters connected directly to them, up to a point where a body of water is less than two miles wide, must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard approved visual distress signals. These include: flares (hand held and aerial), smoke canisters (day only), dye marker (day only), orange distress flag, 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. 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. Kayaks less than 16 feet in length are not required to carry day signals, but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise.
Note: Coast Guard regulations prohibit display of visual distress signals on the water under any circumstances except when assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons on board a vessel.
Pollution Regulations: The Refuse Act of 1899 prohibits throwing, discharging, or depositing any refuse matter of any kind (including trash, garbage, oil, and other liquid pollution) into the waters of the United States.
First Aid Kit: A first aid kit adequate to your situation should be readily available. Many good pre-assembled kits are available for purchase, but most will not have everything you need. Supplement it with items from the following to ensure you are ready for whatever arises while out on the water in your yak.
The following items are important to complete a first aid kit:
- Waterproof case to protect water-sensitive first-aid items.
- First-aid manual to aid in using the first aid items.
- Triangular bandage to make a sling, tie splints or hold large dressings in place; can also be used as a pressure bandage or tourniquet.
- Wound closure strips to hold cuts closed for more comfortable healing.
- Elastic (ACE-type) bandages for wrapping sprains and holding large bandages, splints and ice packs in place.
- Gauze pads for covering large wounds.
- Adhesive medical tape to secure dressings and prevent hot spots from becoming blisters.
- Scissors to cut bandages.
- Alcohol wipes and antiseptic wipes for disinfecting minor wounds and general purpose cleaning.
- Iodine wipes to disinfect and clean larger wounds.
- Antibiotic ointment to kill bacteria, keep wounds moist and help prevent scarring.
- Cortisone or hydrocortisone cream for bug bites.
- Burn ointment for treating and soothing burns and scalds.
- Moleskin for blisters.
- Antihistamine for mild allergic reactions.
- Ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation.
- Acetaminophen to reduce pain and fever.
- Soap scrub sponges to clean wounds containing ground-in grime that an irrigation syringe can't clean out.
- Non-adherent dressings to help prevent sticking to oozing wounds.
- Emergency blanket to treat and prevent hypothermia and trauma shock, and protect against the elements.
- Large compress bandage to treat heavily bleeding wounds.
- Tweezers with a narrow point and a solid grip, for removing splinters.
- Rehydration tablets for treating dehydration and diarrhea.
- Chemical cold packs or gel for reducing pain and swelling of sprains.
Here are additional items that may be useful in your first aid kit:
- Thermometer to monitor a fever and determine its severity.
- Waterproof adhesive bandages for small wounds.
- Malleable splint to immobilize and protect broken bones.
- Chemical heat packs to warm hands and help treat hypothermia.
- Safety pins for slings or wraps.
- Needles for reaching a deeply embedded splinter.
- Poison ivy/oak soap to break down and wash away the sticky resin from the plant.
- Epinephrine injection for severe allergic reactions leading to anaphylactic shock.
- Latex gloves to keep bacteria out of the wound being treated and off the person doing the treating.
- Irrigation syringes to clean wounds using a high-pressure spray of saline solution.
- CPR shield to protect against transmission of infection during the administration of artificial breathing.
- Insect and tick repellants to prevent bites.
Pack other over-the-counter medications at your discretion. Make sure everyone in the group has their prescription medications and any over-the-counter medications they may need.
Radio: A handheld VHF radio should be strongly considered by anyone traveling in sparsely populated areas. Trip leaders and solo paddlers should consider it essential. 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. 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.
Repair Kit: 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.
Additional Equipment: Prudent kayakers carry additional safety equipment such as the following:
||Pliers / wire cutters
||Pump or bailer
||Food and water
||Foul weather gear
Safety and Survival Tips
Tell a friend or relative where you are going and when you plan to return. Make sure they have a complete description of your vessel and other information that will make identification easier should the need arise.
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. Assume larger boats won't see you but 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 them.
Check the Weather Forecasts
Check weather reports before leaving shore and remain watchful for signs of bad weather. Listen to National Weather Service Weather Radio.
Be Prepared for Heavy Rain or Thick Fog
There are no landmarks in heavy rain or thick fog, only a small circle of sea 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. 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."
Dealing with High Winds
Wind is one of the kayaker's 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. Strong winds and gusts are also often associated with rainsqualls. 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 you to 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. If you capsize and have this safety line attached, as long as you can hang on to your paddle or your kayak you will still have both. 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 don’t accidentally snap it into your eyes).
To anchor in high wind you need to face into the wind and waves. Have the anchor line attached to the bow and bring the bow into the wind before dropping the anchor. The anchor line should be five to seven times the depth of water. If the water is too deep to anchor you can slow your drift by using a sea anchor in the same manner (off the bow).
Understand Wave Hazards
When the wind picks up, the waves soon follow. Waves make capsizing more likely. Waves can create difficult control problems and broaching if they are approaching from the side or from the stern quadrants. Waves are most difficult when they are steep and have a wavelength roughly the same as your craft. Large waves meeting from opposite directions can throw water upwards (clapotis) with sufficient force to lift a kayak into the air. 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.
Avoid Hypothermia (cooling of the body's core temperature)
Paddling in wind and rain or wet rough seas without adequate clothing can lead to hypothermia as can immersion in chilling water after capsizing. It is imperative to get a 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 and if hypothermic may even become belligerent towards your concern.
The symptoms of hypothermia: (in order of increasing 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 re-warm a victim of even mild hypothermia. Prevent heat loss in cool weather by wearing warm dry clothing including a hat, or warm-when-wet clothing such as a wet suit or dry suit. 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. 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. 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. Don't swim for shore in cold water unless it is close or you have no other hope for rescue. Even if you can’t get back into the kayak you probably can lay over it.
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 other’s 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.
Be Safe On The Water!
For more information, call the U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Hotline at 1-800-368-5647.