Over the past few weeks, we have had some storms roll through that got me thinking about on the water preparation and safety in the event of a storm. Lightning is nothing to laugh at but there are many more issues that could arise from being caught on the water in the unfortunate case of a storm. Before I continue, let me get this out of the way. I am only sharing personal experience and advice that I would give. I am in no way an expert nor am I certified in anything relating to water safety. Take what I say here as advice from someone who has a little experience in these situations and who has learned from his mistakes, but if you would like true water safety lessons, I am sure that the USCG Auxiliary has some classes available or at least could point you in the direction of a good safety course.
Ok now onto the fun stuff. Before I get into the advice, I thought I would share a little story about a day that I would like to not repeat. The day started off the same as many others. Not a cloud in the sky, and a trip was planned to hunt for redfish on the flats back in the Lynnhaven Inlet. I met up with my friend Mike and we headed out in our quest for spot tailed fish. We made our way back into the south eastern part of the Lynnhaven River and were rooting around the various coves that were present back in that area. I happen to look to the west and noticed a huge wall of black clouds closing in on us. I look at Mike and we both knew we had to abandon our search for fish. We begin to paddle back to the launch point but the clouds were closing in quickly and before we knew it, the wind kicked up and the rain started pouring. It should be noted that this was a day that there were no predictions of thunderstorms. We were only about halfway to the launch when visibility became only a matter of inches and our paddling efforts were getting us nowhere. A decision had to be made. There were no good options at this point, but I did remember the exposed sandbar to our right. We paddled quickly over to the bar and pulled our kayaks up to the highest point of the exposed sand. This was a bar that was far from any trees and we were really rather perched up in the middle of the water. We laid our fishing rods flat as not to have them serve as lightning rods and we both sat up on our kayaks and used our PFD's (Personal Floatation Devices - Life Jackets) to cover our heads from the pelting rain. The storm at this point was right over our heads. We would see the flash of lightning at the exact same time we were hearing the thunder. With each crack of lightning you could smell the electricity. One bolt of lighting hit the water just behind us. Then just as it came, it also left. A decision was made that despite our experience, we would continue fishing after the storm cleared out enough for us to safely paddle again. As we were packing up our stuff, Mike looks at me and says "It's a damn good thing we are soaked from the rain." When I asked why that was, he simply replied "Because, this way you can't tell that I pissed myself".
So with the storms that we had this past week, I spent some time thinking about why it was that we survived that experience and what I should be thinking about to be prepared if that were to happen again. Here is what I came up with.
- Remain calm! If you are freaking out, you are focusing your energy on stress and not on figuring out the best solution to your problem. Yes it is a terrifying experience to live through a storm like that, but people survive them on a daily basis and it is best that you keep a level head and worry more about your plan of action than what bad stuff could happen.
- Educate yourself on safety practices. The reason in we picked the sandbar as our safety zone was because I knew that in the area we were in, the shoreline was lined with tall trees. Everyone should be aware that lightning strikes the tallest spot and if you are beneath a tree, it is more likely that you will be struck than if you are away from the trees. For the same reason that we didn't sit under a tree, we laid our rods flat. Also the sandbar would raise us up from the water level and with visibility next to nothing, we couldn't risk being blowing back into an area we were not familiar with.
- Know your surroundings. If you are not familiar with the area you are paddling in, you should not venture too far away from the launch. If you are going to a new place to fish, it is advisable that you research the area first. There are many tools to do this. Google Earth is one of the best since it allows you to really get detailed views of the area.
- Have a plan. I know, you are thinking, I have a plan when I go out. I know where I am going to go to get into the fish. I am talking about having a safety plan. It may not be the most glamorous part of kayak fishing, but you do have to be aware of where you are and how you will get to safety if an emergency comes up. I try to plan even for wind. I have had times where I will be heading one way and the wind kicks up so strong that no matter how hard I paddle, I am not making progress forward. In these situations, I usually have a backup route to take that may not offer as much resistance in the wind. I also like to have a "shortest distance to safety" plan. This would be a general understanding of where I would go in the event of an emergency that would get me to shelter, or to safety the quickest.
- Technology. While technology may not prevent you from getting struck by lightning, it will help in both prevention and recovery. First, a radio with NOAA Weather stations available is a handy tool in preventing you from getting caught by that storm that seems to sneak up on you. I know for a fact that had we been listening to the weather stations on the day detailed above, we would have avoided the experience all together. While that storm seemed to sneak up on us, it did come from somewhere else and the weather stations would have given us fair warning. Second, safety lights/flags should be used at all times. Many people think a safety pole is only for night time. Keep in mind that when conditions deteriorate, a kayak is very hard to see. A safety flag will make you more visible and if conditions are not ideal, having a safety light will make you visible to oncoming vessels. There are many brands of lights and flags, but I prefer those sold by YakAttack. These are designed with Yak Anglers in mind. I use a VisiCarbon Pro. This is a collapsable light pole with a high intensity LED. It also incorporates a high visibility orange flag. It is a great safety light. For me the final piece of technology that I carry is a cell phone. Mine is an iPhone so I can use it to access GPS, Nautical Maps, and other useful items. However the most important part of the phone is the ability to call 911 if needed. I do keep a few numbers programmed in (Marine Police, USCG Stations around where I am, etc...), but if you find yourself in an emergency situation 911 is the best number to call. If you have a VHF/Marine Radio, you can use the emergency channel as well, but what I have been told is that 911 is the best bet.
- USCG prescribed safety gear. This should go without saying, but the gear that the USCG prescribes for kayak's is there to keep you safe. You should have a PFD. One thing to keep in mind with your PFD is to get something that offers some visibility in the event you become separated from your boat. If it is not a highly visible color, it should have reflective surfaces to help aid in your rescue should you need it. Also you need to have both a signal light and a signal horn of some sort. This does not need to be a high intensity light and a fog horn. There is a great whistle that Bass Pro sells that is a combo Whistle, Mirror, and Dry container. The mirror will act as a signal light as it can reflect light from boats or the sun. And the whistle will act as your signal horn.
This is clearly not a complete list of everything you need to know but it should be enough to keep you safe.