Kayaks are great for getting around to various skinny water locations, as well as a thrill when on open water in the hunt for more exotic species of fish. However, there is no denying that if you are paddling around a kayak in an area with powerboats, you are the little fish in a big pond. There are a few things you need to keep in mind to minimize your risk.
- Make yourself visible. During the day, you can do this by flying a bright colored flag a few feet above your kayak. I use a YakAttack VISICarbon Pro safety flag and light (www.yakattack.us). This flag is great because it is a bright safety orange flag that is designed to not produce drag thus not impeding your efficiency on the water while keeping you nice and visible. As you can see in the photo below, the orange flag is very visible and stands out well. Also there is SOLAS (Survival Of Life At Sea) reflective tape behind the flag which adds to the visibility. The coast guard states that you must have a visible signal device on hand that you can shine at an oncoming boater in the event that you need to signal them. To me this is not enough. At night I wear a head lamp that I can direct at a boater, however I also have the light on my VISICarbon Pro which produces 360 degrees of light and has one of the highest visible ranges of any light on the market. One addition I plan to make (though I dont have it yet) is to add a signal light to my PFD, this will help make me visible in the unfortunate event that I become separated from my kayak.
- Be aware. Being the small fish in a big pond means that you need to be vigilant about knowing your surroundings. Always try to stay one step ahead of the danger that exists. This means looking around you to see if a boat in the distance is coming your way full throttle and if so, prepare an exit plan. This also means to know the patterns in your area. For instance, I know that at dusk the channels of most waterways will be congested with boaters and people on PWC's trying to get in before dark. I stay away from the main channels during this time. Same thing at sunrise. There is a lot of traffic heading out at that time. There are other peak times as well but they may vary depending on your location. Be mindful of these times and try to stay clear of main channels. Another part of being aware comes into play when paddling near a shore fishing location. An 8oz pyramid sinker can be as deadly as a bullet if you get hit by one and it is your job to insure that you are a proper distance away from the shore fishermen and do not encroach on their turf. You may argue that you have a right to be there just as much as they do, however you are not casting your lead where they are standing, but they are casting where you are. Keep a safe distance.
- Have the proper safety gear. The USCG requires that you have at minimum the following items: A PFD on board, A visible signal device (can be as simple as a signal mirror), and an audible signal device (whistle). The PFD should not just be kept onboard, but should be worn at all times. To comply with USCG reg's there is a great little safety whistle that you can pick up at most outdoors stores that has a whistle, signal mirror and a dry storage compartment (pictured below). However, keep in mind that this is only the minimum. Other items you should consider carrying include (but are not limited to) a hand held marine radio, a flag and light (as mentioned above), PFD safety light, safety knife, signal flares, a cell phone, and a handheld GPS.
- Make an exit plan. This sounds crazy but you should always have a plan in the event that you have to move quickly. It is better to figure this out when you arrive at a location rather than when you need to get moving. Typically if I am in a main waterway, I tend to try to stay on the shoreside of any channels. That way I just keep it in my head that if I have to move, I just need to head toward shore.
- Keep your head clear. What this means is don't drink or do any mind altering drugs while on the water. I know this will cause a round of boo's from several weekend water warriors who like to get out and have a good time inclusive of their favorite malt beverage. However, if you don't have a clear head, you may not be able to make the quick decisions needed to get you out of a potentially dangerous situation. Just like with driving, you may do just fine with a few drinks, but when it goes bad, it can go horribly bad and you are the small guy out there. Chances are, it will go terribly bad for you. Save the drinks for the bar after you are done and are telling the tales of the day to anyone who will listen.
- Keep your rolodex handy. Not really, but at the same time you should have the numbers of the various emergency contacts on hand and if you see someone doing something dangerous, don't hesitate to call the proper authorities. The last time I was on the water, I had two men who appeared to be intentionally casting at my fishing partner and me. They were casting double bottom rigs as hard as they could right at us then reeling back in as fast as they could, then doing it all over again. We moved on to another spot but in hindsight, I wish that I would have called the authorities. We were far out of normal casting range but they were trying their hardest to get to us. If they did that to us, they would do it to someone else.
This post is not intended to scare anyone off the water because it can be very easy to have a safe and enjoyable time on your kayak. However, it is important to keep your head straight so you can continue to have those enjoyable times.