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Blog: Safety at Sea - Paddling Edition

Paddle sports are growing in popularity. Unfortunately, so are accidents that involve paddlers. This post will give you some pointers on how to avoid becoming a statistic!

This week I stopped by to visit with my friends at to discuss my plan to paddle around Long Island.

I have been friends with the founding family of Sea Tow for years, and they have always found a way to support me in my various waterborne adventures. So it was no surprise to me that they were all in for this jaunt. They offered to provide me safety boat support for the open ocean and Gardiner’s bay legs of the trip. What a lot of people don’t know is that Sea Tow® is truly committed to keeping people safe on the water. They even formed a boating safety foundation to promote safe boating practices and education initiatives that directly reduce accidents, fatalities and property damage related to recreational boating.

The BoatingSafety.com website is designed to be a single source of boating safety information for the recreational boater. With one stop, a boater can get weather and tides data, the latest local notices to mariners and other safety resources that might be needed. If you spend time on the water, you should check it out.

As I was talking boating safety with Joe Frohnhoefer Jr., he mentioned that according to the latest reports, boating accidents involving kayaks and canoes were on the rise. He also mentioned that a large portion of these accidents resulted in fatalities. While that seems grim, the good news is that paddle sports are actually quite safe if you observe some basic safety principles.

1. Stay alert. Always assume that other boaters do not see you. If you see a boat heading directly toward you, make every effort to paddle out of their way. You may think you have the right of way but, that won’t matter if they hit you. The best indication that another boat sees you is when they make a large and obvious course change to avoid you.

2. Stay visible. Wear bright clothing. You might even consider flying a flag or a cheap radar reflector. How visible you need to be will be determined on where you paddle. If you go out in to large bodies of open water you will blend in easily.

3. Stay in Touch. Have a cell phone in a water proof case and / or a VHF marine radio.

4. Make some noise. I have a whistle on my life jacket. This comes in real handy when boats get too close. Remember with the engines humming and the radio blasting, most boaters will not hear you screaming.

5. Stay Afloat. Always, always, always wear a life jacket. I am an expert swimmer. So what. I wear my life jacket because if I end up in the water exhausted or unconscious, my swimming skills don’t mean squat. Wearing a life jacket is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of intelligence.

6. Stay Protected. Skin cancer is no joke! According to skincancer.org, “a person's risk for melanoma--the most serious form of skin cancer--doubles if he or she has had five or more sunburns.” My father died of melanoma. It was so aggressive, it took him in six weeks. As far as we can figure, the seed of this cancer was planted in the 1950’s when he got sun poisoning in North Africa while serving in the Marines. Wear a hat, protective clothing and sunscreen.

7. Stay Hydrated and Fueled. Even if you are only going to be in your canoe or kayak for a short period of time it is essential to bring a full water bottle with you. It is quite common for paddlers to become dehydrated due to the combined effect that the sun and wind have on the body. Also, you will be expending a lot of energy even if you don’t realize it so be sure to bring a snack so you don’t get light-headed from hunger.

8. Be Prepared. I always carry rope, something to bail out unwanted water, a knife and a basic first aid kit.

Now remember, this is just a guide. The equipment you will need will vary by where, when and for how long you paddle. The main thing you need to do is to think before you go. Unfortunately, many of us don’t take advise like this seriously until something bad happens. If we are lucky, we survive the experience and learn valuable lessons. This is exactly what happened to me a few years ago. Below is an adaptation of a story that I wrote following one of those near misses:

Every morning I get up at 5am, suit up, and jump in my kayak. I wear my life jacket, carry a whistle and always bring a cell phone encased in plastic bag. As you might imagine, it is difficult to find paddling partners at 5 in the morning but I know, in the interest of safety, I should not go out alone. One morning in early May, I recruited my life-long companion "stupidity." Stupidity and I were almost inseparable when I was young and we were especially close when I was in college. But, that's another story.

On this particular morning, in May, the wind was blowing about force 5 (19 - 24 knots), the skies were threatening and the water was cold. I thought about staying in that morning but stupidity was excited about the adventure and who was I to disappoint. So I put on my .5mm wetsuit and off we went.

When we got to the beach, we were blown back by the sheer force of the Southeast wind. I looked north into the protected creeks; stupidity looked out into the open bay. I was soon outvoted by stupidity's sense of adventure. Stupidity argued that it would be a valuable experience to battle the heavy weather and I bought it. Dead into the weather we went.

As we headed out, the bow crashed into the waves as we skillfully powered our way to weather. As the sea crashed over the deck and onto the spray skirt - we were impressed with our kayaking skill. We continued on for the next 2 nautical miles without incident. When we arrived at the cove of it was time to turn around. I thought it might be best to head directly to the lee shore and then hug the coast to home. Stupidity thought we should hang a 90 degree turn to port and head to the closer shore of the Nassau Point. Of course, this would put the wind directly at our beam.

Why do I listen? As I turned the boat, my stability worsened (big surprise) and the ride became precarious. I decided to head-up into the wind for a few strokes and then fall off the wind to ride the crests of the waves toward the homeward shore. Stupidity thought that would be a great idea. As I carried myself further and further into the wind, the sea took me. What I mean to say is that the waves flipped me like the coin at the start of a football game.

Now upside down, I discovered that stupidity had thrown our paddle away. After a few attempts at a paddle-less roll, I performed a wet exit (that means I got the heck out of the boat). Did I mention that it was about now that the skies opened up to the worst downpour that I had seen all year? Through the blinding rain I noticed my paddle floating about 30 feet windward of me and the gap was widening. Stupidity told me to swim for it and get the paddle.

For the first time all morning, I told stupidity to #*$@%#$! off. I was going to stay with my boat. Since a self rescue with my paddle was out of the question, I was down to plan "B" - Call for help. I reached for my phone which was sealed into a plastic bag with a simple knot (stupidity's idea) and cleverly tethered to my PFD. The problem, as it turned out, was that the knot in the bag was not exactly water-proof. For those of you that may not have experienced this, cell phones and salt water do not mix. The phone was dead.

Time for Plan C. Luckily, stupidity had a plan C. Plan C: let's try cowboy jumping this puppy from the stern, slip into the cockpit, reseal the skirt and pump out. This plan may actually have worked if it weren't for the 4 foot seas. So much for plan C.

Time for plan D. The problem was that I had no plan D. Tired, cold and paddle-less it was time to formulate a plan D. I had nothing left. I just wanted to be home. I was a mile and a half from the lee shore and all I could think of was to start swimming. I clutched the kayak as tightly as I could, presented as much hull to the wind as was possible and made for shore. After just 2 hours in the water, I was tossed ashore in heavy surf. I dragged my boat up the beach and pumped it out.

I began walking the quiet streets of New Suffolk looking for an early riser to make the "call of humiliation" to my wife. I now tether my paddle to my life jacket, use a dry pouch made for cell phones, choose my days more carefully, give considerable thought to the routes I take and am more selective with my kayak partners.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Benja Schwartz June 26, 2012 at 12:08 AM
>> Now remember, this is just a guide. The equipment you will need will vary by where, when and for how long you paddle. The beauty of boating can be exhilarating or it can be relaxing. I can not deny boating on the wild side on occasions. Life on the wild side takes on heightened sensitivities. Usually I sail, windsurf, canoe and kayak in safe places and under safe conditions. Kayaking in creeks and near the shoreline is fun and is not dangerous
Patrice Dalton June 26, 2012 at 12:52 PM
I kayak on the bay on calm days when the seas are flat. Rolling waves and swells can make it more difficult for jet skis and boaters to see a kayak.
Dr.Russ L'HommeDieu, DPT June 26, 2012 at 01:39 PM
This is AWESOME!!! I love the comments. Yes, kayaking on calm days is safer. Yes, kayaking in backwaters is safer. I totally agree. I also love the insight that waves make it harder to be seen. Just remember that many of the recommendations hold true even if you were kayaking the "safest" conditions. The post was not written for extreme kayakers. The most important safety equipment is your brain. Nothing will get you into trouble faster than a false sense of security. While I agree that kayaking is totally safe and should be all about fun, it is important to remember that when you are on the water you are a visitor to an environment not suited to sustain human life. The elements (including irresponsible humans) can turn on you in a minute and you could find yourself in trouble. As you read the post, consider heeding the advice even if you are an expert swimmer in flat water. I have a lot of sea time, I am the holder of a USCG Masters license and I am on the water every day. Trust me, when it comes to the water you can't be too prepared. Please don't let my post scare you off the water - all I want you to do is think twice before you decide take off that life jacket (for instance).
Frank T June 27, 2012 at 02:41 AM
I keep a flare gun in case I get lost at night!

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