It’s important to remember that being on a boat isn’t like being in a car: if you have a problem on the water you can’t just pull into the nearest gas station, or call AAA for a tow. Any problem you have is immediately turned up to 11 and you’ll almost always be your own best solution. Your strong desire for survival, and even stronger desire not to look stupid, is why you should always take safety seriously.
While there’s a lot of gear that will help you be a safer kayaker, we’ve narrowed this list down to the five items we think provides the greatest impact on your over-water safety. The gear below will help keep your next outing from being a one way trip.
Life Jacket / Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) drowning is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide (1st is poisoning/motor vehicles, 2nd is falling). The best way to avoid becoming one of these statistics is to always wear a Life Jacket. Seriously, always wear your life jacket. I mean, it’s called a life jacket – so if you don’t have one on then what are you wearing, a death scarf? A hell-bound pashmina? Save the gothic attire for your funeral and spring for a PFD that is both functional and comfortable. If it’s not comfortable then you’re more likely not to wear it – and then it won’t save your life.
There are lots of different types of PFD’s available for different purposes. We take a look at some of our favorite life preserving apparel here.
I’ve been in the habit of wearing a pocket knife on me at all times, a practice I learned in the Boy Scouts, and it’s served me well over the years. Now I haven’t had to fend off any bloodthirsty piranhas, or stab a shark in the eye, but I have been able to open cardboard boxes a lot faster.
In all seriousness though having a knife out on the water is not only extremely useful for cutting fishing lines or chopping out gills, it’s also a huge asset in just about any safety situation. In an emergency a knife will be much easier to use then any sort of specialty line cutters or pliers. Imagine trying to tread water, and get back on your kayak, when you find you’re also tangled up in some rope – nail clippers aren’t going to help you except by saving the mortician a few minutes. Did you just anchor down mid stream and now your boat is trying to capsize – you’ll be glad you had a knife in your pocket to quickly cut the line.
Bring a pocket knife with you and keep it somewhere familiar. Your brain juice doesn’t always pump so fast when you’re in high-pressure situations, and as a result muscles tend to think for themselves.
A human male’s voice can travel around 600′ outdoors in still air. Add in wind, choppy water, birds chirping, and you can imagine that it quickly becomes difficult to get the attention of your friend only 200′ away from you on the water – especially since he just hooked a big one (spoiler it’s a tree branch). If you do get into a spot of bother on the water you’re going to want some help and fast – yelling won’t help you if everybody’s out of earshot.
But wait! My smartphone!! Even if you do have coverage there’s a good chance your friend has their phone in a waterproof container – making quick access and hearing the ringer (if it’s on) all that much tougher. A pair of floating 2 way radios can prove super useful for communicating on the water. They work where cell phones don’t, usually have a respectable range, and are likely to be immediately accessible since they’re waterproof. I always wear my walkie talkie on my PFD just in case I take an unplanned dip. Do yourself a favor and invest in a pair of radios to keep on the yak.
Sometimes when the fishing is good and the weather is perfect it’s easy to lose track of time on the water, and before you know it you find the sun starting to go down. You’re heading back across the channel to the dock when you see a gnarly motorboat pulling a wake-boarder screaming towards you. Since you’re only a few feet off the water the captain doesn’t see you and your last thought as his hull careens into your face is “Sick tailgrab bro”.
Kayakers are at a natural visibility disadvantage on the water – the average air draft (distance from surface of water to the highest point of the boat) is often between two and four feet, depending on kayak type and body height, while most other personal watercraft are sitting much higher in the water, making it more difficult for captains to see you when they’re closer. Lower visibility at dawn/night compounds the danger of colliding with low-sitting watercraft.
Considering that a collision with a motorboat is one of your biggest and most dangerous risks while kayaking it’s a really great idea to do everything you can to help other people see you. Adding some leds and/or navigation lights to your kayak will boost visibility and let others know where you are. Lighted flagpoles, or anything that puts lights up higher, are great options to ensure you aren’t featured on a fail video any time soon.
Kayaking is a dangerous activity – according to the US Coast Guard 2018 Report on Recreational Boating Statistics kayaks are the vessel type with the second highest percentage of deaths at 13% (motorboats are number 1 with 50%). In 2018 there were 4,145 accidents, 2,511 injuries, and 633 deaths recorded by the USCG. I’m not sharing these numbers to try and scare you away from kayaking, but to emphasize that bad things happen on the water.
If you find yourself in bad case scenario, or even worse, a worse case scenario, then the best gear in the world won’t help as much as the guy who has your back. Having somebody who’s willing to dive in after you, or at the very least go get help, can make a world of difference. In a 2007 study commissioned by the American Canoe Association the researchers found that the number of people involved in an incident had the biggest effect on lowering the fatality rate. It’s also a heck of a lot more fun to talk trash when you catch the bigger fish.
I realize that it’s not the easiest to sync up schedules with buddies, or even agree on where to go, so at the very least let somebody know where you’re headed. If you don’t have any friends who like to fish or kayak try bugging them to try it just once, and I’m sure they’ll get hooked just like you did.
When I was fourteen I was fortunate enough to go to the Boy Scout Sea Base High Adventure Camp where we kayaked out to a small island and camped there for a week. It was amazing being immersed in the ecosystem – seeing Key Deer right next to camp, climbing tourist trees and avoiding the poison trees. One of my camp counselors had a motto that he continually drilled into us during our week on island to reinforce safety: “ETU” Expect the Unexpected.
ETU is an apt philosophy for being on the water, because in many way’s you’re out on an island. While Be safe and be smart out there, and remember to always wear your life jacket. 77% of fatal boating accident victims drowned, and out of those 84% of them didn’t have their life jacket on. So again, always wear your life jacket.
If you’re interested in more kayaking statistics, and want to know why 4:00 pm on a Saturday in July is the most dangerous time to go kayaking, consider reading this.