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Sea Kayaking Safety

Sea kayaking offers physical exercise from relaxing to strenuous. Its participants seek adventure exploring our local bays and inshore angling, with active paddle jocks well into their 70ies still enjoying their wilderness. Paddling a sea kayak is easy to learn, perhaps too easy. A novice can easily paddle and make mistakes in many situations that a more advanced kayaker would avoid. In skilled hands kayaks are very seaworthy craft. Proven to be a safe sport for those that have taken the time to learn the basic skills, kayaking can be a richly rewarding form of recreation. The following information will provide you with the equipment and skills needed in the event that hazards are encountered.

Be Prepared

You must have skills and equipment adequate for whatever conditions you may encounter.

Know the latest weather forecast. Wind is one of the kayakers most dangerous adversaries and can increase in velocity quickly, take control of your kayak and make the paddle difficult. Santa Ana winds here in Southern California are prominent and pose a real threat to the ocean going kayak anglers. If caught in these strong offshore winds, then paddle forward to turn the bow into the wind and backward to turn the bow downwind. Use powerful sweeping strokes to one side that finish by strongly pulling the stern over. Do not brake or reverse, this will only hinder the progress. A rudder will do more good if lifted in the up position for more windage at the stern when turning into a strong wind. If left in the water take care not to angle the rudder too much or the braking effect will hinder your ability to turn by slowing your speed.

Understanding wave hazards. Learn to become comfortable paddling in the surf zone and you will expand you fishing opportunities. Avoid shore breaks and look for beaches with crumbling surf. Observe the surf before you launch. Big waves come in sets separated by periods of relative calm. During this lull period commit to the launch and paddle aggressively powering out past the zone. Hit any oncoming waves straight on. Angled approaches will turn your kayak sideways and possibly send you back to the beachhead. Landing can be a more difficult task. Once near the impact zone wait for the biggest wave of the set to pass, and then paddle aggressively on its back. Soon the following wave will catch up to you. Learn to lean back to keep the nose of the kayak from burying itself into the wave. If the wave turns your kayak sideways, lean into the foam pile using your paddle for support. Take a surf, paddle or fishing class from a local kayak shop or guide. It will pay dividends latter. We have all lost gear at one time or another and the tips given in this class will help prevent any costly donations to Davey Jones locker.

Understand Currents and Tide. Calm inshore water can become very rough in the course of a days outing. Currents can slow or stop your progress so plan paddling times to take advantage of them. Currents create rough and confused water where they meet a riptide. When a current is moving in the opposite direction of the wave motion the wave length is shortened, thus steeping the wave. If you paddle where currents are a factor then get a tide chart and learn how to read them. Tidal Current Charts are available through NOAA or chart dealers.

Watch out for other boats. Stay well away from commercial vessels, and avoid crossing channels and thoroughfares, especially in restricted visibility. Large vessels often cannot deviate from their course and fishing vessels should be expected to operate on highly erratic courses as they tend gear. Make yourself visible. Brightly colored kayaks, PFD and clothing will help, but the most visible gear from a powerboats eye level will be the blade of your paddle. Consider reflective tape if you use a black paddle.

Be prepared for fog. In fog you will need a compass or a GPS. Without it you will paddle in circles. If you do get stranded in a fog bank without these navigation tools, then look for some means of judging direction such as wave angle or a distant repeating sound.

Choosing Safety Gear

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Make sure that your PFD keeps your head above water if you find yourself in a capsize situation. Always wear a PFD as it is near impossible to put a PFD on in the water. The PFD will also act as another layer to keep you warm while in the water.


Make sure you have a stainless steel knife attached to your PFD to cut away anything that wraps around you. Be careful with your equipment so as to not create a trap with your ropes, loose gear, paddle leash (don't use one in breaking surf).

VHF Radio

Always carry a VHF handheld radio in your PFD and know how to use it. Typically kayakers monitor channel 71 while private boaters monitor channels 69 and 72. The Coast Guard can be hailed on channel 16 for emergency situations.

First Aid and Signaling Equipment

Always carry a first-aid kit. It contains everything I will need to bandage a small cut or burn. If I embed a hook in my ear or hand, I want everything to remove it, and patch it up. If one of your hands gets a 2/0 hook in it and it stays there, how are you going to paddle back in? Also carry a real pair of cutting dykes just for this. They are like King Stahlman's Bail Bonds - I would rather always have them and not need them, than to need them, and not have them.

Make sure you have kit in your hatch that includes a whistle, flares, mirror or horns. In addition to rendering first aid, you must have a way to attract other boaters or people on land to help you. Without communication gear, you won't be found or saved. Radios are only as good as the batteries in them that are fully charged and operational.

Leash & Extra Set of Paddles

What happens if one of your paddles breaks? Always use a paddle leash to prevent your main paddle separating from the yak. You may never use the extra set, but when the time comes, you will be thankful they are there.

Tow Lines

A simple rope can be attached onto the kayak deck at all times to be used in an emergency. The tow line can be used to pull you to safety.

Bailing Device

Have a means of removing water from a gear laden kayak. A hand pump and a sponge can make quick extrication of unwelcome water in your hull. If in a pinch and without either of these tools use your bait tank pump as a bilge pump to eject the water.

Be Responsible!

Know your limitations: You alone are the best judge of your own physical limitations, the capabilities of your kayak, and most importantly, your ability to operate your craft and gear. Respect the indiscriminate power of the sea along the exposed coast, and carefully avoid operating in restricted visibility, including fog, rain, and darkness.

Voyage planning: When planning a voyage, no matter how short or simple you intend it to be, take a few minutes to leave a float plan, including departure/arrival times, number of people and color of kayaks, with a responsible friend. If it's a spur of the moment trip, write a plan just before you go and leave it in an envelope marked "FLOAT PLAN" on the dashboard of your vehicle.