Staying Safe When You Paddle

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Sailing paddle boarding Lake Union Seattle, WA

It sounds fantastic: A sunny summer day in Seattle spent out on the water. Just you and your kayak. Or standup paddle board. The forecast on the morning news (or your weather app) calls for high temperatures in the mid-80s, so you pack up your brand-new kayak and paddles, load it onto the car, and head to the Sound for a day of fun on the water.

What’s missing in this picture? Quite a few things, and a few actions you skipped. Before heading out for the next kayak or standup paddle board (SUP) adventure, here are a few very important things to know that may very well save your life or the life of your paddling friends:

  1. Get schooled.

    “Take a class! You’ll gain skills and confidence” urges Dan Shipman, recreational boating safety program manager for the U.S. Coast Guard’s 13th You’ll learn the rules of the road, how to operate your kayak or SUP correctly, what kind of gear and gadgets you need (or don’t need), and you’ll probably make a few friends, too. There are plenty of courses to choose from, and they’re inexpensive.

  2. Be prepared.

    Dress for the weather and the cold waters of Puget Sound and our local lakes. (Water temps in the Sound NEVER go over 50 to 53 degrees, or colder in rivers with a lot of snowmelt. Hypothermia symptoms set in after just a few minutes in the water). Because our local waters are so cold, falling overboard or getting hit in the face with a wave can also cause a shock that results in inhaling water. This “dry drowning” happens when the shock of the cold water causes the airway to close. The victim drowns with lungs full of air, not water. A shock of chilly water can also cause the victim to inhale water, also resulting in drowning. Learn more about cold water shock here.

    Be ready to get wet, and dress accordingly. All 18 recreational boating deaths in Washington in 2016 involved the victim ending up in the water by capsizing, swamping the vessel, or falling overboard.

  3. At a bare minimum, wear a life jacket and carry a whistle.

    Take safety up a notch and greatly increase your odds of survival and/or a quick rescue by carrying a handheld radio or an EPIRB device. DO NOT rely on your cell phone to help you out if you run into trouble on the water. Service can be spotty, phones can get wet and not work.

  4. Don’t rely on the local news for the forecast.

    Check the marine forecast here. Conditions can be very different on the water than what is happening on land. For instance, while your friends on their SUPs in Lake Union are enjoying a balmy 80-degree day, the high temp on the water is likely going to be significantly cooler. If you end up in the water, it’s going to feel that much colder when you finally get back on the kayak or SUP!

  5. Know where you’re going, and tell someone.

    File a “float plan.” That’s just a more technical way of saying tell someone you trust where you plan to go and when you’re planning to be back. If no one knows where you went and that you should have been back hours ago, no one will know where or when to look for you if you ran into trouble on the water.

  6. Never paddle alone.

    There is safety in numbers, and plus, it’s more fun to have someone to share the experience with! If you’re new to paddling, go out with a more experienced friend. You may learn some new tricks and you can work as a team if someone gets into trouble.

  7. Know the “rules of the road.”

    Kayaks and SUPs are considered vessels by the Coast Guard, and paddlers are required to carry a lifejacket and whistle. While you may not get a ticket for breaking the rules, you could very well end up injured or worse. Remember the rule of gross tonnage: the bigger vessel will always win. Don’t try to play chicken with a freighter when you are in a kayak.

  8. Avoid drugs and alcohol when you’re out on the water.

    Drugs and alcohol affect judgement and coordination, both of which you’ll need of if you want to stay warm, dry, safe, and alive. If you feel you really must indulge, wait until you are safely back on land and you’re staying there.

Shipman also recommends downloading the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety App. It features the latest safety regulations, navigation rules, hazard and pollution reporting options, and you can request emergency assistance and file a float plan.

Everybody’s Doing It

Paddle sports like kayaking and standup paddle boarding have taken off in popularity recently because the gear is relatively inexpensive and it’s an easy way for many people to get out on the water cheaply. (At least, much less expensively than buying a power boat!)

“Everybody’s doing it; they’re doing it everywhere. It’s a very enjoyable way to get out on the water and get some exercise!” says Shipman. “It’s a very inexpensive way to get into water recreation. You can buy them anywhere…it’s a greatly expanding market.”

But just because something is cheap and easy does not make it automatically safe! Remember these tips to stay safe—and have fun—out on the water.