Kayak Safety, and Common Sense
By: Jim Sammons Owner La Jolla Kayak Fishing

As the sport of kayak fishing and kayaking in general grows, we see more kayakers on the water with less experience. With more kayaks on the water, we have begun to hear about more incidents that have put peoples lives in danger. Just a few days ago, one such incident was posted on my Web site forum.
A kayak fisherman was helped back onto his kayak by a passing boater that heard him shouting for help. The kayak fisherman had fallen into the water and was unable to get back on his kayak unassisted.
Another incident occurred off the coast of La Jolla in December of 2004, in which a "guide" had taken a group of tourists off the coast to do some whale watching. After getting a little ways off the shore the predicted Santa Ana winds began to blow, the "guide" was forced to tow one of his clients back to shore, leaving the other clients to fend for them selves. One of those clients, Pat McQuade, became separated from her kayak causing her to cling to a lobster buoy in the 61-degree water for two hours before she was plucked from the water by a Coast Guard helicopter. Two others in the group were blown seven miles offshore before a lifeguard boat rescued them.
Taking the first two scenarios to the worst conclusion, a very similar incident occurred on March 2 of this year off Florida.
On a group kayak and canoe outing, two teenage boys became separated from the group of adults and other students in rough weather conditions. With no communication equipment, no help could be called for assistance in locating the boys. The two boys bodies were recovered two days later, the apparent cause of death was hypothermia.
So many things went wrong in these incidents; what started out as fun days on the water turned into disaster.
In my opinion, the "guides" in the second two incidents were responsible for making the decisions that led to the problems.
There were predictions of rough conditions in both events; these groups should have never been allowed to paddle offshore. Considering both groups consisted of inexperienced paddlers, and the fact the kayaks used by these operations are generally best used for short distance paddling in calm conditions.
In the La Jolla incident the guide did have a towrope, but should of never left the rest of the group to go get help. The group always needs to stay together; the guide needs to be with the group to aide with any incidents that may arise.
Why did the guide have to paddle in to contact the lifeguards? No radio, cell phone or other signaling device

As a guide, I need to consider many things before venturing offshore with a client. Not only do I need to consider my clients' physical conditioning and abilities, but also I must be aware of current and predicted weather conditions. I must also carry all the safety equipment necessary if an incident does occur. The ocean is a wonderful place, but it can become ugly in a hurry and I need to be prepared. It is the guides' job to be prepared and to make the decision on where and when to paddle. If you will be paddling with a guide, you should feel comfortable that he has considered these things and is prepared to deal with any adverse situations. If you don't feel comfortable with the conditions or the guides abilities, don't be afraid to cancel your trip.

Most of the people out on the water are not with guides and need to make the decisions to go or not go on their own. Below are some rules to follow and equipment recommendations to ensure a safe day on the water.

Be aware of current and predicted weather and surf conditions: There are many resources available to us on the web or marine radio, there is no reason to be caught unaware.
"A mans' got to know his limitations": Whether it is surf or wind, only go out in conditions that you feel you are able to handle comfortably. Sometimes it is better to "go another day".
Never paddle out farther than you can paddle back, in bad weather: It is easy to paddle out five miles, with the wind at your back, paddling back into that wind can be a bear. If you are just getting into kayaking start with shorter trips.
Start your day paddling into the prevailing wind: This makes for a much easier paddle back. If the offshore Santa Ana winds are blowing stay close to shore or consider taking the day off.
Dress to swim: Always were a PFD and paddling clothing appropriate for the conditions. Stay away from cotton and wool they just get wet and keep you cold.
Rig to flip: Everything should be leashed if you do not want to lose it. A paddle leash is a good idea also, if you do fall off the kayak, the dragging paddle will slow the kayak down in a strong wind. Paddle leashes should not be used in the surf zone.
Learn proper paddling techniques: Kayak fishermen are notorious for being fishermen first and paddlers a very distant second. Paddling is about efficiency not strength, learning to paddle efficiently can make a world of difference when you need to paddle five miles into a strong headwind. If you become a better paddler, you will become a better kayak fisherman.
Get out and play on your kayak without your fishing gear aboard: Climb from bow to stern, spin around, lay down, stand up, see how far you can tip your kayak on edge before it flips, the more comfortable you are at these maneuvers, the more comfortable you will be in adverse conditions.
Learn (and practice) proper self and assisted rescue techniques: Once you are in the water a couple of miles offshore is not the time to realize you have never practiced a self rescue, You should also learn how to assist another paddler that is in the water.
Learn to handle your kayak in the surf: More gear gets lost and people hurt in the surf zone than anywhere else. Take a class and learn to do it right.
Carry safety and communication equipment: You only seem to need it when you don't have it, here is a short list of what I carry, VHF radio, cell phone, GPS, compass, tow rope, first aide kit, spare paddle, whistle on your PFD, signal mirror, signal flares and bilge pump. If paddling at night carry a light. Keep it all in a dry bag, you want it to work when you need it.
File a Float Plan: Let someone know where you will be paddling and when to expect you back.
Use the buddy system: Paddle with a friend whenever possible, it is a lot more fun and it is nice to have someone there to help when you need it. Even if you are new to the sport, you can most always find someone to fish with via one of the kayak fishing Web sites forums.
When paddling with a group, if the conditions get rough, only paddle as fast as the slowest person does. You need to be there for each other, if you find you can no longer paddle you can raft the kayaks together for a very stable platform that is much easier to see by a rescue party than single kayaks.

As we see more kayak fisherman on the water some of the hot spots can become rather crowded, not just with kayaks but with private and sport boaters. We all need to show our fellow fisherman respect and hopefully they will show us some in return. Give the other kayak and boat fishermen a wide berth, there is no reason paddle across their stern or to troll directly behind them.

Never assume you are seen: Out on the water a kayak can be hard to spot, particularly when the conditions get rough and the swells are big. I have been no more then thirty feet away from another kayak and lost them behind a swell. You should always be on the defensive, assume the boater is watching his lines rather than where he is going.

There has been a lot of talk on the Web sites over the past couple of years about confrontations between kayak fishermen and certain sport boat operators. Try to put yourself in their shoes; having to navigate around twenty kayaks every time you want to make a move, I am sure can be very frustrating. There is no excuse for some of the actions I have seen by these boat operators, but there is also no excuse for cutting directly across the stern of these boats or setting up shop right in their chum line. These actions just add fuel to flame and will make a tense situation worse and potentially more dangerous.

Take a class and learn proper paddling and safety techniques. La Jolla Kayak Fishing as well as most of your local kayak shops offer these classes for a nominal fee. I think you will find these classes will increase your comfort level and enjoyment on the water.

This article is not meant to scare you, in my many years on the water kayak fishing, like most kayak anglers, I have never had a dangerous incident occur. This article is meant only to light a fire under you, to learn to be a better and safer paddler. Remember the negative instances usually only happen to those unprepared to handle them. As kayak anglers, we tend to get out on the water alone a lot and can only depend on fellow kayak anglers or ourselves if something goes wrong. To me that means knowing how to handle my kayak in every situation and always having the necessary safety equipment close at hand.

Climbing Back on Your 'Yak

Self rescue is a critical skill for kayak fishermen, particularly so for those who ever venture out solo. Like any other skill, if it is not practiced it will grow rusty. If possible, self rescue should be practiced in conditions most likely to require its use. It is much easier to get yourself back onto a kayak floating on calm, untroubled waters. If you capsize at sea, chances are the swell will be up and the wind howling. Just be sure to take a buddy or three and find someplace not too far from safety if you chose to practice self rescue in rough conditions.

Here is the most common method for reentering your 'yak, just remember "BBF" short for Belly-Butt-Feet and you should have no problems. BBF is a three step process that you should do as three distinct steps, go to fast and you may end up back in the water.

  • If necessary, flip your kayak right side up. You may find using the scupper holes, as a hand hold, help in this process.
  • Swim to up wind side of the kayak, it is much easier to get back on the kayak if it is not blowing over the top of you, even with the farthest footwells from the seat.
  • Place one hand on each side of the kayak in front of the cockpit, getting you elbow has high as possible
  • BELLY: give a good kick with your legs while also pushing down on the kayak, propelling your upper body across the kayak as far as possible. Several kicks may be necessary as you guide the kayak under your body.
  • BUTT: at this point you should be laying across the kayak, with you hips past the rail. Keeping your head low you roll your hips into your seat, at the same time pivoting your head towards the center line of the kayak. Once there slowly raise your head, you will now be sitting sidesaddle in your kayak.
  • FEET: now all you have to do is rotate your body into the proper seated position.
If you go out and practice this you should have no problems when you really need to do it. Just remember BBF and you will be back sitting on your kayak not in the water.