6 Tips for Paddle Craft Safety

National Safe Boating Week begins on Saturday, May 21, 2016, and many local organizations will be sponsoring events aimed at making our time on the water safer and more enjoyable. Traditionally, when we think about boating safety we envision power boats racing across the water or sailboats with billowing sails gliding past.

However, there is another area of boating that is often overlooked: human powered or “paddle craft.” With more than 300,000 paddle crafts sold each year, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding and various other paddle sports offer a very affordable way to enjoy our lakes, rivers and streams. A national retailer shows kayaks for under $200.00 on their website!

Unfortunately, many do not view a paddle craft as a boat or see it as potentially hazardous. But each year paddlers get in trouble due to falling into cold water, being overcome by high waves, or being caught in weather conditions that exceed their ability. In 2013 there were 200 deaths and injuries to paddle craft operators. More recently, there was an accident in southeast Wisconsin. On March 16, 2016, one of two brothers went missing on Lake Michigan at Port Washington, Wis., when their kayaks overturned; at that time of year, Lake Michigan water temperatures are in the mid-30’s.

A paddle craft is a boat and is subject to some of the same rules as power boats and sailboats, as well as some of the same best practices. The U.S. Coast Guard has developed a list of safety tips for paddlers:

  1. Wear your life jacket. Use life jackets that are inherently buoyant rather than inflatable. This makes re-entering a paddle craft, especially a sit-inside kayak, easier after capsizing. If you are paddling on a federal waterway with children under 13 years of age, use of a life jacket is mandatory. Some states also have mandatory life jacket laws, so check local regulations before launching.
  2. Check the weather and file a float plan. Check the weather forecast for the area where you will be paddling and be alert for changing forecasts. Before paddling, always file a “float plan.” A float plan is left with someone who will call the local authorities or the Coast Guard if you do not return on time. A float plan includes where you will be paddling, where you launched from, a description of your paddle craft, a description of what you will be wearing, what time you were going out and what time you will be back. More information on float plans can be found on the Coast Guard’s boating safety website, including information on the Coast Guard boating safety mobile app.
  3. Paddle with a partner. Paddle with a partner or in groups. This reduces risk to an individual in the event of an emergency. Paddling in groups also increases the chances of being seen by boaters operating power and sail craft in the vicinity if you get into trouble.
  4. Dress for the water temperature. Always dress for the water temperature and not the air temperature. Wear the proper personal protective clothing, including dry or wet suits, when advisable. Cold water robs the body of heat 32 times faster than cold air. If you fall into water between 50 and 60 degrees you will be exhausted or unconscious in 1 to 2 hours; expected survival time is only 1 to 6 hours.
  5. Take a safety course. Take a paddle-safety course before heading out on the water. The Coast Guard Auxiliary now offers the “Paddlesports America Course,” a four-hour, classroom-based introduction to paddling safety, techniques and safety strategies. Courses may also be offered by the U.S. Power Squadron, state departments of natural resources, local commercial outfitters and the American Canoe Association.
  6. Make sure you can contact help. A hand-held, waterproof VHF-FM radio or a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) are much more reliable than cell phones. Paddlers who prefer to paddle in remote areas should especially consider these investments. When a 406 MHz beacon signal is received, search and rescue personnel can retrieve information from a registration database. This includes the beacon owner’s emergency contact information and vessel identifying characteristics. Having this information allows the Coast Guard and other rescue personnel to respond appropriately. In the U.S., users are required by law to register their beacon to the U.S. 406 MHz Beacon Registration Database or by calling 1- 888-212-SAVE. A PLB can be purchased for under $300 – a cheap investment when it could mean your life!

You could also take advantage of a unique service offered by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Click here to conduct a self-check to see if your paddle craft meets minimum federal requirements for being on the water, and also request an in-person “Vessel Safety Check (VSC)” by a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Successful completion of the in-person exam will earn you a VSC decal to affix to your paddle craft.

Be safe and have fun on the water!

-Tim Hoffmann

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