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The “experienced” kayaker

How many times have we read the phrase, “They were an experienced kayaker/paddler”? This seems to be a term used by reporters posthumously as they write an article of a paddler who was involved in an incident. The authors of the media release tend to receive this information from family members, onlookers, or perhaps the paddling partner who was also involved in the incident. Majority of these stories we read recount the tragic events which took place. The details seem to be constant, wrong boat for the conditions, improperly dressed for the elements, and not prepared for what they encountered.  The ripples of comments which go through respective paddlers and kayak instructors are endless. For most, we feel accountable – could we have made a difference? What can we do to in the future to educate the general public?

Social media stages numerous postings, pictures, and comments from the “Average Joe”, which display a large percentage of people who paddle incorrectly. These pictures show not wearing a PFD, paddles upside down, disregarding nautical rules, and improperly dress for the water conditions.  Those new to the sport, view these with eyes wide open and may use these as their reference tools for learning. What’s the harm in that, right? Well, many things. In the past years, I have joined many social media sites which focus on kayaking. My primary reason for joining these sites was to use these as informational resources for future paddle destinations. I am selective on becoming a member on some of the sites out there. Much like fact checking fake news reports, one should also ask pertinent questions when seeking specific paddling related topics. Manage to do a bit of research of the person posting, or even the main topic.

Let’s define the term, experience and then experienced:

Experience – as a noun, 1) practical contact with and observation of facts or events. 2) the knowledge or skill acquired by experience over a period of time, especially that gained in a particular profession. 3) an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone. As a verb – 1) encounter or undergo. 2) a feeling.

Experienced – 1) having knowledge or skill in a particular field, especially a profession or job, gained over a period of time.

What makes a person experienced, in this particular discussion – an experienced kayaker? An experienced kayaker is one who has logged many countless hundreds or thousands of hours in the seat. Paddled in conditions relative to the surroundings – in all aspects (paddling in winds existing from different directions, waves, various wave heights, wave direction, currents) and waters (open water, inland lakes, rivers, creeks, and rapids). They know limitations of both their kayak and themselves. There is apparent risk when undergoing any form of kayaking, and for majority of people in this sport, they understand this. Implementation of a risk assessment for your paddle adventure is a means in which those skilled in the sport, do not place themselves within a hazardous environment. A risk assessment focuses on many different aspects: paddler skill level, weather, type of water, known area of paddle, knowing your paddle group, and health conditions (just to name a few). Paddlers take these aspects and make sound and reasonable decisions for the destination in mind. This a continuous and ever-changing assessment during the paddle – as kayaking is never a static experience. For those who don’t understand this, should not call themselves, “Experienced paddlers”.

Understanding what limitations both you, your gear, and your kayak possess is a characteristic in experience. First timers in the kayak have many different ways in which they learn:

1) There is the hands-on approach – and just try (Doers)

2) The watch others/read procedures – and adapt to what needs to be done (Watchers)

3) Those who get ‘lessons’ from others – who may not be very proficient (Seers)

4) Then those who seek out professional training from a qualified individual.

Numerous times, I have been on the water and witnessed a variety of simple disregard to personal safety while on the water. I primarily paddle the open waters of Lake Michigan – and I have my go-to places I fully enjoy. As this body of water has its challenges, it also has many hidden factors which at times goes overlooked to the novice paddler. There are currents, [at times] rip current, various changes of water temperatures, off-shore winds, just to name a few. Encountering paddlers in this body of water without PFD’s physically on their body, kayaks ill-suited for large open bodies of water (lack of bulkheads, or float bags) which could quickly take on massive amounts of water from the waves, improperly dressed individuals who don’t understand about hypothermia, and lack of communication to others – should there be a need. I find myself conversing with as many of these individuals as I can. Attempting to plant a seed of knowledge, and hopefully make them think about their actions – and hopefully change their future paddling endeavors. Sometimes, this works – other times, I get shrugged off by the individual. One notable occasion happened this year. The air was around mid-70’s, water temp was 61, light off shore winds, waves about a foot. My buddy and I were dressed for immersion (had splash top, neoprene bottoms and boots), plus our usual open water gear – VHF, flares, first aid kit, cell phone in a water tight box, food/water, etc). We were playing with rescues (solo and assisted), and he notices a kayaker in the far distance – well off shore about a mile out. I suggested we go out and say hello. As we were getting closer, my buddy stated, “I don’t think he is wearing a PFD” – I commented, “Well maybe it is flesh colored.” The closer we get, my buddy then stated, “Actually, I don’t think he is wearing a shirt either.” We eventually intercept this guy about ¾ of a mile off shore. He was in a rec boat, no skirt, no PFD and wearing only shorts. He was in his early 20’s and muscularly built – as apparent from his arm paddling technique. We chatted to him for a long time, and almost blocked him from advancing anywhere on the water (not-intentionally – but reflecting back, guess we did). After a few minutes talking about safety on the open water, he was open to conversation. I had offered we paddle back to shore with him (as escort) and he generously agreed. Along the way, he reflected on his decision to paddle that far away from the shore, and realized that probably wasn’t the best idea – as he never really looked back behind him and see how far away he was from the shore. He also noted the off shore winds actually shoved him further out than he ideally wanted to go.

Instructors offer professional training and share their experience to those willing to seek out better techniques, increase their skills, and learn how to become a safer paddler. The good ones will be able to provide you many different techniques and approaches which offer a safe, effective, and efficient outcome. They understand you may not have the talent on day #1 to take on something way above your capacity – and they will not place you in apparent harm, or make you do something you are not willing to attempt. Understandably, some of the things instructors have you to practice/demonstrate are for your well-being. An example of one of these would be a wet-exit with a skirt. This is can be a freighting experience for the first time. Having a veteran instructor by your side as one does this offers a massive advantage for the first-timer.  The instructor has many methods in which they can act upon if events turn south. Should one attempt a wet-exit without someone knowledgeable at the ready, there may be a terrible end result. Same can be said with paddling dynamic waters. Having a person who understands the water trail, it’s complexity and features; offers guidance, first-hand knowledge, and safety to the adventure.

Experienced paddlers are those who have taken precautions to ensure their life, and the lives of others are not placed in immediate danger, or that of the unseen. Prior to the adventure on the water – they plan. Information is gathered well before even leaving the house. Weather reports from several sites is collected, to ensure there is no surprise. The location for the paddle, if not known, had been researched fully. Water temperature reports and conditions are reviewed to ensure proper clothing will be worn and wave height or cfs is not beyond one’s capabilities. Upon location, the paddler surveys conditions, and if doing a river, will scout the entire river (or make planned stops to get out and visually scout). If new people have joined them in the paddling outing – they ask many questions about their paddling abilities. They ensure everyone has proper safety items needed for the trip. A paddle float plan will be constructed and initiated, and communication to loved ones has been made. While on the water, they collect data continuously and ensure all participants are comfortable. Communication while on the water is paramount – both to each other and others not in your group. If an event happens while on the water, participants understand and are competent for reacting and acting upon anything which may happen (capsize, medical issues, or needing to be rescued by USCG). After the paddling adventure, they ensure everyone is safe and sound, and all gear is accounted.

Yes, even with the best planning, and precautions taken to ensure a safe paddling environment – things do happen. Everyone can experience a bad outcome – no matter what your experience is. However, statically speaking, the person who did not take precautions, went well beyond their comfort level or didn’t seek additional training tends to be those mentioned in a posthumous news report. Before you claim to be an “Expert” or “Experienced”, be prepared to follow up your claims.

How to be a conscientious kayaker

As the season opener approaches here in the Northwoods and more kayaks are seen on the roof racks – let’s remember we are ambassadors of the water. We share the waters with humans and nature. The ability to return in the future to these destinations is everyone’s responsibility.

typical boat launch

Upon your arrival to the water destination or boat launch, ensure you are parked in the correct location and not taking up a boat trailer spot. Some boat launches have launch fees – which may or may not affect you, the kayaker. Read the postings for their descriptions of what craft warrant a fee. Some boat launches I have been to charge innertubes, and inflatable rafts the same fee as a power boat. Personally, I do not understand how a inflatable raft can deteriorate a boat launch like a 3000 pound power boat.. but that is for another debate. If you really like that body of water, majority of fee based locations have an annual rate (which is much more cost effective). Boat launches act as a first come, first serve basis and there is a unload/load process which is commonly understood to all. Since you had paid your fee, you have as much right to use the ramp as the next person. Try to launch and land as quickly as you can – but always ensure you are safely doing that. It is best to convey to the fellow boaters your intentions to come in and use the boat launch.

oh no hazard

Besides the normal obstacles and obstructions on the waters (piers, strainers, rocks, etc..) there are other concerns are on the waters. Folks fishing – When possible, make verbal contact with the person fishing – and try to see where the line is in the water. If able to stop, wait for them to reel in the line (if you know you will be very close to the end of the line), pass quickly and let them know you just say a big fish just upstream. Hunters (waterfowl) are a bit more difficult to see – being they are usually camouflaged and hiding behind those blinds. One of the more notable signs of these folks out and about would be the constant gun shots – or decoys floating around (why is that duck just sitting there???) If you believe you are near one of the blinds, stay clear. If you accidentally come up on one (especially paddling along the shoreline) change your heading away from them.

USCG navigation rules

Power craft at speed, have restrictive movement. They need to have some time before making quick positional changes. We on the other hand, can maneuver and swing our kayak in a different heading in a fraction of the time. As a paddler, one should have their head on a swivel when sharing the waters with power boats – and be aware of their surroundings at all times. Power boats may not see a single kayak in the distance, it is your responsibility to make directional changes first to avoid head on collisions. Paddling with friends in a group makes it easier for others to see you (since you are now a larger element).  The USGC sets the nautical rules of the road, and with other agencies enforcing the rules. Rules regarding kayaks are location dependent and change based on location – inside a harbor, in a channel, vs the open water. Let’s explore passing other vessels – and getting passed. There is a hierarchy of vessels and a ‘pecking order’ in which we are suppose to give way (to change direction) to avoid collision with another vessel.  Which kinda look like this: kayaks must give way to sail boats, which give way to power boats, which give way to Military or law boats – which have the ultimate freedom. Overtaking (the process in which a boat passes one from behind) may be done from either side. Normally you may hear a blast from the boat behind you, this signals they will be passing on the left – two blasts mean they will be passing on the right. I can’t say I have ever had this happen to me, either the river was wide enough, in a no wake zone, or I was close enough to shore. If there is a boat coming head on in front of you, the most common scenario is for boat boats to turn to starboard (the right) and pass the other.

boater safety tips

Inside the harbors and channels they follow a specific rule: Red Right Returning. These are marked with floating red and green objects, which can be either a buoy, can, panel, or nuns). Traffic flows to the right within this channel. Crossing a marked channel is much like crossing an intersection (although there is no crosswalk sign or button to push). When one comes upon a channel, slow or come to a stop, look both ways and all around you for any vessels, if none cross the channel with a quickness. When with a group, paddle together and try to stick together as a single unit (makes you a larger visible object.

leave no trace

While on the water, please do your part to ensure our waterways remain healthy. Follow the leave no trace process by not littering, pick up floating debris when you come upon it, and don’t litter – preform a small role in the big process. This notion applies to both water and land. If you are like me, I do a little kayak camping from time to time. I like think I am a ninja kayak camper….. Nobody knew I had been there, but yet I was.

canoe portage

There isn’t always public land along the water for us to get out or land wherever we want. Private property should be respected, even if it isn’t clearly marked by signs. If there is a need for a portage, look for portage signs, and follow the path. There are special occasions for getting out on private property – if there is an injury, damage to your kayak which needs immediate attention, or seeking safe harbor (when weather conditions could result in either of the two). The kayaker should attempt to make contact with the owner and notify them of the situation. Most owners will be more than happy to assist and have a better appreciation for you.

Swim area marker

When landing your kayak (if it is a location from your put-in), pay attention to the arrival location. There may be a dedicated swimmer section attached to a public beach. This area would be well marked and usually roped off. Attempt to bring kayaks out of the way of fellow beach goers, if possible, place the kayaks on a grassy area and off the beach. Everyone will be happier to share the beach with each other.

boat clean up station

After landing, there may be some unwanted passengers still on your kayak – I am talking about invasive species. These are non-native aquatic plants and animals which can be accidentally transported and introduced to other bodies of water. Once introduced in to different waters, they are nearly impossible to be eliminated. Ways in which one can assist the spreading is to remove these prior to leaving the water. Drain as much water as possible, use a sponge to wipe of the hull. When available, wash your boat at a  fresh water cleaning station, or to really kill these guys, a mix of bleach and water (one TBSP to one Gallon of Water) sprayed on the kayak will do them in. It is best to let the kayak fully dry a couple of days before placing it back into another body of water.

 

Being a responsible boater is everyone’s responsibility – either powered by gasoline or by granola. Be observant, predictable, and respectful. Enjoy ever river and be a ninja kayaker.

 

For the Paddler Within….

Paddle Float Plan

As a paddler, one should always notify others of your intentions. A simple phone call to a loved one, or a friend can be that ONE thing which may save your life. Simple communication is all it takes. With our digital age and access to cell phones – there should be no reason why we can not express to others what we have in mind.

Like most, when the day and the water are calling – the need to get the kayak and hit the water beckons us. We are excited to have great paddle weather, and even better water conditions. As the endorphins makes it way through our bodies as you load the kayak, paddle gear, and all other related items for a great trip – take a moment and think, have I let anyone know what I am doing?

One phone call can make or break your outcome. Prior to the paddle season, establish a contact list with people you know you can count on, should there ever be a need for assistance. Another great option is to send text messages to those trusted people – and ensure they have replied to your text message before hitting the water.

So, what information should one provide (assuming they know you really like to paddle)? When I paddle, I will notify my contact person of my intentions (I have a scheduled paddle pattern). I inform them of the number of people who are present, where I am, my destination/ planned route, ETA of when I should get back to the car, and what the conditions are like. I bring my phone along with me and place it on airplane mode (to conserve battery life), and place it in a water-proof container, within reach – should I ever need it. Once I completed the trip, and returned to the car, I immediately notify my contact person of my safe return. This reduces the stress and worry factor with my contact, and creates trust between the two.

What happens if there is ever a need for a rescue, or the people you paddle with don’t know you/your contacts, or nobody else knows where you had gone, or you went for a solo paddle and never notified anyone (I DO NOT recommend this)? A Paddle Float Plan is a great way to inform others of your intentions as a paddler. Even alerting my contact person, I complete this form. This plan offers the information to others outside your contact circle, a means in which to find you, and to make contact with you should the need arise. This form provided can be laminated and can be used for multiple years.  Just use a grease pen or wet-erase marker to write the information on the sheet. Once completed, place it on the dashboard in clear view for others. Rescue agencies can easily spot vehicles with kayak racks/trailers, and will look for this information (should it ever come to that). This provides a quicker response time, narrows the search location, and provides information in which others may not know.

On your next paddle trip, take a moment to complete the form, and keep in handy in your car. Your kayaking pals will thank you – as this may just save your life, but your paddle partners as well.

 

For the paddler within,

Daren