Photo: Robert Zaleski

By LTJG Nicole Barriga, Coast Guard Sector New York

Summer is almost here, and what better way to enjoy it than spending time on the water in your kayak or canoe. To make your next paddling trip as safe and worry-free as possible, take these simple precautions that will help the Coast Guard help you in the event something goes wrong.

No matter how experienced you may be, you can never take safety for granted. Consider these three tips before hitting the water.
First, in areas of heavy vessel traffic, consider the wake of bigger vessels and visibility. The wake of a large vessel can swamp you if you are too close. And, in periods of low visibility, a large vessel may not be able to see you.
Second, the weather is unpredictable. Even a beautiful, sunny day can quickly turn ugly. Check the forecast before heading out, and wear proper clothing to protect yourself from the environment.
Finally, when getting ready for your next trip, notify someone of your travel or float plan and update them if you deviate from it. This is one of the most important things you can do, next to wearing your life jacket, because when you don't check in or return home as scheduled this sets off alarms that something may be wrong. When the Coast Guard is notified that you have not returned home as scheduled, your travel plan will be a big help in our search efforts.

Always wear your life jacket. Before you purchase one, do your research to ensure proper type and fit. Next, due to the size of kayaks and canoes, a Coast Guard small boat or helicopter may have trouble locating the boat during periods of low visibility–after dark or during a storm or in the fog. Having a brightly painted vessel, flying an easily visible flag or using a flashing light during an emergency can assist us in a search. You can be even more prepared by having a safety whistle, towline kayak drift anchor, or ETON Emergency Crank Radio (portable radio). Be sure to carry a cell phone that is fully charged.

Try to remain calm if you have to call for help so the Coast Guard can rapidly record all necessary information and start sending rescuers to you. The following are some questions you can anticipate the Coast Guard asking:

  • Nature of distress (person falling overboard, hazardous weather, or lost/stranded)
  • Your geographic position (Lat/Long, buoy, or known landmark)
  • Number of people on the vessel (description and are they wearing a life jacket)
  • Any medical concerns/conditions?
  • Contact number and name
  • Description of the boat? Color, length, type?

Data from a wide array of sources, including buoys, weather forecasts, locals, and charts are great starting points. A prepared paddler should have a boat appropriate for the task, wear protective clothing, carry safety and communication equipment, and should always use good judgment.

Remember, a safe trip begins with assessing conditions and planning your journey, including the return. Happy paddling!