Safety Tips

Safe Paddling!

Every year, thousands of kayaks and one and two person outrigger canoes are sold in Hawaii.  Then adding to that, the number of tourists rent while they’re here on vacation, should make paddling one of the most popular athletic sports in our state.  Even with thousands of new paddlers hitting the water every year there are only a few incidents per year to remind us that safety measures should be considered, adopted and practiced.

For many this will be your first time in a kayak or canoe and for others who paddle in other states or countries this will be your first experience in Hawaii’s ocean conditions.  Our waters can go from flat and calm in protected bays and rivers to unpredictable conditions out on the open ocean and over our shallow reefs.  The surf can go from flat a couple of stories tall in just a few hours.  The winds can blow you in towards shore but they can also blow you out to sea depending on what side of the island you are on and where the prevailing winds are blowing.  If you’re already one of the thousands of Hawaiian kayakers and canoe paddlers you’ve already had a taste of what our waters can dish out. Huge amounts of adrenaline!

Below are lists containing safety equipment and manual signals an individual should consider carrying and knowing:

Safety Gear List

All paddlers should be familiar and carry an assortment of safety equipment.  Your list will vary depending on the difficulty of your paddle.

On the Life Vest/Life Jacket/Personal Floatation Device (PFD)

Life Vest/PFD (Coast Guard Approved): MANDATORY!  Life vests have to be on board the kayak and children under the age of 12 need to be wearing their life vest.  It is a $100.00 fine if caught without a PFD.  A better PFD has 2 or more pockets to carry a asortment of emergency equipment.
*→items marked with an ARROW are saftey items that we recommend to attach to the PFD
→Cell Phone and/or V.H.F Radio: The Coast Guard listens to emergency channel 16 at all times so a VHF Radio is a vital piece of equipment for any serious paddler. VHF radios can get better coverage by the Coast Guard statewide but still have areas of blackout. Cell phones also have areas of blackout and both VHF and cell phones need line of site to antenna locations on each island. One is good, both are better! (Dry Bags and waterproof cases are available for cell phones and VHF radios)
→E-Pirbe/PLB (emergency Personal Locating Beacons): A distress beacon that sends your I.D.# and current Latitude and Longitude to the Coast Guard. Mandatory if you are going a mile offshore, $100.00 fine.
→Whistle (the loudest one possible is the Storm Whistle) or Horn (air powered)
→Mirror (day strobe) and/or Smoke Flares
→Flares: Red Aerial type
→Strobe Light and/or Waterproof Dive Flashlight
→See-Rescue: invented by local geologist Robert Yanover that is only 6” x 1.5” x 1.5” and fits in the pocket of a PFD but when unrolled turns into a banner that measures 6” x 25 feet of bright orange plastic with intermittent float tubes. Without your kayak or canoe you’re barely larger than a coconut and the Rescue Streamer would make spotting you from the air much easier (can also be used on land)

On the Kayak/Canoe (if possible)

Paddle Leash and/or Ankle/Calf Leash to Kayak/Canoe:
– In an Outrigger Canoe the leash is attached your leg to the canoe so that if you fall overboard your canoe can never get further than 8 feet away.
– On kayaks we attach the paddle to the leash and the leash to the bow of the boat so that the boat and the paddle always stay together.  If you fall overboard, by holding onto your paddle with your strong hand and you have a hold the bow of your boat.
Knee Straps: it is like a seat belt for your kayak; if you have a good brace stroke then you can broach (side surf) and stay seated and in control of your kayak.
Tow Rope: for emergency towing, needs a bicycle inner tube for show absorption
Extra Paddle: for when there is an emergency where the main paddle breaks or becomes lost
Bilge Pump: Necessary to pump water out of the kayak hull if flooded
Sea Anchor: for holding place during high winds to keep from being blown out to sea – can also be used for holding your kayak in place while you are swimming and as a brake while kite sailing or fishing
First Aid Kit: sting aid, Benadryl, bandages, pliers (for fishhook removal), etc.
Repair Kit for Kayak: duct tape, spare parts, tools, rope, etc
Helmet: for surfing, rock gardens, sea caves, and nasty landings and takeoffs
Water for Drinking: if you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated!

Proper Clothing & Sun Protection:

Aquatic Footwear: For foot protection from the reef
Clothing (synthetics instead of cotton preferred) and Hat (for sun protection)

Plans and Partners

Finally, leave a Float Plan and always go with a paddle partner.

  • Make sure that someone, who is not paddling with you, knows your float plan.  Inform them of when/where you are starting and when/where you plan to finish, how many are in your group, and your cell phone number if you don’t call them when you’re finished.
  • If you are paddling with a group of people (or just another individiual) make sure that everyone knows the paddle plan and confirm that their skill levels are adequate for that paddle.  If anyone feels uneasy about the difficulty of a particular paddle, encourage them to postpone the paddle trip and paddle on a day that is better for their skill level/comfort.  Make sure that no one is allergic to bee stings as they are at a greater risk from the venom of jellyfish stings.

There are more safety devices to be considered depending on the type of paddling you are planning on doing. Take some time to look over this list. Look at the route you want to take and think about what items might be necessary. Check the weather forecast to make sure that the weather will be consistent for the day of your paddle. Generally the more long-range the forecast the less dependable it will be so confirm the weather a day or two before your trip. Make sure there’s no expected increase in surf activity for your paddle route.

Above all, relax and have fun!  Practice canoeing/kayaking in all types of ocean and weather conditions, so that way you are ready for anything that nature throws at you.

Visual Signals

There is a tendency to rely on electronic communication tools but as we’ve seen this isn’t always the most reliable way to communicate.  Batteries can die, waterproof seals can fail, the radio is out of reach or falls overboard, or the paddler is just too busy paddling to use the radio.  The weather, ocean conditions, or the nature of the emergency can also hinder effective communication.  This makes knowing the three means of manual signaling very important for kayakers who like to explore as a group and/or push the envelope of safe kayaking.

The three methods of manual signaling from kayak to kayak or from shore to kayak are using the paddle, using your arms, or using a whistle.  A combination of the whistle followed by arm or paddle signals can be more effective than using one system alone.  Whistle, arm, or paddle signals should be met with the OK signal once the message is understood.  Some signal methods work better than others when distances are involved.

The following signals are basic signals and the ones we urge you to learn:

Paddle Signals:

1. Emergency, come to me: Paddle stood vertically on one end and waved back and forth.
2. Waypoint, meet here: Paddle stood vertically on end and held stationary.
3. Go that way (left or right): Paddle stood on end and leaning in the desired direction.
4. OK to paddle, go!: Paddle held horizontally overhead and pumped in a paddling motion. Slow pumps = take it easy, fast pumps = paddle faster/harder.
5. Stop: Paddle held horizontally overhead motionless or pumped up and down while remaining horizontal.

Arm Signals:

1. Emergency, come to me: One or both arms waving side to side overhead.
2. Round up, everyone come here: One arm and finger-pointing up and making vertical circles.
3. Go that way (left or right): One arm and finger raising from the center of the chest and pointing in the desired direction.
4. OK to paddle, go!: Arms held horizontal overhead and pumped in a paddling motion. Slow pumps = take it easy, fast pumps = paddle faster/harder.
5. Stop: From a distance the arms are held overhead in a crossed position, at shorter distances one arm held up with a closed fist, and from shore arms held upwards with palms out fingers spread held motionless.
6. Back up or go back: From shore, the same signal as stop but pumping both hands back and forth.
7. Come here or come in: One or both hands up, palms facing back and pumping back and forth.
8. Straight in: From shore both hands up with palms facing each other pumping hands back and forth.
9. One person only: Pointing one finger up combined with the come in sign.
10. Ok or understood: Make an “O” with one arm, fingertips to the center of the head or at a distance with both arms making the “O” with fingertips touching.

Whistle Signals:

1. Emergency, come to me: Three blasts or continuously blasting the whistle without pauses.
2. Round up, everyone come here: Two blasts, pause, two blasts, etc.
3. Attention: One blast.

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