Kayak Traffic: The Ten Commandments of Safety!
Ten Commandments of Dealing with Traffic
by Ralph Díaz
Folding kayaks tend to be the urban boats-of-choice because of their storage ease for space-starved apartment dwellers. That means folding kayakers are more often likely to be paddling in traffic than their rigid-kayak brethren.
In an ongoing interest on safety here are “The 10 Commandments of Dealing With Traffic” that combine many of the points above. Like the 10 Commandments of the Old Testament, the Traffic 10 are a key to your salvation. And, like the original ones, the Traffic 10 can be grouped into categories that will help you remember them whenever you are tempted to let your guard down:
- 1 to 3 stress the attitude you should have when on busy waters
- 4 to 6 focus on the intelligence you should be gathering
- 7,8, and 9 alert you to some deadly optical illusions that could cost you your life
- The 10th points to a life-time calling to help you survive
I. Be like an owl.
Owls not only have big wide open eyes that take in everything. They can swivel their heads to face totally backwards. An owl would make a great traffic survivalist paddler.
Folding kayaks, most of them anyway, make it fairly easy for you to turn around because of their immense stability. Take advantage of this feature to look behind you regularly when in traffic. Develop a pattern of, say, looking back at every fourth or fifth stroke. Have a chant in your head such as “pad-dle, pad-dle, pad-dle, pad-look.” Most of us have a “sweet” direction in which we can turn ourselves more fully to look around. Find out which that is and turn in that direction as part of your ordinary paddling routine.
Don’t let anything disrupt your vigilance such as reaching for your lunch bag or canteen. It is when you least expect it, off in shallower waters, when something is bound to overtake you.
If you are in one of the tippier foldables or in a borrowed hardshell, make certain that you can turn to look behind you. If you are having trouble doing this, learn how to do a sculling motion with your paddle that will allow you to get enough support to look back. If you can’t do this comfortably, don’t use that boat in busy waters. No amount of sleekness is worth your life.
II. Work on being seen.
The windmilling motion of your paddle stroke can catch the eye of even the most dazed motorboat operator. Brighter colored blades like white and yellow work especially well to attract attention when they are being swung around in a normal paddling motion. Of the two, yellow is better; it doesn’t blend against anything. White is okay but at times it can be lost to traffic’s eye against a backdrop of a white caps in choppy waters.
Avoid stylish colors for your paddle blade such as purple. Such colors can’t be seen all that well. If your favorite paddle is black or some other invisible color, think of adding some strips of reflector tape to the blade both on the power and non-power face. The tape found at marine stores for putting on PFDs etc. is pretty waterproof and won’t come off.
Working on being seen starts early in the game. If the precise color of your boat’s deck is of no particular importance to you and red is available, choose it since red is the color that can be seen the farthest. It never ceases to amaze me just how much red stands out at a distance with the least confusion with anything in the natural world. In a widespread group of kayaks, the red boats are the last to disappear from sight. There is more square feet of visibility in your deck than in anything else you have out there. Use it to your advantage.
There are only three colors you should be entertaining in your choice of PFD—yellow, orange, or red, in that order. Other colors may look nice but aren’t very visible. Your vest, and your hat, are the highest points on you while paddling and thus most likely to be seen; pick stand-out colors for both. You could also dye your hair Dennis Rodman red!
III. Always act as if you cannot be seen.
Face it. Your boat is tiny and you are tiny in the spectrum of things that are moving about on open water and that other boat operators are expecting to see. Following Commandment 2 gives you an edge, but don’t stake your life on it.
Assume that, as far as traffic is concerned, you are dressed in commando camouflage in an olive drab boat and moving stealthily around. The less you rely on the vigilance of others to spot you, the better off you will be.
IV. Know where boat traffic is coming from and going to.
Even though you are in something called a sea kayak, most of your paddling is along shore. Surprisingly, here is where you can be more vulnerable than out on open water. Near shore, you might be tempted to feel secure. But large boats can come out of wharves into you as you pass in front or run over you as they enter a dock at the end of a long day and their operators have their guard down.
As with Commandments 5 and 6, intelligence processing begins on shore. In the case of Commandment 4, consult a chart before you start off to determine shore facilities that can suddenly spring traffic into your path. Make a note of ferry slips, oil depots, commercial areas, marinas, etc. When underway, be extra alert as you approach these danger zones.
V. Know where channels are.
As in the previous commandment, check over a chart beforehand to note channels in the area you are planning to paddle. Look out for troublesome spots such as where channels come close to shore. Some channel markers are on land, i.e. you can’t escape traffic by going to that side of the channel. Also, determine where channels split into off-shoots; it is easy to get confused in these areas on whether you are in a channel or not.
When underway, take constant notice of the channels. Keep out of them as much as possible. When crossing one, take a look both ways before proceeding ahead. You want to make certain you have enough room to make it across without getting hit or causing a problem for larger ships that are confined to the channel because of their draft. It is a judgment call on how much time and distance you need. Until you have lots of experience at determining the speed of various types of vessels under varying conditions, err on the side of caution. Don’t be impatient.
VI. Know your currents cold.
Again, this is an exercise that begins at home. The speed and direction of currents obviously dictate the direction you may want to head as you set out. But the information is also absolutely vital for dealing with traffic. For example, currents will either boost or hinder a vessel’s movement under certain conditions, something you need to know if you plan to cross ahead of it.
When on the water, see just how the currents are really acting compared to the predictions in currents and tide tables. Many factors can change things. For example, heavy winds can alter the predicted times for flood and ebb cycles. Heavy winds can jack up effective speed of currents, and, if in opposition to the current, will result in higher seas that will affect your own ability to maneuver.
VII. Recognize that large vessels appear to be moving slower than they really are.
This is the first of the three optical illusions you must take into account when judging vessel traffic.
Check this deadly illusion out for yourself. Stand on a dock in a no-wake zone and focus your attention on a set point in the water as boats go by. Watch as a small motor boat and then a larger vessel go by at what should be the same speed because of the zone. The larger vessel seems to be going slower. Why? All of the smaller boat passes your sighting point right away while the larger one still has more boat that still has to go by even after it bow crosses your point. The effect is it seems slower.
In practical terms, this means a paddler often underestimates the speed of large vessels, just the kind of boat that can’t stop quickly or make quick turns for the most part. Don’t fall into this trap.
VIII. Be aware that vessels seem to be further away when viewed from a low vantage point.
There is hardly a thing afloat that is lower than a seated kayaker. This low position already makes your situation quite tough by limiting your horizon and how far you can see. Your problem becomes even graver because vessels appear further away than they really are.
IX. At night, take into consideration the effect that lights on a vessel have on your depth perception.
Whether a vessel is all lit up like a dinner cruise ship or just carrying the minimum lights required by law such as barges do, their distances from you are deceiving. They almost always seem so much further away than they really are.
If you are caught out at night, or choose to paddle in darkness, be careful of this phenomenon. Take no chances at all regarding necessary crossing times to get out of the way of vessels at night.
X. Make a life-long practice of studying vessels when out on the water.
There is no such thing as generic traffic. A ferry differs from a freighter in speed and turning ability for example (see the earlier series of articles in 1995). The ferry can go anywhere and stop in a few seconds; the freighter is limited in stopping distances and where it can go. A vessel’s abilities change with prevailing conditions. For example, a lightly loaded barge on an outgoing tide and with following wind will move much faster than a heavily loaded barge that is bucking currents and wind.
Study such differences every time you paddle in traffic. The knowledge will make you a more savvy and safe paddler.
TRANCECOACH - MENTAL PREPAREDNESS FOR KAYAKING !!!
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