by Ralph Díaz
It’s that time again. Gone are the “off-season” days in most parts of the country where you have had the harbors, bays and wide rivers pretty much to yourself. Sure, earlier, during the fall, winter and early spring months, you had commercial traffic to deal with but it was generally predictable in its course. And there were always the passenger ferries that are increasingly plying the waters in greater numbers in more and more cities and which present problems all of their own. But now, pleasure motorboats and sailing craft are starting to come at you from everywhere. What can you do about them? How can you paddle in the same waters with some reasonable expectation of safety? Where should you be or shouldn’t be?
I'm not sure I have all of the answers. But I do paddle in a busy place, New York harbor, where not only do you have numerous ferries, pleasure boats, warships, freighters, barges and tugs but also fast moving ebb and flood currents that often act at cross purposes as well as restrict your ease of movement and choice of direction. I’ve watched and thought a lot about what to do including in the worse case scenario any paddler dreads—a collision you can not avoid (see below). This discussion is not the last word but I hope it gets you to think and to keep an agile mind when paddling in busy waters.
How To Read Traffic
This is your starting point. If you don’t have a copy of David Burch’s Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation (Folding Kayaker May/June 1994, page 10), get one right away. It has reams of information about dealing with traffic and other solid stuff on handling currents. Just a couple of points to add or underline in his sound advice.
Develop a swivel head.
It is easy to fall into a trance in the intoxicating act of paddling, to lose touch with your surroundings. You must remain alert. More alert than in driving in Paris or Buenos Aires. You must be looking around all the time. You must notice any traffic that is in your sight range, even boats that don’t seem to present any particular danger for you at the moment.
This requires turning around every minute or so and taking a panoramic view of everything in front, back and on both beams. I can’t tell you how often I have been paddling with others and had to yell out to one to watch for this or that craft coming up behind or on his or her rear quarter. The paddler simply was lost in the bliss of being out there and unaware.
Look at the bow of a boat that is coming in your direction.
This will tell you a lot. People often panic thinking that they’re about to be hit. But the situation is easy to check. If you can see equal sides of a boat on both sides of its bow’s centerline, you are likely to be hit. If the sides are unequal it is likely to be a miss. This is something that the reviewer in the negative Sea Kayaker review of my book took issue with saying “that’s so wrong it’s dangerous.” But it is kosher stuff right out of Burch and my own experience. And even Ken Fink, the well-known lecturer on sea kayaking, e-mailed me regarding this saying “That is certainly the rule I use in crossing the bow of oncoming lobster boats, etc. I feel relieved when I see one side growing in dominance over the other.”
Obviously, there are other things to consider. You both may be paddling on courses that could lead you to a collision point. But that is much clearer to see and less panicky than when a boat seems to be coming directly at you until you can determine that sides-of-the-bow’s-centerline situation for that peace of mind mentioned by Ken.
Establish the course of any boat around you and,
indeed if it is even following some course.
A motorboat or commercial boat that is on a definite course, such as following an obvious channel, presents little difficulty for you unless you are paddling in its way. Motorboats that are going all over the place are another matter. Watch them like a hawk; even stop to try to figure them out.
Know where traffic is likely to go.
You should, without fail, at every moment know where the channels are in your vicinity. Locate them on a chart before setting out. Look for them while underway. Also determine other likely traffic patterns such as marina entrances and ferry slips where boats may suddenly come out on you or turn into.
Your Own Actions
Despite being pretty small and less maneuverable than those boats zipping around you under motor or sail, you are not exactly helpless. There’s much you can do to protect yourself.
Keep a steady course of your own. Responsible traffic will appreciate your not acting erratically. And, even those jockeys on jet-skis and bow-lifted powerboats, if they see you, will very likely go where you are not going, although they may cut it close to be cute.
Be as visible as possible.
Wear bright clothing. Don a yellow or red PFD. Have bright colored blades on your paddle or reflective tape.
Assume you are not visible.
Yes, despite whatever you do to follow point #2, act as if no boat sees you at all. That is probably really your prime action: assume absolutely nothing.
Stay out of channels as much as possible.
While boats may seem to be flying all over the place, the majority of them stick to channels even many motorboats with short enough drafts to enter shallower waters. If you stay out of channels, you greatly improve your safety quotient.
When it comes to crossing a channel do so at a right angle. And quickly. Do you know how fast you can sprint paddle 75 yards or 100 yards? That distance would get you out of most channels and certainly clear of a vessel operating in a broader channel without scaring the hell out of its skipper. If uncertain of your sprint speed, now is not the time to find out. Do so in calmer conditions, timing yourself. Make certain the lane is clear before setting out to cross and do so decisively at speed. If paddling with a group proceed across as a chorus line not a line of shooting gallery ducks.
If a boat seems to be showing signs of uncertainty about your course
such as slowing down, make it clear to the skipper what you are doing.
One step that works when dealing with a larger boat that is moving on a course that may intersect with yours is to simply stop. Put you paddle down and cross your arms. This signals to the skipper of the larger boat that you, in effect, have turned off your engine. Better yet, start taking some backward strokes; or turn your boat away and paddle a bit in the opposite direction, which will make crystal clear that you don’t intend to cross paths.
Use the sides-of-the-bow’s-centerline rule to avoid a problem.
You are not helpless or a sitting duck. Take some action. If a boat seems to be coming in your direction, paddle toward your port or starboard until you get those sides on the bow’s centerline to start being unequal. This can avoid getting into major difficulty later.
In choosing your path, you may want to move in a direction where the motorboat is not likely to go such as shallower water. The last thing you want is to head, say toward a marina, where the motorboat may decide to turn toward while the operator reaches below to grab something while still moving speedily and not see you.
A Final Evasive Action
This is last ditch emergency advice. A boat seems to be on top of you and a collision appears inevitable. All the steps above have not prevented this from happening. You have tried getting out of its path by paddling perpendicular to its line of travel but you don’t see yourself clearing the oncoming bow of the bigger boat. You have tried blowing you whistle but the wind and engine noise have muted your sounds. There’s a final drastic step that will minimize the impact and harm to yourself. It is not something to do lightly and only a desperate, last course of action.
Turn your kayak toward the oncoming boat.
The worse situation to be in during a collision is to be broadside to the colliding force. When canoes and kayaks have been hit by larger boats on their broadside, almost inevitably the paddlers are killed or serious harmed. The motorboat cuts their small craft in half or hits paddlers directly. The motorboat rides over them and their canoe or kayak and they get hit by the full force of the impact or sucked into the propeller as they emerge out at the stern.
If you turn toward the oncoming motorboat, you are a smaller target and may be able to get yourself slightly to one side or the other of the bow. The impact is more likely to be a glancing rather than an overriding one. The force of the wake and the blow will likely tip you over. But you will be pushed out of the way of the motorboat itself and its propellers. And, the sides of your kayak in such a glancing blow will be between you and the motorboat. This will help absorb some of the force especially in a folding kayak where wooden or aluminum frames and built-in sponsons will partly act as shock absorbers.
It’s a sobering thought. Clearly, no one would ever want to test how well this evasive tactic would work. That’s why it’s so important to follow all of the avoidance procedures described earlier. They are your best bet for survival.
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