Using Strobes when Kayaking
Think Before Using a Strobe
by Ralph Díaz
I have gotten several calls regarding strobe lights as an answer to the being seen question raised in the last issue of Folding Kayaker. I'm sorry you called because I was trying to avoid the messy quagmire of rules on use of strobes. Here goes.
On the face of it, a quick flashing white strobe light would appear to be a good way to be seen while paddling in the dark. But, it is not a legally sanctioned option. Coast Guard regulations prohibit the use of strobe lights in inland waters except as a distress signal; they are not to be used as running lights to avoid collision. And in international waters they are not to be used at all for either distress or anti-collision purposes. (But by international law all life vests on ships over certain size must be equipped with them!) If this all confuses you, welcome to the regulatory world!
What's International? Inland?
Several things to consider. First, the lines of demarcation used to determine inland vs. international waters for purposes of Coast Guard regulation fill 22 pages in the Navigation Rules book. There is no easy rule of thumb to know when your are in which. For example, every bay, inlet and estuary on the Maine Coast is considered international waters, but Casco Bay is not. Long Island Sound and New York Harbor are deemed inland water. But, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound and the waters leading to Seattle are international. You get the drift.
Second, if you use a strobe light illegally, you could be subject to a stiff civil penalty, up to a $5,000 fine. So, let's say you are in inland waters and find yourself paddling after dark because of unexpected adverse winds that picked up late in the day. You put on a strobe light because you're scared as hell some motor boater coming into harbor will run you down. If that friendly Coast Guard patrol crew hovering nearby wants to, it can issue you a summons because the strobe is legal only as a distress signal. Technically, by regulation, you could also get a summons in international waters even if using a strobe in distress.
What Would the Coast Guard Do?
Still, you often see fishermen in motorized, small boats such as Boston Whalers, using strobes as they move about. How likely is the Coast Guard to pounce on them or you in your kayak? It depends on your Coast Guard District and what problems of abuse it has seen lately.
I asked the Coast Guard about the issue in a recent call to Washington. The officer I spoke to cited a situation in Puget Sound where many motor boaters are using strobes as a precaution in the area's nasty fogs. One strobe light manufacturer was even marketing its lights as "anti-collision" devices. The Coast Guard warned the company to desist and is issuing a warning to boaters in that Coast Guard District's Local Notice To Mariners not to abuse the use of strobes. That same notice on abuse will be published in the Special Edition of the Local Notice to Mariners issued by other Coast Guard Districts.
In talking with the Coast Guard, I pointed out the problem of kayakers being seen at night. While, the officer sympathized with our unique situation--sea going, slow and almost invisible--he asked that we see if from the Coast Guard side.
When weighing issues of anti-collision precautions vs. distress needs, the service is strongly bound by the latter. If a patrol boat sees a strobe on a kayak, which by its nature is not moving particularly fast and is close to the water, they'll come running. The patrol will not move in as fast with a fishing boat. Its strobe would be higher than we can get ours and clearly on a moving vessel not a body floating in the water. So avoid misusing strobes. Why get our critical, life-saving service out on a wild goose chase if not needed.
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