Kayak fishing is amazing! It’s very effective and it’s a great way to get close to nature while enjoying the sport. But there’s an inherent risk to being out there on the ocean in a little plastic tub and safety is certainly a serious concern.
I’ve been kayak fishing for about 4 years now and on the 1st of January of my first year I went out to Orere Point (my first trip there) for an early morning fish. It was dark when I arrived and by the time I’d unpacked my kayak from the car and gotten ready, you could see around you, but it was still more dark than light. I saw some other kayakers heading out, all in the same direction, so I followed, except that I put a line out to troll while paddling. I had only recently started trolling, so didn’t really know what I was doing, but didn’t take long and I’d caught my first snapper. Just started paddling again and I felt something strange going on, looked around at the rod in the back-facing rod holder and the rod was bent over ready to break. Very excitedly I turned back and grabbed for it, but the drag was too tight and there was so much pressure on the rod that I couldn’t get it out of the rod holder. Also, it only took a split-second of me looking backward to start feeling the world (or kayak) tumbling under me and next minute it was completely dark around me. And I was wet!!! And I was holding my breath!!! Why am I holding my breath? I’m under water!!! why am I under water??? Oh sh***t, I’ve fallen off my kayak!!!
And so I’d had my first turtle (see terms and abbreviations below)… In half-light sunrise… in an area I didn’t know… In the ocean… Where the taxman lives (again, see terms below) !!!
Scramble, scramble… I have to get my kayak, which was now upside-down, turned over and I have to get my juicy body of sharkbait out of the water! Kayak back up and I grab hold of the side, pull up and kick and … nope, couldn’t get enough momentum to get high enough out of the water to get back onto the kayak. Again, push down, kick and… bugger that, my leg got tangled up in the leash which is attached to my kayak and keeping my fishing rod from sinking down to the bottom. Get that loose and try again: push my body down as far as I can while still holding onto the kayak, start pulling up and kick with all my might and… nope. What’s going on? I got quite a bit of momentum that time, but my arms are feeling weak and couldn’t get me that last bit up onto the kayak. By then another kayaker showed up and asked if I was okay. Play it cool and don’t let on that you’re having a mini panic attack here: “yes, silly me had a turtle, just have to get back on here”. Another push down under the water, make sure my legs are not close to the rod and leash, “hey – while you’re down here, why not open your eyes and look around to see if the taxman is watching you?”, open my eyes and look into the deep, absolute darkness, “nope, no shark here, but I’m getting out of here!!!”, pull, kick and whoosh… I fly out of the water, over my own kayak and onto the other guy’s kayak.
Okay, I didn’t really fly out of the water, but looking into the darkness down there gave me all the strength I needed to pull myself out of the water and onto my kayak. Almost like those stories you hear of a mother lifting a car single-handedly to save her child’s life.
That story was getting longer than I’d intended, but actually I had a whole number of attempts before I got back onto the kayak and my legs got caught on the rod leashes more than once. Since that day I don’t use rod leashes anymore (rather lose a few $$$ than lose my life) and my wonderful wife got me a single-step rope ladder that I attach to the one side of my kayak.
That’s just one story and I have a number of safety related stories about my kayak. Thing is, things can very quickly go wrong on a kayak and you need to do what you can to ensure you can get yourself out of a bit of a tricky situation. Despite what happened there, falling over is actually one of my lesser concerns.
So here are some tips around safety on a kayak. As I regularly say on this blog and as the name of the blog suggests, I am not an expert and the following is just my opinion!
Terms & Abbreviations
- PFD: Personal Flotation Device (aka Life Jacket)
- PLB: Personal Locator Beacon (a GPS-enabled emergency button that will call the coastguard and alert them to your location)
- Turtle: Endearing term used to describe falling out of or rolling upside down with your kayak.
- Mr Taxman: Endearing term used to describe a shark. (aka Mr grey suit)
First let me deal with the equipment that I use:
- Wear a PFD (Life Jacket).
If you do turtle, make sure you can stay afloat. I simply do not go out without a PFD and I won’t take any of my friends or kids out with me if they don’t have a PFD. Do some reading about what type and style of PFD works well on a kayak.
- VHF Radio
Apart from wearing a PFD, your number 1 priority is being able to let someone know if you do get into trouble. Make sure you have at least 2 forms of communication on your person!. No good you get separated from your kayak and your VHF radio is safely stored on the kayak, keep it on you. For most people the two forms are a VHF Radio and a mobile phone. A mobile phone is okay as a secondary form of communication, but keep in mind it might not work if your fingers are cold or it might not work at all if it gets wet. I have a Samsung phone that’s waterproof and I keep it inside a waterproof bag around my neck, but still I assume that it might not work when my fingers are cold or wet – it’s just a backup.
This is a slightly more expensive piece of equipment (around NZ$400, I think) and it’s something I hope I never have to use, but it does give me a bit of extra peace of mind over the radio. A PLB is an emergency GPS system that will send out a distress signal and alert the coastguard that you’re in trouble and will continue sending out a signal so that they can find you even if you’re not able to communicate with them. While the mobile phone is convenient, I consider the PLB as my second means of communication.
Well okay, I don’t carry flares with me… But I do own them! Unfortunately they don’t add any value when they’re stowed in my cupboard at home, do they. Now that I’ve mentioned it here, I’ll make a plan to find a waterproof container so that I can keep one on the kayak.
- Rope ladder
I know most kayakers don’t consider this as essential safety gear, but I’m a fairly big guy and my kayak’s side walls are unusually high. So for me the rope ladder provides an easy means of getting back on the kayak. All good, as long as you have a plan and have practiced how you get back onto your kayak should you turtle.
- Line cutting device
The last thing I keep on my person is a line cutter as in the picture below. If you do do the turtle and things get a bit messy with ropes and leashes under the water, you want a quick way of cutting yourself free. Now of course you can use your knife for this, but I don’t want to be flicking a sharp knife around my body while there are waves splashing me around and I’m already panicking and whatnot. With a line cutter there’s no sharp point, but these things are REALLY sharp and will cut through a leash in a second!
- Extra Water
We’re talking about safety stuff here, so this is over and above your normal water that you’re going to be drinking anyway. Carry some extra water in your kayak. I take a 750ml bottle with me for the day and I have a 2L bottle stored for emergencies behind my seat. I haven’t needed to turn to the emergency bottle yet, but I’ll probably be better off with a bigger bottle for the day than the 750ml one.
- Emergency kit
Ok, I don’t have an emergency kit… But you should!!! Have a bandage, torch, lighter, some food and whatever you think may be helpful in there.
That’s about it for my safety equipment. The other thing I’ll mention is a spare paddle. I don’t carry a spare paddle with me because I have an electric motor and my paddle is already my backup propulsion device. However, I’ve heard a number of stories of people’s paddles breaking out on the ocean and people losing their paddles. Worth considering getting a 2-piece paddle that you can keep inside the hull of your kayak as a backup.
Be sure to wear enough clothing to keep you warm in case you get stuck out there in bad conditions, but also choose the right kind of clothing. Tracksuit pants and jumpers that will soak up lots of water and make you heavy in the water is a no-no! And baggy pockets that will open up and act like a parachute under water is also a no-no. Personally I wear a thin hot top, compression pants (to keep the sun off my legs) and shorts in summer and I’ve just bought myself a full 3mm wetsuit for winter that’s on the way. The wetsuit might be a bit of an overkill, but I was pretty cold last year.
Very important that somebody knows you’re out there and will know to take action if you’re not back by a certain time. I spoke to a prominent tackle shop owner just last week and he told me that his girlfriend knows that he’s always late, so will wait about 3 hours after their agreed time before calling the coastguard. In my opinion, that’s just stupid!!! I know that I’m sometimes late, so I tell my wife that I will contact her 1 hour later than I intend to. But she knows that if I don’t contact her when I said I would, she needs to try to get hold of me and if she can’t, there IS trouble.
Make sure somebody know where you’re launching from and what time you’ll make contact with them again. don’t be lax about that end time. The instruction must be that if you haven’t contacted them by the agreed time, they know there’s trouble and when they contact the coastguard, they need to make it clear that this is not an approximate time, but an absolute deadline.
If everything goes wrong except that I don’t drown and don’t get eaten, but I’m not able to get back by myself, I want to at least know that at the agreed time, my wife will take action and someone will start looking for me.
If you do have a PLB, make sure you know how to use it. Again, not something you want to figure out under stress and my one is actually not that obvious. It gets enabled as soon as you lift the aerial into fully open position. If I did not know that, I might go crazy looking for a button to push while under stress and stress even more thinking my PLB is not activated. Your PLB will have a test feature to ensure the battery is in good order. Part of your processes should be to test your PLB battery regularly (No, don’t test that the actual device works!!! You’ll have the coastguard turning up at your home and asking you to pay for the helicopter costs due to a false call-out!). Also, be sure to regularly charge your VHF’s battery and test that that’s working.
Stress is your enemy! When I had that first turtle that I mentioned at the start a few years ago, I was not well prepared at all! I can’t remember whether I actually had a PFD or not, I may very well not have. But more importantly, I had no experience how to get back onto my kayak. Practice, practice, practice!!! Make sure that you know how to get back onto your kayak easily and that you have experience doing so, so that it all comes naturally and you don’t stress when it really happens.
The last thing I’ll mention is something that I don’t adhere to myself. There is a lot of discussion on the kayaking forum I frequent about how stupid people are for going out by themselves. Now I am one of those stupid people, but I chose to take that risk. I am an introvert and I have Asperger’s Syndrome and with 8 children (2 who have left the house), I find that alone-time is not optional, but is absolutely essential for my sanity:) Fishing and just being out there in nature on my own “restores my soul”. So I chose to take that risk. However, I do think it’s much wiser to go out with another kayaker. So last piece of hypocritical advice… find a fishing buddy or a kayak fishing club and go out in numbers.
That’s about it, if you have any more safety suggestions, please mention them in a comment below.