Travelling with Paddles can be a stressful time. Any one who has traveled with paddles has wondered how to keep them safe from the rigors of flying commercial airlines. What can seem like a resilient and nearly unbreakable trusted piece of gear on the water, suddenly feels as fragile as glass when you… [Continued]
Learning safety in Sea Kayaking comes in many forms: science (understanding the physics of weather, waves, tides and currents), reading material (trade magazines, books on a wide variety of topics or specific in nature), word of mouth (social media, friends), formal training from qualified persons (first aid, CPR, kayaking courses and curriculum established by reputed and recognized agencies), and informal training (experiential, mentoring, friends sharing and showing). Because kayaking is an “inherently dangerous sport”, we can (and should) use all these different methods of utilizing key factors for increasing our chances of survival and enjoyment. As we all know from our formal and informal learning experiences, the key to the best learning is having FUN.
We sat in our boats on shore for almost an hour; BCU Four Star Candidates (AKA Aspirants) being assessed. Assessors, Shawna Franklin and Steve Maynard, were expecting us to pull magic out of our day hatches like it was Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. And they were working from a list – Steve didn’t smile, his mouth merely twisted, and the twinkle in Shawna’s eyes could blind you. We’re talking devilish delight here!
I was fortunate to sit in on this session, a ‘Johnny-Come-Lately’ to the 4 star assessment, having just passed my Three Star. I had no idea what to expect; but I was told to come prepared for anything. I admit, I did feel a little silly with all the stuff I brought along, until I looked over at my friend Chris, and all the junk he had.
“Hey, do you have a spare hatch cover?”, he said softly.
“Here, I have an extra.”, and he gave me a garbage bag. I accepted it like a gulag prisoner getting an extra loaf of bread, glancing sideways to see if a guard was watching me put it away. He saved the (virtual) day! There was probably other stuff he lent me, but I was like a deer in the headlights now.
Shawna: “You’re Thirsty”; [easy, I’ll drink some of my water (I’m kinda thirsty any way and it is warm on the beach)]
“It’s raining and your partner is cold”: [easy, I’ll give them my rain coat and cap, I don’t get cold. This is easy…hmmm….too easy.]
” Now you are cold”: [Oh crap, I’m screwed]
… and on and on for almost an hour. I had most of the items to cover the scenarios they were presenting, and I felt good about my preparations. The “gotchas” were hard lessons to learn without the pain of suffering. One of the biggest lessons I learned from Shawna still is: “Your day hatch is one of the most valuable pieces of equipment”. That’s where we pull our magic from while on the water: spare hatch cover, spare clothes, signal equipment, food, water… stuff you can easily dig out and use without having to stop; address the situation NOW!!!.
A while back, when I was new to kayaking, I saw Andy Stamp instruct somebody to treat their paddle for hypothermia. Out came the thermos and shelter and the candidate and paddle disappeared into the shelter. I have a pretty good idea what went on in there because the paddle recovered.
Our local club, Inland Sea Kayakers, hosts a twice annual event: The “As If” Challenge. Participants have a wonderful paddle on a beautiful lake during the shoulder seasons. But… the day is riddled with scripted scenarios. The contents of a kit a team has means the likelihood of success. The best learning actually occurs during the debriefing, and several members have attributed success in adversity to these exercises.
“The As If Challenge is a leadership and skill development day.The day is broken into situations and challenges a group may encounter while touring on a large body of water. These situations and challenges are designed to foster teamwork, develop new skills, and to offer an opportunity for team learning.”
What’s in your kit? Folks with a kit like to compare with each other what is in their kit; sometimes there’s agreement that bonds paddlers deep to their souls, and sometimes there’s disagreements so passionate, you’d think they were defendeing their religion. In a sense they are.
For those that don’t have a kit, they’re left wondering what it is, why is it important, are kayak skills anemic without one? This article is just to get you to think about your kit, or to enrage you enough to write angry letters of passionate disagreement.
Basically, your kit is the junk you carry with you when you kayak. Thankfully, there are those items we can all agree on: life jacket, spray skirt paddle, bilge pump, paddle float, etc. Of course, we can go the extreme, like all social fringe nuts tend to. More esoteric discussions end up in heated, bitter arguments like packing candy: on your PFD, in a handy dry bag, or bail out bag; how many pieces; what kind is best, most energy, highest sugar content, flavor, or even why? This equipment can make the difference between comfort and complaint, between content and frustration or even between life and death, so it becomes very individualized and personal.
If you haven’t formally built one, you’ll eventually think about ways to organize it. I like to use duffel bags; they’re flexible, hold lots, and have a mesh top to help with drying (maybe). Some people use plastic tubs, when the gear drains and drips, it doesn’t get your upholstery wet and sandy, and the cover snaps on to contain that hideous odor. The most economical, and gaining widespread use are those super cheap bags from Ikea stores.
I’ve added a new section the the website called, simply: “Gear”
Gear reviews and gear lists are in this category.
Choosing an HT (handheld Transceiver) VHF marine radio seems simple enough, until you go to the store or ask others for their opinions. There is no perfect radio, but these points to consider may help you make a more confident decision:
Size (Yes, size matters, but bigger isn’t necessarily better.)
Most kayakers are thinking about a device they can carry in their pocket or slip into their day hatch or deck bag , and the fact of the matter is, if it’s not convenient to carry, it will be left behind, and then what good is owning one anyway?
Size also matters if you have large or small hands or wear gloves. If you have small hands, a larger radio will fatigue them after a while of holding it; you just can’t seem to get a good grip without clenching it. Large hands may have some troubles with smaller radios; those little buttons are hard to manipulate with big paws. Large hands can also fatigue while holding little radios. Another thing to consider is that the PTT (push to talk) button may be too stiff and fatigue your thumb.
Power (and world radio wave domination)
Let’s face it: these radios don’t have the nickname “peanut whistle” for nothing; (you’re competing with watercraft that often has ten times the power you do), plus, you’re sitting low in the water. 5 watts isn’t much, and in most cases your radio is nothing more than a short distance intercom.
You can maximize your efforts, however. Does your radio have 5 watts or is it rated lower than that (that may be why you can hear the other kayaker, but he can’t hear you). Or, can you get another vessel with more power to relay your message?
Batteries (If the power is not there, it will be left behind)
Most handheld radios have rechargeable NiCad batteries, and it’s green (mother earth and your wallet will appreciate this). To conserve battery power as much as possible, turn the radio off when it’s not needed.
But on a trip away from civilization, you can’t plug your charger in to a nearby creek to get your current. An alternative power source must be available when the manufacturer supplied rechargeable batteries become depleted. You could have an extra charged battery pack on hand, or an accessory battery holder that can hold alkaline batteries. Seek a radio that has this accessory for holding the same batteries that you already carry for your other electronic devices. I try to have all my gadgets run on AA batteries, it simplifies packing, These batteries are also easy to find at the gas station or quick stop, after you realized on the way to the landing, that the last thing you were supposed to do before going to bed last night… was charge the batteries (been dere, done dat).
Check your manual to see if the full 5 watts will still be there with an alkaline battery pack, and assume that it won’t last as long as the manufacturer supplied rechargeable batteries.
Controls(If you love your TV remote, this topic is for you)
Knobs, dials and buttons are the way you manipulate you radio – they’re not voice controlled, automation like today’s modern cell phones. Radios that aren’t intuitive or easy to manipulate can spell disaster, when the s**t goes down. You don’t want to be scratching your noggin when you need to communicate.
Many kayakers wear gloves to protect their hands from wear, and many Minnesotans wear gloves 11 months of the year anyway (12 if they paddle on lake Superior in July), so check and practice (if you can) under these conditions. You could possibly even manipulate the PTT while wearing mittens. Pogies? Send me a picture if you can perform this feat.
A few other important features to look for in controls are the ability to prevent unwanted control changes using a feature called “Locked”. Be aware also that the power button is difficult to inadvertently turn off or on. It can be a disappointment to reach for your radio and discover it had been on long enough to deplete the battery; or you can’t understand why that ore freighter hasn’t notified you that you are in his way, and you discover the radio is off.
Display (Ahh… now I see)
Older style radios had no displays, merely turn a dial to the indicated channel. Nowadays, with the advent of technology, we seem to need more information. But in a little gadget like this, how much info do you really need?
If you need to know, you’ll need a display that is crisp; a single drop of water can make things look different.
Of course conditions change (that’s why we’re out there, right?).
Can you read it in the daylight? Sunlight and even your polarized sunglasses can goof this up, and if that’s not tough enough, a bright, cloudy day may make it even more difficult. Try to evaluate the radio under these difficult conditions.
Oops! You stayed out too late and now you’re in a pickle, luckily you picked a radio with a good back light (and unless you skipped the section on batteries, you’ve become savvier on battery conservation and turn that feature off ASAP). Many kayakers listen to the weather report after they’ve gone to bed and need the backlight feature.
OK, OLD TIMER, YOU”RE DEAF AND BLIND;GET A RADIO WITH A LARGE NUMERIC DISPLAY.
As for the amount of info on the display: lots of it is nice, but the trade off is clarity and lack of large numbers.
Audio (Sergeant Carter to Gomer Pyle: “I can’t hear you”)
What good is it if you bought an inexpensive radio with a crappy speaker and an even crappier audio section? Quality radios have quality audio. A loud, clear speaker can be heard above the raging hurricane or diesel freighter bearing down on you, and the weather alert should be able to alert you from a drunken stupor.
How do you sound to others is also to be considered. Know where the microphone is located, and where to put your mouth.
Flexibility ( I can walk and chew gum)
It is important to realize that unless you have a special license, it is illegal to transmit using the marine frequencies while on shore. There are new HTs (handheld transceivers) that can also be used on public frequencies as walkie talkies. Neat huh? Don’t forget to conserve your batteries.
How about this for flexibility? An HT that can also be used on vast and powerful repeater systems, using amateur privilege frequencies. A simple test will get you a license as a ham radio operator. Some repeaters have an Autopatch, a means of connecting to a telephone line. I have been out of cell phone range, yet had access to a repeater, and talked to someone 100 miles away using linked repeaters.
Durability (That’s right tough guy)
We like to play hard, and need toys that will stand the punishment. Or maybe we are careless and have an unlimited budget to buy radios all the time. A rugged radio may be a better investment in money and the security that it will work when need, not die, the first time you look at it cross eyed.
Water proof is a desirable characteristic that I’m skeptical of. Sure it’s good as long as that very tiny spec of sand didn’t get on the seal when the battery was changed. But accidents do happen; not that I’m accident prone, but I have been grateful several times when my radio has gone “swimming” with me. Check the construction carefully – is the radio completely sealed? It “may” be a good idea to check the capability before the warrant period expires, but check that one carefully before you dunk it in you coffee. If your radio does get “wet”, turn it off and allow it to dry in a safer environment.
Wow! Does it have to be this complex? – it’s not really; start looking and considering and talk to others who know radios (Ham radio operators are the best for this).
Choosing a Handheld VHF Marine Radio
Points to consider:
- Size (if it’s not convenient to carry, it will be left behind)
- Easy to hand hold too big/small?
- Does it need to fit in a pocket?
- As a handheld, does it have a full 5 watts?
- Batteries (If the power is not there, it will be left behind)
- Rechargeable NiCad
- Extra battery holder for Alkaline batteries
- Will the Alkaline batteries still provide the full 5 watts?
- Are the Alkaline batteries the same for the rest of your devices?
- Are they easy to understand without a manual?
- Are they easy to manipulate?
- Will it be necessary to manipulate the controls w/gloves?
- Can the controls be locked to prevent inadvertent changes (especially important to the power switch)?
- Is the display crisp?
- Easy to read in daylight?
- Will your polarized lenses affect the way you \view the display?
- Does the display have adequate illumination?
- Is the display large enough to see without reading glasses?
- Is enough/too much information displayed?
- Are voices clear?
- Is the weather alert loud enough to disturb a deep slumber?
- Are the control changes audible?
- How do your transmissions sound to others>
- Can it be used on other frequencies?
- Will it withstand the punishment?
- Is it water proof?
- What is the manufacture’s return/repair policies?
Train for the worst; Hope for the best.
“On or off?”, Ben asked me.
“Is your helmet on or off?”
I didn’t have to look, it was on my noggin, and it should have been just as obvious to him. As usual with Ben, I knew it was one of those questions with a 50/50 chance of answering corectly but with a 10% likelihood. “It’s on.” blithely stating, knowing full well there was a lesson coming up.
“Then buckle it up or take it off. You can’t have it part way on.” It was a firm, caring, yet uncompromising statement; like the kind your dad gave you before he handed off the keys to his car, and you knew that arguing would only result in a downgrade in privileges.
Then the light bulb went on (it was off). My realization immediately brought my thoughts to an article I read, whereby an extremely advanced, skilled and experienced rock climber was preparing to do a dangerous and long rappel down a face of a cliff. While she was tying herself off to her harness, she looked down and saw her shoe was untied, stopped what she was doing to attend the shoe issue and never came back to finishing tying to her harness. Unfortunately, when she reached the end, the rope passed through her harness. Fortunately, she landed on a tree and wasn’t critically injured. The point is: she didn’t exactly forget to tie herself off, she simply substituted one activity for another.
This sort of brain skip has happened to me before, and if I were to say it only happened once, I would be fooling myself. There was a distinct occurrence of this happening to me: I was preparing my boat prior to launch for a day paddle to York Island in the Apostle Islands. There must have been something that distracted me as I was packing, and I never completed the task of putting on my rear hatch cover. The waves were only about a foot and a half and my partner and I had only gone about a mile and a half, when I noticed my boat was acting weird. I soon realized my rear compartment was full of water.
The lessons to be learned here are:
- Finish what you’re doing before doing another thing. Multi-tasking would be considered a fault
- Tether all your hatch covers
- Look your boat and gear over, as well as your paddling companion’s
- Devise a spare hatch cover to keep in your day hatch at all times
- Learn how to climb out of your boat, onto another’s, and be able to empty it (and vice-verse)
- Hatch covers are expensive
The point Ben was making about the helmet was exactly the same. We were taking an on shore break and I merely unclipped my helmet for comfort. If I had forgotten it was unclipped and went back in to action, it could have come off, leaving me vulnerable. It could have come off and become a distraction, leaving me vulnerable. I would be much better off leaving it on shore, than to be fooling around with it.
PFD How about your life jacket? We can easily draw comparisons to the helmet story. Some PFDs have a zipper, some have clips and some have both. I like the Kokotat MsFit tour; the clips are what qualifies it as “on”, but the zipper covers the gap between the clips. This prevents things from getting caught.
My other favorite PFD has no buckles or zipper; it’s a pullover style, but it’s not “on” until the straps are tightened, otherwise it will slide up to my chin when I’m in the water.
Putting it part way on may be comfortable until we get in the boat, but who’s to say we’ll remember? Next time you paddle with a group, look around before launch time to see who has it on half way, then wait. Does it get finished before launch? Buckled top and bottom? You’ll start to see it. Help your pal out and remind them.
Dry suits I was on a day trip with friends on a warm day, and during lunch the PFDs came off for comfort as well as dry suits off to the waist, wrapping the sleeves. After lunch the life jackets went on (of course because they’re required), but some of the dry suits remained on half way, sleeves still wrapped around the waist. Even though the water was calm, a capsize could prove to be a risky situation, at best. Luckily the situation was identified and agreeably remedied.
Footwear Most of today’s footwear can only be on or off; very few options are there for in- between. Untied laces would be considered half on. Let’s face it folks: laces or loose straps on sandals are an entrapment issue waiting to happen. Just catch it on a foot peg at the wrong moment and you’re snagged, perhaps trapped.
I’ve never felt right about paddling without foot wear. My feet are way to tender to be rubbing on foot pegs and sandy bottom kayaks, let alone walking on a paved parking lot. Some folks are okay with that. Last year I saw a kayak guide carrying gear and launching without shoes. He had my admiration for getting around like that, but if he were on a rough, rocky shore, and had to make quick movements, I don’t think he would be reliable. Not all kayaking disasters occur on water.
Tow system Half off would mean putting it in the day hatch. You can’t get it quickly if it’s stowed away. Why wait? It’s not uncomfortable to just wear it. Consider this your most important piece of rescue gear.
I’m sure the list could go on, and some gear it just doesn’t matter. Sunglasses on the forehead – drop it in the water and you’ll still survive. Gloves to protect from sun or cold, your hat? The lack of these are items will merely cause discomfort and seldom does your well being depend on them.
When it comes down to a sport that is “inherently dangerous”, we really can’t risk utilizing our safety equipment half way. Half on or half off doesn’t really do us any good. We have to use our gear completely or not at all, so let’s work on this together.
Here’s the final reason to totally don your outfit: you’ve spent a lot of good money on great equipment for a reason, why not utilize it to the full extent? It was designed that way for a reason.
Train for the worst; Hope for the best.