Published Nov 18. 2002

Safety and preparation

This is fun but no game. Accidents happen every day to small vessels, and taking the right precautions will keep you out of these sad statistics.

Stay safe while kayaking


This is fun but no game. Accidents happen every day to small vessels, and taking the right precautions will keep you out of these sad statistics.

  • Weather
    The most important factor is the weather. Ideal kayak weather is calm and not too cold. Wind is not a big problem, but can be very annoying, while waves can be dangerous. Sailing in waves is absolutely possible, even in big ones, but it demands skill and concentration and combines very poorly with fishing. The same can be said for whitewater, which can be great fun - if you wear a helmet and are prepared to be very wet! Smooth water or ripples and not too fast moving water is the ideal water for the kayaking flyfisher.
    You WILL roll over!
    I have friends who fish from a kayak and never went in. It is possible. But even so you still need to pretend that you will eventually roll over and fall in. This has several implications:

    1) Strap on everything! If you do not want to loose that expensive spare rod, strap it on. Your extra jacket. Your lunch pack. Camera. Everything. Things you need to use, you can attach with long, elastic bungy or spiral cords, while stored items can be strapped down. Many kayaks have permanent straps, meshes and hatches. Use them! And get a strap for your paddle too. It is most likely to slip overboard when you are casting or fighting a fish.

    2) Keep things dry. Pack everything sensitive in water proof bags or containers. Special bags are available, but heavy plastic bags and a knot can do the trick. Take specially care of cameras, binoculars, cell phones, non-waterproof GPS's and other electronics, but being able to eat a dry lunch is not bad either...

    3) Learn to get back onto or into your kayak. Being far offshore and having to swim dragging a kayak is no fun. If the water is cold, getting out of it is very important. Cold water kills.

    4) Be prepared. Try provoking a roll it in warmer water. A summers day on the beach or in a pool is great for learning the limits and behavior of your kayak.

    Try it and learn to control everything. It is unlikely that you will need it, but then again, so is heart massage...

    Unclear conditions such as fog, heavy rain or snow (!) is also a deterrent. Do not take chances. It is supposed to be fun and not a life threatening challenge.
  • Water temperature
    Even the calmest water is still a killer if it is cold enough. Water temperature should always be taken into consideration. Water close to the freezing point is a merciless death if you are not equipped with a survival suit. Even a wet suit can be too cold and normal garments or waders will offer little protection.
    At close-to-freezing temperatures you will last only a few minutes in the water, and battling to get back into your kayak will probably only make things worse. So stay away from the coldest water.
    Medium cold water 8-12 degrees Centigrade (45-55 F) will not be a threat, but certainly be cold! A wet suit or neoprene waders will help.
    Above that you might gasp a bit, but even without special garments you will be fine for quite a while.
    In really warm water, such as in the tropics, a dip might even be an added bonus.

  • Vest
    As mentioned above, seriously consider acquiring a vest. The best you can afford, and do not be a cheapskate! This is a very easy and convenient way of saving energy if you fall in. You can float conveniently while you gather your thoughts and enough strength to empty your kayak and get back on board.
    The inflatable ones are really neat: small when not in use, good floaters when inflated. But my experience shows that getting back on board with two huge air filled sausages on your front is not easy. A compact sailor's vest is more like it. Even though it will not float you as well, it will make getting back onboard a lot easier.

  • Company
    Fishing from a kayak is like diving: never do it alone. Have someone with you or have someone on the beach, who knows where you are. This is of course more important when fishing remote areas than when fishing populated and well trafficked areas.

  • Phone or radio
    If there is cell coverage where you are going, bring a cell phone. It is an easy and inexpensive safety device. Keep it in a dry bag. A standard plastic bag allow you to operate it without taking it out. In other places NMT phones or radios with longer reach have to take the place of the cellular type.

  • Whistle
    A whistle can be helpful in alarming other boats nearby. Many vests have one stuck on permanently. If not, go to a ship supply store and buy one for the purpose.

  • Flares
    While you are in the store, get a couple of flares. It is unlikely that you will need them, but just in case. One day you might find they are just what you wanted.

  • Lamps
    If you plan on fishing early or late - or just sail out or home in the dark - you will need lamps. Any other boat traffic will not stand a chance of seeing you without. Any small bike type of lamp will do, but a proper red/green/white combination will be better. Put them on a small mast behind you, but consider first of all whether to go out in the dark at all. A kayak is not an ideal all night ship.

  • Kayak and waders
    I always have my waders on when I go out in the kayak. The water is fairly cold where I fish and I like the advantage of being able to get off and wade a bit. But one dip in my breathables have taught me to wear neoprenes. I once fell in in deeper water, and my comfortable, baggy breathable waders filled with gallons of water - so much that I was almost unable to haul myself onboard the boat that came to help me! And I would NEVER have been able to get into the kayak unless I had taken off the waders.
    The tight neoprenes will keep tight and only let in small amounts water. Add a belt or a piece of string around your waist to enhence this tightness. They will also aide in keeping you warm while you swim. so wear neoprenes or a suitable wet suit in cold water - and remember that cold water kills.
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