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Kayak Basics - Safety Guide

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by Andrew Burton (subscribe)
I am a Freelance Writer-Photographer and Novelist. I travel to find inspiration, wherever the distant horizons lead.
Published May 5th 2016
Discover new horizons safely in your kayak
Safety vests are required by law on all Victorian waterways
Safety vests are required by law on all Victorian waterways

When kayaking wide stretches of water, you will be amazed how difficult it can be to paddle against the wind, especially with a boat that is not designed for distance paddling in such conditions. Sea kayaks and surf-skis excel under these circumstance. An open Canadian canoe, or semi-enclosed canoe will catch more of the wind, as they sit higher in the water and are less streamline.

It does not take much wind speed to be blown to the south pole. If you were a kilometre from shore in such boats, watch out - it could be dangerous. Rivers and lakes tend to be less of an issue as coastal area are often more windy. But check prevailing weather before paddling, I have experienced a crosswind drive choppy waves passing from the back of my sea kayak at 45 degrees on a larger lake. The rudder was out of the water half the time. It was necessary to paddle on one side using a double paddle for the last 2 or 3 kilometres to keep in a straight line.

Wind, Current and Tides

A calm ocean can change quickly, check the forecast before you kayak
A calm ocean can change quickly, check the forecast before you kayak

Tides and currents can be a big surprise and you will really need to learn about both very well. The ocean can be a treacherous place and there are places you should simply not go. For example, the Shipwreck Coast from Lorne to the South Australia border has a history of many sunken ships, and you could be risking death because of rips, waves and wind.

Experience, good weather and knowledge the currents of such areas would be mandatory. I have paddled near small inlets where the wind takes one direction, and waves come from 2 separate different directions, and the current from the inlet as the tide recedes comes from a 4th direction. The complicated pattern of forces means steering is near impossible, and can only be negotiated by perhaps paddling on one side and steering stokes. Learn advanced paddle technique from your states kayak association, books, and online.

Click here for more safety information. Only paddle the ocean in calm conditions and know the dangers of specific beaches. Entering the waves in severe rips may mean a capsize and being swept out to sea before recovering your boat.

If you turn a narrow boat on a river even if the current is modest, you will feel instability when the current hits the side of the boat. This is because the force is trying to rotate the boat so you capsize. Lean slightly down-stream to counter - the natural tendency is to lean up-stream when this happens below a rapid, and over you go 'splashhhhh'. This can happen on the Murray in a sea kayak where the river is a about 50 metres wide and the current is surprisingly fast, even in low water in Summer.

If you flip near one of the many fallen trees, the water pressure can pin you on the upstream side of the log and drown you. Water weighs about a kilogram a litre. Imagine how many kilograms of force are pushing you into the log. If facing this problem, float down stream with your body perpendicular to the bank, you can edge over obstacles easier, rather than 'clothes line' a log. Faster water is on the outside of bends of the river, keep to the slower water on the inside of the bends for safety, and if on rivers and lakes with other boats, you are required to keep right.

The Glenelg River has banks marked where water-skiers have right of way and 'kayakers' keep to the bank within 5 meters or so. The river is slower and being trapped on logs is no problem. In flood conditions, rivers become increasingly dangerous, whitewater sections may become traversable because of low water level other times.

Sun, Stroke and Hyperthermia

Take plenty of water when kayaking in summer - don't forget a hat and suncream
Don't paddle in the middle of the day in summer, take plenty of water, wear a hat and sunscreen

Sun protection is mandatory as the reflection from the water's surface increases the exposure. Don't forget your helmet and suncream, and a long sleeve shirt can be beneficial too. Take plenty of water, you can dehydrate rapidly.

It is time to re-iterate chill factor. If you are wet and the wind blows across the water where you have no shelter, you will lose body heat fast. In cooler times of the year wear a dive or surf boots, a wet suit that is 2mm thick or more, kayak gloves and maybe a wetsuit style balaclava. They are all necessary. You will lose heat quickly from the extremities such as you hands, feet and head and the cold can suck the life out of you - be wary.

Why You Need a Helmet

The Murray River - Gunbower National Park
The Murray River can look calm and easy, but turning across the current can be tricky anytime - Gunbower National Park

If you are knocked unconscious when your kayak capsizes, it helps to be floating to breath. A safety vest is required by law in Victoria and will keep you afloat if you are unconscious. When you end up in the drink, hope that you are not near rocks or a submerged log. Wearing a helmet when you paddle, especially if it is windy or the ocean is choppy, may save your skull.

Never be complacent, I have bottomed my boat on rocks a few hundred meters from shore and never dreamt rocks would be there. The same goes for 'logs that go bump in the lake', or the submerged jetty posts where I was about to practice Eskimo- rolls - that would have been more than just a headache. Always think of potential danger and you will reduce risk many-fold.

Wildlife Can Kill

Don't kayak with schools of fish, sharks may be close by - Lord Howe Island
Don't kayak with schools of fish, sharks may be close by - Lord Howe Island

Beware of sharks, crocodiles, marine stingers, snakes (they swim really well). Spare a thought for Queensland kayakers. Don't paddle the ocean if you have an open wound, however small. Sharks can smell blood in the water from kilometres. Large schools of fish attract predators such as sharks, schools of tuna are best found in tins at Woolworths.

Other Cautionary Information

Gippsland Lakes Victoria
Gippsland Lakes Victoria

Read plenty about where you are going before you go and what areas are considered 'kayakable'. Paddling in a group is safer - as with most outdoor activities. Be wary of weirs on a river (like a very small dam), people fishing (don't snap their lines). Don't get stuck on a concrete pylon where a bridge used to exist. Yes it was completely hidden in a few centimetres of water - no, not I. Take duct tape in case your boat snaps in two - no I have not had the pleasure. Have a laugh at a video regarding how not to transport a kayak. It may sound like a lot of doom and gloom, but life is dangerous and being aware is to be much safer. Now go and have the time of your life.
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Why? The natural world is full of dangers and most can be avoided easily.
When: With the correct equipment and weather, and knowledge, kayaking is possible all year.
Where: Choose your next paddle adventure on lakes, rivers and ocean around Australia.
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