◊ Safety Considerations

Another section on this site, http://lposka.7ich.com/home/safety-gear, complements this section.

From The Aran Islands by John Millington Synge:

"A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned", he said, "for he will be going out on a day he shouldn't. But we be afraid of
the sea, and we do only be drowned now and again."


A strong swimmer who swims in the warm months can be quite unaware of the severe danger of cold water. Cold water cannot distinguish between a strong swimmer and a weak swimmer, and rudely allows the same short survival time to each. Most deaths from kayaking mishaps are likely due to hypothermia.

An Unfortunate Incident

On October 7, 2007 in Howe Sound (by Vancouver, BC) two male kayakers died and a woman was hospitalized after a number of kayaks overturned in heavy seas (two meter waves). These folks were among group of eight experienced 'adventure' kayakers. The incident has been extensively analyzed in kayaking circles and the unanimous opinion is that several unsafe decisions were made and were the principal contributors to the deaths. The errant decisions included

  • going ahead despite marginal weather
  • not being clothed for immersion
  • using at least one racing kayak, inappropriate for the adverse conditions

These were seasoned, experienced paddlers. The lessons we draw here are that

  • experience, knowledge, and skill must be accompanied by appropriate decision making
  • bad decisions can endanger others
  • being too conservative is preferable to pushing the envelope

Closer to Home

On May 28, 2008 two young men, kayaking in Lake Pend Oreille, capsized about 500 feet off Black Rock in the 48° Fahrenheit water. One swam toward shore and was rescued by a boater while the other clung to the kayaks. When the boater tried to find the remaining person, he only found the kayaks. At this writing, the missing man succumbed to hypothermia and drowned. Without doing a painful recap of all the details, we must at least point out that both kayakers were lightly clad and without personal flotation devices (PFDs).

Rules of 50

There are several "Rules of 50" (extremely rough estimates) you may encounter in various forms such as:

  • An adult has a 50-50 chance of surviving a 50-yard swim in 50° water.
  • A 50-year-old person has a 50-50 chance of surviving for 50 minutes in 50° water.

where we should realize that swimming in such cold water cools the body faster than staying in place.

The 1-10-1 Rule

This rule seems more definitive to me, with no strange variations that mean something entirely different.

1 Minute to Control Your Breathing:

When falling into extremely cold water, the natural inclination is to gasp, often called the 'cold water gasp'. For some people, the body begins to hyperventilate potentially causing the victim to pass out and drown. So, within the first minute of exposure to the cold water, your first priority is to control your breathing and calm down.

10 Minutes of Manual Dexterity:

Having your breathing under control, your body also attempts to maintain your core body temperature by reducing the blood supply hastening heat loss in your extremities.  Your fingers begin to numb and you cannot control them. Even simple tasks become difficult/impossible. If near safety, swimming there must be done swiftly. Otherwise swimming is a bad idea because it actually increases your heat loss. This exacerbates your loss of dexterity. So the rough rule is that you have about 10 minutes of adequate dexterity.

1 Hour Until Hypothermia:

Finally about an hour after falling into extremely cold water, most people tend to become unconscious, an early affect of hypothermia,

The 1-10-1 rule gives rough figures that will change with the water temperature, the body mass index of the individual, and clothing. Ultimate survival time can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as several hours.

What does this mean for those of us who kayak when the water temperature is so dangerous?

  • best choice: dress for immersion (wet suit or dry suit), bring a spare set of warm and appropriate clothing in a dry bag, always
    wear a PFD, become skilled at capsize recovery (solo and with help), and make other safe decisions to match the conditions and your skills
  • second best choice: bring a spare set of warm and appropriate clothes in a dry bag, kayak close to shore, always wear a PFD, become skilled at capsize recovery (solo and with help), and make other safe decisions to match the conditions and your skills

[Note: The PFDs we kayakers generally use allow significant freedom of motion. Some heavy duty (but more restrictive life vests) will keep the head of an unconscious wearer out of the water. Our PFDs do not; so, once unconscious from hypothermia, we will drown.]

LPOSKA's Safety Comments

  • Kayaks should have positive flotation i.e. airtight compartments which will keep the craft afloat even if a capsize event occurs. Kayaks which can sink may endanger not only the user, but others in the group.
  • Kayaks should have appropriate rigging and carry appropriate safety gear
  • Kayaks should be routinely inspected to see that no safety issues are unresolved
  • Kayaking in a group, other things being equal, is safer than solo paddling
  • Nevertheless, an experienced paddler who pushes the safety envelope is a danger to the group
  • Beginners should be accompanied by someone who is experienced at kayaking and at helping beginners
  • Group members should stay within voice range of each other

Kayakers should endeavor to become more

  • knowledgeable in all phases of the sport (including navigation, weather wisdom, route selection)
  • skillful in paddling by learning and practicing the wide variety of strokes
  • skillful in various capsize recovery methods (solo and assisted)

If your paddling is limited to our big lake, recognize that actually kayaking on the ocean is not only more demanding of your knowledge and skills because the scope is infinitely broadened, but that there are also new unfamiliar factors such as tides, currents, large ship traffic, and mysterious navigational markers. So if you are drawn to the ocean, consider a first exposure with a certified guide. To become somewhat self sufficient in an ocean environment, take courses, if available, including both theory (e.g. navigation) and practice. Courses designed to prepare students to be sea kayak guides are particularly worthwhile, even if your goal is not to become a guide.

Tandem Kayaks

A beginner will feel safer in a tandem kayak because the larger, wider kayak feels much more stable than a single. Put that together with relatively calm water and a patient, skilled instructor and the first exposure is quite likely to be a success and engender enthusiasm. That's not the only virtue of a tandem. It also allows two paddlers of unequal skill/strength (e.g. parent and child) to stay together and lessen the anxiety of both (it may also test their social compatibility with each other). Further, if the trip is something of a photographic foray, the photographer can be at work in the front while the propulsion and direction are provided by the galley slave.

All that said, paddling a single puts you on a steeper, more efficient learning curve. This is typically more enjoyable and ultimately makes you a safer kayaker. A highly skilled paddler will likely find a single safer than a tandem as the water becomes rougher. On the other hand, if you paddle in a group, it is sometimes very useful to have a tandem in the mix of vessels. If some one is injured, extremely tired, or sick, that person can rest as a passenger in the front cockpit of a tandem while one of the stronger paddlers in the group takes the stern.