U.S. Coast Guard Division of Boating Safety
Kayaks, along with other paddleboats, are great fun and rapidly increasing in popularity. Because kayaks don’t always require registration, some boaters don’t realize they are legally boats — subject to federal, state, and local laws and regulations for operation and safety equipment. Kayaking, like every watersport, can pose serious risks for users who aren’t trained, don’t take needed safety equipment or don’t treat the sport with the respect and caution it deserves.
Kayakers are subject to safety inspections and must carry the required safety equipment for the body of water in which they are operating. They must comply with “no vessel” zones and obey all the applicable rules of navigation (the “rules of the road” for boats). If another boater suffers injury or damage because you fail to comply with regulations, you are legally liable. Worse, you are needlessly putting yourself, any passengers and any potential rescuers at risk. Paddling accidents and fatalities, like most other boating accidents, are often preventable.
Just like every other type of boating, the best approach for a new paddler is a course on boating techniques, safety and emergency procedures, and the rules of the road. The American Canoe Association (americancanoe.org) and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary (cgaux.org/boatinged/) are two great resources for local courses.
You can also take advantage of online resources to help you understand navigation and right of way. You can download or view the U.S. Coast Guard’s “Guide to Federal Regulations for Recreational Boaters” at uscgboating.org/fedreqs/default.html. Here are a few key pointers:
– In addition to understanding federal requirements, check state and local laws before you go paddling.
– Get a free Vessel Safety Check from your local Coast Guard Auxiliary (cgaux.org/vsc/).
– Always file a detailed float plan with a close friend or relative.
– Label your kayak, life jacket and paddle with your name and contact information. Doing so can help speed a search — or avoid unnecessary search-and-rescue efforts if you’re safe but your equipment is lost.
– Keep alert to other boats as well as natural hazards around you. You must be able to hear alerts as well as see signals. Wear glasses or contacts if you need them, and don’t wear headphones while paddling.
– If you are approaching another boat head on, both boats should turn to the right, or starboard; if you are being overtaken from behind, maintain your heading — you don’t want to turn into the other boat’s path.
– If you believe another boat has not seen you, raise and wave your paddle, or use your sound signal to alert the people aboard.
– In a congested or constricted area of water, be prepared to give the right of way to a less maneuverable boat. When possible, choose routes that are less traveled by larger boats.
– Check weather conditions before you leave and while you are on the water. Wind and fog are especially challenging and dangerous for kayaks.
– Be conservative in assessing your skill and fitness level; err on the side of caution regarding water conditions and the length of your excursion. Every member of your party should be able to handle the trip comfortably and safely.
Special Safety Considerations for Kayaks
– A kayak is typically maneuverable and easy to stop, but other boats aren’t. Allow for much greater stopping distance and response time for larger boats around you. Be prepared to get out of the way, even if you have the right of way.
– Being small and low in the water, a kayak is much harder for larger boats to see. Choose bright colors for your boat and all your equipment (paddle, life jacket) to help make you as visible as possible. Reflective tape is a good idea.
– Choose the right boat for your waterborne activity. There are many types of kayaks on the market today. Note that the Coast Guard exempts all canoes and kayaks from having built-in flotation. A sea kayak is designed to handle waves and wind with watertight bulkheads and spray skirts to keep water out of the cockpit. Some recreational kayaks have no built-in buoyancy and are used on well-protected lakes. Touring kayaks are for more serious paddlers and are used most in protected waters. Whitewater kayaks are specially designed and built for fast-moving rivers and streams and require experienced paddlers. Whitewater kayaking is exciting but can be extremely dangerous.
– Expect that going into the water is “when” not “if.” Cold water can seriously affect a paddler within minutes. Wear your life jacket at all times, along with clothing appropriate for the water temperature — including a wet- or dry-suit for cold water, and non-cotton clothing. Stow extra clothing and an emergency blanket in a dry bag.
– Practice recovery techniques in the type of water in which you’ll paddle. Techniques that work in a pool or a calm lake don’t prepare you for waves or rapids.
– Watch out for hazards such as the wake from a large craft, or paddling near breakwalls, where waves can bounce back and endanger small boats.
– Paddle in groups; it makes it easier to stow extra supplies and safety equipment and allows for immediate assistance in an emergency. Many paddling experts recommend a three-boat minimum.
– In addition to required safety equipment, carry a compass, the right local maps or charts, water, snacks, sunscreen, a paddle float and tether, an extra paddle and a reliable means of communication (VHF radio if you’re going on “big” water or a cellphone in a watertight container). Many paddlers also carry Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs). They are increasingly affordable and highly recommended if you paddle in less travelled or remote areas, or where cell reception is limited.
– Wear a helmet. It’s essential in whitewater or surf conditions but can also be a lifesaver if you get hit by a paddle or swept against the kayak.