Safer Sea Kayaking: some guiding principles
Large numbers of sea kayakers paddle in UK waters every day of the year. The vast majority enjoy incident-free experiences, returning safely without troubling the emergency services. However, emergency call outs have increased in recent years, occasionally with tragic results. These incidents are a result of actions and decisions made by groups; patterns emerge from the reports, with learning opportunities for the sea kayaking community.
This article addresses the issues in a practical way, with ‘good practice’ suggestions that groups can compare with their own approach to sea kayak safety.
As a sea kayak coach I am often asked to offer a framework for safer sea kayaking, especially by people who paddle independently or are responsible for others on the water. The challenge is to find strategies that work for paddlers as they gain experience, until the decision-making process becomes more instinctive. I often introduce this ‘safer sea kayaking’ model, focusing on four key elements of safer sea kayaking. Let’s consider a few examples of ‘good practice’ and possible issues for each key area.
Plan, Anticipate & Review
Planning and experience can build a picture of the likely conditions on a sea kayak journey; we can compare these conditions against the abilities and aims of the group; suitable equipment reduces the likelihood of problems arising, and their consequences. Formal plans can increase the likelihood of a group sticking to a route choice in the face of deteriorating conditions; launching with a range of options and a flexible approach will allow us to compare the reality of the situation with the expected outcomes. A constant process of reviewing paddlers and conditions will help us to make good decisions at appropriate moments in the trip.
Get a weather forecast. Check tide times and establish the tidal picture for your paddling area. Get a swell forecast and check conditions for a few days before your planned trip. You can’t have too much information.
Create a picture of the likely conditions in your chosen paddling area. Compare the expected conditions with the ability of you and your group. Be realistic.
Upon arrival at your chosen paddling area, check conditions before committing to the trip. Check wind direction, strength, sea state, tidal picture – do the conditions match those expected for the day? Do you need to consider an alternative plan?
Consider the technical difficulty of the conditions and also the seriousness of the planned paddling area. Avoid high technical difficulty (for you and the group) combined with serious situations, or at least fully recognise the implications of combining these two elements.
Consider the people in the group – aims and objectives; experience, ability and attitudes; fitness and health: is everyone on the same page, regarding the plan for the day?
Group dynamics: are you a group of friends, sharing decisions and responsibilities throughout the day; a formal group with a designated ‘leader’; or somewhere between the two? If the latter, how much do you know about your ‘followers’? Are they a compatible team, willing to engage in the principles of safe group sea kayaking?
Equipment: does the group have seaworthy kayaks and sufficient safety equipment? Are you the only paddler with towline, radio/flares, map/compass etc? Are you willing to go afloat in such company?
Communication & Group Dynamics
Sea conditions can be predictable for the experienced sea kayaker, route choice and positioning becomes second nature, good equipment is available: people, in contrast, can bring widely differing attitudes, are sometimes unpredictable and can hide their strengths and weaknesses from the rest of the group. Establishing everyone’s comfort-challenge zones is a complex task. Honest communication and discussion between group members is vital, and begins before going afloat.
An analysis of sea kayak incidents often reveals communication breakdowns within groups, separation of group members and misunderstandings between paddlers. If we can agree strategies to maintain communication, the likelihood of problems developing is much reduced.
Meet at a ‘neutral’ rendezvous, i.e. somewhere that offers a range of options for the group, depending on the actual conditions on the day. A cafe, a short drive from a number of different launch sites, could be a good choice.
If you meet at the beach, the Law of Early Arrival states that, no matter what time you reach the rendezvous, someone will be there already and will be ready to launch – regardless of the conditions afloat.
Share everything within the group – forecasts, tidal information, expected conditions, options for the day. Encourage discussions, involve the team in decision making. Knowledge is power, don’t keep it to yourself.
Beach briefings are the last chance to discuss plans before the sea has its say. Group management will only be more difficult afloat.
Compare the expected conditions with the realistic abilities of all group members. If everyone is in their comfort zone, we can afford a more relaxed approach – if paddlers are more challenged, we will need to be more disciplined in our group management.
How many people are in your group? A team of six is a reasonable working maximum in any kind of challenging conditions. If there are more of you, give serious thought to splitting the group into smaller independent teams. There is no such thing as safety in numbers.
If there are not enough ‘leaders’ or more experienced paddlers for independent teams of six, accept that your overall group safety will be severely compromised in more challenging conditions.
If the least experienced group member is unable to paddle effectively in the conditions, the safety of the entire group is compromised. Plan trips that meet the needs of the weakest paddler.
Every group member needs to accept their responsibilities to each other. Great planning will not help if one group member decides to paddle away, unannounced, into more difficult water.
Discuss plans/options throughout the day – look ahead: e.g. 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, end of day. Anticipate changing conditions and consider the later consequences of earlier decisions. Be flexible.
At the end of the day, review the trip together. Discuss key moments, issues arising, what worked well, what needs to change next time. Be open, share, accept constructive criticism. Aim to become a stronger team with every trip.
Route Choice: Macro & Micro
Consider route choice in two ways: the overall paddling area (macro) and the water track from beach to headland to bay (micro). Good route choice involves a suitable paddling area for the expected conditions and the ability of the group. Within this overall paddling area, if we ‘shape a good course’ from ‘safe zone’ to ‘safe zone’, we can find the conditions that the group are seeking. This does not necessarily mean avoiding more challenging water, but does involve good timing, selection of suitable waypoints and correct paddling speed/direction.
Bad route choices are often a cause of sea kayaking incidents: for example, a group launching into rapidly-increasing sea conditions that quickly demand too much of group members; a group swept into a tide race due to poor route choice upstream of the race; kayakers in steeper breaking waves following a route through shallow water and/or reflected waves. Good route choices help to achieve trouble-free paddling days and reinforce good communication within sea kayak groups.
Be realistic about the overall paddling area before committing to the journey. Does the launch point offer a range of options and allow the group to experience the various conditions that will be encountered, or is there an immediate commitment to the journey?
Lower commitment: for example, a bay with gradually more exposed conditions offshore, allowing warm up and preparation for the demands of the journey.
Higher commitment: for example, a downwind journey with immediate exposure to more challenging conditions and few landing zones.
Discuss and agree a series of shorter legs, linking locations where the group can stop and consider the next section of the journey. Decide what course to shape between waypoints, taking into account specific hazards en route. For example, if approaching a zone of rougher water off a headland, shape a course to a ‘safe zone’ before committing to more challenging conditions.
If it hard to establish waypoints and safe zones, identify key moments in the day when, for example, weather and/or tidal conditions are expected to change. Use these ‘decision points’ to discuss and agree strategies for the next section of the trip.
Remember that there is often a number of different routes to link two waypoints. Factor in your understanding of the group’s abilities vs. the anticipated conditions when shaping a course.
Positioning & Line of Sight
In a group of paddlers with equal skills and experience, ‘leadership‘ is often shared throughout the day, with group members taking on navigation, route choice, safety/rescue and launching/landing tasks, according to the specific demands of each situation. In groups of differing abilities, more experienced team members often provide guidance and support to less able paddlers. This can include positioning (in relation to the rest of the group and relevant hazards) to safeguard other group members and to reduce the demands of the conditions.
Where a formal leader is responsible for a group of less-experienced paddlers, good positioning becomes an important element of safer sea kayaking. Again, we need to consider the abilities of group members vs. the paddling conditions (people and places). If within the team’s comfort zone, we can be more relaxed about positioning; in more challenging water, good positioning is an essential component of risk management, route choice and communication.
Remember the principle of remaining between the group and the relevant hazard. In some locations the decision is a straightforward one, for example when crossing the mouth of a bay in offshore winds; in more complex situations good positioning is less obvious and may require a compromise between competing demands.
Take a dynamic approach to positioning – it’s often easier to move to a new place in the group than to ask other group members to change their position.
It is often a good idea to be on one side of the group or another, with all group members within easy communication. Line of sight is easily maintained; it’s also easier to make course changes and to check that the paddling speed is appropriate for all group members.
Positioning on the down-tide or downwind side of the group can make it much easier for a ‘leader’ or ‘navigator’ to make a course change up-tide or upwind, ‘squeezing’ the group onto a new heading simply by making the desired course change. In wind against tide conditions, you’ll have to decide which is the most important concern.
If group members are to the left or right of a ‘leader’, you can simply brief the group to respond to the leader’s course changes. An instruction for example, to paddle ‘on my left, within 50m of me’ gives the rest of the group all the information they need at that moment.
When rock hopping take up positions that maintain line of sight, in a position of usefulness in case of capsizes. Try to find places that achieve both these aims – and work together as a team to maintain communication among the rocks. We face similar challenges when launching/landing and when dealing with surf zones.
There may be times when a ‘leader’ must move to the front or the back of the group, for example if approaching a surf beach or if entering a calmer bay from more challenging sea conditions. If we can anticipate these occasions, it is much easier to adopt a dynamic approach to positioning, moving to a new place in the group in good time to take appropriate action.
Safer sea kayaking for groups is a complex matter. This model is a useful starting point for paddlers seeking group management guidance, but can also risk isolating mutually-dependent factors. The principles overlap and influence each other – ideally, we should keep in mind all four elements throughout a sea kayak trip. With practice and experience, it can become second nature to consider all factors at all times; as we gain experience, it’s also helpful to focus on each element, to better understand its application in an overall approach to safer sea kayaking.
In conclusion, I hope the ideas contained in this article will reinforce existing good practice and will provide a start point for further discussion among sea kayak groups.