Safety Issues for Kayaking

-by Jay Murdock, SDKC Safety Editor

We are SAN DIEGO area kayak enthusiasts who want to experience a great water sport together. Each of us recognizes there are inherent dangers involved, and that people who have taken time to coordinate and pass on information in these activities do so for the enjoyment of all. Each of us, therefore, must take full responsibility for our own safety. The following information should be carefully considered prior to each trip we take together.


The 20 Essentials should be a check list for each trip. It is inherent that we use those items that will aid us in unexpected situations. A VHF radio and GPS are expensive, but not having these may be far more costly.


In addition to all of the techniques involved in handling a kayak in varied conditions, the most important key is staying together. There is safety in a group, with all the resources it has. The principle is simple: the head kayak is “Point”, and the last kayak is the “Safety”. Everyone stays between these two and does not leave the group without telling someone. The challenge is not to get strung out beyond yelling distance. If someone needs to stop, you yell out “stop”, which is relayed up the line, and all should then stop. Point and Safety should always have a VHF. It is up to the person on Point to set the pace in order to keep the group together. That requires this person to periodically look back to see where everyone is.

When crossing a busy channel, with larger boats proceeding under speed (no speed restrictions), it is critical the group stays together in order to more easily been seen. The best way to do this is to form a line perpendicular to the direction of travel. That allows the fast boat skippers to both see you better and go around you (in front or behind your line of kayakers). The paddlers at both ends of your line should have a signal light ready to flash, and/or wave a paddle high in the air to get the attention of the fast boat skipper. The line should cross the channel at the pace of the slowest paddler, with everyone looking down the line to make sure they are staying in formation. I learned this technique from our guides in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where safety is paramount (Photo below- crossing Blackstone Bay in a line).

SAFETY ADVICE- Unless you need to cross open water, always “hug” the shore, even on calm days. This will keep you safer from power boats, and if the wind suddenly increases, you are much more likely to get to shore and “wait it out”. If you must cross open water, do so in groups, and only after checking the sky for oncoming squalls. Fast approaching clouds often have high winds proceeding them. In our area, Santa Ana winds can come up fast, so always check the weather report before you paddle.


Beyond the typical capsize; most emergencies are weather or medical related. A strong wind can come up, which turns an easy paddle into a real challenge. In any emergency, everyone should “group up” in order to make decisions and take action in a safe and coordinated manner. Signals are important to learn. The risk of additional injury increases in an emergency, so it is incumbent that all stay calm. Not panicking enhances the likelihood of a favorable outcome.


As we progress in this sport, we are learning from each other, as well as from formal instruction. As our skills increase, so does our confidence. The challenge is to know when we are venturing beyond our skill level, increasing risk, and thereby taking advantage of others for our protection. It is our responsibility to know what activities we are ready for, and those we are not.


Besides the boat, sprayskirt and paddle, these items are essential for safe travel, especially on unprotected waters. Wear bright colored clothing. Four kayakers were almost run over one evening at dusk who were wearing dark colors, and no lights. Mountaineers have a list of essentials, and we should too. It is important to tape your name and phone number on your kayak in case of an emergency.

  1. Life Jacket (with reflective surfaces)
  2. Bilge Pump (check it often to make sure it works)
  3. Paddle Float (check it 2 x per year for leaks)
  4. Towline (waist or deck mount)
  5. Whistle (along with the flashlight, tether this to your life jacket for instant use)
  6. Signal Mirror (plastic hand held, or mounted on back side of paddle blades)
  7. Orange Signal Flag (with two zip ties or strong ties to attach to your paddle)
  8. Signal Flashlight – Waterproof, Halogen (i.e. – Princeton Tech “Blast”)
  9. Paddle Leash (and/or extra paddle, especially for open ocean travel)
  10. GPS – Waterproof (check battery charge before each use, also VHF)
  11. VHF – Waterproof (tethered to you, not the boat)
  12. Extra Batteries for the Electronics (in a waterproof bag)
  13. Compass (good to have both a deck mount, and hand held)
  14. Map of the Area (with weather, tides and course of travel/bearings noted)
  15. First Aid Kit (small/large bandages, aspirin, gauze pads, ginger, tape, knife)
  16. Paddle Jacket – Stowed on warm days (waterproof but breathable is best)
  17. Hat with Keeper (for trips longer than 2 hours, wide brim is best)
  18. Sunglasses with Keeper (curved, Polaroid is best)
  19. Sunscreen (SPF 15 minimum)
  20. Water and Food (carry twice the amount you think you’ll need)

Note: This list is for daytime group travel. For surf, add a helmet. For night travel you also need deck lights, reflective tape on your boat, and warmer clothing. Overnight trips will require several other items. For every trip, always file a trip plan with someone to let them know where you are going and the estimated time of return. Above all, the ultimate safety “tool” is your mind.

– contributed by Jay Murdock