Back into paddling, safety gear

New guy here. I have been paddling off and on since the mid-1970’s and while I tend to paddle by myself, I have not been very safety conscious, generally have been paddling offshore (S. Calif.) a mile or 2 off the beach and up/down the coast without safety anything and last time I rolled a kayak (on purpose or for fun) was 30 or so years ago, doubt I could do it now. Water is too cold here for me to consider a roll any fun and I don’t wear special gear, so never kept up the practice. Inflating floatation bags was too much work too. As I get older, I guess I am getting smarter and also worrying about not being able to swim to shore anymore. I see some people now going out in Kayaks with wet suits on and some are using dry suits. I paddle where the water is cold but the sun is F…ing hot, I would melt in a wet suit. I do wear a automatic inflatable safety harness leftover from my offshore days in a boat, but that has been all in the way of safety.

What are some options for me to be safer out there ?

I know one of the first is a paddling buddy, but I really enjoy the alone time and hate making plans, I want to go when I think about it, not next Wednesday at 10AM. And I know I need to practice my rolls and self-rescue, need to find someone with a heated pool first. A dry suit maybe ?

Really the biggest questions to answer are

  1. what happens after I fall out of the boat (are you attached to it with a leash? can you re-board it? can you stay upright in the conditions that made you fall ut in the first place?)
  2. how long can I survive in the water, and how long until your fingers or limbs stop working (often long before actual death)
  3. how do I signal for help

I paddle out of oxnard area so am in your general area. I surfski (a long skinny SOT kayak) and paddle in everything from flat water to 9’ monsters and 25kt squalls. I almost exclusively paddle alone.

For safety, I have (toe to head) Thin neoprene shoes (since the footwell is always wet and exposed), calf leash, a 3/2 wetsuit, PFD, Blaze orange long sleeve shirt, paddle leash, reflective tape all over my paddles and boat, my phone in waterproof case, a whistle, mirror, 2 small flashlights, sunglasses, and a full brim hat.
On bigger days I also have my Zoleo PLB with me.

I usually paddle after work so a 3/2 wetsuit is actually what I need to stay warm in the 60-70* weather common around here. Often its cloudy in the evenings too.

How much safety gear you have is entirely dependent on your tolerance for risk. Deaths usually happen from ignorance or a chain of failures. In this case, the chain of failures is more likely, so how far down the alphabet do you want to have plans?

  1. (nothing is wrong) Remount and continue
  2. (something prevents me from remounting) im attached to the boat (providing good visibility) and wait for rescue (a coast guard chopper has shined my boat at night and I know they could see me from a loooong ways away with the reflective film which helps too because they were a long ways off and pointed the spot light at me precisely and I wasnt in their path)
  3. (leash breaks) I swim to shore without issue because I have a PFD and wetsuit that will keep me alive for a day or more. I only paddle with winds blowing onshore as well (so I might even get my boat back)
  4. (Cant swim to shore), signal passing boats with whistle, mirror, or lights
  5. (cant swim to shore and conditions are small to moderate) call harbor patrol from my phone and request a non emergency rescue
  6. (cant swim to shore in big conditions) call harbor patrol if possible, or use PLB to initiate emergency rescue.

So you can see I have up to “Plan E” fairly well established. My wetsuit and PFD means time in the water/hypothermia is not a concern. I could float overnight and probably survive.

If you cant self recover, dont paddle outside the bay (yes, you must prove this to yourself at least once every few times you paddle). If you cant signal for rescue, you’re screwed. If you cant survive until someone finds you, you’re screwed. Focus on those things and fill out the alphabet of backup plans until you or your family feels good about your chances of survival when things go wrong in succession.

As in, so you’re 2 miles off shore and a wind suddenly comes up. You werent planning on that so you dont have a wetsuit or leash. you’re separated from your boat. your phone was in the hatch in your boat. so now you have a PFD and what else…? always try to have a backup plan to the backup plan to the backup plan and so on.

As the army says, Two is One. One is None. how many backup plans do you have?


In addition to the excellent suggestions by MCImes:

As to your automatic inflatable safety harness, do you check and replace the cylinders regularly? Reason I ask that is because of a MOB incident in the Chicago-Mackinac sailboat race a couple of years ago. Sailor was lost at sea because his harness didn’t inflate. Expired cylinders.

Signaling device, whistle, VHS radio and/or PLB, sticker inside your boat with your name and phone number, carrying ID on you (expired driver’s license works), and letting someone on shore know where you’re paddling are other safety considerations.

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lots of good questions asked. First off, yes I do check the cylinders and little wax ring regularly. But if I get back into this like I think I am going to, I will likely buy a whole new harness, mine is quite old and I would hate to have it go off and watch the plastic blow up because of age. I will use it for now but likely not for long.
I had not thought of VHS, I can take my handheld from my boat.
Whistle I always have with me on a boat, its attached to my harness and I don’t sail without it, long story but I lost a friend decades ago because he was not wearing a harness so even daysailing I wear it.
I also have my cell phone in a water proof case, but VHS is a good idea.
I could take the EPIRB off my boat but that seems WAY overkill, I will look into a PLB instead.
I always have my wallet in a ziplock so ID is taken care of.
I always thought a wet suit was too much to wear on summer days, maybe its not a bad idea to have a thin one just to get me to shore (my dive suit it way too thick/hot for kayaking).
Now to the more important questions of “can I get back in the boat ?” I really have no idea if I can, I have not practiced it in probably 30 years, its been that long since I fell out of a kayak. At one time I would roll and get back up and also exit the boat and get back in, quite easily and for fun, but that was in warmer waters. Once I settled here, the water is too cold and I stopped practicing, I really have no idea if I could get back in so I stay in swimming distance to shore but as I get older, that distance is getting shorter.
I always have a paddle float or 2 on the boat, and I know the process…but can I still do it ? really don’t know.

In another thread I mentioned I just bought a kayak today to replace my current kayak since I lost a way to transport it when I switched cars, so I bought a take apart boat, a Trak and really want to get back in the water.
Oh yeah, my wife always knows roughly when/where I am out in the boat and will also know when in the kayak.

If your kayak requires float bags due to no bow or stern flotation and you are not using them, if your boat swamps. you’re likely screwed, especially in rough conditions. Unless you can empty the boat, which will now weigh hundreds of pounds, a self or assisted rescue will not be possible. The cockpit rim will be at the waterline at best. You also will not be able to swim it to shore as it will be like a giant sea anchor.

A self inflating safety vest is not the thing to use in a kayak. Kayaking tends to be a wet sport and if the vest is repeatedly getting wet it has the possibility of inflating when you don’t want it to. The activating pin will degrade over time. I have known cases where self inflating vests have either failed to deploy or deployed when they shouldn’t. The air bladder can also degrade over time and fail when you need it. Pretty much all kayakers wear a USCG approved Type III.

A cell phone to use in an emergency is a possibility, but if you’re in rough water trying to keep your head above water, hold on to the boat, paddle, and any other loose gear do you really want to deal with trying to retrieve your cell phone and remove it from a waterproof case to use it. A waterproof VHF is easier to use and in coastal waters often has better coverage. Keep it on your person, not tethered to the boat.

There are reasons to get a proper kayak vest, not the least of which is pockets suited to carry crucial stuff like a VHF. With little D rings inside to tie stuff off, like a signaling mirror and compass,

You keep being concerned about cold water, but if that is what you would capsize in you simply need to be dressed for it. Always can dump water over your head if air is warm, or roll to cool off once you have that down.

Most of safety is having redundancy in your preparations. I am always floored by how many people go out lacking spare paddle for example.

You have some work to do. Rolling a sea kayak is not that easy especially when it gets rough. Wear PFD, dress for immersion, carry a paddle float and a bilge pump at least for self rescue. You cannot count on any help out there. Best to paddle with other people.

I tend to disagree, and have been able to prove in some cases to a WW person, that sea kayaks are not necessarily harder to roll than WW boats. In fact my NDK Explorer is way easier to roll than an old school WW play boat. The one universal is that bringing up a fully loaded boat is literally a slower roll.

So it really comes down to the boat, and the sea kayak designs of the last 20 years have become much easier for rolling. Volume if matched properly really not a factor, as long as the part around the hips comes up the ends will follow. This is something I run into a lot with older WW boaters, and frankly if they came up before Jackson instituted designs that included an easier capacity for rolling throughout their line I can see why. Those ancient play boats, pancakes with a box sticking up, or some of the older creekers seemed to be designed to defeat a roll compared to sea kayaks like the Romany and Avocet. Or the Nordlow, which comes up on a breath. As easily as she goes down…

But rolls can fail, and IMO no one should be out there solo w/o at least two non-rolling options. The typical paddle float solution is not reliable in messy stuff, where you are most likely to have capsized to start with. Many find the cowboy or re-enter and roll, even if the paddle float is on the end of the blade, to be more reliable in messy stuff.

The Trak kayak requires float bags and/or the sea sock. If you flip over and the boat fills with water, it will sink. I had one and almost lost it doing rescue practices. Float bags will prevent this. And full float bags front and back should give you enough flotation to give you a chance to get back in in deep water (assuming you remember how). I’d take the boat to a shallow beach and flip it and see if you remember.

I am with the others on getting a kayak-specific PFD. I sail also, and would (and do sometimes) use a kayak PFD while sailing, but I would not use an autoinflate sailing PFD while kayaking. Too worried about getting splashed and triggering it. And once triggered, how much can you move around and do what you need (like self rescue or paddle once you get back in)?

Westuits for kayaking are lighter than wetsuits for diving or surfing. Surfing are usually 5 mm or so, diving 8+ mm and both are full body (this is for NorCal where I live, but I suspect are similar for SoCal). Kayaking uses 2-3 mm and often farmer john style (arms uncovered). If we do get too warm, an easy method of cooling down is splashing some water on yourself. Or rescue practice.

Thanks for all the replies.

Yes, I do plan on doing some practice sessions. First in a friends nice warm swimming pool, then at sea.

My wife sank a kayak about 35 years ago when she went out without float bags in the boat but I have gotten lax because nothing happened to me over the decades. Now that I am getting serious again about this and I am older, I realize my limits and will use float bags always.

I understand the comments about my automatic inflatable PFD, although it never self-inflated on me by accident, there has been times when going out through surf that I got wet enough I was surprised it didn’t go off (it was fine, tested it later and it worked), I will look into a proper Kayaking PFD.

As I mentioned, I will be taking my waterproof VHF from my boat and will get a PLB as well.

So all that is left is some self-rescue practice, decide on a suit of some kind (2-3mm suit or dry suit) and a bilge pump, never had one before.

You’re absolutely right. You’ve been very lucky over the years and it’s made you complacent. The good news is that you, like me, appear to have gained some wisdom as you’ve aged, and as a result, you can sense that continuing down the same old path might not be the best of ideas.

I invite you to visit our web site In the Golden Rules section, there are 5 rules and attached to each rule are a number of case histories. There are twenty in all. Read them. They’ll help to inject a healthy dose of reality into your current paddling system.

I want to also commend you for reaching out on a public forum like this and asking for advice. That takes courage and your have my full respect for doing so. Be safe out there.

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How much do you value your life? Seems like not much. Murphy is out there waiting for you.

Oh, I probably value my life far more than you do yours.

And I guarantee I have been on the water FAR more than you in many more oceans and seas then you, unless you also have around the world (twice) on boats. But we are talking kayaks here, not ocean going boats. I have lost enough friends at sea to be far more careful than most on the water.

Sorry, I was asking legitimate questions about safety, I didn’t need that Murphy comment. I had already purchased a new PFD, a kayak specific one, I was asking about can I use my inflatable harness and enough people said get a proper PFD, so I did. And every time I have been out, I have used the float bags and even sea sock, hell I even have a bilge pump, never had one of those before on a kayak.

And you’re muted/ignored.

Sheesh, the effing EGO/swelled head. Who effing cares???


Tons of money :moneybag: bad decisions and gear = no life.

Forget about getting help out there. Your responsibility is to not need rescuing first. Second it is to save yourself.

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Absolutely. They mistook it for a no-big-deal flatwater paddle and didn’t respect the environment. Tomkins had done gnarly whitewater descents in Patagonia, and his among his paddling companions were very experienced, world-fammous climbers like Chouinard and Ridgeway. That apparently resulted in complacency. Tomkins was completely unprepared for immersion. General Carrera Lake is a very large body of water with a nasty reputation for bad weather. The water temperature was 38F (3.3C), which is brutally cold and presents a challenge even if you’re wearing a drysuit with plenty of insulation underneath it.