Friday, August 13, 2010


One of my biggest concerns when paddling is my visibility. On my first multi-day paddling trip, down the Hudson River, I awoke the second morning to flat water and an overcast sky. The water was reflecting the sky in such a way that everything was a similar shade of grey blue. I decided right away I wanted to be paddling in this amazing light, and calm conditions before they changed, so I quickly packed up my camp, loaded the boat and headed out. It was an amazing section of river, and I had it all to myself. A little rain began and with it a little wind. The wind was coming from the west, and I was on the east shore of the river, so I knew that if I paddled to the west side of the river - about a mile away - the shoreline would protect me and I wouldn't have to deal with the wind ( When wind has open water to move over with nothing impeding it, it moves faster. The distance that the wind has to move freely is called 'fetch' So the section of river I was on had a fair amount of fetch). So I changed my direction and angled across the river. After a few minutes I noticed a large yacht coming up the river, moving quickly. By all appearances if neither of us changed course, we would either hit, or come very close to each other, and I didn't want to be anywhere near that boat in my little kayak. I had the right of way. I waited for him to change course, or alter speed. Nothing happened. Finally I decided to cut back to the east shore to get some distance, and then as he passed turn back west again to take his large wake on my bow. I did so, and through this he never changed course. Never altered speed. In retrospect he probably never saw me. My kayak was blue, matching the water and sky. I was wearing a red paddling jacket and red PFD, but when you think about how small your body is compared to your kayak it isn't surprising he didn't see me. It changed the way I thought about visibility.

All of my kayaks have been red, yellow, or a combination of the two. My PFD is still red, as is my paddling jacket and dry suit. The only thing I use that isn't brightly colored is my werner paddle. I carry a C strobe in my pfd as well as a chemical light stick and whistle. On multiday trips I have a waterproof VHF radio within reach. When I teach for the school in Alaska I carry flares as well. But the biggest most visible object is my kayak, and I like it in a bright color. traditionally I have owned plastic kayaks, primarily because I can't afford a fiberglass boat. But also because I learned to paddle on very rocky beaches and a plastic kayak made sense. My current boat is plastic, but built like fiberglass, meaning it starts its life as two pieces and is joined together. I have a problem - in terms of visibility - with kayaks that are made of two pieces. A rotomolded kayak is one color top and bottom. For some reason, composite kayaks - be they thermoformed plastic like mine, fiberglass, or a kevlar layup - almost always have a colored deck, and a white hull. I would imagine it is to save money on materials, but someone more familiar with construction can correct me on that if I am wrong.

Here is my problem. Over turn your white hulled kayak. The white hull is now facing up. The bright colored deck is facing down into the water. If a search and rescue team or even a passing powerboat was looking for you, and your kayak was overturned it would look just like a white capped wave. If you are floating in the water, the majority of you is beneath the water as well, only your head and shoulders are above the water, so we are really relying on the kayak to be the visual that gets us noticed - forgetting about flares and strobes and the like. Now, I don't plan on ever being in a situation where I am out of my kayak, in the water, and unable to get back in, but Still I give it some thought. I also don't plan on getting into a car accident, but I have a car with airbags, and I wear a seat belt. This is why it is vitally important to think about these things. They call them accidents because we don't plan them.

As I have just learned that I can paint my kayak I am giving serious thought to painting a bright yellow stripe down the keel of my kayak. While I doubt I will ever be bobbing in the water next to my overturned kayak unable to get back into it, hoping someone will see me. I do think about the 'what ifs'. What if you were in that situation. What if a good day goes bad?


  1. Very important subject, PO. 100 percent of our paddling is on the ocean which can be any colour from sky blue to dark grey - and there's a lot of fetch in the Salish Sea. As you may have seen from pics in our last posting, we can spend part of the time on the water deep in the troughs. We paddle defensively (the way we drive) and assume that we are difficult to see and so do all that we can to stay out of potential "confliction" with other vessels. We carry smoke, flares, and wear a ton of reflection. Reflective tape on the sides of our boats can also be seen when upside down. We also carry marine VHF etc. Even with all the "safeguards" in place, we're still the "smallest fish in the sea" - and we know it. As you well know, we simply can't be too careful in such an unforgiving (but magnificent) environment.