Recreational Boating Safety – Operation Paddle Smart

By Bob Currie, Vessel Examiner
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 081-06-08
One thing is certain: if we get lost at sea, the US Coast Guard will come searching for us. But it is up to the vessel operator to do everything possible to make that search easy. We do that by registering our vessels as required, having proper emergency communication devices such as marine radios, Emergency Position Indicator Beacons (EPIRBs), and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs); by filing float plans, and by generally being safe boaters. One type of call our Coast Guard Watchstanders receive is the Unmanned Vessel Report. This is a call in which another vessel reports finding a boat, kayak, canoe, or other paddle craft at sea with no one aboard.

Flotilla 081-06-08 is based at Coast Guard Station Galveston. The Coast Guard Auxiliary is the uniformed civilian component of the US Coast Guard and supports the Coast Guard in nearly all mission areas. The Auxiliary was created by Congress in 1939. For more information, please visit

Operation Paddle Smart
With a registered vessel, the Coast Guard can attempt to locate the owner based upon the information provided during the registration process. But it is far more difficult to find owner information for paddle craft, especially for those paddle craft with no registration number or no Hull Identification Number (HIN). Often a vessel has come loose from its mooring or been floated off the beach or dock by a high tide and simply floated out to sea. But that information is not known at the time we receive an unmanned vessel report. In the meantime, the Coast Guard must treat that unmanned craft as a true emergency, and activate the Search and Rescue (SAR) system. But there is something you can do as a paddle craft owner: apply a Coast Guard “Vessel Identification Sticker for Canoe, Kayak, SUP or Rowboat.”

These stickers are provided by the US Coast Guard’s Operation Paddle Smart Program. Operation Paddle Smart’s goal is to educate paddle-sport enthusiasts how to stay safe, be responsible boaters and help emergency responders in search and rescue type situations. Its goal is to make your boating season safer and more enjoyable as well as help recover your property if lost, and it could help save lives. It provides a focal point for boating and paddling organizations, retailers as well as others to work together to promote paddle sport safety plus providing valuable information to all paddlers and small boaters.

When small craft such as kayaks or canoes are found adrift, typically there is no way of determining whether or not individuals may be in distress. In such situations, having timely access to some basic information can make all the difference between wasting valuable SAR resources and saving lives.

The Paddle Smart weather-proof sticker, when properly filled out using a permanent waterproof marker and appropriately applied to small craft by vessel owners, can help save lives, recover missing property, and reduce resources expended on non-emergency SAR activities related to unnecessarily deploying limited resources to search for someone who is not in danger. This saves tax payer dollars, spares rescue crews from being unnecessarily put at risk and saves family and friends from pointless anxiety. Each Paddle Smart sticker provides a place for small craft owners to display their name, phone and cell phone numbers. It is important to put two valid phone numbers on the sticker, since a cell phone could become non-functional if it ends up in the water. Under such circumstances, an alternate number provides a way to check if an emergency exists or to arrange for return of property to its owner. Timely access to this information is critical during the initial SAR investigation phase if the craft is found a drift.

Applying the Paddle Smart Sticker

  1. Use Black Waterproof Permanent Marker
  2. Identify a location on the hull that is easily visible
  3. Clean selected area with an alcohol wipe and let thoroughly dry
  4. Carefully peel backing off sticker and mount in selected location
  5. Cover sticker with clear, wide packing tape

Reporting an Unmanned Vessel
If you find an unmanned vessel that has a Paddle Smart sticker, you can attempt to call the phone numbers registered on the sticker to resolve the issue. If unable to contact anyone or there is no sticker, the safest thing to do is consider this a marine emergency and contact the Coast Guard. The preferred method is to use a VHF/FM marine radio.

Call U.S. Coast Guard on Channel 16 VHF-FM (156.8 MHz)
Emergency Radio Call Procedures:

  1. Make sure radio is on
  2. Select channel 16
  3. Press/hold the transmit button
  4. Clearly say: “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY
  5. Also give: – Vessel name and/or description
  6. – Position and/or location
    – Nature of emergency
    – Number of people on board

  7. Release transmit button
  8. Wait for 10 seconds – if NO response, repeat call.

If you would like a Paddle Smart sticker for your paddle craft, please contact me at my email address below.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!


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One Response to “Recreational Boating Safety – Operation Paddle Smart”

  1. Ross McArthur says:

    I would like to receive a Paddle Smart sticker for my kayak. My address is 13115 Bradbridge Ln, Houston, TX 77082
    Thank you

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