Recreational Boating Safety – Winter Kayaking

By Bob Currie, Vessel Examiner
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla.
We have had our first area boating fatality this year already. It only took 3 days. It happened near the infamous San Luis Pass, and the boater was in a kayak. San Luis Pass is a dangerous, as well as illegal, place for recreational water activities. Citing unsafe conditions, the Brazoria County Commissioner’s Court voted to ban visitors from entering the water for recreational activities. The ban, which went into effect August 18, 2017, prohibits visitors from “entering the waters of the San Luis Pass for any activity, including bathing, fishing and/or swimming.” Stay Away from San Luis Pass

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They provide assistance to the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, watch standing, and property administration.

Winter Kayaking
You can safely kayak in the winter if you follow several basic safety rules. Failure to follow even one of the recommendations below can lead to disaster, however. On the railroad we used to say our rules were written in blood. That meant that every rule was written due to at least one person’s death or serious injury. The same applies to boating. Every rule and recommendation has been developed because someone has been seriously injured or died. Coming home safely is about reducing your risk of injury or death.

Check the Weather Forecast
Do not kayak in windy weather. Even powerboaters know to avoid windy weather. Obtain an accurate forecast, and monitor the weather using the weather channel on your marine radio, and scan the sky frequently for bad weather developing, especially between you and the shore. If the weather changes for worse, head for shore.

File a Float Plan
Every time you go out you should file a float plan with at least one relative or friend. You need to include the description of your boat and your vehicle, where your vehicle is parked, what time you expect to enter and leave the water, where you intend to kayak, and the names of the persons going with you. Do not deviate from the plan, although you can change the plan provided you talk to the persons with whom you left your float plan and discuss the changes in your plan. Your float plan should also include how to contact the Coast Guard and other agencies in case they haven’t heard from you.

Don’t Kayak Alone
You should never launch your kayak without a partner. Your kayaking partners should have their own kayaks as well. I have a kayak designed for either solo or two person operation. Winter time is not the time to double up in a kayak. That kayaking partner is of no help to you if they are in the boat with you when it capsizes.

Dress for the Water Temperature
The best way to survive accidental immersion in cold water is to wear a life jacket. It will keep your head above water, keep you afloat, and provide a measure of thermal protection against hypothermia. The effects of cold water immersion are predictable and well documented by what is known as the 1-10-1 Principle:

– 1 minute: Upon immersion in cold water, the body reacts with an involuntary gasp, called the gasp reflex, followed by hyperventilation of up to 10 times regular breathing (if the head is underwater during that initial deep gasp, a person can inhale enough water to drown). Avoid panicking; breathing will return to close to normal.

– 10 minutes: A person immersed in cold water will become incapacitated as limb muscles stop working and prevent swimming or self-rescue, so swimmers should attempt to rescue themselves before incapacitation becomes a factor. If this is not possible, try to get as much of the body out of the water as possible to delay the onset of hypothermia.

– 1 hour: After about 60 minutes (depending on the water temperature), the body continues to cool. The resulting hypothermia can create a range of symptoms from confusion to unconsciousness, eventually leading to death.

If you kayak in cold weather, you may consider purchasing what is known as a float coat. It is a combination bomber-style jacket and Coast Guard Approved Type III life jacket. They keep you warm both above and in the water.

No Alcohol
An impaired kayaker is at the highest risk for a serious accident before they even hit the water. Not only is your judgment seriously compromised, so is your ability to survive a cold water immersion. An alcohol-impaired kayaker is more likely to drown due to the gasp reflex than a sober kayaker. The gasp reflex causes you to inhale water when you are suddenly immersed in water that is cold or even cool.

Have Some Form of Communication
I am a firm believer in having a marine FM/VHF radio on board at all times, but if you don’t have one, at least have a cell phone with the Coast Guard app downloaded onto it. Things can go south so fast, and you need to keep your radio or phone within reach at all times. If you have a DSC-enabled marine radio, be sure to obtain an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) and program it into your radio. The emergency distress button doesn’t work unless you do. I keep my marine radio in my life jacket pocket.

Stay Close to Shore
As you travel away from the shore, make sure you have the strength and skills to paddle back. Stay away from all boats and traffic patterns. If you need to cross the Intracoastal Waterway, do it quickly and when there is no traffic approaching. Stay apprised of tidal currents, also known as rip currents, and their effects on you and your kayak. Tidal currents are part of the danger at San Luis Pass. If in doubt, don’t go out.

Recommended Equipment
Although most of the items listed below are recommended for any time of year, many of the items become more important when the weather and water temperatures are cooler.

  1. Whistle (required by regulation; best if attached to your life jacket)
  2. Marine VHF/FM radio with Digital Selective Calling
  3. Spare paddle (I had a paddle blade break off while I was about 3 miles offshore)
  4. Paddle tether (most paddles don’t float)
  5. Hat
  6. UV eye protection (sunglasses)
  7. Sunscreen (you can burn even in winter)
  8. Drinking water and snacks
  9. Proper footwear (flip flops won’t cut it; think oyster shell bottom)
  10. Knife (a fixed blade is better than a folding blade in emergencies)
  11. Self-rescue devices (tow rope, throwbag with line, duct tape)
  12. Dry bag with spare clothing and towel
  13. Compass
  14. First aid kit (rope burns, lacerations)

Just What Are the Dangers
Sometimes it helps to think in terms of the actual dangers in order to prepare us for an emergency situation. The list below is not exhaustive, and it is not in any order of likelihood or severity of risk. It is simply some of the things you are up against. Contemplate this list, or make your own, every time you go out, and that alone will help you prepare mentally for an emergency.

  1. Capsizing (well, this IS the number one risk on any list)
  2. Getting run over by a powerboat or ship (higher risk than you would imagine)
  3. Getting sucked out to sea (remember San Luis Pass)
  4. Sinking (check your kayak for holes or leaks; watch for submerged objects)
  5. Exposure (wind, heat, cold; we had an exposure death in 2017)
  6. Losing or breaking a paddle (use a tether)
  7. Getting lost (night time, fog, getting too far out to see land)
  8. Injuries (sun/wind burn, lacerations, rope burns, venomous sea life injuries)
  9. Heart attack (or any other life threatening illness due to a pre-existing condition)
  10. Dehydration (it happens even in cold weather)

Summary
You can safely kayak in the winter if you follow some basic guidelines. Because of the risk of hypothermia, you should take extra care to avoid situations where you end up in the water.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at www.uscgboating.org. Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at rt.currie@gmail.com. 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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