Kayak fishing is becoming more and more popular not only here in NZ but all around the world and plenty of new people take up the sport. It’s fun and a great way to enjoy the great outdoors and bring home some fish at the same time. Kayaks are safe if used properly but for that you need to be aware of limitations and potential hazards you might be facing on your kayak.
When getting into kayak fishing you start with buying a kayak. Your safety consideration should start at this point when you make the decision what kayak to buy. The kayak is your buoyancy and you should feel comfortable and stable on it. It also needs to be right for the purpose and the conditions you will be using it in. There are plenty of brands on the market and with more coming in you are advised to make an informed decision. One advice I can give you on that is try before you buy and talk to other people that might have experience with certain brands. Ideally other kayak fishoes rather than the sales person trying to make a sale as you will more likely get unbiased opinions. Kayak clubs or internet forums are a good place to start your research.
Now that you have a kayak that should keep you above the water there are other things that need consideration. We share the water with many other watercrafts (motorised and un-motorised) and the numbers seem to be ever increasing every year. Basic maritime rules are in place to ensure safety for everyone on the water. However, there are plenty of unskilled, uneducated or plain ignorant people out there that pose a hazard to others on the water. Especially around summer time when it seems that every man and his dog is on the ocean and some parts are more like a busy highway it pays to do everything you can to stay safe. As a kayaker there are plenty of things that you can do to be safe on the water.
This article gives novices to the sport plenty of things to think about regarding safety on the water but I believe experienced kayak anglers might also benefit from it. Even if you simply mentally tick the boxes of the things you are already doing. But how often do we become complacent and comfortable with the way we do things and maybe lose sight of some important safety aspects we might have done when we started out but stopped doing at some point for whatever reason, including myself. So read on.
If other vessels can see you then they can steer clear of you to avoid a collision with you. Colour/contrast/movement are your allies and you should use them. Bright colours are a good way to make you more visible to others. It starts with the colour of your kayak and nowadays there are plenty of Colour choices that make sure you stick out.
By having clothing/life jacket that is of a different colour than your kayak you add contrast that further increases you being visible to others on the water. A bright coloured flag will give you additional height as you are quite low to the water surface on your kayak and will sometimes be the first thing other vessels can see. On a day with big swell you can be there one second and be gone the next second and the flag might be the only part visible. You should also consider a bright coloured hat as your head is the highest point of your body. Depending on direction/angle another vessel approaches your hat will be more visible than a flag.
Another way to make you visible to others is by adding reflector/day glow tape to your kayak and/or paddle. These strips can be used to reflect sunlight during the day and boating light in the dark by movements of the paddle that will make others aware of your presence on the water. As your paddle is in constant movements it is a great place to add the tape as it will hopefully catch the eyes of other vessels heading your way.
If you are launching or returning in the dark you have to have at least one light on you to avoid a collision with others. You could use a head torch or you can mount an all-round navigation light to your kayak (ideally at a height above your head) so you can be seen from all directions.
Do not rely on your own visibility and be aware of your surroundings on the water. Are other vessels approaching your way and might not see you? You can try to signal them with your paddle by waving it high in the air and hope that they will finally notice you. Sometimes a slight turn of the kayak makes you more visible to them as they would then see your full side of the kayak. There are also real idiots out there that just love pass kayakers too close and too fast with their boats to see how they do in their boat wake. It is against maritime rules and you can report it to the harbour master but while out there just be ready for some big swells coming through.
But not only other vessels pose a potential hazard to you on the water. The weather is a variable that you cannot and should never underestimate before and during your trip. Weather can change quickly and catch you out on the water. Prepare your trip by checking the forecast. But do not solely rely on one source, as we all know forecasts can be completely wrong and you would do good to check multiple sources. You want to check the wind speed, wind direction, wave/swell height and tides as they all come into play assessing your planned launching site and preferred fishing spot. You might have to rethink your plan and find a more sheltered spot if the wind direction etc. are not favourable and would make it for a rather uncomfortable if not unsafe trip. Also look out for the possible situation where the wind could turn against tide during the day and you face a trip in choppy conditions.
Now that you are on the water you should not become ignorant to the weather as the weather can change and so does the sea. Be alert to increase in wind which can let you drift faster and further than you had planned. Sudden cloud build up are usually a sign of wind being on its way which might affect your return trip. Also know where you are. Look out for landmarks you can orientate yourself on or use the GPS/Chartplotter on your sounder if you have one (THIS IS A VERY USEFULL TOOL). I once started my electronics up when I was already way out of the bay I launched from and on my return in the dark I was not certain which way to go once my trail ended and I had not much to orientate myself on. Luckily I had friends onshore I could contact to give me light signals to guide me in. Lesson learned.
Very importantly, know your limits and do not go beyond your experience and fitness level. It makes for slow progress paddling against strong winds. If you do not feel comfortable with the conditions on the day do not launch or head back in. You have to make that decision. Safety comes first.
Let someone at home know what your trip plans are, where you launch from and where you are heading and when you plan to return. If you fail to return they will raise the alarm and let rescuer know of you plans.
If all turns to custard and you have capsized or got yourself into a situation you do require assistance you want to make sure you are prepared for that eventuality. Firstly, always wear your personal flotation device (PFD) on the kayak. Way too often do we hear of drownings that might have been preventable if life jackets were worn. Your PFD has to be the right size and fit for yourself and should fit the purpose you want to use it for. Check the ratings and try it on before you buy a PFD. Nowadays there are PFDs on the market for kayak fisherman that are very comfortable to wear have plenty of storage.
I strongly encourage you to practice a re-entry after a capsize so that in case of the unplanned capsize you know how to flip and how to re-enter your kayak. This will hopefully reduce the panic and feeling of helplessness.
You should have two ways of communication with you (VHF radio, cellphone). Ideally you have it on you (i.e. in your PFD) because if you become separated from your kayak those devices are of no use if you cannot reach them. For those big offshore paddles or where it is likely you will have not cellphone or VHF radio coverage you should consider taking a distress radio beacon like a personal locator beacon (PLB) or an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) to signal your location if you are in distress and require rescue. With all your equipment it also becomes important that you know how to use it. Get yourself accustomed in how to use these in emergency (i.e. know the emergency VHF channel and how to call for help).
A paddle leash, tethering the paddle to the kayak, should be seriously considered because it is your “motor” which you do not want to see floating away. It might be OK if you out on the water with a fishing buddy who could come and collect the paddle for you but if you are on your own the paddle leash is almost must. I do carry a spare paddle stored inside the hull of my kayak which is for the case that I suffer a breakage. A paddle leash also might fulfill another purpose which is not always so obvious. If you flip while paddling you are most likely to hang onto what you have in your hand, your paddle. That could have the consequence that you do not accidentally get separated from your kayak as that is attached to the paddle which you are holding in your hand.
You probably have spent quite a bit of money on your fishing gear so you might want to consider tethering your rods to the kayak, too. Of course, you should make sure that all the tethers/leashes do not create a hazard in itself. If you capsize you might become entangled in them and you hopefully have a knife on you to cut yourself free.
Most likely you will be saying right now ‘so how about I tether myself to the kayak?’. There are a wide range of opinions about that topic and it is not that clear cut. Certainly, those personal tethers have their benefits (especially on solo missions in windy conditions out wide) but they do not come without risks. If you chose to use one of these you want to make sure that whatever setup you are using that you have some kind of quick release mechanism for the event that you have to detach quickly to avoid injury (i.e. the kayak drags you towards rocks).
For surf transitions you should consider wearing a helmet it might prevent some serious head injuries as kayaks can become a weapon if you capsize in surf (have you ever been hit by a kayak in the head?). It is also advisable to detach any leashes/tethers before the surf transition as you risk becoming entangled during capsize in the surf and the kayak might drag you in the surf into a more dangerous situation.
Other equipment you need to consider is a whistle (a must I might say) to signal distress and your need for assistance for others around you. Have you considered the event your fishing buddy becomes unable to paddle his kayak? A tow rope becomes necessary for those events. And with all the hooks you are using, what if you manage to lodge it in your finger or other body part? Do not try to pull the barbed hook the way it got in as that can cause more damage and some serious pain. Some pliers/side cutters help to cut the barb and you can remove the hook with less pain.
Appropriate clothing should also not be overlooked. In colder winter month you want to be warm and dry. Multiple layers (windproof/waterproof/warm) will keep you warm, dry and give you the option to shed a layer if the day temperature heats up and you want to avoid overheating. And for those warm summer days do not underestimate the power of the sun and wear a hat, sunnies, face cover and use plenty of sun protection and long sleeves apparel. The risk of skin damage is real, especially down here in NZ.
No matter if you are a newbie to the sport or an experienced kayak angler safety should be paramount. We spend endless money and time on sourcing new tackle but how much have you considered the safety aspect of the sport and how to stay safe? When it comes to safety we should not have the typically Kiwi “She’ll Be Right” attitude but be rather prepared.
I certainly do not expect you do everything mentioned and there might be certainly a few things that could be added to the above but I do hope that I have given you at least reason to pause for a moment to review your own safety precautions you have in place. In the end we hope for the best but should plan for the worst.
Be Safe! – Be Seen! – Be Prepared! – Be Alert!
But do not forget to have fun!