Kayaking in the United Sates has grown at a rate of 272% over the past nine years. This is according to a report by the American Canoe Association (ACA).
Unfortunately, as fun as this fast growing sport is, accidents still happen.
While fatalities are not common, all it takes is one mistake. What was supposed to be a fun day could turn into a tragedy.
Every physical activity has its risks; and kayaking is no different.
However, most of the accidents are preventable when you follow the recommended safety measures. You should also know what causes the injuries and fatalities.
Risk Factors and Causes of Kayak Accidents (and How to Prevent Them)
a. Alcohol Use
You would think that people know better. Alcohol is among the top causes of fatalities in kayaking. People still get on and operate a kayak under the influence of booze. This is despite the fact that it is illegal.
Alcohol impairs your judgment and coordination. When there is an emergency, one is required to make split second decisions and act fast. This will be a challenge if you are drunk.
The situation only gets worse if you fall into the water. A drunk person is at a higher risk of hypothermia when submerged in water.
Prevention: don’t drink and kayak. It is easy to believe that you can handle a kayak when you have had a drink or two. But think about the consequences. When operating in the water, you need all your senses to be working perfectly.
The best thing to do is to go kayaking, explore the water then sit down to have a drink once you are out of the water.
You may not get into an accident but you may end up having to deal with law enforcement officers. Besides, if you drink you will be endangering the lives of everyone you are with in the kayak.
b. Weather and Water Conditions
Everyone knows that kayaking is a terrible idea when there is a storm. Many people would never even consider it. Nonetheless, just because it is sunny and calm in the morning does not mean it will be like that for the rest of the day.
Kayaks are designed to handle a lot—including a storm. The problem is the operator and passengers. A little rain may be fine but you better get out of the water when you see a storm or waves building up. The waves and currents may become too big for you to handle. What follows is the boat capsizing.
A storm also comes with thunder and lighting. The latter is dangerous when you are in water. Your chances of getting electrocuted are very high.
Prevention: be keen about the weather. Check and confirm two days before. Check again on the day of. If there is any sign of a storm, reschedule. Pay attention to all aspects including temperature and wind.
Understand, also, that the weather forecast is never 100% accurate. While in the water, observe how the weather is changing. The minute you see a storm starting to build up, head for the shore. The same applies to waves. Don’t wait until the water is overpowering you. Trust your instincts.
c. Lack of a PFD Device
According to this report (page 20), 76% of kayaking and canoeing fatalities did not have PFDs at the time of death. This research was carried out over a period of seven years. A personal flotation device plays a crucial role in times of emergency. According to the ACA, there have been cases where kayaks and canoes capsized. Those without PFDs died while those with PFDs survived.
A PFD helps you stay afloat and swim to the shore. When a kayak capsizes for any reason, you are likely to go under and drown if you will not be wearing a PFD.
Prevention: this one is simple. Wear a kayak life vest and wear it properly. It more than doubles your chance of making it if things go south. Look at the statistics. Invest in good PFDs that are comfortable; both for you and your loved ones.
Some people feel uneasy in PFDs. That is one of the major reasons they give for not wearing them. Kids, especially, may be uncomfortable. For the right amount, you can get nice ones for everyone including your dog.
d. Operator Inexperience
As pointed out above, the operator’s experience (or lack thereof) is a huge issue. People go kayaking everywhere—lakes, seas, rivers and ponds. It is not uncommon to see kayaks in choppy water and other risky situations. What is the difference between the risk takers and those that play safe? Skill and experience.
Someone who knows all the ropes will have no trouble navigating rough waters. If their kayak capsizes, they know what to do and what to avoid. It would be dangerous for an amateur to take a risk like that. Operator inexperience has been linked to 17% of kayaking fatalities. These are cases where the weather and water conditions were okay. 16% of fatalities were as a result of bad weather/water conditions coupled with operator error/inexperience.
Prevention: take a class or get an expert to teach you. Learn all the kayak basics and everything that may save your life or that of other passengers. Ensure that they teach you about the weather and water too. When practicing, start with calm waters. See how far you can paddle, how long it takes for you to get burnt out and things like that. Test yourself and your kayak.
If the water is warm, practice falling into the water and getting back onto your vessel. This skill may come in handy.
As a beginner, avoid going too far or taking risks with rapids. Do everything gradually.
You are always advised to make sure that you are visible when undertaking a water sport. Kayaks are not that big. Others are paddle boards that have been converted.
When you are alone in a small water body, you may not have much to worry about. But in a place where there are other water vessels, chances of an accident are higher. Kayak accidents involving other water crafts are rare. When they happen, they can be fatal. Suppose a motorboat, jet ski or any other vessel hits your kayak at high speed. The kayak will not stand a chance. The most likely result is capsizing and probably worse.
Prevention: wear something that will make you visible to other water users. Always wear bright colors. PFDs are usually brightly colored. You may go a step further and attach reflector strips. Other people should see you from a distance. Make your kayak visible too. When there is low visibility, attach bright lights.
Additionally, confirm with local authorities about boating rules. For busy waters, there is usually some kind of regulations to enforce safety. Anything that might help.
Are you kayaking in cold water? In larger water bodies, the water takes longer to warm up. Don’t let the weather fool you—know the temperature of the water before you go kayaking. At some point in your trip, you will be surrounded by water and far from the shore. You never know whether you will fall into the water or not.
Very few people actually die because of freezing as far as kayaking is concerned. This is because cold shock or drowning will happen first.
Cold shock comes as a result of exposure to cold water suddenly. Death because of suffocation is quick.
If you are lucky enough to survive cold shock, you have hypothermia to deal with. You begin by shivering and blood circulation slows down. Your coordination is impaired, the pulse weakens and you get confused and sleepy. Once you lose consciousness, drowning is almost inevitable.
Prevention: wear the right clothes. Always expect to fall into the water, even though you have experience. If the water is really cold, wear a dry suit or wet suit. For 60 degrees and below, a wet suit will do. When the water temperature is below 50 degrees, go with a dry suit.
When it is generally cold, protect your hands, head, feet and neck too.
These include weirs, fallen trees and any other obstacle you can think about. Typically, water still passes over them such that you cannot see the obstacle clearly. You realize there is something when it is too late. Weirs are even more dangerous because once they trap you, getting out is tricky.
Prevention: be careful. To an experienced eye, most obstacles are easy to notice and avoid. Newbies, however, may have trouble. This is why a kayaking class is important. You will learn how to see an obstacle early enough and how to avoid it. Try reading paddling literature too. You will find information about low-head dams and other things that may endanger you.
One More Thing
Don’t go kayaking alone. Get friends and loved ones to go with you. Make it a group trip if you can. This applies more to those who do not have the experience. But even if you do, it is good to be safe. In case things go sideways, you can help one another and get to the shore.
If you want to be alone, go where there are other water users and keep a distance. Alternatively, don’t paddle very far from the shore.
Let a friend know where you will be. Share your itinerary with them.
Kayak Safety Gear and Essentials
Flashlight and headlamp: you may plan to go back early but you never know what will happen. Carry a headlamp and flashlight.
PFD: this has already been discussed but it is worth repeating. Everyone should have a personal flotation device. Find one that fits well so it does not bother you.
Whistle: if you get stuck with no way out, calling for help will be your best bet. Have a whistle with you. Keep it where you can reach it.
Another paddle: in some extreme situations, you cannot go after a paddle if it falls into the water. You have to continue paddling.
Kayak safety flag: this one maximizes your visibility. You will especially need it when in a low light situation. Some of them have an LED light.
Cellphone: waterproof cases are available everywhere. Bring your phone.
Compass: exploring the water is fun. You can wander and lose direction. Have a compass with you and know how to use it.
First aid kit: this is one of those things that you cannot afford to leave behind. You or someone else may get hurt.
Water and snacks: dehydration and hunger can cause you so much trouble. Take your snacks and stay hydrated.
Kayaking is not a dangerous activity. Nonetheless, accidents still occur. Some of them have ended very badly. Knowing what causes them helps you know what to do and not do. Stay away from alcohol until you are out of the water. Avoid obstacles completely. Check the weather and water conditions and dress appropriately. Invest in the right clothes.
Never go kayaking without a PFD and remember to invite friends. Where lives are concerned, it is wise to adhere to all precautions. Bring the proper gear and essentials to keep you comfortable. Finally, kayaking is awesome. Plan a trip and be sure to have an amazing time.