by John Skinner
As I wrote this, Suffolk Police divers were searching for a missing kayaker on Lake Ronkonkoma who was reported to have fallen out of his kayak, popped out of his life vest, and then disappeared below the water's surface two days earlier. As someone who does a fair amount of kayak fishing in various settings, I started thinking about how many things had to go wrong for this person to be lost.
I think a lot about worst-case scenarios and how I would respond should something bad happen when kayaking. I've bought three kayaks. The first two are sit-ons, and the first thing I did with both of them was take them a little ways from shore and intentionally roll them over so that I fell out and would have to right the crafts and get back in. The first time I did this, I spent some time watching YouTube videos on the subject before attempting it myself. My son was on the shore nearby in a wetsuit in case I messed up and needed help. I found the sit-ons very easy to right and get back into, and I subsequently used them for diving where I had to get in and out on the water. The third purchase was a spur of the moment buy when I saw a nice looking sit-in tandem for sale cheap. I intentionally flipped this one over very close to shore, and found it to be an absolute pain to get the water out of after righting it. That was the only time I used it, as I sold it a few days later.
Knowing I can right and get back on my sit-on yaks easily is some piece of mind, but a long way from being as safe as possible. I'm never in the yak without wearing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). If the water is cold, I'll wear an appropriate wetsuit. If I can float and deal with the cold water, I should be OK should I somehow end up flipping. My paddle is leashed securely to the kayak so I don't have to worry about ending up immobile after a flip. In the many trips I've made on Long Island Sound, the bays, and the ocean, I've never come close to ending up in the water. The only exception was taking a spill on a flubbed surf entry. Given that I was in 75-degree water that I could stand in, this was nothing more than added entertainment for people on the beach. I'm careful to pick very calm days for my ocean trips.
I think the biggest danger is getting hit by a boat. Frankly I don't understand how an alert boater can run over a bright yellow 15-foot craft with someone sitting on it in calm seas, but there's always the possibility of someone not paying attention. I have an air-horn can within arms reach just in case, although I understand that this would be a Hail Mary pass at best. With this in mind I'm careful around channels, and usually stay on the edges in places where the channel is wide enough that boats navigating the channel can pass by at a significant distance. My attitude towards boaters is that I don't expect any special treatment from them just because I've decided to go out on the water on a narrow piece of plastic. It's up to me to either deal with whatever wakes they dish out, or I shouldn't be in areas where there are boats. This is an important attitude to have because there are some boaters who don't seem to give much thought to the impact of their behavior on others.
Below is a short video from Moriches Bay. If you note the buoy's position and how quickly my line is cleared from the water, you can tell that I'm in shallow water just out of a channel. This is a very wide channel, and was being fished by many boats of all sizes this particular morning. In the beginning of the video a large boat is approaching from behind me and blowing his horn the whole way. For reasons I couldn't figure out, he insisted on running right along the channel edge instead of down the middle where there was deeper water and fewer boats. The GoPro fish-eye distortion makes things look farther away and smaller, and doesn't do justice to how close the boat passes or the size of the wake. A good indication of his proximity is that there are less than three seconds between when he passes me and when his wake hits. At the end of the video you can see a sizable cabin cruiser being tossed around by the large wake. Boaters are responsible for their wake, but again, I don't expect anyone to cut me slack because I've chosen to be out there on a kayak. I feel I'm responsible for my own safety, regardless of the actions of others. I can handle big wakes easily as long as I take them on the bow. The water that might come over the bow goes right out the scuppers on a sit-on-top kayak. Still, what this boater did, I wouldn't think of doing to other boats, no less a kayak.
In the remote chance that the wake did flip me, it wouldn't be catastrophic. Most of my valuables are leashed. Thanks to my PFD, I would be buoyant. The kayak itself would be a large buoyant object to hold onto. I'm even confident I could right the yak in time to save my somewhat water-resistant fishfinder. Safety is everyone's responsibility on the water, but taking full responsibility for your own safety is the best way to be sure that you make it home OK at the end of the day.