It’s no secret that paddling around in circles on a pond or lake can eventually get a little dull, which is why a lot of paddlers end up buying a longer kayak that they can also take out in the ocean. Whether you’ve opted for a 12- or 14-footer that you can use to explore coastal areas or a true sea kayak that you can take into open water, the list of paddling gear needed to have a safe trip is significantly longer than what you need for calmer inland adventures.
Read on to find out about the necessary safety gear, and don’t attempt to head out without at least talking to an experienced paddler first. Better yet, take a lesson! We hear they offer some pretty sweet courses at the Eastern Mountain Sports Kayak School…
Personal floatation device
This one is a no-brainer. Even if you think you’re a great swimmer, always bring a coast guard certified personal floatation device, or PFD, with you. Make sure you choose a PFD that fits properly and is comfortable, and wear it at all times when paddling in open water.
Keep a whistle on your PFD in case of emergencies, and blow it three times if you're in distress. Three quick blasts is the international S.O.S. signal, so anyone who is able will respond to the call. Pea-less whistles are best, since there are no small pieces to break or get stuck.
A horn is slightly more bulky than a whistle, but it produces a significantly louder sound to alert rescuers to your location. Some come on a convenient lanyard so you can keep it around your neck. However, it’s better to attach it to your PFD, so you don't run the risk of losing it if you capsize.
First aid kits
You wouldn’t head out on a trip in the woods without a first aid kit, and going out on the water shouldn’t be any different. Even a simple first aid kit could help save your life in an emergency situation.
Be sure to keep your first aid kit in a waterproof bag, and store it someplace where it will be easy to get to if you need it in a hurry. It is also advisable for everyone in your group to carry their own first aid kit in case of separation.
A waterproof light mounted on the front of your kayak not only alerts surrounding boats to your location after sundown, and most kayak lights also have a strobe mode to convey an emergency.
A kayak compass—or kayak-compatible GPS unit—is essential for open-water paddling trips. Water and weather conditions can change in a heart beat, and being able to quickly navigate your way back to shore is imperative.
Much like a surfer has a leash for his board, so should a paddler have a leash for his paddle. If you don’t have a leash and somehow lose your paddle in the middle of the ocean, you'll be stranded. With a leash, you’ll have one less thing to worry about.
Paddle floats are essential for kayaking in choppy waters, as they enable you to rescue yourself and re-enter your kayak after capsizing. However, it should be noted that paddle floats are a rescue device, and are only effective if you’ve been trained to use them.
Stern and bow floats, on the other hand, are not merely rescue aids. They should be used if your kayak does not have bulkheads. They help keep water out of the hatch, and also help to keep your kayak afloat. Make sure you purchase good quality floats that won't pop on impact.
A knife might seem like overkill in the ocean, but if you capsize and end up tangled in something, be it seaweed or cord, you'll be happy you have one. Attach it to your PFD for easy access and try to get a stainless steel model to avoid corrosion.
In theory, your spray skirt will keep water out of your kayak. Things happen, however, and it’s always a good idea to have a backup plan. A bilge pump will bail out a water-filled cockpit in no time, and takes up very little space in your boat.
Having a signal mirror is another necessity for sea kayaking. When in distress, you can flash the mirror in the direction of other boats to alert them that you need rescuing.
Flares are also great for signaling distress, and are generally small and easy to pack. Flares can sometimes fail, though, so be sure to bring a few extras for backup.
Maybe you or someone in your group gets injured. Maybe they’re just too fatigued to keep paddling. Maybe you stumble upon a fellow kayaker who’s in trouble. Maybe a beached whale needs help getting back out to sea. In all of these situations, a tow system is invaluable. Simply attach one end to your kayak—or to your waist, depending on the style—and the other end to the person in distress, and paddle to safety. (Note: leave whale rescues to the pros…we just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.)
If you’ll be paddling in the surf, consider wearing a helmet. There’s a good reason white water paddlers wear them—you never know where you’ll find a rock hiding under rushing water. Similar dangers exist in the surf, and the last thing you want to deal with if your boat tips over is smashing your head on a rock.
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