Visibility on the Water for Paddlers

Often I’ll be paddling in open water on Puget Sound near Seattle and happen to turn around to see a fast moving power boat headed directly towards me. If I move to the left, the boat follows. If I move to the right, they follow. At the last minute I’ll raise my paddle high in the air hoping to make eye contact.

We’ve had some close calls with boats narrowly missing us by a few feet. In most cases, we’re the only crafts out there, so it’s always odd our paths happen to intersect. More often than not, as the boat passes the driver isn’t even looking in our direction, sometimes they’re not even at the wheel.

Occasionally, they’ll wave as their four foot stern wake of whitewater rips under us. Sometimes, they use us as a buoy or channel marker to make their turn. Luckily we’re good at surfing, others may not be so fortunate. Once while crossing from Southworth to Blake Island using sea kayaks with a friend’s wife and 6yr old daughter, a fast moving yacht came within a few feet of our group and kicked up a huge wave, about a 4′ face, waving as they passed. We quickly rafted up to each other to prevent capsize. Often we will get vocal with the boat if it’s completely obvious that they’re doing something stupid.

Paddlers Can be at Fault

On the flip side, stand up paddlers and kayakers often cut in front of moving boats in busy boating channels.

Near our put-in in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood where the busy Chittenden Locks empty into Puget Sound, paddlers often are too impatient to wait for incoming or outgoing boating traffic. A narrow channel and very shallow on one side, boaters have little options for space when they are forced to swerve out of the way of paddlers. Boats don’t have brakes. Here, human powered craft don’t have right-of-way over boaters.

Last year, we rescued a kayaker who got impatient and crossed in front of a dozen power boats just released from the locks. He capsized on a boat wake, forcing the remaining boaters to swerve in two different directions to avoid the swimmer. We squeezed in there with our kayaks and performed a T-Rescue plucking him from the frigid 55F water. In less than 20 minutes in the water, he was getting stiff and was slightly unresponsive. In this case, none of the passing boaters stopped to offer help, and they continued to swerve around us during the rescue.

Tips for Being More Visible On Water:

  • Always watch your back. Do frequent checks for oncoming traffic.
  • Know the Angle on the Bow Method to determine boater speed.
  • Know where the boating channels are, and understand what the buoy colors and types stand for.
  • Don’t cross in front of boats unless you know you’ll 100% clear their bow without an issue.
  • Put silver reflector tape on your paddle blade and a strip or two on your paddle shaft. Works for both day and night.
  • Purchase a PFD with silver reflector tape, or attach reflectors to your fanny or hydro pack.
  • Attach a waterproof flashlight on your PFD, jacket, or board at night. The Guadian light is small, very bright, and reliable. I have 3.
  • Know your right-of-ways on the water.
  • Don’t cross in front of a freighter, tanker, or cruise ship. They take several miles to stop and won’t stop for you.
  • Wear bright colors. Think hi-vis colors and bright life jackets such as those from Vaikobi and Mocke.
  • Pay attention.
  • Bring immersion clothing in case you do fall in after a boat wake capsize. While on a sup with a leash, you’ll be OK most of the time. But the cold air and a long paddle back might chill you beyond your comfort level. I pack ext as in my fanny pack or on my board.
  • Carry flares, a whistle, waterproof laser pointer, or smoke for greater visibility.

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About Rob Casey – Named a pioneer in the SUP industry by Stand Up Journal, Rob is the author of “Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers” and “Kayaking Puget Sound and the San Juans, 60 Trips.” Rob owns SUP and Kayak school Salmon Bay Paddle in Seattle. He also runs several paddling races.

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