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NHlakesKayak Safety Editorial
by Michael Pagliarulo, contributing writer
An editorial inspired by unfortunate, all too common events.

Paddling Safety in Severe Conditions is always a challenge.

Kayaking continues to enjoy an ever increasing rise in popularity among outdoor recreational activities. From its prehistoric origins as an essential survival technique in the most threatening climates, to its present day eminence for ecotourism, kayaking carries with it a mystique and appeal that resonates with our basic need to bond with nature.

Wanting rich and memorable experiences, kayaking enthusiasts push the envelope in search of the penultimate pleasures of their sport. Whether it be jettisoning over a waterfall, careening through a series of barrel rolls in a level-five rapid, or venturing out into indiscernible ocean currents amid rocky shoals, some kayakers have a penchant for the extreme.

But even a casual paddle in familiar, seemingly safe waters can result in tragedy. Although most sport lovers measure the risks associated with their adventures into the wilds, something tremendously alluring plays tricks with their pleasure receptors, flooding them with endorphins and elevating their adrenalin, with the result that caution is sometimes cast to the wind.

Justifications for taking such risks can seem indefensible when the only goal seems to be another milestone in one’s quotient of self-realization. On those occasions when a truly tragic accident occurs in kayaking, the background reasons as well as the immediate causes can be of equal significance.

A recent incident in New England involved a 21-year-old Brown University student of great promise. He was found dead after Coast Guard officials found his nine-foot kayak on New Year’s Day. Adrift three miles offshore, there was no indication of capsizing. A lone glove was found in the cockpit. Family members identified the young man as an experienced outdoorsman who was extremely bright and athletic. He was out duck hunting in 37 degree waters off the southern coast of Massachusetts.

His reason for kayaking in the extreme conditions of  winter in New England evokes images reminiscent of primitive hunters, risking life and limb at the edge of nature’s harshest environs to obtain basic human sustenance. Whether this unfortunate soul was in such dire circumstances or not,  the fact remains he died. Questions will in all likelihood focus on factors that may or may not have contributed to this sad event. It is unlikely that any of those questions will be answered to a degree that will alleviate the pain and loss to family members.

The only beneficial outcome that has ever resulted from similar tragedies is the lessons we can gain from the mistakes he may have made, however negligible. Such lessons may help future kayakers in the enjoyment of this popular sport. Sometimes all the best precautions can still betray us in those unpredictable situations.

I know I have neglected to follow some of the most basic rules of water safety. On one occasion I could have quickly succumbed to a frigid, watery grave. Kayaking aside expanding ice flows on New Hampshire’s third largest lake, weighed down with heavy winter attire, and no life vest, I foolishly paddled along, never imagining the possibility of overturning. I would have sunk like a lead weight in seconds. The Brown student was at least wearing a life vest.

The point  is obvious: It’s not enough to know the rules; we have to follow them. Review The Safe Kayaking Checklist here at TopKayaker.net, but here is a quick list of the most common water safety rules and guidelines for kayakers to follow:

  • Carry a visual distress signal, whether a light or flare.
  • Carry a sound signal device like a fog horn, whistle, or a VHF radio.
  • Conduct a visual safety check of all equipment before embarking.
  • Wear a Coast Guard approved PFD
  • Operating under the influence is prohibited.
  • Remember cold conditions & dehydration can result in poor judgement. Dress for the WATER temperature.
  • Stay with your boat if it overturns.
  • Wear a wet or dry suit for water temperatures around 55F degrees.
  • Carry a first aid kit on board.
  • Carry a nautical chart of waters you’re boating on and a compass.
  • Carry a pump, float, and tow rope or bowline.

In determining the cause of this recent accident, it is possible such a list as this will be reviewed and considered in hopes of identifying which of these played the more significant role.

For the most part, kayakers are responsible, level-headed, and amply prepared when embarking on an adventure. We would like to feel confident that paddlers represent the best in outdoor enthusiasts. Let’s endeavor to ensure that our good sense preserves us in our pursuit of the awesome pleasures that kayaking offers. Be safe.

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