Safer See Kayaking [17]

By Patrick Dibben

Some of you may have heard about a kayaking incident a couple of months back where a sea kayak was found floating at sea with no occupant. This was widely reported on ABC radio although their facts were, from what I’ve been told, quite wrong.

The incident involved one of our club members. It’s probably best if you get the story from the person involved but basically from what I’ve been told they were forced to abandon their boat close to shore after it became water logged and almost impossible to paddle. They clambered to shore with the aid of rock fisherman and reported the incident to the Police. The kayak was eventually found 200 km further south and 25 kms offshore by a fishing boat and reported to Police at Bermagui. The Police on the south coast were unaware of the previous report and traced the owner via a manufacturers sticker on the boat.

This and a a timely article in the latest edition of the Investigator Canoe Club’s newsletter on flares prompted me to look at safety/rescue equipment on the market.

Night Paddling

Lights: You are probably aware that, although Waterways Handbook doesn’t state it, the minimum requirement for kayaks at night is a 360* visible white light. In reality this can be pretty difficult to achieve and then the strength of an unfocussed battery operated light is not going to be great. A light where you can see it is going to reduce your night vision to a dangerous level.

In some ways it might be simpler and more effective to adopt standard navigation lights. I checked out a local marine shop and found clip on lights made by Sea World for $17.95. These take ‘D’ cells and of course come in red, green and white. They have a clip on section which you attach permanently to your boat. It’s made of black flexible plastic and looks like one of those clips designed for broom closets which some people use as paddle parkers (you could use it for this). When you need your lights you just clip them in. The clips have small stainless steel reflective shades which shield the lights so they are only visible from the correct sides. These shades also detach from the clip. The only disadvantage with this light would be they would be slightly visible by the paddler.

Another alternative is a combination light made for sailing boats. The Ronstan combination red/green light is $29.90 and takes ‘D’ cells. It works out cheaper than two individual lights. I was unable to open a packet to check it out fully but it appears it might also clip on/off. The way this light is designed it would not be visible by the paddler but might be more difficult to install in the middle of a curved deck.

Strobes are not approved for lighting boats and come into the category of rescue equipment.

Reflective Tape: This was $12.50 a metre for a strip which is approx 6 cm wide.

Rescue Equipment

If all else fails and it comes to the point where you need to be rescued you will need to be seen or heard.

Flares: Heres an outline of what I found available:

  • Orange Handsmoke Mk 3 For day use only, visibility 4 km, duration 60 seconds – $22.80
  • Red Handflare Mk 2. Visibility 10 km at night, duration 60 seconds – $18.50
  • Para Red Mk 3 Distress Rocket Visibility 15 km (day)/ 40 km (night), duration 40 secs $67.50
  • Inshore Distress Kit Two Red Handflares and two Orange Handsmoke $77.90

Dye: Dye might be of use if people are already on the lookout or you were below a rocky shoreline where people are around to see you. It’s ideal use would be when a plane searching for you is nearby. It would probably last much longer than a flare but would not be as easily recognised as a distress signal by the casual observer. The Fairway Sea Mariner Dye pack is $20.00. The dye is orange in colour.

Strobes: The one I looked at was waterproof and reasonable rugged. They would be quite visible during the night but would anyone realise they were a distress signal if they weren’t already looking for you. Their effectiveness during the day might be less than a mirror.

Mirrors: I found a thick stainless steel mirror for $3.20.

Whistles: Ideally the whistle should be attached to your life jacket which, of course, you are wearing. A plastic whistle I looked at cost $1.25. These could be quite useful to attract the attention of another kayaker if, for instance, you became separated from your paddling companions.

Air Horns: These are pressure packs of compressed gas with a horn at the top. They are loud! These are the sort of thing that are used at the football to start and finish games. The ones I looked at were reasonably large and cost $20. I have seen smaller versions and these may have some use if paddling at night, in fog, in a crowded harbour where you might use it to warn a larger vessel if you think they may not have seen you. They may need to be kept in a plastic bag to prevent corrosion. Try one out in a shop – you get a fantastic reaction !

EPIRB: These are ‘Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacons’. These may be a good idea if you are doing a trip in an isolated area or if paddling well out to sea. There are EPIRBs and there are EPIRBs. Older EPIRBs relied on detection by aircraft. The newer EPIRBs make use of detection via satellite.

Older 121.5/243 MHZ EPIRBs

Those manufactured or sold prior to February 1990: Originally these were designed to be detected by overflying search aircraft, international civil aircraft or military aircraft. They were not designed for satellite detection and therefore the stability and accuracy of the transmissions was not a critical factor.

Tests have recently been carried out by the Department of Transport and Communication to see if these older non-satellite EPIRBs were able to be detected by the SARSAT (Search And Rescue Satellite) System. Of 25 beacons tested only a small number were detected and of these the resultant positions were so inaccurate as to be highly misleading !

Not all aircraft monitor the 121.5/243 MHZ frequencies. Apart from this there are vast areas of the Australian coast not monitored at all and thus detection is either via chance or by a search aircraft if a full scale search is launched.

Those manufactured or sold after February 1990: These are required to meet Ministerial Standard 241 (MS241). As such they are detectable by satellite however two satellite passes are required to fix a position and then this is only accurate to within 20 km.


The COSPOS/SARSAT system was designed for EPIRBs operating on 406 MHZ using digital signals. All 406 MHZ EPIRBs sold in Australia are compatible with this SARSAT system. They can be detected to an accuracy of within 5 kms and can also identify the EPIRB through an international registration system. Thus they would know they are looking for a kayak instead of a container ship. Some EPIRBs also have the capability of indicating the type of distress eg. medical, collision etc. I believe these cost around $200.

Identifying Your Boat

It’s obviously a good idea to mark your kayak so it can be identified. If we adopted a convention on where to mark the boat then this would make it easier as well. You could use a Pental pen to write your name in a spot where it won’t wear off easily such as the underneath of the front deck in the cockpit and on the rear bulkhead. If your kayak were stolen the marking under the deck is less likely to be discovered by the thief and may then aid in identification and proof of ownership.

The club sticker would also be a good idea as this would lead authorities to people that may be able to supply valuable information. If you marked your kayak with, for instance, your name only then this may not help them if you live by yourself – they still don’t know anyone else to contact.


There lots to be said about PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices) and making your boat buoyant and water tight – too much for this article so I’ll leave that to the next edition of the magazine.

Common sense is obviously pretty high on the list of safety items a kayaker needs. Hopefully those who carry rescue equipment won’t then feel more game to take on what they wouldn’t otherwise. Carry them as a sensible precaution against the unpredictable and as my hero once said ‘A man’s gotta know his limitations’.