And so, what is a sea kayak? [41]

By Norm Sanders

A few months ago, Dave Winkworth and I attended a Sea Kayak training and evaluation session at Phillip Island, Victoria. During the long hours of driving, we discussed a lot of topics, one of which was: What is a sea kayak?

Some thoughts which emerged were:

  • a sea kayak is a narrow, decked craft propelled by a double bladed paddle in which the paddler sits in a cockpit capable of being covered with a waterproof membrane.
  • a sea kayak will generally be less than 20 feet long (a longer, single seat craft being difficult or impossible to manage in sea conditions which could be encountered).
  • a sea kayak will have no minimum length, but will be capable of being safely paddled after executing a re-entry and roll (this would preclude white water boats).
  • a sea kayak will have watertight bulkheads arranged to provide minimum cockpit volume and will have watertight hatches.
  • a sea kayak will have sufficient sheer to allow the craft to rise over waves instead of punching into them (this would rule out most flat water boats).

I put these thoughts on the Internet and got the following replies:

“Norm — The definitions seem to rule out sit-on-tops, some of which I gather can be good sea craft — eg. the Tsunami Ranger boats. Whatever you think of the Tsunami Rangers themselves, surely their boats are sea kayaks. On the other hand some sit-on-tops should really be ruled out — they are glorified barges. I’ll reflect on this.” — Nick

“Norm — you wrote: ‘l. A sea kayak is a narrow, decked craft propelled by a double bladed paddle in which the paddler sits in a cockpit capable of being covered with a waterproof membrane.’
“I would insert ‘human-powered’ in your definition to stop people fitting engines and sails and other evil stuff, and ‘with the occupant/s facing towards the bow’ to rule out rowing boats… and perhaps ‘with a non-planing hull’ to rule out those surf slipper things.
” ‘5. A sea kayak will have sufficient sheer to allow the craft to rise over waves instead of punching into them (this would rule out most flat water boats).’
“It would also rule out a number of ‘sea kayaks’ — the Rosco’s are almost straight and plough through anything. And what about that horrible English Vinek thing that John Wilde owns?
“What about bow to stern grab lines, towropes, etc?
“Perhaps you could get away with a much simpler definition: ‘A sea kayak is a kayak designed, constructed and fitted out to be able to be paddled safely in a wide range of open sea conditions.’
“Even the best designs should be given the flick if they are shoddily made, made out of minimum spec materials and not fitted out to go to sea.
“Sit-on-tops are problematic — they sort of look like kayaks and are powered as such, but they are probably closer to surf skis, which are pretty close to K1’s with a flared bow, and the ‘Rocket’ is somewhere in between.
“The problem is we are dealing with the continuum of human imagination and it is difficult to know where to draw the line.” — Jim

I also asked Chris Cunningham, Editor of the US ‘Sea Kayaker’ magazine and a builder of classic Inuit kayaks, to comment;

“Hi Norm — Thanks for giving me a look at the kayak definition piece. It is an interesting discussion. By the way, regarding your double paddle requirement, many of the Alaskan aboriginal paddlers used single bladed paddles (Aluets, Hooper Bay, Kodiak Island). Some even paddled from a kneeling position (Kodiak Island). I still think of their boats as kayaks.” — Chris

This interchange got us a lot closer to a working definition, but one basic point still has to be made. Nowhere did anyone say that a sea kayak is a CANOE with certain attributes. Nobody I know (with the possible exception of John Wilde) calls their sea kayak a canoe. If this is the case, why are all the bodies which oversee sea kayaking (Australian Canoe Federation, NSW Canoeing Board of Canoe Education, etc.) listed as CANOEING organisations?

Blame it on the POM’s (for our overseas web site visitors POM is an Australian name for English persons — not complimentary. Perhaps derived from early convict “Prisoner of Mother England”, thus POME, or more frequently, POMMIE Bastard. May also be a corruption of “Pong”, meaning to smell badly. Pom’s bathe only infrequently and NEVER wash their socks).

The bloody Pom’s, with typical Imperial hubris, simply called all indigenous paddle craft ‘canoes’ (which word comes from the Carib Indian ‘kanu’, later Spanish ‘canoe’). This linguistic arrogance also resulted in that transcontinental traveller, the short-tailed shearwater, being called a ‘Mutton Bird’ and the highly prized abalone a ‘Mutton Fish’. Perhaps all the bully beef had affected their taste buds.

Of course, for many years, explorers had been using native American canoes for their expeditions. These light, swift craft were ideal for the vast system of lakes, rivers and streams the New World offered. The Iroquois and Algonquins could quickly outdistance any European boats and were in demand for exploration. But when the white men and their Native canoeists met up with the Inuit in Northern Canada, the kayaks blew their doors off. The Inuit could paddle away from the Algonquins even more easily than the Algonquins could swamp the Europeans. Instead of finding out the true name of these racy craft, the unimaginative and linguistically challenged British simply called them ‘canoes’.

Now we are left with the problem of sorting out all this intellectual laziness. The Poms attempted to solve the dilemma by calling canoes ‘Canadian Canoes’. This may work in the UK and Australia, but brings blank stares in North America where a canoe is a canoe and a kayak is a kayak and all the canoes in Canada are Canadian.

The origin of the name ‘kayak’ is a bit obscure itself. Zimmerly used the title ‘Qajaq’ for his excellent book on the Kayaks of Siberia and Alaska. Qajaq is simply Inuit spelling for ‘kayak’. Of course the Inuit had no written language, and this spelling was invented by missionaries. Zimmerly doesn’t mention where the word came from in his book. It could well have been a local name which was picked up by the white men and spread by them as a generic term as a matter of linguistic convenience. If I understood Larry Gray correctly as he spoke about his Greenland experiences, sometimes each specific type and even individual kayak had a certain Inuit name. Chris Cunningham wrote “Qajaq shows up in HC Petersen’s ‘Skinboats of Greenland’ glossary as the Greenlandic term for a kayak.”

The Aleutian ‘Baidarka’ offers no clues. Baidarka simply means ‘small boat’ in Russian, the language of the first explorers of that vast chain of islands.

Anyway, what is a sea kayak? I like Jim Croft’s definition:

“A sea kayak is a kayak designed, constructed and fitted out to be able to be paddled safely in a wide range of open sea conditions.”

Whatever a sea kayak is, it is NOT a canoe. It is time to throw off the tyrannical yoke of sloppy Imperialistic language. Kayakers Of The World, Unite!

‘The End,’ or as us old time journalists say:

— 30 —

Website Reviews [41]

www.guillemot-kayaks.com

Guillemot Kayaks — An excellent resource on wooden kayak building is at this site. This is the place to find information about building wooden kayaks, from photos to plans and building kits.

Additional pages on the site feature sea kayaking trips and pictures, sea kayaking links and a Sea Kayak Forum — a nifty set of interactive online bulletin boards for discussing different aspects of sea kayaking including kayak trips and techniques, kayak building and design.

www.vision.net.au/~jennings

Jeff Jennings — An excellent Tasmanian site that details some spectacular trips around Tasmania, together with some breathtaking photography and amazing trip stories. A must visit site if for no other reason than the fantastic pictures and trip itinerary’s.

www.gasp-seakayak.net

Gulf Area Sea Paddlers — A website primarily for sea kayakers interested in paddling the Gulf of Mexico and Carribean areas. An interesting site that has the most comprehensive FAQ (Frequently Asked Question) list for sea kayakers that I have ever seen. For anyone interested in or new to kayaking, there is HEAPS of info in this FAQ.

Training Notes [41]

By David Winkworth

Well, I enjoyed the Rock’n’Roll Weekend last November. We had nice weather and nice company. Unfortunately we couldn’t get into Honeymoon Bay by road on the Monday — gee we have bad luck with that gate — but it was OK. We drove around to Murrays Beach, launched there and paddled across to Point Perpendicular for lunch in perfect conditions.

Last year was the first time we’ve put on any 3 day event. We were expecting about a half dozen die-hards on the water on the Monday but we had 24 paddlers out there, including Julian and Tina from the Victorian Sea Kayak Club and Mike and Veronica from the Tasmanian Sea Canoeing Club. Thanks for coming — it’s nice to be able to chat with interstate paddlers.

About 10 club members passed their Sea Proficiency Award at the Rock’n’Roll Weekend and a couple of others are very close to achieving the award. Congratulations to you all.

So, the 1999 Rock’n’Roll weekend was a three day event, and this year we have a week-long Murray River paddle coming up in March (latest details in this issue) with about 20 people so far intending to paddle. What does this tell us about sea kayakers? Do we have lots of leisure time? Do we hate gardening and golf? Or do we just enjoy paddling with company? Maybe we could see more multiple day paddles in the future and free ourselves from the regulation weekend paddle? Anyone got any ideas?

Speaking of ideas… what about the Rock’n’Roll Weekend for this year? Is there anyone special we want as a guest speaker or do we go with the slide show format again… or both? Please let us have your thoughts and ideas.

This column also is for your thoughts and ideas. If anyone wants to write the Training Notes for the next issue, just let me know.

OK, let’s talk about rudders for a bit. There seems to be a few misconceptions in the NSWSKC about rudders. I’ve heard it ‘inferred’ a few times that the NSWSKC has a ‘no-rudder policy’. This is rubbish. We do not. The club does not expect members to paddle non-ruddered boats.

Perhaps this rumour, or whatever it is, has come about because a few members have designed and/or built sea kayaks for which a rudder is not intended or is an optional extra. Now you’ve got to expect that these boats versus the permanently ruddered boats are going to be topics of conversation in any sea kayaker gathering. There’s always plenty of good-natured jibes and there always will be.

So, is a rudder good or bad? Well, it can be both really.

Paul Caffyn once said, “Wind is the curse of the kayaking class,” and he’s right. Wind can be your enemy on the ocean, and it is in strong winds that a rudder can significantly reduce your energy output, allowing you to concentrate on forward motion, stability or whatever. Rudders are also recommended for most kayaks if you plan to fly a kite or hoist a sail. Rudders can be an asset in following seas, allowing you to hold a course and pick up waves without resorting to stern rudder strokes.

On the down side, rudders are a mechanical device — they can and do fail. Unless they can be raised above deck level, they can be damaged in surf entries/exits. When they are ‘parked’ on the rear deck, they can add to windage imbalance, actually forcing a paddler to use the rudder simply because it’s up on the deck. They also add up to 10% drag to your boat (US ‘Sea Kayaker’ magazine tank tests 1986) and can reduce your manoeuverability at lower speeds.

Look, we could go on and on with the pros and cons of all this but we won’t.

My recommendation to paddlers: If your boat has a rudder, leave it on… but learn to turn and control the kayak in all conditions without it. Don’t become rudder-dependant. If your boat doesn’t have a rudder, you have no choice but to develop top-notch boat control skills. Summer is here, the water is warm… DO IT!

At the ‘Next Step Training Weekend’ in May at Honeymoon Bay, we’ll go through all these boat control strokes, including foot pressure and weight transfer techniques. Check the calendar.

A few weeks ago, Mark Pearson (AKA Fishkiller) broke his boat in half in a rocky cove near Batemans Bay. He wasn’t in it at the time — he had bailed out when a big wave picked the boat up and started surfing it into some rocks. It hit the rocks once and then another wave picked it up from the rock shelf while he was assisting Norm Sanders to land, and really finished the job.

So was the attempt to land in this cove an error of judgement? Probably not — just bad luck, as Chris Soutter landed without incident a few minutes later. However it does remind us of the unpredictability of the environment in which we choose to play. Mark did the only thing he could in the circumstances. Skills are important.

Mark and Norm took the battered boat to Bateman’s Bay and removed the fittings, the boat officially being declared a write-off. When they removed the front VCP hatch rim, which was sealed with Sikaflex, the sealant actually ripped off some of the glass fibre laminate. Sikaflex is good stuff — why would you use anything else?

I now have the ‘Inuit 2 piece jigsaw’ with me. Rebuilding this thing will make an interesting project. This boat may finally get what it needs… a hatch in the rear deck!

Sometimes It’s OK To Tow The Line [41]

By Sharon Betteridge

“You don’t fit the female stereotype do you?”

Dennis Kleinberg’s rhetorical question was thrown at me as we sat in the rebound off Kurnell.

“When you get to work on Mondays,” he continued, “you must have some interesting stories to tell your colleagues.”


Dennis Kleinberg with his 50 cent jumble-sale wind-meter — now that’s value!

I guess I do. I have fairly conventional leisurely Saturday lunches overlooking some of the best coastline in NSW, but how I get there, by sea kayak, is perhaps a little less conventional than how my workmates get around. If my weekends are less conventional than my workmates, then so too are my Friday nights. While they tear away after work for a few drinks at the local cafe or pub to unwind and then off home to contend with the wife/husband/kids, I detour home via the beach to check out sea, surf and sky conditions for the next day’s paddle.

Friday 10th December 1999 was no different. After detouring via Coogee Beach to watch the sea conditions I went home and phoned for a weather fax, before flicking through all the television channels to get updates on the weekend weather. Our phone had run hot the previous few evenings with calls from potential starters for my husband’s advertised paddle from Botany Bay to Bundeena. The weather was looking good and the sea conditions quite manageable. Details were finalised.

Nine of us assembled at 8.30 am at Frenchman’s Bay, La Perouse. Margot Todhunter and Bob Head had paddled across form Kurnell, on the southern shore of Botany Bay. They had organised a car shuffle, leaving a car at Burraneer Bay so that they could complete the paddle one way, and have a shorter drive to pick up the other car at Kurnell. Nick Gordon was also paddling one way and had organised with his wife to pick him up from Buraneer Bay. As usual Sundra and Salo John were ready when Robert and I arrived. No matter how hard we try they always arrive earlier than us even when they have an hour longer drive, which is often the case. Rob is convinced they either sleep on the beach or Sundra’s Falcon is in fact an aircraft. Dennis Kleinberg and Robert Gardner arrived soon after. As we assembled on the beach Rob Mercer went through the usual briefing and signing of indemnity forms, and read out the weather fax he had received at 7.30 am. To ensure we all felt comfortable on the water it was decided that Robert Gardner would paddle in front and Rob and Sundra would stay at the rear to keep an eye on everyone.

We paddled out of Botany Bay with the nor’easter at our backs, the 1-2 metre swell producing some rebound off the steep shoreline. In the morning light the sandstone cliffs took on an iridescent hue, the silence adding to their majesty. With the wind strengthening behind us Bob and Rob deployed their sails but still had to paddle to keep up with the group. To check on wind speed Dennis took out his new wind meter. After several attempts it appeared that it wasn’t working. Dennis mumbled something about flat batteries, but I suspect that it had more to do with the fact he had purchased it for fifty cents at a school fete. To divert attention from the wind meter Dennis’ new bionic eyes spotted a shark in close to the rocks and heading in the opposite direction. For the life of me I couldn’t see it but I had startled a baby shark in a similar location only two months previously so I wasn’t hanging around to take a closer look.

Continuing south the cliffs opened out to a wide sweep of sand dunes. The scenery is one of stark contrasts. The almost surreal skyline of the refineries flanking the north and south shores of Botany Bay; the towering isolated cliffs of the Kurnell peninsula; the long desolate beaches of Wanda and Eloura; the high rise development skirting the promenade at Cronulla; and the small village atmosphere of Bundeena, lost in an earlier time. The settlements on the southern shore of the river could be seen clearly as we rounded the headland, but the paddle across Bate Bay and the mouth of the Hacking River would take another hour or so.

There was a pleasant camaraderie as we continued on our way. The sea swell and wind giving us a gentle push, as we were lost in idle chat about the meaning and nature of life. Sundra deployed his newly acquired parasail declaring that the wind was now strong enough for it to be of some use. He sailed gently into Bundeena. As my bow scraped the shore I could hear the ‘S’ word being bandied around by the men folk of the group, their eyes straining to see if the Bonnie Vale bar was working. Alas the tide was too full. This, and the ensuing long paddle home into a strengthening headwind curtailed their surfing aspirations.

We lunched near our boats and as usual the discussion about kayaking gear took high priority. I lamented that I needed a fold up table or a boat with a flat deck to sit my mug of hot chocolate on. Margot enlightened me about the wonders of a fold up table she had seen on the internet. I think for now I will forgo both the table and the flat-decked boat.

It was soon time to push on. We waved good-bye to Margot, Bob and Nick as they made their way across the Hacking River to Buraneer Bay. As the rest of us paddled toward Cronulla we somehow got mixed up with a group of large ocean-going yachts that were trying to set up for a race. At last the starting gun fired and they were gone. The wind had really picked up now and it was a hard slog across Bate Bay. Cape Baily on the northern shore didn’t appear to be getting any closer although I knew it must have been because the acrid smell of the oil refineries and the sewage works at Eloura were getting stronger. Sundra and Salo wet exited to swap boats part way across the bay and it wasn’t long afterwards that Sundra spotted another shark. I kept lining myself up with landmarks to check on my forward progress but the flat featureless expanse of sand rendered this a futile exercise.

We stopped for a break in a sheltered spot behind the headland. It was quieter there without the roar of the wind in my ears. I really needed a rest. As I looked at the pretty little boat harbour tucked in behind Merries Reef, Rob must have read my mind. He started to use the ‘T’ word and that gave me the impetus I needed to paddle forward. Soon after we rounded the headland and faced the full force of the wind. Although the swell and rebound had settled, my forward progress slowed. The push into the headwind across the bay had fatigued me and the glare from the sun was making me feel sick. It was getting later and I was lagging, so Rob deployed his tow rope, clipped it onto the front of my kayak and before I had a chance to argue he paddled off at full speed catching up with the group in what seemed like a matter of minutes. For the next few kilometres I felt like a water skier. The added drag didn’t seem to slow him down. Nor did he find it difficult to tow me in his rudderless ‘Coho’. Unclipping the towline was an equally swift procedure and I was paddling on my own again. Accepting a tow had ensured that we continued to paddle as a group. Headwinds seem to affect paddlers differently and towing can be a great equaliser. It ensures the slower paddlers keep up and the stronger paddlers don’t get cold waiting. Even so, our return trip took four and a quarter hours to cover a mere sixteen kilometres, almost doubling the time it took for the outward trip. I never consider ‘tow’ a dirty word and wonder whether a broader acceptance of towing might be the simplest answer to the problem of group spread.

Pulling into Frenchman’s Bay I could see Margot waving from the shore. She had driven around from Kurnell to meet us and was surprised at how long we had taken to paddle back.

After the obligatory rolling practice we changed into dry clothes and washed our gear at a tap (perhaps this will entice the OSD to participate in trips further North). The coffee tasted great as we sat at the local cafe reflecting on the day’s events and planning our next rendezvous … somewhere on the sea.

Tape Sealing Outside Seams [41]

By David Winkworth

After rudders and feathered versus un-feathered paddles, tape sealing of outside seams is probably one of the most controversial subjects in sea kayaking.

Does it add strength and improve sealing? Is it worth the time and effort? As surely as the sun rises in the East, there will always be disagreement on this topic.

My cards have been on the table on this issue for some time. I tape seal every boat I make. I think it is worth doing, I think it strengthens the join and confirms water-tightness. I also think (know) it is fiddly to do, time-consuming to do a neat and thorough job (the only sort of job worth doing), and relatively expensive.

Larry Gray (NSW Sea Kayaker — Issue 40) said that if he thought tape sealing was worth doing, he would instruct his builders to do so and add $20 to the cost of a boat. Maybe you get what you pay for in this life; I wouldn’t tape seal a boat for less than $150.

The alternative to tape sealing the outside seam in conventional glass fibre sea kayaks is to mask up the join and apply gel coat or flowcoat (gelcoat with wax-in-styrene added). Problem is, I believe, that gelcoat doesn’t add any strength — it is purely a relatively brittle sealing surface. Therefore the inside seam in such a join has extra work to perform. It must work in both compression and tension mode at the same time. If that seam allows the join to flex, the gelcoat strip can crack and allow water into the fibres of the hull and deck laminates or into the compartment.

Tape sealing the outside seam adds another seam to the join so that this inherently weak butt join of the hull and deck is held from BOTH sides. The two seams are separated by the width of the hull and deck laminates, and can work independently and more efficiently in tension and compression modes in the event of an impact. I’m talking about sea boats here — despite our best efforts we do occasionally hit the bottom (or each other!).

The one problem with tape sealing of outside seams, as Larry correctly points out, is that the outside seam laminate is applied to cured gelcoat whereas the inside work is done on ‘green’ or uncured glass/resin in the mold. There is no doubt that the inside-hull bond is the stronger of the two. It a chemical versus physical bond. However, with thorough sanding and deep scoring of the gelcoat on the join, I believe effective adhesion is achieved. Preparation is the key. Like I said, it’s not cheap! This outside adhesion is no different to any glassing-in of bulkheads, etc inside the boat a few days after the lay-up is complete. By this time, the resin in the boat has cured and the bond is physical. We trust our bulkheads don’t we?

So, to tape seal or not? Well, I suppose it depends on the sort of work you do with your boat, whether or not you have had any seam cracking and your inclination to get dirty!

The following description of tape sealing is how I do the job. It is certainly not the only way it is done and it is not meant to be a definitive work on the topic. I can offer no guarantee on it and I suggest you talk it over with another builder who also does tape sealing. I think the job requires some knowledge of glass fibre and resins. If in doubt, get some help.

OK, here we go… remember, this is my procedure only — it may not be the one for you, but feel free to call me if you have any questions.

The boat must be clean, salt-free and dry. I support the boat firmly on edge and do half the boat at a time for each procedure. I wear protective glasses, latex gloves and an effective double filter mask.

Using a fine 100 mm sanding disc in an angle grinder, I sand off the hull and deck edges until they are smooth no more than a few millimetres either side of the join. Be careful.

Using 25 mm wide masking tape (use good quality tape only), I cover the join evenly and smoothly. Look along the tape. If this piece has waves in it, so will your join when complete. Now add another strip of tape above and below the first with a gap each side of about one to two millimetres. Go just around the bow and stern. Now remove the centre piece of tape and you have the area you need to sand.

I use a coarse Speedfile paper — about 40 grit. I work along the strip right up to the masking tape — no shiny gel coat should be visible. In some places the masking tape will rip a bit. Just add another little piece over the rip later. Don’t be afraid to cut right through the gel coat if you need to in order to get a smooth strip. In some places, you may need to fill the gap with a filler such as a Q cell mix, Probond or similar. Vacuum up the dust and check for missed bits. Now I wipe the join thoroughly with an acetone soaked CLEAN rag and allow to dry.

I then lay out the 25 mm glass fibre tape. I use little bits of plastic to hold it near the join. Do not put masking tape on it — you will pull the fibres out of shape when removing it. Using waxed resin (so it can be sanded after a few hours) I apply the tape with a brushing motion. Using too much resin will have it pooling under the tape. When tape is on, remove the masking tape before the resin gels. When resin has set you can do the other side of the boat similarly.

With kayak still on edge, mask up the taped area again on both sides of it with the tape edge again about 1-2 mm out. Using finer paper (I use the green stuff which comes on a roll — fine or medium grade), sand the glass tape well, also getting an edge of the sand paper into the strip between the glass tape and the masking tape. Wipe well with acetone and allow to dry.

Then I use coloured BRUSH flowcoat. Spray flowcoat is too thin and you won’t get good opacity in the finished job. I apply it smoothly with a brush, and then go back over it all with a piece of open cell foam in a stippling motion, adding flowcoat to the foam when needed. Gelcoat/flowcoat is thick and brush marks will not subside as they do with paints. I find the seamless stippled finish preferable to a zillion brush marks! Pull off the masking tape before the flowcoat gels. Clean up any spots of flowcoat with an acetone rag.

So that’s it? Well, no it’s not. I find that another similar coat of flowcoat is necessary to get the join nice and smooth but that’s up to you. If you go through it again, be sure to sand the flowcoat well and wipe with an acetone rag to remove all traces of wax.

Now you can do the other half of the boat! Well, I did say it was time consuming!

Hand Signals for Sea Kayakers [41]

Originally published in the Dec 1991 ‘Bay Currents’ — (Vol 6, No 12).

You are trying to catch up, but you can’t. Your arms flail as fast as they can, yet your friends cruise too fast. The guy leading the pack is 200 metres away, and the nearest paddler is 60 metres away. What do you do? Blow the whistle!

That’s right, you blow the whistle attached to your PFD and wave your arm. The paddler 60 metres away stops and looks back at you. You put your fist up in the air like John Carlos at the Olympics. The paddler stops and pats her hand on top of her head and faces her palm up, signalling ‘Are you okay?’ You give her the ‘thumbs up’ signal, point to the other paddlers, then repeat the fist in the air. This means ‘Everybody stop!’

She blows her whistle and other paddlers look back at her. She repeats ‘Everyone stop!’ until everyone stops. You then paddle up to her and signal to everyone ‘Gather around me!’ As the other boaters approach, you signal ‘Raft up’. Everyone rafts up and you say, ‘I can’t keep up. I’m tired and I need to rest.’ Everyone agrees and your hide is saved — thanks to hand signals.

When sea kayaking, we need to communicate accurately, reliably, and quickly. Our comfort, and even our lives depend on it. Someday (perhaps soon), we will communicate at sea with inexpensive, waterproof transmitters in our helmets. Until then, hand signals must suffice. Let’s look at the grammar and lexicon of hand signals that may be useful while kayaking at sea.

Team Communication

Several US kayaking groups use hand signals while touring, exploring, and playing. We keep within shouting distance of other team members to facilitate communication. Our friends, the Banzai Bozos, convinced us to adapt the divers’ ‘buddy system’ while adventuring, so someone is always nearby in close communication in case something goes awry.
But even buddies can’t always talk at conversation volume due to wind and wave noise, compounded by distance. So, borrowing hand signals from river kayakers, SCUBA divers, military commandos, crane operators, and regular folks who use common nonverbal emblems, we have put together necessary words that our team uses at sea. We share these signals with you in hope that a standard signal set will evolve so kayakers anywhere can readily communicate.

Signal Grammar

To save time and avoid confusion, a common grammar must be used. For simplicity, we structure sentences in a rudimentary manner. That is, we use only simple sentences (no complex or compound sentences — though multiple nouns and verbs are used); we signal only in the active voice (subject/predicate/object) so no auxiliary verbs are needed; we use only nouns, verbs, and adjectives -prepositions, adverbs and other words are implied; to reduce the number of signals, we use subject pronouns in subjective and objective case (similar to pigeon English). So, a typical hand signal sentence might state: ‘YOU COME I.’ This is a command meaning ‘Get your arse over here.’

Most signals indicate commands. Some indicate personal action, others describe something or someone, while other signals ask questions. ‘YOU COME I’ is a command. ‘I TAKE PICTURES’ is personal action. ‘IT’S SCARY’ describes and ‘WHAT?’ is a question.

Signal Lexicon

Signals can be broken down into nouns, verbs (predicates), adjectives (descriptors) and a few miscellaneous words. Some signals have multiple meanings which become obvious in context. There is a breakdown of common signals used by the Tsunami Rangers at sea in the table available on the next page. These comprise the bulk of signals that we use most often. Occasionally we add new ones or drop ones that have no use. We are open to learning new signals that have value or are simply clearer than extant signals.

Signal Situations

Signals should be used when normal conversation is not possible. All signals use only one hand. If you need to talk, HAIL, signal the group to FORM UP — and then speak normally. If you do not desire complex conversation, first HAIL with hand and whistle or vocal signal (we yell HOYT!!), and then, after you gain attention, give your signals. Remember to always give signals in active voice (subject/verb/object). Use nonverbal inflection to indicate urgency (eg, horizontally revolve your forearm real fast, as if winding a string on a spool, to indicate GO! GO! GO!).

When to Use ‘What?’

Use WHAT at the end of a sentence (or by itself) to indicate a question, a request, or that you do not understand. Here’s an example of a question: A person exits a cave and paddles toward you. You point to the cave and raise your palm up (IT WHAT?). You are asking ‘What happened in the cave?’

In this example, if the paddler did not understand your question, he would signal WHAT? And, if you pointed to the cave, put your palm down above your brow and signalled WHAT?, you would be requesting ‘IT SCOUT WHAT?’ This means, ‘Do you wish to scout out that cave?’

The paddler might then respond by shaking his head from side to side, holding his palm up like a tiger claw, and zipping his index finger across his throat: ‘NO! IT’S HAIRY! LET’S QUIT.’

You might then salute your comrade, point to the horizon, point to him, do a seig heil, and then raise your palm up. You just signalled, ‘WILL COMPLY. THE HORIZON, YOU LEAD. WHAT (Ya Wanna)?’

If your companion gives you the thumbs up, points to you, and then sweeps at his ass, he is saying: ‘RIGHT ON! YOU SWEEP.’ And everyone lives happily ever after.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The above example illustrates a sample scenario at sea. I could give more, but why, er, I mean WHAT? Everyone speaks a little differently to communicate the same thing. As long as everyone understands every time, there is no problem. Still, it’s a good idea to practice the signals at home and in the car on the way to the put-in.

If you are unsure as to the best way to signal, remember the three C’s of communication: Clarity, Conciseness, and Correctness. So, make sure you are clearly understood. State your message concisely (simply, yet completely). And make sure you state it correctly, so receivers understand what you mean. At sea, communication confusion can be very costly.

Finally, practice signalling with your group of friends while at sea. This way, communication will be easier and safer. If you practice all the time, it will become second nature and not require conscious thought. Compared to sign language for the deaf, this signal system is easy. So do yourself a favour and learn to communicate at sea.

Hand Signals for Sea Kayakers
Word How signalled Meaning
I/ME Point index finger toward self Yourself
IT/THEM Point index finger toward object Object, activity, place, people
YOU Person/s Point index finger toward person Person/s
WE/US Circle index finger at group All of us
COME Beckon with index finger Come here
CUT Bring index finger across throat Let’s quit
FORM UP Circle index finger above head Gather around
GET CLOSE Put thumb close to index finger Get in close
GO Horizontally revolve arm as if winding a spool Go forward/backward
GROK Put bunched up fingers on temple Pay attention
HANG Hang fingers limply near ear Wait around, hang out
IGNORE Throw air over shoulders Ignore my last signal
LAND Slam palm face down Go to shore and land
LEAD Give seig heil Lead the group
RAFT Click side of fist on paddle Raft up
RELAX Slowly ease palm face down Relax, don’t be uptight
SCOUT Put palm over brow Check it out
SPREAD Open hand wide near head Spread out
STAY AWAY Move hand far away from body Stay far away (from danger)
STOP Put fist in air Stop, hold position
SURF Move hand in snake motion with palm down Surf, play in waves
SWEEP Make whisking motion with hand near arse Follow the group and sweep
WAIT Hold index finger up near ear Wait a moment
BAD Thumb down No good, bad move or idea
BORING Pat yawning mouth with palm Boring, uninteresting
DANGEROUS Arm or paddle horizontal over head Not safe, don’t go
GOOD Thumb up Good, good move or idea
HAIRY Make tiger claw near head Very wild and scary
OK Pat head with palm Physically OK, not hurt
SAFE Arm or paddle vertical over head Safe to go
STUPID Slap forehead Stupid
SURFCHICKEN Hold fist against shoulder and flap elbow rapidly Afraid
UNSURE Rotate down palm from side to side Not sure, can’t decide
BYE A wave goodbye Goodbye, end transmission
GOT IT Form a circle with thumb and index finger OK, I understand
GREETING Give Vulcan greeting Live long and prosper
HAIL Lightly wave arm over head Hail, listen up
HELP Strongly wave arm over head Help, assistance needed
NO Shake head from side to side No, I disagree
WHAT Place hand near shoulder, palm up Who/what/where/when/how?
WILL COMPLY Salute I understand and will comply
YES Nod head up and down Yes, I agree

Just How Much Safety Equipment Is Really Appropriate To Carry? [41]

A Commercial Operators View

By Wayne Langmaid (Ocean Planet and Central Coast Kayak Tours)

I must thank Nick Gill for the opportunity to respond to this question from both my personal and our company’s point of view.

In fact I am surprised that no one to date has ever come to us for suggestions on this.

Our company guides and leads groups full time on trips ranging from day tours to overseas expeditions. This is our life, not just an occasional weekend pastime. Over the past five years, we have had over 5,000 people on our guided tours and tuition programs.

I personally have paddled for over 30 years, completing expedition paddles ranging from the Canadian Arctic, West Coast Canada, Australia and South America.

Our business operates according to an Operation Manual that is over 100 pages in length – 45 of which are devoted to analysis of risk & safety management and practice in our operations and trip locations. We have invested much time, consideration, introspection, effort and expense in this.

I think that we have a reasonable amount of background to back up what we believe. Of course, as usual, this is only one other opinion. It is an opinion based, I believe, on logic with a good background on which to base those opinions.

Interestingly, the requirements to date have been pretty loose as to what commercial operators “had” to carry. We have always carried EPIRBS, VHF radios, sea dye marker, flares, strobes, signal mirrors, spare clothing, spare water, spare food, spare sunscreen, comprehensive first aid kits, repair kits, maintained first aid certifications, etc.

We have not done this due to any legal or statutory requirement.

We simply have because we have a responsibility to the people under our care to do so. It is the right thing to do. Soon there will be a series of requirements that we have to comply with. This affects our operation not in the slightest as we have complied well and beyond those requirements for years.

My personal philosophy is this – carry as much safety equipment as you possibly can, and then never make any paddling decision based on the fact that you have that equipment.

The equipment is life insurance. Life insurance of the best kind – one that pays off by keeping you alive, not paying off after you are dead.

Even more important than the safety equipment is this: the trip leaders should have a good grasp of risk and safety management principles behind their decision making processes which allows them to plan and lead trips which minimize the need for that safety equipment to ever be used.

Any safety strategy should be much like the layers of an onion. There should be no single point of failure in your system of defense that would result in death or serious injury to your client.

Consider this — in the event of an accident, the legal industry might well go looking for an industry model or standard. While it might be easy to say at the moment that there is no requirement for a club to keep the same safety precautions as say a commercial organisation does – just what is exactly the line of separation and how distinct does that come in a court of law with skilled legal technicians?

Any trip leader has to ask his or herself this:

  • do you want to be to be seen to be not taking advantage of all practical precautions that are possibly at your disposal?
  • are you then prepared to leave the interpretation of why you did not take those precautions in the hands of a court of law?
  • are you then prepared to have a QC ask you why you did not bother to take that equipment with you when the body of literature available today suggests that you should have?

I would also believe that in a case of death or where negligence was suggested then the courts would look to club and industry standards not only here in Australia but in the rest of the world. We are a global community. The lawyers will find experts.

There are some serious personal, ethical, moral and legal responsibilities here. As a tour leader/organiser or whatever name you choose to use – you have a duty of care to those individuals in your group if you are passing yourself off as the personal with the ‘expert’ or greatest knowledge.

Simply stated this condition could exist in a group of friends. If you are proven to have been negligent then you could be just as liable in a group of friends and as a club or commercial organisation.

I think though that being overtly concerned about being sued is missing the point.

We carry insurance in case we are sued. That is the insurance companies job to cover us for those instances. I do not lose any sleep over financial loss – that is what the insurance is there for. It is there to protect the client, my employees, my company AND myself.

What is more important is that people look at their moral and ethical responsibilities when leading a group.

Picture this – as you lay in bed at night and the envelop of darkness surrounds you. All you now have is a lot of time to think. There you lay wondering, ‘What if? What if? Maybe, just maybe, I did have that VHF. Maybe I could have radioed for help.’ And then maybe, just maybe, you would not have had to explain to a surviving member of a deceased persons family just why you didn’t because you were a minimalist and you thought that by having it that it took something away from your personal paddling experience.