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