Everywhere you look these days, there seems to be a kayak. Television shows, T.V. commercials, magazine ads for Viagra and practically every other car on the interstate seem to be featuring kayaks. Once only available in specialty stores – from people who actually know something about kayaks and kayaking – kayaks are now available in major chain sporting goods stores where anyone can walk in, purchase a kayak, leave the store with it and get on the water with absolutely no clue about what they’re doing or what they’ll do when things no longer look like the fun time they saw on the commercial. So, what’s the big deal, you wonder? What’s the worst that could happen?
Well, for starters, you could die. Kayaking is a very safe, extremely fun and relatively easy sport to get into. The cost of entry for someone wanting to join the ranks of kayakers worldwide can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars – depending on the quality of kayak and equipment you purchase. For instance, you could go into a major sporting goods store and walk out with some kind of kayak, PFD, and a paddle for around $300.00-$400.00, assuming you purchased one of the cheapest models on the showroom floor, and the least expensive (read heavy, unwieldy and uncomfortable) paddle and PFD. Will it float? Yes. Is it appropriate for the water you paddle in? Maybe, but that’s the point. There’s a good chance that neither you, nor anyone in the sporting goods store knows whether or not a particular boat is safe or appropriate for the water in which you paddle. That’s why specialty stores exist; and that’s why you should at least talk to your local kayak experts before paying a major chain store to put you at risk – over a few bucks.
Kayaking is a water sport – meaning it’s done on the water. The water is not home to us, no matter how at-home we may feel out there. When kayaking, there’s always the possibility that you’ll take a swim. This is true of any watercraft or water sport. If you end up in the water, several factors come into play that will determine your outcome. First, what kind of water is it? Cold water and fast-moving water are, in and of themselves, dangerous. Water with obstructions – visible or submerged – can also be quite dangerous if you are unaware of them and/or their location, or if you have an unplanned encounter with them. Marine life can pose a threat, as can wind, weather, tidal currents, boat traffic and simply getting lost. Tidal influences, for example, left a mother and her small son stranded on a mud flat for hours before a Coast Guard helicopter lifted them to safety. They were within 400-feet of shore, but could not safely walk through the mud and it would be 5-hours before the tide gave them enough water to get off the mud flat. Being eaten alive by mosquitoes and no-see-ums while stuck in the mud with no food or water was probably not the adventure this mother hoped for. A little local knowledge, a map and a tide chart would have helped. But you’re not likely to get any of that from a sporting goods chain.
Thus far, I’ve been referring to Flat-water kayaking because it seems so benign; but let me take this opportunity to simply state, flat out: Whitewater kayaking is absolutely dangerous and should never be attempted without instruction – and that includes Surf Kayaking. Basically, you could break your neck or become pinned and drown doing this type of kayaking without learning some technical skills first. But even sea kayakers and kayakers who plan on paddling in marshes and estuaries need to learn some skills and become familiar with tides, currents, weather and other local particulars such as wildlife and navigation. All it takes is a little wind to turn a relatively calm tidal river into a choppy mess even experts won’t paddle in. And, along many parts of the coast, if you don’t know the tides and currents, you’re likely to get swept somewhere you don’t want to be and not be able to get back.
Recently in Southeast Georgia, three-men in their mid-to-late-twenties set out on a 2-hour, self-guided tour on a marked paddling trail with numbered markers corresponding to a free map given away at the State Park where this trip starts and ends. They didn’t stick to the course and didn’t know how to navigate or read a map. Their adventure kept them out hours past their scheduled return time and by then the wind had changed – making it impossible for them to return. They had no food and had finished their water early in the day. The water was warm and there was little chance they would drown or become hypothermic, but one of them was startled by a Dolphin that surfaced beside his cockpit and caused him to fall over in a few feet of water. In that area, oyster beds are common and he was lucky he wasn’t injured on one. The men gave up fighting surface conditions and landed along a tree line where they began walking – hoping to find a road. They walked several miles before being found and finally returned to their vehicle 11-hours after setting-out on their 2-hour adventure. That’s not the worst, but that’s not ideal, either.
Kayaking is fun; and everyone should give it a try. But kayaking is a sport that can and has killed people who weren’t planning on dying when they unstrapped the kayak from their roof rack. If you want to enjoy this sport, you need to start on the right foot – with an education. You can learn more than you’d imagine just taking a guided tour from a professional outfitter; but classes are available for the more serious or safety-conscious paddlers who want to truly stack the odds in their favor. Read books, kayaking magazines and surf the internet for the information you need to keep you safe on the water. A little information and a lot of common sense may get you by; but consider the risks and consequences inherent to the water you will be paddling in and get some proper instruction if you really want to be as safe as you can be on the water. What’s the worst that can happen? That’s exactly the question you need to ask yourself.