Dangers Inherent to the Sport
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Safety starts with knowledge. Many factors related to the marine environment and the climate of large waters increase the risk of sea kayaking. These factors pose difficulties that kayakers must understand, be able to identify, and above all, learn to foresee in order to avoid accidents. The following are the main guidelines.
The form and shape of a coastline influences the facility of launching and landing. Sometimes a coast consists only of inaccessible cliffs, prohibiting any kind of landing. Other times the low tide leaves behind extensive muddy stretches in which it is uncomfortable to wade before launching. Islands, capes, bays, and fjords can also complicate navigation both on the ocean and on large lakes. Having a good map at hand is thus a basic essential.
The marine environment
Cold water: 8°C is the critical threshold. Swimming in water between 8 and 15°C is, though uncomfortable, tolerable. A forced plunge in water below 8°C can provoke hypothermia within minutes, and if below 5°C, can pose a major threat to life.
Tides and currents: though invisible, the current has great impact on kayaking. On the ocean, the current changes direction subsequent to the tides. This can either slow you down and/or cause you to drift far from your itinerary. The amplitude of tides can sometimes rise above 6 metres. Great caution is also to be taken in some regions with tides of one or less metres, as these can cause very dangerous currents. Recreational kayakers can maintain on average a speed to 2 to 3 knots* (3.5 to 5.5 km/h). Currents between 1 to 4 knots are then regarded as average, while currents above 4 knots are significant.
Wind: some regions have prevailing and constant winds that can be easily forecasted. Wind has a drift effect similar to the current and can also rapidly decrease its ambient temperature. Sudden windblasts provoke strong, sometimes breaking waves and can cause you to drift very far from the banks. In its weather forecasts, Environment Canada applies its terminology as follows: light wind – below 15 knots (28 km/h); moderate – 15 -19 knots (28 to 35 km/h); strong - 20-33 knots (35 to 60 km/h). Small craft warnings are issued when sustained wind speeds are expected in the range of 20-33 knots. Sea kayaking specialists, however, refer to light winds as being below 15 km/h, to moderate winds as below 25 km/h, and to strong winds as above 25 km/h. Great care is thus to be taken when interpreting weather forecasts.
Fetch: Fetch means the distance without obstacle on which wind can accelerate, favouring waves to build up. The larger this distance, the stronger the wind will be.
Cargo ships, fishing vessels and pleasure boats: traffic can be dense on large, navigable channels and along certain coastlines. Cargo ships in these areas are obliged to adhere to exact routes, leaving them with no room to manoeuvre around you. It is your responsibility to steer out of their way. The crew of these huge ships cannot detect you on their radar, cannot spot you when beyond a distance of two miles (and that in clear weather), and lose sight of you again when you are closer than a half mile to their ship.
- Know your rights and obligations as a pleasure boater and respect the navigational regulations in order to avoid collisions. Make sure that you are well seen and heard. To this effect, the colour of your kayak and your PFD can play an important role. Yellow, orange and red are the colours that are the most visible on water. Signalling devices should always be within hand’s reach.
Travelling in more inhabited regions means that it will be easier for you to get emergency help and to launch, if necessary, search and rescue procedures. For Québec and the Atlantic Provinces, all zones above the 51st parallel are designated as remote areas, cut off from any resources.
The natural environment in which an excursion takes place should not be taken lightly. Camping conditions, the presence of animals, evenness of terrain, and its remoteness can each trigger or influence minor incidents that could take on catastrophic dimensions.
- Capacity and reliability of communication: verify which medium of communication is most suitable for the region. Remember also that cellular telephones cannot be trusted to function reliably everywhere.
Weather conditions on water are often very different from, and usually more difficult than, those encountered on land. Make sure to familiarize yourself with and to understand these – and, prepare for the worst.
- Waters are not spared by thunderstorms. A sudden squall can disrupt a body of water within minutes. If lightning hits water, it always seeks contact with the highest element. Do not stay in gravitational water when a thunderstorm builds up. Fog usually dissipates quickly on lakes; however it can appear quite suddenly and can stay several days in maritime zones.
Prevention will always be your closest ally. Kayakers wishing to make multi-day excursions should be very knowledgeable of weather patterns, map reading, radio communication, as well as emergency procedures. In addition, they should have solid navigational skills.
Always begin your journey together with at least one other kayak and leave a copy of your trip plan with a reliable person. Should this person not hear from you within a certain time, he or she will initiate search procedures.
When planning your itinerary, make allowances for potential dangers and make sure you have the necessary skills and equipment to deal with them.
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* (Knot: unit of speed corresponding to one nautical mile per hour, the equivalent of 1.85 km/h).