Risk and Kayaking: Sometimes It’s the Little Things
Part I: Mandatory Rescue Gear

by Brian Snyder and Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff

Over the years we as guides have found that often it is the little things that play the biggest parts in minimizing the risk of future catastrophes.  As a team we spend considerable time thinking about the little things. After the “basic five” essential pieces of gear every kayaker has to purchase, there is a secondary list: throw rope, knife and whistle. These are just as mandatory.

Throw Ropes

Most people will say ropes are a big thing.  They are.  Everyone should have one, and the choice is personal as to style and diameter.  When buying one, think about whether or not you could hold onto it, if it was wet and your life depended on it.

Most people are fairly good about carrying ropes.   The thing that is most often overlooked though, is how they are secured. Think about it: how many captainless kayaks have you seen floating down the river, swamped to the brim, with a rescue rope paying out behind them?

Whether around your waist or in the boat, the bottom line is that the rope stays in the bag until you pull it out.  Don’t clip it to the sprayskirt, or the grab loop, or anywhere on the outside of the boat.  It doesn’t belong there, and it will come undone.  If you want a rope that’s more accessible, buy a waistbag and learn to use it.

When it does come time to pull the rope out, look before you launch.  Make sure that other rescuers know that it is coming and are out of the way.   Do not fire ropes into crowded scenes just because you want to be a hero.  That kind of chilvary can easily backfire, creating very serious situation where both victims and rescuers become tangled in the same line.

Finally, after the rope has served its purpose, get the thing out of the river.  There is no excuse for abandoning a snagged rope.  If your rope becomes snagged, take all reasonable measures to extract it.  If you can’t save the whole thing, then salvage as much as you can.

It is not if it should be carried–that is a given. But where a knife should be placed. Do you secure it on the outside or your pfd or in the pocket of the pfd?  Frankly, the answer is personal.  Wherever it is, it needs to be easily reached in an emergency.  Again, the thing most often overlooked is how it is secured.

An unfortunate number of injuries occur because knives clipped to the outside of the pfd come loose, or opened, or somehow exposed.  Kayakers unaware of the change, brush their hand over the knife and inadvertently cut themselves.

Knives clipped to the outside of the pfd also have a higher tendency to go missing.  Often this goes unnoticed until the end of the day, or worse, in an event where the knife is needed.  Does this mean that the knife needs to be placed in the pfd pocket?  Not necessarily.  It just means that, like a rope, a knife needs to remain closed until you pull it out.

99% of the time, knives are for spreading peanut butter.  Keep in mind that in the event of an emergency, the knife itself is a potentially deadly instrument.  Use it with caution and only where it’s needed.

Everyone should have one.  They’re small, cheap, and fit easily into the pocket of a pfd.  Whistles are for emergencies only.  They are not to communicate every bathroom stop on the river.  Remember the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf?

Excessive whistle blowing diminishes its effect.  It is also very irritating to other boaters who believe that a true emergency is taking place.  Save the tweeting for when it’s needed, and learn other methods like paddle signals to communicate on the water.

All the Extra Stuff 
We are material girls living in a material world.  There is no lack of extra ‘stuff’ to accessorize your kayak, car, gear, or self.  There are pulleys and caribiners, prussiks and towlines.  There are waterproof bags, pocket dryboxes, helmet cams and elbow pads.

As said before, what you carry is up to you.  If you want to take a waterproof boombox that continuously plays ‘Eye of the Tiger’, go for it.  Just make sure it won’t block, snag, catch, or electrocute you in the event that you lose control.

The same goes for all the other stuff.  Anything that can dangle, loop, or unravel is something that can potentially snag and lead to a very serious situation.  The more stuff there is hanging around, the more chance there is that it will catch on something.

We all know that looking cool is important (believe me, we try really hard).  Fortunately for paddlers, fashion and safety can live together.  Like ropes, knives, and whistles, the key for boating accessories is how they are secured.  Again, like the essentials, stuff needs to stay in its place until you pull it out.

For more on this three part series, read Sometimes It’s the Little Things, Part II: Advanced Rescue GearBreakdowns.