Out on the water, visibility is essential. Fast-moving yachts and powered boats rely on time and distance to navigate both closed and open waters safely. As a kayaker, being seen is precisely what keeps you safe– if bigger boats know you’re there, they’re more likely to keep a safe distance from you. This article is about what to do when visibility is compromised, whether that be from the onset of heavy rain, a storm, fog, or night-time.
Before getting into the specifics, we’ll state the important (albeit laconic) bottom-line:
If visibility is impaired, make yourself more visible.
What we mean by this is that if other vessels can’t see you (for whatever reason) it’s in your best interest to make sure that they can.
Lights are the easiest way to stand out in reduced visibility. In the dark of night, you’ll be visible from miles away. In heavy rain or fog you’ll give slow moving boats a much bigger heads up to your location. Attaching a waterproof light source to your person– think a strobe, torch or light stick– is therefore the bare minimum for canoeing or kayaking in reduced visibility. Making sure this waterproof light is tethered to you with rope or a bungee cord is furthermore essential in an emergency– even if you are separated from your vessel, you still need to be able to signal your location.
In NSW, some form of white light is legally required at night for any vessel under 7 metres long. This may be in the form of a white 360-degree stern light. It is also recommended to attach sidelights (oriented red and green lights that designate your port [left] and starboard [right] sides), however, these lights are not legally required where it is difficult or impossible for these lights to be mounted. A head torch (along with a tethered torch) is a great option for kayaking if you need to have a light on while your hands are occupied with paddling.
How (and how not to) use a torch
While it is best practice to carry a torch, it’s also important that you use it properly. Maintaining decent night vision will make boating after hours much safer. Shining your torch into your own eyes, or worse yet, towards another kayaker’s or boater’s, could not only annoy you or them, but also compromise your awareness of each other. The important thing here is to be considerate. A big part of being on the water in reduced visibility is doing your best to be super aware of where others are, and if you can’t avoid blinding others with your torch, it might be best to keep your adventures to the daytime, at least until your on-water awareness improves.
Other options to increase your visibility include attaching reflective tape to your kayak, or wearing a high visibility life jacket. This is a great way to be seen from a distance, especially if your torch or stern light fails you.
Knowing the specific rules and conditions of the waterway that you intend to paddle on is also essential for any paddling, whether in reduced visibility or not. Check out the RMS website here for more on navigation lights and tips for boating in reduced visibility. Visit the BOM website here for Australia-wide condition reports and forecasts.