cold water safety

Surfski Safety is Serious Stuff

I really try to keep the overall feel and content of the Website for TC Surfski lighthearted and fun because I think it is important to break down the inherent intimidation factor that comes with these extremely long, lightweight, high-tech and tippy boats.   But the one area that I do take serious is safety.   I want to be sure that as I introduce new people into the sport of surfski paddling, that I do so in a manner that keeps them paddling for a very long time to come.

I am pretty fortunate to have not had any close calls in my eight years of paddling surfskis.  I  attribute a lot of that to the fact that at the end of the day,  I always check my ego on shore and just don’t take unnecessary chances on the water.   I grew up in the fishing port of Kodiak, Alaska, which is now becoming a well known town thanks to the runaway success of the Deadliest Catch and boats such as the Cornelia Marie which are based out of Kodiak. (Cornelia was my neighbor for several years and I grew up playing baseball with her son).   Ok, enough claims to fame, lets get to the serious stuff …

From a very early age I was exposed to a lot of tragedy on the water and the harsh realities of how quickly rough seas and cold water will take their toll on those who are unprepared or take unnecessary risks.    I also spent a few summers commercial fishing in the Cook Inlet of South Central Alaska.    The experience of growing up with friends and family in the commercial fishing industry has definitely given me a very healthy respect for the water.  I suspect on some subconscious level it is ingrained in me that 40 minutes in the water without proper gear and it is game over.

Three Key Components of Safety

1.   Route Planning / Weather Awareness
2.   Gear Selection
3.   Safety Skills

Route Planning and Weather Awareness:

It is very important to always plan a safe paddling route taking into consideration the following key items:

1.   Wind and weather forecasts for the duration of time you plan to be on the water
2.   Current water temperatures
3.   Your fitness level

Paddle in onshore wind whenever possible:  In the Great Lakes Area we have so much shoreline that in most areas there are lots of different options for where to paddle.   It is smart to always plan your paddle where there will be an on-shore wind.   Offshore winds can be very deceiving.  The shoreline will be calm and you may think it isn’t that bad and if you start paddling with the wind at your back you won’t recognize how strong it really is until it is too late.     If for any reason you get separated from the boat you will be in big trouble and facing a swim against the wind and waves back to shore.

Go Into the Wind First on an Out and Back

Paddle into the wind first in an out and back: If the wind is blowing parallel to the shoreline and you are doing an out and back, you should always go into the wind first.   This will ensure you don’t push further than you can handle in the conditions.  If you are warm/comfortable going into the wind then you are likely to stay warm and comfortable when you turnaround and head downwind.   This is also a good situation to be in if you are getting fatigued at the end of your paddle.  It never ceases to amaze me how turning 180 degrees from headwind to tailwind or vice versa can completely change your entire paddling experience

Be Realistic About Your Abilities

Be realistic about your abilities and check your ego on shore:  You have to be realistic about the water temperatures, the gear you have on, and your swimming abilities.  My rule of thumb is to never venture beyond a point where I could realistically swim to shore if needed

If you’ve spent much time on the water, you know how quickly the wind can pick up.  It can literally turn in minutes.   If you are fatigued at the end of a long paddle and get into a situation where the waves are parallel to your direction of travel hitting you from the side (beam seas), it can be very exhausting both physically and mentally.  This is where it becomes important that you aren’t pushing beyond your endurance capabilities and also that you are staying well hydrated and fueled to avoid bonking.   If you do find yourself struggling in beam waves you should also consider tacking to avoid the waves hitting directly from the side

Always Inform Someone On Shore

This should be an obvious one,  but unfortunately it is not always adhered to.  It is critical to always tell someone on shore where you are going and when you expect to be back.   A simple text message upon departure and return is all that is necessary if you don’t have someone to tell in person.    This is a great safeguard should all other safety measures fail someone on shore can initiate a search.   However, this is not a substitute for taking effective communication devices with you in your PFD   (Cell phone, VHF, Personal Emergency Locator)

Gear Selection:

  1. Personal Flotation Device (PFD)  – You should always wear a life jacket and in Michigan it is the law that you at least have one on the boat.  You will get a ticket for not having one.  If you are doing any paddling in larger bodies of water you should also have in your PFD a VHF radio or personal emergency locator beacon,  a cell phone in waterproof case, a flare kit, and a whistle.   It is not enough to have this gear in your boat, because if you lose the boat it does you no good.
  2. Clothing – You should always be dressed for an extended immersion in the water.  In the Great Lakes region this means a dry suit or heavy wet suit with boots, hat and gloves from around Oct through May.  In early and late summer thinner neoprene and fleece layering can work well.
  3. Leashes –  In days with high wind and/or when paddling by yourself you should have a leg leash attaching you to the boat.   It is also a good idea to have paddle leash connecting the paddle to the boat.  Whether you go out with one leash or both will depend on the conditions and what you are most comfortable with, but you should always have one or the other.   You should also inspect your leashes to make sure they are in good condition and take care to set them up properly
  4. Food and Water – You should always pack food and water appropriate for the weather conditions and distance you are paddling.   I haven’t determined the exact physiological explanation, but I am amazed at how hungry I get when paddling as compared to other sports.   I may have to do with the concentration required on top of the physical exertion.
  5. GPS – If you are paddling in an area that is susceptible to fog it is good to always have either a compass or a GPS.   A GPS is also a great tool for tracking your distance, pace, heart rate, etc. while paddling.

Safety Skills:

The Remount  

Getting back on the surfski quickly and easily is a skill that absolutely cannot be underestimated.   It is important to follow one of the defined methods (side saddle or straddle) exactly as they are taught.   The exact sequence and each specific move is critical to being successful in challenging conditions.  You might be able to get away with less perfect techniques in flatter water, but when you are out in waves you really need to keep your center of gravity low, and have your paddle in your hands and ready to go before you pull your feet into the boat.

You must practice your remount in the gear and setup that you will be paddling in.   You will definitely find there is more to manage and think about when you have a paddle leash, leg leash, PFD, dry suit etc. to deal with.  You must be so comfortable with this that when you do fall out of the boat, there is no panic and you are extremely confident in what you need to do to get back on and get going quickly.

Group Rescue Techniques   

It can be deceptively dangerous to just assume there is safety in numbers.  The group that you paddle with must practice group rescue techniques with the gear and in the conditions that you will be paddling in.   Attempting to assist another paddler in big wave conditions can be extremely challenging  You need to have practiced this in order to know what works best, how you will execute it, and how it will feel  (i.e. paddling your ski with another paddler straddled on the back,  being the paddler on the back, towing a boat back to a paddler, whatever the case might be.  The group should have a well practiced rescue plan in place before heading out on the water.  Here is a  a great blog article written by a group in Bellingham, Washington who had some fun practicing group rescue.


As with any activity there are risks with surfski paddling, but unlike many activities your safety is almost 100% within your control.   It is very rare to ever hear about a kayaking accident that was completely random and/or out of the kayaker’s control.  Compare this to driving on the highway.   I used to do a lot of skydiving and while I felt that sport was safe if you were very diligent about your approach, there was always the random factor of plane crashes or other jumpers crashing into you in free fall or under canopy.   What I really like about paddling is knowing that as much as anything can be, my safety is very much under my control.

I know there are lot of paddlers out there with far more experience than me,  I definitely welcome your stories and input here