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safety awareness by mark crame

By Mark Crame

A couple of years ago we had an incident one winter’s morning while fishing at anchor out on the east coast whereby a drift net caught two kayak anglers in error. Potentially this could have had a far worse outcome than it did and, having established contact through the coastguard, myself and the skipper whose net it was met up for a beer and a chat to try and educate each other on what both sides did and how to avoid future issues, something which has proved to be very useful since and has led to friendships and a wider respect being formed on both sides. Incidentally, it also established a strong working relationship between our local coastguard station and us as a large number of local kayak anglers. 

safety awareness by mark crame

VHF Radio
As is well known the VHF calling and emergency channel is 16; none of the following overrides the fact that this needs to be monitored, which is not a problem with dual watch radios of course. The generally (though not exclusively) channel unofficially adopted by kayak anglers for inter-boat communications locally had been channel 6 for a few years, chosen due to the lack of traffic and therefore avoidance of being a nuisance to other craft. This had never been an issue before. In our area, however, the local boats use Channel 8, designated for commercial intership and like this an awareness of where they are and what they are doing as well as where we are and what we are doing can be easily monitored now that we have adopted the same. Like this if I now hear that, for example, a drift net is going in the water in the area that I am in I can call up and just mention that I am in the vicinity, at anchor or drifting or what have you. Be aware that an angling kayaks presence may not have been noticed or taken for what it is.

Predominantly we have brightly coloured kayaks. It’s not long before these become silhouettes however and we are also low in the water. Looking into the sun we disappear easily as we do in chop and/or swell, and in surprisingly calmer conditions than we might otherwise think. We are also unlikely to appear on radar; we are not reflective and whatever signature we have will more than likely be filtered out as clutter. Shipping relies heavily on radar, especially in fog or darkness. The option of a radar reflector was one possibility mentioned during our discussion, however, we have two issues here. There’s a fair bit of research available online where tests have been carried out on kayaks. The main problem is a lack of height and with the need to have a relatively large reflector mounted high up we then come into the issue of decreased stability from an altered centre of gravity and susceptibility to wind and gusts. Non-moving plots would give advance warning that we are anchored however, provided we are in range. Another accessory discussed was high-visibility flags which although of some use to other watercraft in spotting us visually they do not indicate anything in terms of meaning.

safety awareness by mark crame

Visual signs
My assumption was that sitting still at anchor in a tidal area would indicate that we were anchored. From the land of course it will (which has resulted in concerned members of the public calling the coastguard before now) but this is not the case from a boat, especially one that is moving. Though the skipper mentioned at the time that he was shooting a net and it would pass under the kayaks if it got too close he didn’t at any time realise that the kayaks were anchored. With the anchor line dropping down at the stern this was no real surprise, with hindsight. Theoretically we would be drifting at the same speed as the net…so, how could we indicate that we are indeed anchored?

The recognised sign is a black anchor ball. These are available as a collapsible plastic item that is formed from two discs in a cross shape, pretty much like a radar reflector which can be problematic for the same reasons as mentioned above. At night ensure that you are showing an all-round white light when anchored. Note that there is no legal requirement to hoist either with the length of craft we operate however it is for larger craft and, as part of COLREGS*, qualified mariners would immediately understand their significance. SOLAS reflective tape is another highly useful addition; it’s passive and requires no effort to use being stuck to the hull and left to its own devices. Reflecting light at high intensity it is a major bonus in a search and rescue scenario and also useful to locate friends when fishing in darkness. *International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972.

safety awareness by mark crame

People aren’t generally aware that we anchor kayaks or even that we can. People aren’t aware that we launch and fish at night, or in fog (usually when caught out), or in large seas. Quite frankly we can be a surprise. Surprise is NOT a good thing where safety is concerned and our safety is paramount. Word has got about locally regarding us so that considerations are taken but we also need to be aware of other potential hazards. Drift nets are one – they move, quickly and are heavy. Shipping channels are another – they don’t move but through looking at charts and learning what the different buoyage means we can place ourselves in areas where we avoid completely any risk of collision. Having forgotten everything about buoy information that I’d read before as ‘I know where I am’ and look for the spots I want on the charts I now realise that I need to be thinking of how they can signify information that is useful to me, i.e. safe areas.

safety awareness by mark crame

Reliance on electronics…from where I sit I have my fish finder that is giving me depth etc and as it’s a combo unit it also gives me speed over ground and my position. With detailed charts loaded I can visually see exactly where I am and what is around me; I also have and study paper charts at home on a regular basis, mostly to look for likely spots to fish but I have picked up a clear mental image of my fishing grounds from this. I can see the buoys, the land, the bottom soundings and so on. Apart from the obvious factor of it not working for whatever reason there is still the need to be visually aware of what is around; we’re usually in sight of land so should take note of our position in relation to landmarks (or lights at night). However, on a commercial boat there will also be radar, AIS and so on. A watch still needs to be kept. Anchored and facing one direction can cause you to miss what is going on behind – check regularly, you may not hear something approaching. Oh…one last and most important thing. Electronics = batteries = failures. Usually at the worst possible time. Always, ALWAYS carry a compass and know which way land is.

safety awareness by mark crame

Safety equipment
We’re generally pretty good in the UK kayak angling community. Our kayaks are stable and tough. We have them set up to anchor from effectively. Most of my associates regularly practice capsize and re-entry drills. On the equipment front we wear buoyancy aids and dress for immersion (drysuit, wetsuit, undergarments etc) relevant to the conditions. We do need to carry more than a whistle though and the vital equipment needs to be attached to the person in case of separation from the kayak. A sharp knife, preferably serrated so it cuts line easily and isn’t going to get used and blunted cutting bait is very necessary or a line cutter as an alternative (I have both). Carrying a spare paddle is good practice in the event that the main paddle breaks or is lost (it should be leashed to the kayak once out of the surf zone).

Bear in mind that it will need to be readily and safely accessible whilst on the water. Sometimes a VHF signal is blocked where a mobile phone isn’t and therefore a mobile should be carried as well. It needs protection from the water and an aquapack will keep it dry and useable. A VHF is a lifesaver as well as an informant of what is going on around you (it’s legally required that you have a licence to own and do the course to operate one). Any transmission will be heard by anyone monitoring that channel so use it accordingly. Flares are another useful addition; handheld red flares and handheld orange smokes which can be carried onboard and miniflares which are kept on the person. Know how to use them correctly. Some of us have now started to carry PLB’s too; these send a distress signal to satellites and are registered to us. We can be placed accurately and are not reliant on radio signals with these. Not cheap but nor is a funeral.

safety awareness by mark crame

Finally, register yourself and each of your kayaks under the Coastguard’s CG66 safety identification scheme. It is free and will only take you a few minutes to fill in but will speed up response times in case of emergency. Call up the coastguard by telephone or VHF to inform them of where you’re going and what you’re doing; they will appreciate it. Please remember to let them know when you’re off the water too and, as a direct request of one watch officer, please have your name somewhere on or in your kayak.

At the beginning of this article I explained what had started it. I think that I shall give the last words to the skipper whose net it was and also urge you to build relations within your own locality: “What I explained from the skipper’s point of view is we adhere to Rules of the Road, lights, buoyage, general seamanship, so had I seen on the radar fixed images of the kayaks I would know straight away they were anchored; a black ball would also tell me the same. We commercial craft use channel 8 and they would have heard me call the other boats with my intentions. Given the conditions I gave the kayaks half mile verbal warning of approaching nets but what good is that if you aren’t aware of what that means and I’m not aware you’re anchored? So we agreed in a friendly manner that we are all anglers and we all love our sport whichever way we go about it but sometimes education on both sides is paramount! I would willingly educate any angler starting out boating as any local skipper would I’m sure as safety is first on any list and no one likes casualties at sea. As skippers we need also to be educated to be aware of small craft like kayaks, how they perform and their limits etc.”

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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