As a response to some recent kayaking accidents and fatalities on Lake Michigan, there are three very simple safety rules that I would like to emphasize to anyone considering taking a kayak, canoe, or SUP out onto the Great Lakes.
ALWAYS wear a life jacket.
Following this one rule has saved paddlers who broke just about every other safety rule. In those cases where it didn’t save the life of the paddler, it at least allowed rescuers to recover the body quickly putting giving the family of the deceased some closure with less risk to the responding emergency personnel.
ALWAYS dress for the water temperature.
No matter how stable you think your boat may be, there is always the possibility that you will end up capsizing unexpectedly. Regardless of how warm the air temperature may be, you need to be dressed for immersion in the water. If water temperatures are below 70°F, you need to be wearing clothing such as a wetsuit or drysuit in order to prevent a cold water gasp reflex (cold shock) and/or hypothermia.
NEVER paddle a recreational kayak out on large bodies of water.
Recreational kayaks are not designed to be paddled in big waves such as are found on large bodies of open water like the Great Lakes or the ocean. Despite their apparent stability on flat water, these kayaks can flip very easily in waves. Once capsized, recreational kayaks are not designed to allow the paddler to re-enter the boat from deep water. Swimming to shore is your only rescue option. DO NOT BE DECEIVED by marketing materials from manufacturers and retailers that make claims to the contrary. Too many paddlers have died after taking recreational kayaks out on large bodies of cold water like the Great Lakes not realizing the tragic mistake they were making.
While there is a lot more to learn about paddling safety, if you can just follow these three simple rules, you will likely have a long and safe paddling career.
Sherri Mertz, ACA L4 Coastal Kayaking Instructor