Outrigger Canoe Safety - What Every Paddler Needs to Know

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Safety Gear
What every paddler needs to know
By: Skipper Rich Lagrand

Over the past couple of weeks, I have participated in a series of exchanges on ocpaddler.com and on the outrigger yahoo group on the issue of safety gear. While there have been a few quite vocal dissenters, I have received far more responses of encouragement and thanks. Paddlers all over the world who, having been given a fresh perspective, are rethinking their personal safety and what gear they will be using in the future.

That alone might be enough for me to say to myself “mission accomplished”, but I know there is more work to be done in reaching paddlers throughout the world through the written word, through one-on-one communication, and group presentations. So I continue my mission of encouraging people to take these issues into serious consideration, knowing that some will reject the message for any number of reasons, and that others will heed and take action on it to a lesser or greater extent.

The following presents the minimum U.S. Federal safety gear requirements for outrigger canoes when used on waters of the United States. Other countries may have significantly fewer or greater requirements. Within the U.S., individual states may also have additional requirements exceeding those presented here. Because what is presented here is based on the Federal requirements for U.S. waters, you should check with your local boating safety agencies for local requirements. Following the U.S. Federal requirements I will share my thoughts regarding additional equipment you should consider carrying when you are out paddling alone or in a small group without any accompanying escort/safety boats.

“Why do we need to concern ourselves with all this tech and safety gear anyway?”
The simple fact is that like those seat belts you wear in your car, the probability of your ever needing this gear is low, but when you do need it, you REALLY need it. Those of you that have families have an even greater incentive to do everything you can to ensure that you can enjoy your sport fully while reducing the associated risks as much as is reasonable given your budget, skill level, paddling plans, and local conditions. That family of yours is counting on you being around, and I’m betting you’d like to keep going out on the water for as long as possible.

“I knew a guy……”
At least one person responded mentioning the way a lot of kayaks go out, all loaded down with safety gear, fishing gear, and Lord knows what else. I can appreciate where he’s coming from having seen kayaks so loaded down that it was a wonder they were still afloat! But this response only took what I was recommending to an illogical extreme. I have a few words for just such kayaks about the risk they were taking being that loaded down as well.

Another writer pointed to an incident where a very safety conscious kayaker was hit by lightening – again, an extreme situation that no amount of tech or safety gear could possible save you from, but also a one-in-a-million type of incident.

I can even point to an incident where a friend of mine might have survived an auto accident had they NOT been wearing their seat belt. But that is a one-in-million (or billion possibly) situation.

Clearly, no amount of safety or tech gear, nor even common sense will ever absolutely guarantee that you will have a great day on the water and return safely. But by combining the three in an appropriate and considered manner, you significantly reduce those risks. It is just as clear that all circumstances don’t require the same gear. Each situation must be evaluated individually by the person involved, giving sufficient weight to each of the applicable factors.

“Just using common sense is enough!”
“Common” sense is a necessary tool that you should always be using. Unfortunately, even the most safety conscious people will inadvertently make bad decisions from time to time, and situations arise that were never expected. How much is common sense going to help if you get nailed by a jet ski or power boat that never even saw you and you weren’t prepared for the possibility, either with gear or a pre-thought out action?!

“Relying on safety and tech gear leads one to be too dependent on it”
This can unfortunately be all too true in too many situations. Safety and tech gear is only a tool that you can use to help reduce risk. As with any tool, it’s only as good as your knowledge of how and when to use it properly. In our navigation classes, people often wonder why we teach them to plot their course on paper charts even though they have all these whiz-bang chart plotters that will do the same thing for them. The simple fact is, you need a backup plan/tool for when things don’t go the way you expect (electronics DO fail now and then). Depending on one tool (common sense) without balancing it by using others (GPS, communications, lifejackets, weather forecasts, etc.) can leave you in just as much trouble as if you never had any tools to start with.

“I’ve been paddling for years and never heard of anyone dying doing it!”
I have, as have many others. Thankfully you are not one of them.

Consider the following quote:
"When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, ‘uneventful’. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident ... of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort”
Edward J. Smith - 1907
Captain, RMS Titanic (sunk 5 years later under his command)

“So what are the minimum requirements?”
(While these are the minimum for paddlers operating in U.S. waters, others would do well to consider them the minimum also.)

1. A Properly fitted PFD for each person.
2. A sound producing device capable of a 4 second blast that can be heard at ½ mile.
3. Visual Distress Signals appropriate to the area.

1. PFD’s – The most important piece of safety equipment.
The most common type PFD’s that I see used by paddlers are Type II Buoyant vests. These are inexpensive (about $5), light, and easily strapped to the canoe. They are typically not worn while paddling because they tend to restrict shoulder movement and can chafe at the neck.

One should consider that putting a PFD on AFTER you need it can often be too late, like putting your seat belt on after you crash your car.

Another consideration is that putting a PFD on when already in the water can be difficult. If you choose a type II Buoyant vest, or any other type PFD that you will not actually be wearing all the time, practice putting it on while you are already in water where your feet cannot touch the bottom.

Better choices would be either an inflatable PFD worn around your waste, or one of the ski vest style PFD’s. Both of these types however must be worn to count towards meeting the minimum requirements. Inlfatable PFD’s do not have to actually be inflated to count, but they must be worn so that they are ready for instant use if needed. You should inspect and inflate the PFD at least once a year to check for tears, holes, and leaks.

When choosing an inflatable PFD, the best choice for paddlers will most likely be one that is inflated by manual means only, either through a tube that you blow in, or by a CO2 cartridge that can only be activated by pulling a rip cord. PFD’s that inflate automatically are designed to do so when they get wet. Since wetness is a fact of life for a paddler, this could cause the PFD to inflate unexpectedly and at inappropriate times. They also require additional maintenance and are more expensive. One that is worn around the waste will be generally be more comfortable than the style that is worn over the shoulders. Try both and see which suits you best.

One negative to choosing a manual inflatable PFD is that it will not help you float if you are struck and knocked unconscious. In this circumstance, an automatic inflatable or a ski vest will be the lifesaver. The ski vest style will, as with the buoyant vest, tend to chafe and bind, restricting your ability to paddle efficiently.

You must weigh all of these factors and make your own personal risk/comfort/benefit assessment when selecting a PFD for your personal circumstances, paddling style, when paddling competitively or for leisure, and probability of collision.

2. A sound producing device capable of a 4 second blast that can be heard at ½ mile.
This is the easiest and least expensive of all pieces of safety equipment. For outrigger canoe’s there are really only two reasonable choices, whistles and a variety air horns.

Whistles meet the minimum requirement, are the least expensive, and can be worn about the neck or attached to your PFD. They also are not easily heard by power boats. When space permits (as with an OC6), a better choice would be an air horn consisting of a can of compressed air and a horn that attaches at the top. These can be excruciatingly loud (especially to the person in seat 5 when the steersman lets go with the damn thing), which is exactly what you want in an emergency.

To use an air horn or whistle to signal distress, you need to make continuous blasts of 4-5 seconds each when there is a reasonable chance that the signal will be heard.

3. Visual Distress Signals appropriate to the area and conditions.
Visual distress signals can be essential for letting other vessels know that you need help, particularly at night when something that sits as low in the water as an outrigger is very difficult to see. I realize most paddlers won’t be out paddling in the dark, but if your canoe or paddle is damaged, you may find yourself out much longer than you ever expected.

Visual distress signals are also important to have during the daytime. While boaters should be aware of the international distress signals of waving both of your arms (as if you were doing jumping jacks but not quite as high) or your paddle, many aren’t. Flags, smoke, and flares are the most easily recognized and visible distress signals.

So what are your options?
Signaling Mirror
Signal mirrors are inexpensive, light, easy to carry, and only effective during daylight hours. You can even use an old CD as a signaling mirror. To use one, you simply reflect light from the sun in the direction of the person/boat/airplane’s attention that you are trying to get.

Distress Flag
The internationally recognized distress flag has an orange background with a black ball and black square on it. This can be taped to your paddle or held up with both arms. As with the signaling mirror, distress flags are only effective during daylight hours. There also needs to be somebody within visual range.

Smoke Flares
Bulkier and more expensive than signaling mirrors, smoke flares are quite effective during daylight hours and easier to use than signal mirrors. They do not have to be “aimed” at either the sun or another object/person. Smoke can easily be spotted from aircraft and other vessels, and can even be seen by people on shore within a few miles.

As with signaling mirrors however, they are only effective during daylight.

Handheld Flame producing flares
Handheld flame producing flares make an excellent choice for night use as the brilliant flame produced can be easily seen for MANY miles. They are also good for day time use. You need to be very careful that you hold the flare over the side of your canoe and pointed away from your body to avoid getting burned.

Do NOT use road flares! These are not designed for the marine environment and do not meet the minimum requirements. You can also get flares designed for marine use that are pocket sized which are much more appropriate for carrying on an canoe.

Aerial Flares
Aerial flares are available that are about the size of a pencil and typically come in sets of three. These are quite effective both day and night. The shoot high into the sky, produce a very bright light, and can be seen for many miles. Most only burn for 10 seconds so it is important that you only discharge one when there is a reasonable chance that it will be seen by another vessel.

In some areas, aerial flares should definitely NOT be used. Just ask the folks in San Diego this last year. An aerial flare fired off by a lost hunter is what started the huge fires that killed several people, destroyed thousands of acres of land, numerous homes, and businesses. If you are paddling on a lake, pond, creek, or other inland body (excluding the Great Lakes), you should use the other visual distress signals.

Another form of aerial flare is the parachute flare. These tend to burn and stay in the air longer, however they are quite bulky (about the size of a road flare), and for that reason probably not a good choice for a canoe. As with other aerial flares, they should not be used on lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, creeks, or anywhere that they might drift and catch fire to other objects.

Marine flares of all varieties have a definite expiration date. They may continue to be effective after that date, but will not count towards meeting Federal requirements. Make sure you check your flares periodically to make sure they are in date.

You also need to protect them from getting wet, either in a zip-lock baggy or through the use of a waterproof buoyant container.

Other Recommended Safety Equipment
1. Don’t Paddle Alone
2. File a Float Plan
3. Spare Paddle
4. Communications Capability
5. Location Information (“Where are you?”)
6. Duct Tape & Rubber Straps

The additional safety equipment listed below is recommended when paddling without an accompanying escort/safety vessel and not participating in an organized competition.

When paddling in small groups, this equipment can be distributed between the paddlers if desired, as long as they are planning on staying together.

Picture for a moment that you are out paddling a couple of miles off the coast on a positively glorious day, when suddenly your ama springs a leak, your iako breaks, or you’ve somehow injured yourself in a huli. How are you going to get back to shore safely. Alternatively how are you going to let someone know that you are in trouble and where they can find you? Complicate that scenario with a few sharks in your vicinity. Not a good situation to say the least. No doubt you can yourself come up with a wide variety of possible bad situations.

File a float plan
Make sure you let a responsible person on shore know where you are going; when you are leaving; when you expect to return; a description of your canoe; and the phone numbers of emergency agencies such as the Coast Guard or Harbor Patrol to be called if you are significantly late.

If your plans change, make sure you let that person know. If you told them you are heading up the coast, then later decide to head down the coast instead, guess where everybody is going to be looking for you!

Spare Paddle(s):
This one is almost too obvious to warrant discussion. Even the best paddles can break and leave you completely stranded. Some might consider a spare paddle enough extra equipment by itself, and in many cases this might be true (as in an organized race). You need to evaluate your plans for the day and make that determination for each situation.

Communications capability:
In the event of a breakdown, medical, or other emergency, you will need to be able to contact the U.S. Coast Guard, other Search & Rescue agencies, or other vessels nearby. To ensure the most rapid rescue possible, you also need to be able to effectively communicate an accurate position. Some would argue that the Visual Distress Signals previously discussed will do this for you, but this is only true if others can see you.

Handheld Submersible Marine VHF Radio (*see note below)
Contrary to common belief, your are NOT required to have a license to own or operate a Marine VHF Radio when operating on waters of the U.S.

VHF Frequencies are monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard, Search & Rescue Agencies, and other vessels nearby. Cell phone frequencies are not monitored.

Similarly, all power and sail boats equipped with Marine VHF radios are required by law to monitor VHF Channel 16, improving your chances of being heard when you really need it.

The U.S. Coast Guard can triangulate your position from the transmitted signal of a Marine VHF radio. This is not true for Cell phones.

Use VHF Channel 16 for emergency and distress calls. The appropriate call is the ever familiar “Mayday-Mayday-Mayday” which is followed without break by a description of your location, your vessel, your situation, and the number of people on board. It is imperative that you cover all four elements in your first and any subsequent transmissions until your know that somebody has received all of the needed information.

You may experience “dead zones” with VHF just as you do with cell phones. It is always a good idea to also carry a cell phone in a waterproof container in addition to the Marine VHF radio.

When selecting a Marine VHF radio, look for a “JIS-7” rating. Lower rated radios are only “splash proof” at best.

It’s also a good idea to attach the radio either to your canoe or your person using a piece of line or cord so that it doesn’t fall over and sink to the bottom of the ocean. Submersible does not mean that it floats!

Make sure your batteries are fully charged before heading out!

Cell Phones
Cell phones make a good BACKUP to a handheld submersible marine VHF radio.

Make sure you program in the local Coast Guard Station and / or local Harbor Patrol emergency phone number so that you have it “ready to go” in case you need it.

Cell phone frequencies are NOT monitored by the Coast Guard, nor other vessels in your vicinity. As with Marine VHF Radios, cell phones experience “dead zones”, therefore should be available as a backup and not as a primary means of communication.

The Coast Guard cannot triangulate on a cell phone transmission, so you must be able to provide accurate position information to be rescued quickly.

Cell phones are MORE likely to experience dead zones than Marine VHF radio’s in many areas offshore.

Make sure your batteries are fully charged before heading out!

CB Radio
CB Radio’s are rarely appropriate or useful. They are not monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard, and except in those very rare areas, other vessels that are nearby.

The best way to find out if CB radio’s are more appropriate in your area is to ask the local commercial fisherman.

CB Radio’s do not have the same range capability as most marine VHF radio’s in most areas.

Location Information (“Where are you”):
Handheld Water Proof GPS (*see note below)
A person in the water, and even a canoe as large as an OC6 can be very difficult to spot, particularly when there is a swell running. In an emergency, you will need to be able to communicate your situation and an accurate position to ensure the most rapid rescue possible. This becomes even more critical when operating in cold water where the onset of hypothermia (possibly resulting in death) can be quite rapid.

A GPS will also come in very handy if you ever find yourself overtaken by fog, darkness, or other visibility reducing conditions that you weren’t expecting.

Make sure your batteries are fully charged before heading out!

Note: Some manufacturers of marine electronics now offer a hand held unit that combines both a marine VHF radio and a GPS in one convenient unit. These are the same size as a hand held VHF and are available for approximately the same cost as you would pay for both units if purchased separately.

Portable De-watering Device (Race sponsors may require this be on the paddlecraft or on the safety boats). For the most part, portable de-watering devices are only appropriate for canoes of open construction such as OC6’s.

Bailing buckets offer the fastest de-watering but more bulky and inconvenient for most canoes.

One gallon milk jugs with tops cut off offer a good de-watering and consumes less space.

“Bicycle pump” style hand pump are the slowest de-watering device and may not be all that convenient to carry.

Duct Tape & Rubber straps
Most of the paddlers I know consider these to be invaluable pieces of safety gear. They are easily carried and are perfect for reattaching the iako if needed.

In closing, never assume that you have been paddling long enough, or that your equipment is reliable enough, or that the weather is stable enough for you to leave all of your safety gear at home.

Always take into careful consideration the situations you may find yourself in and be prepared through common sense, pre-planning (“what am I going to do if….?”, and the safety equipment that is required plus that which you select from the above.

Paddle hard, paddle safe!
Skipper Rich

About the Author
Skipper Rich Lagrand

In addition to providing escort and safety vessel services to various Outrigger Kanu clubs in Southern California for over 5 years , Skipper Rich is a volunteer with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. He has been qualified by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Boating Safety Instructor, Vessel Safety Examiner, and Radio Communications Specialist.

In his role as part of “Team Coast Guard”, Rich also serves as the Communication Services and Publications Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla in Dana Point California. He has made it a personal mission to support and enhance the sport of Outrigger Kanu Racing by providing safety education and information to paddlers throughout the world.

He is available to make free or low-cost safety presentations to outrigger kanu and other water sports oriented clubs, and performs Free Vessel Safety Checks in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties.

For more information you may contact Rich at 949-768-4751 or by writing him at rmlagrand@cox.net

Copyright Notice: The information above may be copied, reproduced, or otherwise distributed in it’s entirety by any interested parties without fee or royalty, provided proper accreditation is given the author.

Posted by SkipperRich on Wed, 01/14/2004 - 11:30am



Long, but important and worth the read.

#1 Thu, 01/15/2004 - 7:55am

Great info. One thing not mentioned is a canoe leash. If you are paddling on a windy day (Hawaii!) it can be your most important piece of safety gear. Know your conditions, and decide appropriately what cautions should be taken.

#2 Thu, 07/14/2005 - 11:08pm


#3 Thu, 12/17/2009 - 6:08am

This is a really good site post, I’m delighted I came across it. I’ll be back down the track to check out other posts-

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#4 Sun, 04/10/2011 - 7:47pm

This sport must be done with really good and with so much attention. So, wouldn't it be great to have the possibility to get some financial aid options? This way you could have so much time to play it right.

#5 Fri, 03/22/2013 - 9:49am

Thanks for the info! It's always good to remind us thrill seekers that we're not invincible!

#6 Mon, 02/10/2014 - 2:28pm

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