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12 Safety Tips for Brand New Paddlers

Sigrid Pilgrim, director of the Illinois Paddling Council, an organization that represents the interests of paddlers in the state of Illinois, says paddle sports, such as canoeing, kayaking, and stand up paddling are wonderful, but the difference between having a good time and an accident or drowning is very narrow. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are heading to the water. And for many, it is their first time.

“People are itching to go outside,” she says, “going to Walmart, buying a boat and putting it out on the river and lake. If as an adult you have never been on a bicycle, you can’t get on it and know how to ride it. But people think they can buy a canoe or kayak and know what to do.”

If as an adult you have never been on a bicycle, you can’t get on it and know how to ride it. But people think they can buy a canoe or kayak and know what to do.

-Sigrid Pilgrim, Direct of the Illinois Paddling Council

If you are brand new to paddling, here are 12 tips to be aware of before you hit the water.

12 Safety Tips for Brand New Paddlers

  1. Do your homework — Pilgrim says the first thing paddlers should do is check out resource videos and information. Paddling.com has a wealth of information on safer paddling. You can also check the American Canoe Association and Water Sports Foundation. Another option is to take a class or join a local club. If you are going to be sharing water with boaters, refer to your state's boater safety laws and regulations, which provides explanations of rules and basic breakdowns on everything you’ll need to know before going on the water.
  2. Dress for water temperature, not air temperature — especially on the river. Pilgrim warns that with cooler water temperatures, hypothermia can set in quickly.
  3. Check the weather — before you head out onto the water. Heavy winds can shift the current and take you off course. “One of the biggest things we run into is people don’t account for the weather,” says Joshua Mooi, a conservation police sergeant with Illinois DNR. “Whether it’s the waves or the wind. When you relate this to regular driving, you don’t go faster than what you think the car can handle. When they get on the boat, they don’t think about that. You can get in a difficult situation very quickly because boats don’t have brakes. ... You may not have the ability to slow down as quickly as you’d need because larger boats have a lot of momentum.”
  4. Be familiar with the area — Mooi says this knowledge can mean avoiding different underwater obstructions such as Dime Pier, off Navy Pier, and break walls. “Between this weekend and last weekend, we’ve had three or four boats get stuck or struck an obstruction,” he says.
  5. Have a way to call for help in an emergency — such as a marine radio, cellphone in a waterproof case (although reception may not be reliable), a personal locator beacon, fire extinguishers, a sounding device or distress flags. Even a whistle or signal mirror is better than nothing. Mooi recommends boaters invest in a marine radio to directly communicate with the DNR, Coast Guard and other nearby boaters.
  6. Never go out on the water alone — Make sure you are with a friend, ideally someone who has experience.
  7. Wear a life jacket — “Most people who die from accidents don’t wear a personal flotation device,” Pilgrim says. Life jackets need to be properly sized and fitted, and sit tightly around your waist and underarms. One way to test if your life jacket is properly fitted is to have another person pull on the parts over your shoulders. If it comes above your head, it doesn’t fit and needs to be tightened. It is supposed to float you in the water, and if necessary, in a rescue, someone can use it to pull you up from out of the water.
  8. Know your skill limitations — Paddling is a skill sport that requires knowledge, including how to avoid obstacles. “It’s like driving a car and controlling the steering wheel,” Pilgrim says. ”If you don’t know how to control the boat, how can you avoid the obstacle?”
  9. Stay off the river if it’s flooded — After heavy rain, the current will be much faster, making it more difficult for beginners to control the canoe or kayak. Mooi says the lake’s higher water level makes it even more difficult to avoid underwater obstructions.
  10. Recognize hazards — For instance, “strainers” — trees or tree branches that are across the river — can trap a paddler and the boat.
  11. Don’t paddle over dams — Pilgrim says the hydraulics and water recirculation can trap a paddler to the point of drowning.
  12. Avoid alcohol, and be mindful of medication — They can impair judgement and reaction time.

If you or someone you know is new to paddling, be sure to run through the list. Be prepared, be smart, and stay safe!

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