The outdoor environment can be extremely challenging. The noise from the wind and waves can drown out many sounds. The distance you are from your paddling partners can also make verbal communication impossible. I have been in rolling seas where I lost sight of my partner when he or she was on the other side of the wave.
There are many methods one can use to signal or interact with the rest of the group or the outside world. In our present electronic age we have cell phones, short distance walkie-talkie's (hand held radios), VHF radios, emergency locating devices, and signal lights. We can also use flares, smoke, whistles, dyes, horns, ribbons, signal flags, mirrors, paddles, our arms and hands.
Regardless of the method of communication you choose to use, you need to know if the person receiving the message knows what you are sending. There needs to be a common understanding of the signals and messages. You also need to know how effective or ineffective some of the above communication methods are in the real world.
I remember a windy return trip from a compass run off of Martha's Vineyard. I asked two of the folks at the tail end of the group to capsize and signal the front of the group for assistance. We were going into a head wind. The two in the water only had whistles. They didn't even try shouting because they knew the paddlers in front were too far away. However, their amazement was apparent when the group did not hear their whistles. The distance was about 200 yards.
We had to send a paddler ahead to get closer to the group so they could hear a whistle. Due to the wind, those in front never heard the initial whistles. The fact that none of the lead group never turned around on regular basis to check on those behind is a discussion topic for another time. I often tell groups to test their whistles on calm days and windy days to see how far their whistles carry with and against the wind.
Early in my guiding career I went into a sea cave to check it out to see if it was going to be suitable for the rest of the group to enter. I told my assistant to wait with the group. The sea was relatively calm and we have been in this cave many times before. After I entered the cave a big set of waves came in, which caused havoc in the cave for me. What I had not discussed with my assistant was how long to wait for me before trying to come to my aid if I did not come out. It eventually all worked out, but we realized that we had not sufficiently discussed a protocol for this contingency. The waiting time for those outside seemed like an eternity. On the inside I was just dealing with the environment and couldn't signal even if I tried. If the assistant had come in too soon it would have been dangerous for both of us because a second kayak in the cave would have been an obstacle/weapon in the turmoil.
Since good flare demonstrations are difficult and tedious to arrange, many paddlers have never seen or tested the effectiveness of their flares, especially in the daylight. That is one of the reasons we took the time to include a comprehensive flare demo in our Rescue Procedures Video (Volume 2). Just having communication devices along does not mean you can communicate. You can be that falling tree in the forest. If no one hears you, did you make a sound? Do you know what information to give over the radio if you make contact?
I urge you to test your communication devices and methods in many different conditions to see which ones work and which ones don't. Remember, don't test flares on your own because if they are seen you are sending out a false alarm and rescue agencies may respond. Any time a rescue agency responds, the personnel are put at risk and they are not available to help others in real need. If you wish to test flares, contact your local agencies and see if they have a way you can test your flares in a controlled setting. Keep in mind that anyone can see a flare when they are close to it. Can you see the flare a mile or more away? When we were filming our flare demonstration, a woman who walked right past us and she never looked up to see the flares. In addition, some of the smaller flares were very barely visible during daylight hours even though we were looking for them. Imagine if you were out there and you sent up your only flare and it was not seen because the people on the shore were preoccupied doing something else. Think about yourself when you are walking along the shoreline. Are you really looking out to the water with the express intent of seeing a flare? Also, the farther you are from shore the less visible you are.
When you are sitting next to your partner hand and finger signals may work, but when you are thirty yards apart in crashing waves in a rock garden you will never see a finger signal. That is why the Tsunami Rangers developed their unique set of arm signals. They found what worked in the harsh environment.
The purpose of this article is not to discuss the accepted protocols and methods of communication because each device needs to be discussed. My goal is to have you think about, test and review your present communication methods and capabilities before you need them. See my article "Basic Paddle & Arm Signals" for more details regarding communication methods. Also check the signaling page in the USK library. The only way you know if something works is to try it out. Remember, the more you practice a skill the greater chance you have of performing it properly in an emergency.
Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition, Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.