In order to be visible while kayaking, you must stand out. But many bright colors don't have the visibility you'd think. Learn which colors do stand out and will keep you visible on the water.
It was a beautiful North Pacific afternoon off the coast of Kodiak Island. I had paddled out from a beach below my house to a giant headland jutting up above an island about five miles from shore. I was rendezvousing with paddling friends at the base of a two-hundred-foot sheer wall that dominated the SE end of the island. We shared an afternoon's paddle by cruising along the outer coastline and casually paddling back to town via the island's northern point.
The next day I was talking with a fellow paddler who had not made the crossing. Instead he had gone to the top of the flat-topped mountain that forms the backdrop of the City of Kodiak, a 1,600' mound of grass and scrub brush-covered shale. With binoculars he had picked out our kayaks flotilla five miles offshore. "So was that you out at Long Island yesterday, about 2 o'clock?" he asked. "Yup," I said, and named the fivesome in the group. "Couldn't have been you then," he said. "I only saw two boats, your yellow Necky and Pete's Easy Rider." I assured him that three other kayaks, all in close proximity to each other were there as well. He insisted that with his binoculars he could clearly see only two boats.
We verified times and landmarks and, sure enough, there had been five kayaks, in a close group, bows pointing inward towards each other like the spokes on a wagon wheel. Yet, he saw only two kayaks. Why? Besides our colorful craft, there was a red kayak, and two dark blue boats. Obviously the red and blue boats did not stand out against the glare, the distance and whatever else was affecting the color spectrum over water that day.
On another occasion a partner and I were the last tandem in a group of four doubles that started out on a compass bearing across a bay in Kenai Fjords National Park. A thick morning fog had formed over the fjordlike bay but since the water was otherwise calm as glass, we decided to venture forth. We had taken bearings the night before and compared them to the nav' charts we carried with us. All was in order as we started out.
I was the sweeper boat, first helping all others launch, and then bringing up the rear as we plodded along single file through the North Pacific soup. A gust of wind - a mild williwaw -repeatedly nudged our boat sideways and off course enough that we lost what faint sight we had of the other boats altogether.
The paddlers in the boat ahead of us were in blue Klepper doubles and were wearing olive drab rain slickers. With the fog we had, they couldn't have been harder to see if they were invisible - which for practical purposes, they were.
We re-shot a bearing and adjusted for drift and hoped to power paddle back into position as the red lantern in this fog-shrouded convoy. After several minutes of serious zig-zag course correcting we caught a flicker of something up ahead. We pointed our bow in that direction and picked up speed. Soon the flickering became a steady flash - a recurring flash of yellow in high contrast against the grey fog. It was the glint of the wet paddle blades on the last kayak in the convoy, on the same course, about 40 yards ahead of us.
Two very different lighting scenarios, both over water, both indicative of the type of situations commonplace while sea kayaking. Both speak of the importance of colors on the open ocean.
On land, its pretty much a given that International Orange is the number one color for visibility. Go into any hunting store and look at all the blaze orange material used in everything from hats to boots. Obviously standing out in the woods so you don't get shot is a major point in favor of this electrifying color. In fact, in bright sunlight, international orange is the highest visible color to the human eye.
A close second is bright yellow, electric or neon yellow as it's sometimes called. It is the visible color choice for diffused sunlight such as one might encounter on a foggy or hazy day. It's also good during those dawn-dusk times of day. A U.S. Coast Guard friend of mine offers a third choice - robin's egg blue - as one of the best colors to see, especially from the air. The reason is simply that there is nothing in nature that is that color and larger than a robin's egg, and it really stands out.
That's the key, in order to be visible, you must stand out. Pretty obvious, but tell that to the paddler who buys the right red PFD! Sure its bright and noticeable…a hundred thousand fire trucks can't be wrong! Still, once out on the ocean, some lighting dynamics set in and those red wavelengths peter out pretty quickly. Add some diffused light or shadows and that red seems to turn black.
Those who have gelcoated/composite kayaks typically opt for various colored decks while accepting the common hull colors of white or ivory. From a thousand feet in the air, when overturned from a capsize, that tiny 15' hull looks very similar to the white crest line on a windblown wave. Imagine how hard it would be to spot a capsized kayaker in the dark, slate-colored waters wearing a green or blue life jacket? My recommendation is to get whatever color you want for your boat, but wear a bright yellow life jacket! If you must opt for style or vanity, at least go with a strobe or other light on your PFD.
In addition to your boat and PFD, consider buying gear with bright colors, too. Think survival; think signal. That large stuff sack you bought is handy, but couldn't it be blaze orange or yellow …or robin's egg blue and carry just as much gear? What a handy flagging signal or ground sign it could make.
Same thing goes for tents, or tent flies. OK, so you don't want to advertise your location on the beach, that's understandable. However, if you are prone to go beyond the edge more than others, consider bright colors. If not the tent, the fly. If not the fly, a ground cloth.
Being aware of the benefits of different colors can be useful when planning group trips - let the bright colors start and end the procession. If you are filing a float plan, make sure that you clearly describe your boat colors ---and PFD's. Kayaking is meant to be fun…and colorful! Safe paddling.
Tom Watson, an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer is also the author of "How to Think Like A Survivor" to be released by Creative Publishing, Int'l this fall.