Signaling: When to Use What

If you've ever been to a sea kayaking symposium, you've probably run into one of those folks armed with flares, whistles, smoke, day-glow jumpsuit, a mirror, EPIRB, VHF, GPS, SATCOM and operational manuals that are inconveniently non-waterproof. In the right context any of these items could save your life or at least get you arrested when you try to board a plane.

So when do you signal for help? When you find yourself in a situation that is beyond your capability. Yeah, its sort of like guys asking for directions…judgement IS always a factor. Not that you start by shooting rocket flares and shouting "mayday" at the top of your lungs…let's look at our options:

Sonic signals:

  • Whistle: keep a high intensity whistle attached to your PFD. Three sharp blasts mean help and can be heard a fair distance.
  • Air horn: these small devices that used canned air can really pack a sonic wallop…however, most people will think you are just screwing around. Remember 3 sharp blasts.

Visual signals:

  • Paddle Waving: Really. Put a little reflective tape on the back of your paddle and you'd be amazed at how far it can be seen when waved back and forth.
  • Rocket flares: ONLY use these when you can see whom you are trying to attract. White work well in the day and red at night or against a dark sky. Bear in mind that you have a limited supply and that they usually have very short burn times. You may need to save one so that your potential rescuers can follow the signals to you.
  • Smoke or locator flares: These are usually handheld and used to help people find you once you've initially gotten their attention.
  • Signal Mirror: On sunny days a simple mirror with a sighting hole will almost blind a boater at quite a distance if you want to get them to see you. You may already own several…CD's make terrific signal mirrors. That nugget comes courtesy of Karl Pearson.
  • Orange distress flag: These large plastic square bags can also aid in exposure situations and is a good day time visual from the air when laid out on your boat or the water's surface.
  • Fires…3 of anything mean SOS. Better hope Wilson's got the matches.

Phone home:

  • Cell phones are getting to be very useful as coverage is getting better all the time. Be sure to have it accessible and in safely waterproof storage.
  • Hand Held VHF's: You no longer need a license to operate one of these radios with a 5-mile line-of-sight range. You can even get good submersible ones for less than $200 now. You can make a general distress call or call a marine operator to get access to the phone line system. They even offer a full compliment of weather stations. In a pinch you can even talk to other boater with them to get a line on weather that you can't see from down low. These are really a must for anyone wanting to do overnights or open water trips.
  • Satellite telephones? No, you don't need to drive a Humvee and have a name like Clutch to own a satphone now. You can buy one off the web for $900 and be able to phone virtually anyone from a deserted beach in some banana republic. Ask me how I know.

Remember, be prepared for the conditions you are paddling in, but if you are exercising proper judgement you shouldn't find yourself in need of any emergency arm waving.

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