Rough water paddling notes

Leadership & Communication

When paddling in rough water one of the greatest issues is COMMUNICATION.

the need to pass information back and forth while paddling
establishing clear protocols for decision making and goal setting before and after hitting the water.
Everyone in the group must understand the role they play, other paddlers’ abilities and expectations. By recognizing levels of skill, fitness and comfort zones a lot of grief can be avoided.

Who is to lead, what route, escape routes identified, rescue and towing techniques to be used, all need to be discussed and clearly understood by everyone.

Leadership doesn’t always mean taking the lead at the front of the pack. However, it does mean fostering a clear and transparent exchange of information within the group and acting decisively when a quick decision is needed.

As a leader remember all group paddlers are equally entitled to feeling safe and having fun while on the water.

Kayak & Gear

Seemingly minor equipment failures can become epic catastrophes in the wrong conditions. Things can get very quickly out of control in rough waters.

Equipment failure in rough seas can have a devastating effect, so it is important that you choose quality gear and that you regularly maintain it.

Whenever and wherever you paddle, always turn up with your boat and gear in full working order.

Risk Assessment

The aim is ‘not to avoid all risk all the time’, but to clearly identify potential dangers and then manage them accordingly. There is always a risk in sea kayaking, the goal should be to minimize it. It can be a fine balancing act. If you avoid every risk it can be a very tedious and unsatisfying paddle for all. You need to understand and accurately estimate the level of risk and weigh that danger and possible consequences against the rewards of proceeding. Some key considerations are weather, sea conditions, air and water temperatures, paddler confidence, levels of fitness and paddler skill levels.

Do not become good getting out of perilous situations, rather learn to avoid them in the first place.

There is sometimes a huge difference between perceived risk and actual risk.

The question you ask yourself is “is it worth the risk”.

Escape Routes

‘What is your Plan B option?’

Make a note of other landing spots along your proposed route that are suitable exit points.

Wind is the single biggest factor when paddling. It constantly teaches us humility. An unwillingness to accept conditions and adapt to them most often gets you into trouble. For multi-day trips, schedule in extra days in case of bad weather.

Most bad decisions stem from having no other viable options. Always have an Escape Plan.

Float Plan

Always use a Float Plan. It will give authorities a good idea of your intended route and a huge advantage to search and rescue teams who can organize a more focused search pattern should you fail to arrive at your destination.

Rough water rescues
Any rescue technique that keeps a paddler in their boat is vastly superior to one that involves a wet exit.
Becoming separated from your boat is a distinct and scary possibility. In addition seas can become so rough that performing an assisted rescue is impossible. Keep a death grip of your boat and your paddle securely leashed to your boat. In rough conditions your boat could be less than 1mm from your finger tips yet lost for good! In extreme conditions you may see a fellow paddler nearby but it does not mean you can lend any meaningful assistance.
Never paddle in conditions you have not practised in.
Assisted Re-entry Rescues
In rough conditions assisted rescues can be terrifically hard on gear and positively hazardous to fingers, hands and feet. Just about any body part can be easily pinched or crushed between two boats. Boats will rise and fall with waves and can crash together alarmingly. Perform assisted rescues quickly, style does not count. Re-entries can expend a lot of energy, particularly when a sudden burst of power is required. If you want your paddling ability to include heavy conditions and to assist others who are in trouble then you should maintain an appropriate level of paddle fitness.
T Rescue
This rescue is an all round strong technique. It is quick, dependable and can be performed in most heavy conditions. It has the advantage of emptying water from the cockpit before the paddler re-enters. It should be one of the cornerstones of any kayakers primary rescue techniques.
Assisted Side by Side
This is one of the quickest methods to get a paddler back into their boat. A rescuer stabilizes the other paddler’s boat by strongly committing their weight to it and establishing a very firm grip of the coaming or deck lines using both hands. The rescuer should drape themselves over the swimmers boat to position their armpit over the raised centre line of the other boat.
A sling creates a step-up into the kayak cockpit. As for other rescue techniques this method should be practiced often so it is fast to deploy and reliable. Any rescue technique that requires fiddling with knots or complicated set-ups will not work in rough seas.
Face Up Re-entry
This method is potentially dangerous in rough conditions because the swimmer is positioned between two boats.
Scoop Rescue
This rescue is exceedingly difficult in rough conditions. It may however be the only option for a totally exhausted swimmer or someone otherwise incapable of re-entering their boat.
Paddle Float Rescue
This is a time consuming weak technique and is completely inappropriate in rough conditions.
Part contents of this discussion paper has been taken from ‘Sea Kayaking Rough Waters’ by Alex Matthews.The book is available from the club library.

Position indicating and signaling equipment

By Sandy Robson


I attended a valuable presentation at the 2012 NSW Sea Kayak Club Rock n Roll sea kayak symposium and also was lucky enough to participate in a search and rescue exercise with a helicopter searching for us.  I am now reviewing what I am carrying in my PFD for signalling and I think you will find this information interesting.

Firstly, at the presentation there were 4 guests.  A representative from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), 2 blokes from the local volunteer marine rescue (VMR) and a helicopter pilot who regularly conducts search and rescue (SAR) for people in the water.  If you haven’t a clue what AMSA do then let me tell you, this bloke is the one who sits in the rescue coordination centre (RCC) in Canberra and puts everything into action when you set off your PLB or EPIRB device or if you are reported missing.  He ran through a few actual situations that have occurred and laid it on the line that really, you are pretty stupid if you do not have a PLB or an EPIRB.   The following day I participated in a search and rescue (SAR) exercise where we set off a training EPIRB whilst out on the water in the dark before dawn.  The helicopter came looking for us and we did a night time search scenario and a day time scenario setting off and using various signalling and position indicating tools.  It was valuable training for us in our kayaks and for the helicopter search crew too.

Here are my conclusions.

1.  Carry a PLB mounted on the shoulder of your PFD or an EPIRB with a tether.


If you are going to have a PLB then the advice is that it must be mounted on your shoulder so that you can deploy the antennae and then attach it back into a shoulder mounted pouch so you have good communication with the satellites.  PLBs don’t float and they are not going to work antennae down and you will probably be needing your hands free.  Shoulder mounting high on your PFD is best for optimum performance.

Of course an EPIRB is much more successful than a PLB because it floats.  If you carry an EPIRB figure out a way to tether it to your craft or to you because it is a bummer when they find the device but not the person with it.
Actually, a mate of mine, paddler Paul Hayward and I had been discussing PLB mounting pouches before the symposium and he has made me a pouch to mount my PLB on my PFD, so the AMSA bloke just confirmed that what Paul designed is spot on.  Right are two photos showing the pouch that my friend designed.

Note – some PLB devices sold overseas and available online are not able to be programmed for use in Australia, so buy your device in Australia and save yourself the hassles and the advice on SPOT messenger was that it is great to let your friends know what you are up to on expedition with OK messages, but not reliable or recommended by AMSA for use in an emergency.

2.  Keep the Registration Information for your PLB/EPIRB up to date with AMSA records.

So, you set off your PLB or EPIRB and what they are going to do is establish your position and check what you have registered online (  with your device (e.g. craft type, registered trips, emergency contact numbers that you have listed etc).  Then they are going to start telephoning you and people on your list to see if you are indeed out kayaking and in distress.  Sometimes these devices go off accidentally and they will call you to establish if a rescue is indeed required.

3.  Have appropriate people as your emergency contacts.

In your emergency contacts registered for your device you should list people who are likely to know your whereabouts and your kayaking plans.  You can update your device registry at any time.  There is no point to list your mum, unless she knows where you are kayaking.

4.  VHF Radio
Let’s say you are out there bobbing around in the water.  Maybe with or without a kayak.  Your PLB has been set off, now what?  Be prepared for a wait!  AMSA only own 5 rescue helicopters.  They can also draw on resources from other organisations such as the military, but this all takes time to coordinate.  If you are close to a Volunteer Marine Rescue facility or other boats then these are your next option whilst waiting for that helicopter.  On weekends it may take 1.5 hours for the helicopter to deploy, so I hope you are dressed appropriately.  Your next line of defence is your VHF radio.  Like the PLB/EPIRB you should use this at the earliest time that things are looking like going pear shaped.  Do not wait until it gets dark!  Get on the radio and call for assistance.  There is also a new feature available on some radios where you can read your position coordinates off the radio screen– handy in an emergency call I think.  If you have a VHF that is DSC capable then you can transmit your position at the touch of a button and the rescue chopper is fitted out to receive this message.  Craft in the area and VMR will also get an alert tone broadcast over their radio when you push the distress button.

5.  Signalling your Position

Julian, the helicopter pilot explained to us how difficult it is to see a kayaker in the water, let alone, a person without their kayak.  The things that will help you get spotted are:  

  • Strobe mounted high on the shoulder of your PFD:  In perfect conditions this was spotted from 2NM by helicopter SAR wearing night vision goggles (NVGs). This was double the range of a head torch (visible at 1NM).
  • Sea marker Dye will make a large green mark in the water that they spot easily from the air. 
  • VHF Radio to talk to the helicopter – that way you know for sure if they have seen you or not and you can tell them when you hear and see them approaching.
  • Flares – the Orange smoke canister was very effective and long lasting and hands free for day time use.  Red hand helds and pen flares were great in the dark but short lived.
  • Laser Flare – never expires or runs out and was very very effective  – $100 well spent I think
  • Signalling Mirror – could be used, I saw a few people with a CD stashed in their PFD or on the kayak for this purpose.

6.  Other Info:

  • The helicopter is looking for you with Night Vision Goggles so go to town with all the light sources that you have.
  • The Helicopter has a big light called the ‘night sun’ – you are going to hear the helicopter coming and when they turn on the Night Sun it feels very reassuring!  Radio them on channel 16 and tell them when you hear and see them.
  • Tassie does not have a rescue helicopter, it flies from Melbourne, so you will be sitting around for some time down there – Dress appropriately…In the presentation they told us a pair of kayakers waited around 6 hours to be rescued on the west coast of Tassie once.
  • Log on with VMR before you paddle, then they know where to look and who to look for, and have a ‘let someone know before you go’ system in place.
  • When the helicopter finds you they may drop a very large flare into the water close by so that they do not lose track of where you are.  This flare is self-scuttling, that is, it blows up when it is done, so do not paddle over to it, keep a good distance away e.g. 50-100metres.
  • When they are searching for you AMSA have technology to generate a drift model and develop a search area.  This can then be provided to VMR and police for use when coordinating the search.
  • If you have an old PLB or EPIRB to dispose of, do not put it in the rubbish bin!  These guys are having a lot of time wasted digging up transmitting PLBs from rubbish dumps.  Old beacons can be disposed of at Battery World ( ) free of charge.
  • Read this helicopter pilot report (link).
  • RCC info that you should know:
  • A Buoyant Orange Smoke canister (like the one in the water shown at right) is ideal for sea kayakers because you set it off and then throw it in the water, leaving your hands free to get on the VHF, brace in swell etc.  They are acceptable instead of 2 orange handheld flares.  These can be purchased in Perth from Fendercare Australia (in Fremantle) for $44 plus GST (at the time of writing this article).  The minimum spend at Fendercare for cash sales though is $100, so you could team up with another kayaker to purchase (   Wilson Marine in South Freo ‘can also order the canisters in for you.  RFD at Rous Head is another supplier that you could try.  I always have one of these smoke canisters in my day hatch.

Trip Planning

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