Any sport has some risk of injury and adventure sports are riskier. Some insurance companies will not insure you for extreme sports such as parachuting, motorbiking, car racing, base jumping, and many more.
Kayaking is a great way for beginners to get involved in water sports. There are some basics to get under the knee but then you can grow in confidence and ability before venturing out into stormy waters.
When deciding to get involved with kayaking is worthwhile to investigate what qualifies as an extreme sport and the safety record of various sporting codes.
Being a water sport that can land you in some serious situations, you can die from participating in kayaking. However, being cautious and understanding your level of expertise will assist you in entering into such situations.
The use of proper safety equipment will increase your chances of survival and help you in a situation where you unexpectedly land in trouble.
In this article, we will investigate the dangers of kayaking and ways to reduce the risks associated with the sport.
11 Risks of Kayaking & Ways to Reduce them
The risks of kayaking can be divided into real risks and perceived risks.
Perceived risk can be defined as the perceived danger level of a certain scenario seems, but it doesn’t quantify the actual risk involved.
Real risk is the actual danger of a specific situation or activity that can be quantified rather than our perception of it.
It is important to understand the difference between perceived and real risks as failure to distinguish the two or match the two generally results in disaster.
The top kayaking risks include water conditions: waves, tide and current, capsizing, drowning, Hypothermia & Cold Water Shock, Adverse Weather Conditions & Sun Exposure, dehydration, getting lost, wildlife, weirs, and low-head dams, Hazardous Obstacles: Strainers & Sweepers, Improper Use & Incorrect Equipment, and other watercraft.
Reducing the risk:
To make kayaking safer you could do research and planning before you get onto the water. Areas that need preparation are your kayaking route, staying within your ability and physical limits, dressing appropriately, always wearing minimum safety gear such as a PFD and helmet, and paddling with someone reliable.
1. Water Conditions
Waves, tides, and currents
On the water, you are at nature’s mercy and have limited control. Large waves, rip currents, and changing tides can easily toss your kayak around.
The danger grows exponentially when kayaking in the sea rather than on a dam or river.
Large waves can easily capsize your kayak while currents and tides can push you off course thus draining your energy to stay or get back on course
When caught in a current you should avoid fighting the current but paddle at an angle until you get out of the current.
Prolonged Sun Exposure
Kayaking brings you closer to Mother Nature but there are some risks associated with this.
Lengthy sun exposure can lead to heat exhaustion, dehydration, heat stroke, and sunburn.
Frequent exposure to UV radiation can lead to severe skin and eye conditions. Too much exposure to UVA and UVB rays is well-known for causing skin cancer.
To protect yourself against overexposure, it is advisable to paddle early morning or late afternoon and wear UV-protective clothing, sunscreen, headgear, and protective sunglasses.
One of the major risks of kayaking is capsizing requiring you to flip the kayak over before embarking on it again.
Nearly every kayaker that has spent a reasonable time on the water has capsized at one time or another.
The best advice to overcome capsizing is to wear a floating device and remain calm when toppled over.
A fatal risk associated with water sports is drowning.
This is often caused by capsizing or paddling in deep waters alone.
Although drowning can happen to the most experienced kayaker or swimmer, it is advisable to be a strong swimmer if you want to go into deep waters far from the land.
As with capsizing, a PFD that fits correctly is highly recommended.
4. Hypothermia & Cold Water Shock
Hypothermia and cold water shock are more prevalent in winter months as a result of sudden contact with freezing cold water measuring 60 degrees Fahrenheit and below.
The first minute of contact with the cold water creates a shock to your system setting you up for hypothermia to set in.
As hypothermia sets in your core body temperature continue to drop and you may experience a feeling of something slashing the air from your chest. To make it more difficult your muscles will be paralyzed and your state of mind can be bewildered.
To recover from the situation it is advisable to follow the 1-10-1 rule. This entails
- One minute to recapture control of your breathing
- Ten minutes of significant movement to endeavor self-rescue actions
- One hour to loss of consciousness due to hypothermia
To counteract the cold water and hypothermia it is advisable to wear appropriate gear when kayaking in winter.
Having a set of dry clothes will help you recover sooner if you get into a position where you can change clothes.
Novices should steer away from getting caught in cold water where the risk of hypothermia is the highest.
Dehydration is the result of losing more fluid than the body takes in. Kayaking on a hot day or for long periods without replenishing your water could lead to a sudden bout of dehydration.
If you don’t treat dehydration quickly it can become a life-threatening situation.
Symptoms of dehydration include dizziness, fatigue, headache, nausea, and even loss of consciousness.
Although you will be on the water when kayaking, the water may not be consumable. Therefore it is advisable to carry ample water with you to stay hydrated. Avoid sugary drinks as far as possible as this will increase dehydration.
6. Getting Lost
Kayaking on a large expanse of water can be fascinating but hazardous.
Unless you can see some landmarks your risk of getting lost increases dramatically, especially when kayaking in the sea.
To counter the risk you could kayak in a group when hitting large expanses where you may lose sight of the edge of the water.
A GPS to navigate your way should always be in your toolkit when planning to go out on open water.
The idea of kayaking is to get closer to nature but there are risks associated with this.
In the water, you will find a wide range of life such as fish, some beavers, ducks, and geese. More importantly in freshwater, you could encounter alligators or crocodiles, hippos, and even bears.
Most of these encounters will be peaceful and every party sticks to what they do.
However, there is a risk of being attacked in your kayak by wildlife. It’s their natural habit and they are much better equipped to survive an attack.
Kayaking in the sea brings more predators to the part. This includes sharks, dolphins, and whales that can become increasingly curious about the moving target that looks like prey.
Keep a safe distance between you and the animals and avoid making contact with their offspring.
8. Weirs & Low-Head Dams
Low-head dams have built a reputation as a killer in our river and a drowning machine.
These are man-made mechanisms to control river levels. Often these low-head dams are not marked clearly and can also be hidden by debris.
The risk associated with weirs and low-head dams is that they often create destructive forces that can pull you underwater, even if you wear a life jacket.
Mitigating the risk is done by avoidance of these structures.
9. Hazardous Obstacles: Strainers & Sweepers
Strainers and sweepers are generally obstacles that appear above water but the large majority of the obstacle hides underwater. An example of this is that you may see a branch floating on the water but you cannot see the rest of the tree that is underwater.
Crashing into unseen obstacles can flip your kayak and result in serious injuries.
Avoid any obstacles however much you would like to see what it holds. Also, stay away from white water rapids if you are still new at the game.
An undercut is when the river bank overhangs the top of the water or rocks found within the water. Undercuts have no solid base below the water level.
It’s near impossible to identify undercuts and is extremely difficult to row out of and a rescue mission will be needed to get you out of danger.
As undercuts are not easily visible it is advisable to kayak with an experienced kayaker that is well acquainted with the water when trying it out for the first time.
10. Improper Use & Incorrect Equipment – Experience Level
A life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) is not a silver bullet that will save your life in any circumstance. Its purpose is to keep you afloat until you can rescue yourself or until help arrives.
PFDs that don’t fit properly can worsen your predicament as it takes on more water which will weigh you down.
This is one risk that you can have full control over its mitigation.
To avoid this risk you should always use a well-fitting PFD and a helmet.
Overstepping Your Ability
Be honest with yourself regarding your abilities and experience. Do not be tempted by other kayakers to try maneuvers that you feel are way above your comfort zone.
According to the U.S.C.G, inexperience was the second most prevalent cause of kayak accidents, injuries, and deaths in 2021.
11. Other Watercraft (Especially At Night)
Rowing on open water during the daytime it may be quite easy to spot oncoming watercraft and for them to spot you.
However fast moving watercraft may not see you as they are concentrating on other activities resulting in waves being created that can capsize your kayak. Also night-time rowing becomes increasingly risky unless your kayak is well-lit and visible from a long distance.
In this case, prevention is better than cure and it’s advisable to stay off the water during peak traffic where there is high-speed traffic creating undesirable conditions.
What Type of Kayak is Safest
Kayaks that you can sit on top of are the most user-friendly kayaks as they offer increased stability with ease of mounting and dismounting the craft.
These kayaks generally have draining holes to get rid of unwanted water that is building up.
Pontoon hulls are the safest and steadiest kayak hull type. The increased stability counters maneuverability but is ideal for beginners.
Is it Safe to Kayak in Flood Waters
Flood waters are generally unpredictable and not advisable to kayak in. There are loads of obstacles below the water surface that can damage your kayak or flip it over.
Most local authorities have standing warnings for the public to steer clear of flood water.
Kayaking is an interesting sport that is extremely physical that attracts many new people to the water.
This is linked to some serious risks that need mitigation and preparation to overcome.
Wearing protective clothing and floating devices will help you to overcome the immediate risk but is not a long-term solution.
Respect the strength of water and the damage it can cause. Stay within your capability and experience, you will build experience to attempt bigger and stronger water at a later stage.
Finally, join a group of kayakers and row in groups for increased safety.
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