Florida’s widespread waterways and tropical weather make it a true paradise for those who enjoy spending time on the water. With a recent spike in the popularity of paddle powered vessels like kayaks and stand up paddleboards, it’s important for the entire boating community to be aware of the safety concerns so we can all harmoniously enjoy the natural resources the Sunshine State has to offer.
First and foremost, kayaks and stand up paddleboards less than 16 feet in length are considered Class A recreational vessels. With this Coast Guard classification, operators of such craft are required to have an approved personal flotation device, sound signaling device and visual distress signal. Unlike powerboats, kayaks and SUPs do not require registration. Nevertheless, when navigating any type of vessel operators must follow strict protocol and hierarchy to ensure our waterways remain safe. The rules of the road are taught in captain’s school and in boating safety classes, but many operators are uneducated on the subject and simply don’t even know when they are in the wrong.
…when navigating any type of vessel operators must follow strict protocol and hierarchy to ensure our waterways remain safe.
Among the common rules on the water, boaters must always give way to the less maneuverable vessel. Most kayakers and SUP operators mistakenly believe they have the right of way over motorized vessels because they fit under the category of restricted mobility. However, in reality this is not the case. Paddlers certainly can’t travel with as much speed as propulsion powered vessels, but they are easily maneuverable, can stop quickly and also change course in an instant. Because of these facts, kayaks and SUPs are designated as typical recreational vessels when used beyond the narrow limits of a swimming, surfing or bathing area. This means not only do paddlers need the appropriate safety equipment, but they must also observe and follow the same rules of the road as powerboats.
It goes without saying that paddlers should carefully study the weather and forecasted conditions before heading out. Weather changes in a flash in Florida, so paddlers must be ready for it all. However, aspects like the tide are predictable so it is a good idea to study tidal movements in advance. Safe paddling also requires common sense to stay out of situations that could harm yourself or those around you. Paddlers must also understand that their actions, however minute, can have great consequences to those around them. For instance, choosing to paddle fast to get out of the way of a powerboat could result in far more harm than simply maintaining speed and course.
It’s important paddlers recognize their limitations while also observing full situational awareness. Inlets are notoriously dangerous zones and powerboats need full concentration to navigate the rocky jetties and shallow shoals—there’s not much time to worry about throwing a wake at a kayaker when you’re focused on running the gauntlet during a screaming outgoing tide.
As vessel operators, both boaters and paddlers have the responsibility to take the necessary precautions to avoid collision at all costs. While kayaks and SUPs aren’t provided with any special privileges, it’s important powerboats express a level of respect and etiquette while maintaining a safe distance from paddle powered craft. While no one forced them to paddle miles into the backcountry to fish a secluded point, think about the effort it took to reach this distant honey hole. With that being said, if you are a kayaker don’t mistakenly believe you deserve special treatment because you exerted the extra energy under paddle power.
As the operator of a kayak or SUP with a shallow draft, you have the advantage of navigating outside of a channel without risk of hitting bottom and damaging running gear, so it’s highly advised you travel outside the center of a channel and stay clear of traffic lanes. If you must cross a channel, do so at a right angle and cross as quickly as possible.
Ultimately, powerboats are responsible for their wakes, but only when wakes are excessive given the circumstances. If a kayaker paddles through a full speed zone, he or she is at risk and shouldn’t expect nearby boaters to come off plane. Slowing down and coming off plane often causes less displacement and may produce a larger wake, so it’s often best for powerboaters to continue on plane while remaining aware of their surroundings. Of course, every situation is different and has to be treated as such.
Lastly, when kayaks and SUPs navigate congested waterways it’s important they have complete situational awareness. Recognize that these types of craft sit really low to the water and should always utilize a bright safety flag that extends a few feet into the air. While enjoying the water under paddle power you must also be fully aware of your limitations and realize that the open water is full of potential hazards.
As more and more residents and visitors venture onto our waterways in a wide variety of craft, it’s critical we ensure the safety of the entire boating community by looking out for one another, regardless of the type or size of vessel. Together, we can all stay safe and have fun.