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Some thoughts on equipment and safety…

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There has been much talk recently on the subjects of strobes and VHF sets and I do have some opinions to voice that might be unpopular in some departments (Mr. Nystrom knows I would never point a finger at him – his decisions and answers to our queries are always thoroughly considered and tested by his own experience).

All this talk of strobes that flash out “S-O-S” is merely academic, in my opinion: what mariner is going to pause, on observing a strobe at night-time, to read it says? For one thing, the morse code has fallen out of general use several years ago. Any strobe flashing on the water will attract attention easily, if there is someone there to see it, as the USCG told us in person last year when we visited them at Merrimac. They also told us (as Liz Neumeier regularly reminds us – thank you) that strobes should never be used EXCEPT in emergency!

I suggest that expensive VHF sets probably all work comparably well, in very general terms; but they are useless if the operator is shy of transmitting on them or has no idea about correct usage. For many years, paddlers have gone out on the water safely enough without the benefit of such devices and lived to tell the tale. I think someone suggested that “x” brand was better than “y” brand because the batteries lasted for a full 10 hours on the water without charging: well, what happens on the third or fourth day on your camping trip up in Maine? Is the blasted thing now useless?

I am not saying that VHFs are not useful; I am not saying that GPS is not useful; I am not saying that flares and signalling devices are not useful; but I saying that sea kayakers should concentrate on developing and honing their own skills, going out onto the ocean as often as possible (preferably in company), taking classes and learning not to rely on expensive equipment and high-tech devices. These things do not automatically make us safe paddlers – and I know, I’m a bit of a “gearhead” myself (there are several of us in the club). What the heck is the use of a red laser beam that shines for donkey’s miles if one can barely remain upright in heavy seas? Or a super-duper R/T set (VHF) if one cannot take a hand off the paddle because of wind and waves? You get my gist?

Flak jacket on, as they say…

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All points well taken. I imagine that few of us gearheads (and I find to my amazement that I've become one of those too, as a certain CF will attest) would either argue with you or assume that equipment substitutes for skill, experience and judgement.

But it can help. If nothing else, the slippery slope starts with a paddle float, pump and tow line. And at the other end of the technical spectrum, just because something run on electrons does not inherently make it either useful or useless. It's all in how you use it, right sir?

As for: "...well, what happens on the third or fourth day on your camping trip up in Maine? Is the blasted thing (VHF radio) now useless?"

I wondered that too -- solar charger? Wasn't there a recent article in some paddling mag about building your own (for really hard-core gearheads with leisure time on their hands) waterproof, decktop solar charger?

Alex? Andrew? Didn't you use electronics on your Maine expedition?


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While I completely agree with the main point of your post, I would point out that the discussion about lights that flash SOS related not to the importance of the SOS signal from a safety perspective (versus other flashing patterns), but rather to the USCG regulation for what constitutes an "electric distress light". Contrary to what had been posted, the Coast Guard does not require us to carry strobes at night. They require us to carry "visual distress signals", which can be pyrotechnic (flares) or electric. If electric, a "strobe" does not meet the requirement unless it flashes SOS.

So perhaps the argument about the pointlessness of lights flashing SOS should be taken up with the Coast Guard? (ha ha.)

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>Alex? Andrew? Didn't you use electronics on your Maine


VHF's and a GPS.

One VHF quit completely, the other was used to make securite calls in fog which were never answered - a mouth powered fog horn was used instead.

The GPS screen quit when it was in fog, rendering it useless. Chart/compass and dead-reckoning were used instead.

Seems daft to rely on electronics when you're paddling on an electrolyte solution.


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While the SOS requirement is technically correct, when we met with the CG, they seemed far more interested in what's practical than with sticking to the letter of the regulations. Their primary concern was that we carry SOMETHING as opposed to NOTHING.

Also, I find it highly doubtful if:

a) Someone would ignore a strobe if it didn't flash SOS.


B) If the CG would ticket you for having plain strobe rather than an SOS strobe if they were required to rescue you.

Honestly, these guys just seemed to be thrilled to meet kayakers that carried rescue gear and who would actually take the time to come in and discuss these subjects. Their stated policy was "Whatever works, as long as it doesn't cause false alarms." These were the guys who suggested that blue running lights worked really well, even though they are not specified in the regs anywhere.

It's not likely that all CG units are so accommodating, but they all share the same mission of saving lives.

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I absolutely agree that skills trump gear every time. Our emphasis has always been on skills and it should remain that way. Rescue gear is a simply a backup when skills are not enough. In the case of VHF radios, it can also be a preventative measure, as it improves group communication and gives us the ability to make our position and intentions known to other vessels who may not be able to see us. Discussions on VHFs are really more about reliability, functionality and getting the best bang for the buck.

Battery life on many units is in excess of 20 hours, which is more than enough for several days on the water, if it's only turned on when needed for weather information or to make "securite" broadcasts. Unlike larger vessels, we are not required to monitor emergency channels when on the water. Honestly, more days than not, my radio never gets turned on other than to check that it's working prior to shoving off.

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Mark, with all due respect, how on earth can a morse code signal be expected from the authorities when that language/system has been dropped? Brian Nystrom addresses the very subject of the attitude of the USCG station people with whom we met early last year. I hope that next time you'll be able to attend and ask them yourself what they like to see.

Regardless of what is "official policy", they had nothing but approval for our enquiring attitude to the whole flying show. One light (white) for recognition and to be able to identify one's self to other traffic and maybe a strobe for emergency, with nothing said about what it flashes out -- in any case: waves between your sorry body in the water and any rescuer might easily mean that that person will never read S-O-S, right? Morse is dead, officially, period.

Mind you, like Latin, some of us read it still, I daresay...

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/**opinion warning on

re: long trips...I've done two 7-9 day trips. Both times I carried my old Standard HX150S (which is not waterproof, lives in a drybag, and DOES mount on the shoulder strap of the PFD, thank-you, despite a recent post...you need two short bungees...). The HX150S has an optional battery pack which holds alkaline AA cells, replacing the NiCad rechargeables...hence you carry spares like for your flashlight. Both trips, I only used the thing to listen to weather reports, so never needed the spare batteries. Ditto for the GPS...it uses two AA cells.

I agree that geek-gear doesn't replace skills, but you hone your skills as well as your time and inclination allow, then figure out how much gear to add in the circumstances to be safe. Everybody pick a level...one two three go!

I also agree that gear doesn't do any good unless you know how to use it, and are willing to use it. VHF isn't any good unless it is on (I know, didn't I just say that I didn't use it on the long trips?) However, on long trips, we (2 or 3 folks) tended to paddle together. On club trips with lots of folks, we ALWAYS string out a bit, so it is very good to have radios on....the hot-dog in front is precisely the person who needs to be able to hear the "hold-up we got problems" message. Not only does the radio need to be on, but it needs to be somewhere handy - you gotta hear it the first time, even if you are "busy", and you gotta be able to answer in nearly any conditions. The shoulder strap mount is excellent.

While I'm preaching, SOS is a unique message....known by nearly everybody. It is used because the "three of anything means emergency" standard, not because it stands for anything. I bet very few in the club can spell their names in Morse code, but we can all hammer out an SOS on a flashlight.

opinion warning off **/

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My hat's off to Sir Christopher!

He IS a very wise man!!!!

Murphy's law dictates that you should NEVER expect gadgets to be the primary resource to bail you out.

Although I do have and regularly use high tech gear (toys), I personally consider electronic equipment nothing more than items of convenience.

When gadgets fail, and they do, the only reliable resource is YOU.

Unfortunately, for many who have/use them, electronic "toys" provide a false sense of security. They have become short cuts to avoid learning the basics.

Case in point:

Yesterday I witnessed two people with plastic rec boats launching on a nearby lake. No floatation, no spray skirts.

They were proudly wearing pfd's (that's good) and they had an overabundance of safety gear (strobe, VHF radio, paddle floats, GPS, etc.). Although they had all the "stuff" and felt secure, it was glaringly obvious that they didn't have a clue regarding the basics. Take away the "stuff" and they most likely would never have the courage to venture off the beach.

For me, it was a frightening sight.

Although you may have all the "toys" and use them frequently, my feeling is that you should continually hone your personal skills to enable safe passage without reliance on high tech gear.

When things go bad, it's skill, experience and knowledge that count.

The "stuff" is only convenient and helpful supplemental equipment.


Living to learn.

Romany White, Blue trim

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Christopher: Did you skip the first sentence in my post where I said that I agreed with you? (Not that you should care.)

I think it is great that the authorities that you met with were concerned with the spirit, rather than the letter (or more precisely, the three letters) of the regulation. I'm glad to hear it.

But I have no interest in a debate about the relative merits of SOS versus strobe or any other flashing light pattern (Lord save us.) I was merely trying to clarify why the issue came up at all, in case anyone should believe that we really do get caught up in such trivialities. And, truth be told, I was trying to conjure up a modicum of interest in anything at all that has been posted on the message board lately by taking an active role in the discourse. Pathetic as my life is, I actually care to read this board on an almost daily basis, tedious as it may be.

In future, I will endeavor not to again attempt to rise above my station, and will confine myself to "sophomoric intermediate"-type remarks and the occasional ingratiating wheedle for tidbits of wisdom to be flung in my direction from the club's Jedi Masters.

Mark Stephens

Surge, sans VHF, GPS or Strobe Light

P.S. - Yes, I am joking. Sort of.

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