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How To Not Become a Speedbump

by Dan Lewis

When I get in my little kayak and head off into the great beyond, I am rarely alone. I find myself in the company of powerboats, from runabouts to water taxis, to huge fish farm freighters. Trying not to get run over becomes a prime goal.

There is one simple way to avoid getting run over - stay close to shore! Usually the water is shallow there, so boats would run aground before they could hit a kayak. Even if it's deep, most power boaters don't go too fast when they're five feet or less from shore. Ten feet from shore, in deep water - yes. I've seen local boaters who know the area like the back of their hand zoom through deep, confined channels at full bore, scattering kayakers and seabirds alike.

So when I say stay close to shore, I mean really hug the shore. This is the place you'll see the most - it's the place where sea, sky, and land meet. You can relax, let the rhythm of paddling lull you into an alpha state, shift into your right brain, let your mind run wild, and think hard about a lot of things.

Kayakers are not really popular with powerboaters where I live - they call us "speed-bumps". No wonder - we show up every summer in hordes like clockwork, and then paddle about as if we're in la-la land, like a bunch of people on holiday. And it really annoys some people who are just trying to make a living driving a boat in order that they, too, can take off somewhere else and act like a tourist!

I know, when I started paddling, it was to get away from rules, regulations, all that stuff. I was in a little world of my own, out in my own canoe, so to speak. And that kind of approach works just fine, if you always paddle within 5 feet of shore.

Of course, there comes a time when you want to leave the shore - maybe you're late for the ferry or work, or you want to cross to that island over there. And that is fine. I would urge you, at those times, to be concious of why you are leaving shore, and to choose the style of travel which is most appropriate. As soon as you leave shore, wake up, snap out of la-la land, and conduct yourself as if you were skipper of a vessel on the sea - because you are!

Another style of travel is "point-to-point". This is used when you realize that you've been paddling all day, and are only one mile from your last campsite.

Point-to-point travel keeps you relatively close to shore, but you can cover a bit more distance. Basically, when you get to the entrance of a bay, head for the point on the far side. If you're travelling in an area with tidal currents of 2-3 knots, and the tide is going with you, it can be advantageous to skirt along the edge of the channel, rather than going deep into every bay and thus fighting against the back eddies you'll find there.

Travelling point-to-point, you do need to keep an eye out for traffic. Because you're on a line connecting the two points of a bay, you are essentially still hugging the edge of the channel or coast from the perspective of a power boater, and thus will still be out of their way, especially the larger vessels such as cruise ships and freighters. The main thing to watch for is boats leaving the bay you're crossing - especially if there's a marina or village at the head of the bay.

Sometimes you'll find you have to use a third style of travel, which is a "crossing". All things being equal, it's usually best to make all crossings as short as possible, by travelling on a straight line between the two closest points. If there is boat traffic, cross perpendicular to the flow of traffic. Big boats in the distance will arrive much faster than you would think - wait and let them pass. It's hard for power boaters to avoid something they can't see, and by some ancient law of the sea, kayakers are invisible - at least it's safest to assume so - no matter how brightly colored our gear. (Editor's note: a cyclist's flag can be easily mounted on your kayak to aid in visibility.)

The final style is offshore travel, that is, cruising right down the channel as if you were a mighty vessel, with all the rights and responsibilities of a BC Ferry. This is your right, but if you're going to do it, be aware of other boaters, and learn the 'rules of the road'. Stay out of shipping lanes, which are marked on charts.

Most boats tend to drive like cars do in North America - pass to the right of oncoming vessels. Try to stay on the right side of the channel. Watch out for boats bigger than you, and assume they haven't seen you. Use your VHF radio to hail other skippers on Channel 16 if you're uncertain (the emergency channel so keep it brief). And make the responsibility for not getting run over yours.

One final note on boating etiquette - when boats are getting close, make eye contact with the driver, then nod or wave. There's a certain style when waving to boat drivers - watch how they return your wave and you'll catch on. Do not wave your hand back and forth over your head, as if someone is fixing to die - unless someone is! Just raise your hand up beside your face, and do a little back-and-forth motion, from the wrist. If the skipper returns your wave, chances are she or he has actually seen you, and realizes that you're awake and aware of them, too. Anxiety is decreased; and both parties sigh in relief.

First published in WaveLength Magazine, Apr/May 2000.