by Bill Mauney

Communication before launching – The group leader needs to make sure everyone thoroughly understands the following:

  • The destination and course to steer (check all compasses for deviation and make sure they all agree)
  • Rendezvous plans
  • Possible alternative routes
  • Escape routes
  • The ”lead” paddler and his responsibilities
  • The “sweep” paddler and his responsibilities
  • The “rover” paddler and his responsibilities (if the group is large)
  • Who your paddling partner is and your responsibility for him.
  • Audible and visual signals for communication among paddlers
  • Any prearranged special signals for this trip
  • Channel(s) to communicate on for those carrying radios
  • Emergency procedures

Tips for maintaining visual and audible contact with each other

  • Never paddle directly behind your paddling partner in his blind spot.
  • In high winds, paddle in a group echelon formation offset 30 degrees to windward.  (Example: If the group is paddling due North and the wind is blowing out of the East in a Westerly direction, the leader would be the paddler furthest downwind (or to the west), the next paddler would be to his right (East) to the side and rear, followed by all other paddlers in the same relative position.  The sweep would be the furthest to the East and the last paddler)  This allows paddlers to low brace into the waves in order to be able look over their right shoulder and watch or communicate with each other.  The leader and sweep and look straight along the line of paddlers, thus seeing all paddlers at once.


Visual Signals – The American Whitewater Association

  • STOP – Hold your paddle over your head horizontally and pump up and down as if doing a press in weightlifting.
  • All Clear – Hold the paddle vertical with the blade facing those you are communicating with.  If the preferred course is straight ahead, keep the paddle vertical.  To signal the direction of a preferred course other than straight ahead, lower the paddle from the “All Clear” vertical position by 45 degrees toward the preferred course.  NEVER point the paddle towards a hazard.
  • Help – The person in need of emergency assistance raises his paddle vertically with the blade facing flat towards those he is communicating with for maximum visibility. The paddle is waved 45 degrees to one side and then 45 degrees to the other side, continuing to wave back and forth until assistance arrives. This visual signal can be combined with an audible signal of three long blasts on a whistle at regular intervals.
  • I’m OK – If you are OK and not hurt, pat yourself on the top of your head repeatedly while extending your elbow outward toward the side.

Audible Signals – Whistle or air horn

  • ONE BLAST – Look at me!!! Notice me!!! This can be a warning to other boat traffic or a signal for your paddling partners to look at you.
  • TWO BLASTS – Conference, wait up, let’s get together.
  • THREE BLASTS – HELP! Emergency assistance is needed from anyone close by. During the day, this audible signal can be combined with the paddle visual signal for help described above. At night, substitute the paddle signal with three flashs from your flashlight at regular intervals.

Radio Communications

Marine VHF Radio

  • If you carry a Marine VHF radio, you must follow the Federal Communications Commission’s rules.
  • You are not required to obtain an FCC license to operate a standard Marine VHF radio, but you are required to follow the FCC protocol and etiquette for proper radio use.
  • If the radio is on board, you must continuously monitor channel 16, the hailing and emergency channel, or alternatively channel 9, the boaters’ calling channel when not transmitting or receiving on other channels.  All kayakers in your group carrying VHF radios should agree on which of those two channels they will monitor.
  • Hailing another kayaker or vessel is done on either channel 16 or 9, then quickly switch to another authorized channel to carry on your conversation. The rules and channel options are discussed in detail on the FCC and USCG websites below.
  • Distress Call Procedures
    1. Make sure radio is on
    2. Select Channel 16
    3. Press/Hold the transmit button
    4. Clearly say: MAYDAY. MAYDAY. MAYDAY.
    5. Also give:
      • Vessel Name and/or Description
      • Position and/or Location
      • Nature of Emergency
      • Number of People on Board
      • Release transmit button
      • Wait for 10 seconds – If no response Repeat “MAYDAY” Call.
  • False Distress Alerts – It is unlawful to intentionally transmit a false distress alert, or to unintentionally transmit a false distress alert without taking steps to cancel that alert.
  • For further information:
  • Family Radio Service – FRS “walkie-talkie” type radios work well among a group of paddlers.  No license is required.  Be sure to carry your radio in a waterproof dry bag designed for electronics, if it is not a submersible unit.
  • Radio communication is an ideal way to communicate on the water, but visual and audible signals do not require batteries and are simple to send and to receive.

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