Coastal Conversations Radio Program: Boating Safety in the Time of COVID-19

Special Coastal Conversations report as part of Maine Currents show on WERU
May 5, 2020

Maine Currents Show: May 5, 2020
WERU 89.9 in Blue Hill and 99.9 in Bangor
Host: Natalie Springuel, Maine Sea Grant

Listen to the show on WERU archivesaudio frequency icon

On May 5th, 2020, WERU’s Amy Brown hosted a conversation with several WERU public affairs broadcasters who shared updates from their show topics. Springuel, Maine Sea Grant’s Coastal Conversations host, covered “Boating Safety in the Time of COVID-19,” with thanks to the Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors for helping assemble this report. Below is the report transcript.

Report Transcript

Today, I wanted to share some information about how to boat safely during the pandemic.

Governor Mills’ “Stay Healthy at Home Mandate” lists “outdoor exercise activities” as an Essential Personal Activity, as long as it’s carried out in compliance with social gathering restrictions and social distancing guidelines. But how does that impact small self-propelled boats like sea kayaks, lake kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and canoes?

With the arrival of spring, we are seeing more and more boats on roof racks of cars headed to local launch sites at lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and along the ocean. If you are looking to hit the water, can you do so safely in a time of pandemic? The answer is not necessarily the same for everyone, and that has to do with your skill level, your gear, and your paddling partners.

The Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors recommends that you ask yourself five basic questions before you head out. We’ll walk through these in detail and I’ll share insights gleaned from conversations with multiple Maine guides. We’ll look at special boating safety considerations during the pandemic on top of regular boating safety protocols that you should use at any time, and especially in the spring, before the waters warm up.

So here is the list of question from MASKGI, (that’s The Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors, shortened to MASKGI).

  1. First, do you have proper clothing and gear?

The air may be starting to warm up but remember that no matter where you go, the water is still very cold. Do you have proper clothing for falling into the water and possibly being stuck there for a while?

The Maine guide’s specifically say: With spring time ocean temperatures barely above 40°F, the minimum required is a drysuit with fleece or wool layers underneath, neoprene booties, a warm hat and gloves or pogies (which are like mittens that attach to the paddle).

Not a lot of recreational boaters have this gear, so maybe consider lakes and ponds instead of the ocean, but even lakes and ponds are still cold. No matter where you intend to go, a safe boating adage that bears repeating over and over: dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.

And of course, you should always wear your life jacket. Because a lifejacket stowed snug in your boat does nothing for you when you need it.

  1. Ok, second question. Do you paddle with a partner?

For everyone but the most advanced boaters, standard safety protocol is to NOT paddle solo. But paddling with others raises all kinds of social distancing questions.

If your companions are from your household, you are likely ok but if your favorite paddling buddy is not your family member, how will you keep safe?

Can you get your boat on and off your car without getting too close? Is all your gear your own?  Or do you normally borrow gear that you will need to disinfect before you head out? Are you ok skipping the social raft-up? That’s when multiple kayaks or canoes create a platform on the water by sliding in close and holding onto each other’s boats for extra stability. Great trick to help someone feel stable while they add a layer or get something out of a bag, but simply not possible with social distancing.

So the recommendation here is to mentally walk through every step of your regular paddling excursions and ask yourself if you can easily do each activity six feet away from your companions.

  1. Which leads us to question three: Do you have solid self-rescue skills?

The importance of this once can’t be over-emphasized. If you need someone to rescue you, you can’t social distance.

So, if you can’t perform an eskimo roll or successfully re-right your own boat, re-enter it, and empty the water out quickly, you should carefully consider where and if you paddle right now.

Master Maine Guide, Karen Francoeur of Castine Kayak adds that the only kayak that can be easily re-entered from the water is one with sealed compartments in the front and back that keep the water out. So if your kayak or canoe isn’t equipped with floatation it will be almost impossible to get back into it from the water.

All that said, even if you have a properly outfitted boat and even if you have perfected the skills for reliable self-rescue in flat water calm conditions, remember that it is only just May 4th. The water is still very cold. And dexterity loss is rapid in cold temperatures.

So consider waiting to hit the ocean for a few more weeks and for now, maybe your best bet is to paddle lakes and ponds and keep closer to shore than might otherwise.

  1. Ok, on to question four. What communication devices do you bring? And do you know how to use them?

Consider that cell reception on the outer islands and backwoods of Maine is inconsistent. VHF marine radio calls are only as good as those who receive them and only work if you carry this technology with you to begin with.

And perhaps more important, communication starts even before the trips gets going. Pandemic or not: Always, always leave a float plan. Tell someone where you are going, who is going with you, when you will be back, and when they should trigger a rescue if you have not returned.

  1. Which brings us back to the rescue question again, just from another angle. So MASKGI’s 5th question to help you identify if you can safely paddle during the pandemic is: Are you confident in your ability to choose appropriate conditions and not deliberately get into a rescue scenario?

We all know the weather changes quickly in Maine, and weather changes affect the wind. On land, a wind shift might go unnoticed, but on the water, even a small change in wind speed or direction could signal the difference between a relaxing flatwater outing and a white-knuckle race to get back to safety.

Did you listen to the appropriate weather forecast for your region (if you head to sea, the marine forecast is more useful than the land-based one)? Do you know the tide level and how it will impact the currents along your route? Are you able to watch for signs of changing weather patterns while you are out?

The reality is that changes in the weather are often an important factor in unexpected rescue situations.

Unfortunately, rescue situations that require outside help could take rescuers and medical professionals away from other needs. It also puts rescuers, including coast guard personnel, game wardens, local search and rescue teams and others who either want to help or are required to do so by law, at risk.

Rescuing people in water situations means physically helping them get out of the water and moved to safety. You can’t not touch them. Face masks are critical, but they can only go so far in emergency situations where wind, waves and water are involved.

The simple fact is, it’s impossible to guarantee social distancing when performing rescues. Let that reality guide your decisions about if, when, and where to go boating during the pandemic. 

We just walked through the five questions that the Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors recommends you ask yourself before you launch your boat, with added insights from conversations with multiple Maine guides. Ultimately, only you can decide for yourself if you should hit the waters this spring, and hopefully these self-assessment questions can help you think through your decisions. You can access these questions and other resources at the MASKGI website, and we’ll also link them from the Maine Sea Grant Coastal Conversations page.

Listen to the show on WERU archives 

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