"What do I need to be seen, heard and found?"

By Wayne Horodowich

Signaling is one of the many synonyms for communication. There are many different reasons for needing to signal someone. Your goal in signaling is communicating and idea and/or attracting attention. When you cannot use your voice and the listener cannot hear you without some aide then you will need a signaling device or method in order to communicate your needs or concerns.

Hand/Arm Signals

Paddle Signals

Paddle & Arm Signals (with pictures)

Signaling/Location Devices

"My Signal Kit"

Regardless of the manner in which you signal it should be simple, clear, visible and effective. Keep in mind there are few, if any, internationally recognized signals. Three repeated signals is usually understood to be an emergency. Hand signals and paddle signals (the methods often used by sea kayakers) are not universal. Therefore, you need to agree upon the signals you will use with your paddling partners before you get on the water and review them often.

Having paddled in a variety of conditions, leading groups in diverse locations and experiencing many challenging situations I ask you to consider the following when planning your signaling strategies.
-Hand signals are OK for close quarters (fingers get too small as you move apart.)
-Arm/hand signals are more effective but can you do the signals in rough conditions if you need to be using your paddle for bracing (be cautious of signals needing both hands and arms.)
-Audio signals get lost or confused in: the surf zone, active rock gardens, caves and windy days.
-When using paddle signals pay attention to the contrast of your background and color of your paddle blade and the feathering angle. It is difficult to see the edge of a paddle. Can your signals be seen in a dark cave?

-Side to side &/or up and down movements are recommended. Circular movements are seen as side to side movements in the distance and front to back movements are usually not seen at all.
-When scouting for the group have a designated "must check in signal" in an agreed upon time. If the signal is not received in the designated time then help will be sent. The type of help should be discussed too prior to the situation.

Hand/Arm Signals - Visit the web site of "The Tsunami Rangers" a group known to many because of the challenging conditions in which they paddle. Their team paddling concept makes wonderful use of hand/arm signals.

The most common hand signal I use is the O.K. sign. It is the same one most recognized by Scuba organizations. My arm goes out to the side and my hand goes up and over to touch my head with my fingers pointing down towards my head. This signal can be used as a question or a response. The circumstance will be obvious if it is a question or a response.

Paddle Signals - I have been using and promoting some paddle signals that have been used for many years by river paddlers. Some of them seem very intuitive so they are easily understood. Some need to be explained. These signals are usually used on tours to direct the course and speed of the group and when standing on shore helping to land others through the surf.

Go - Paddle held vertical (Go forward to the designated location)
Stop - Paddle held horizontal (Stop your momentum)
Back Paddle/Slow Down- Paddle held horizontal with ends moving up & down alternately (slow down if used while touring, paddle backwards when in surf zone)
Paddle to right or left - Paddle pointing upward to the right or left

Emergency/Gather-up - Paddle pointing upward and moving from side to side. The speed of the wave changes from emergency (fast wave) to gather-up (slow wave).

An example of some of these signals are shown on the SBKA signal page or the USK paddle/arm signal page.

Signaling/Location Devices - Lets review some pros and cons of the different signaling devices available to sea kayakers. Here is a quick view of some of the devices mentioned below. It is worth your while to visit the U.S. Coast Guard web site for signaling requirements and safety recommendations. Here are some organizations that have approval ratings for signaling devices: SOLAS, USCG, CCG There is a full daytime and nighttime demonstration of flares in our video which is worth seeing. We filmed the flares from on water and from shore to view effectiveness.

Hand Held Smoke Flares - They can be used day and night. The glow is good for night and the smoke that comes off of the flare leaves a nice smoke trail back to the point of origin for daytime visibility. Keep in mind that orange smoke is seen better than white smoke on a sea of whitecaps. However, if you are holding a flare while seated in your kayak there is a limited viewing distance due to the curvature of the earth. The higher the signal device is above the water the farther it can possibly be seen.
Smoke Canisters - Daytime use only.
Aerial Flares (small hand held) - Great for evening use. Can be seen over a greater distance. Daytime use is questionable. Flares with seven-second burn times are truly limited. The recoil of some of the smaller flares during discharge were painful to the user which was a concern during our demonstrations.
Parachute Aerial Flares - Good daytime and nighttime visibility. The smoke trail seen during the daytime is quite effective. Very user friendly with no recoil to the user. The ones we used had a one-minute burn time and went 1,000 feet into the sky. The down side is the cost per flare. At over $40 per flare I wonder how many people will actually carry these flares. We highly recommend them for expeditions and major crossings.
Flare Guns - Good nighttime visibility and fair daytime visibility. It is easy to load and use. Great directional control and no recoil pain when firing. Extra shells take up less space.
Whistles - I used to believe whistles would carry farther than I have found out. Being down wind and at the rear of the group on a windy day I was surprised the front of the group couldn't readily hear me at 200 yards away. I always have a whistle in my PFD. I chose one without the pea inside. The Fox 40 is still my whistle of choice.
Horns - Horns can be very effective "IF" they work. My experience with the canned air horns have not been good. They have not been reliable for kayaking and they are difficult to store in small places. We at USK do not consider them for kayaking purposes.
Mirrors - A signal mirror can attract attention if the sun, mirror, and viewer are in the correct locations. Practice their use with friends before you need to use it. The mirror is also nice to have along for other purposes on a trip.
Lights - All paddlecraft need to have a light when traveling at night. I keep a small waterproof light I can place on my deck for night travel. The light is to make you visible to other vessels. Head lamps are also good for night travel. Glow sticks are a good back up in case of battery failure.
Strobes - Strobe lights are a nice emergency signal device to have attached to your PFD at night. I know a number of paddlers who have theirs attached at all times. Some of the new PFD's have attachment points on the back for strobe lights so the strobe is not in the way on the chest. However, be sure you can reach the strobe to turn it on. Only turn the strobe on when you need help.
Reflective Tape - If you need to be seen reflective tape on equipment will do the trick if a light shines on it at night. Search vessels scanning the waters with their lights get immediate flashback from reflective tape. Many of the new PFD's, paddle jackets and selective equipment are manufactured with the tape included. You can also add your own tape. Check with your local kayak shop and marine supplier.
Flags & Ribbons - If you need to enhance your visibility due to poor contrast with the environment then orange rescue flags can help. My kayak deck is dark blue so I carry a flag in my rescue kit to lay over my deck for greater visibility when I am upright. Rescue ribbons are long tails that float on the surface which can add to the target when trailed off of the kayak.
Dye Markers - This is another device used to make the target larger and therefore easier to see by searching planes. Often used by pilots that have ditched in the sea. More effective if seen from above.
VHF Radios - Two way communication to the rescue agencies. Also, great for gathering information from other vessels and keeping abreast of the marine weather forecast. Some models are expensive. Must keep the battery charged and have extra batteries on long trips.
Cell Phones -
Easy two way communication if it is kept in a reliable waterproof case. Very effective off of most US coastlines due to the proliferation of transmitters. I was impressed by the rescue that occurred on the ocean out from the Golden Gate where a windsurfer personally directed the rescue helicopter to his location with his cell phone.
EPIRB's - These are emergency rescue beacons that transmit off of satellites. Used for expedition purposes.
GPS - Not a signaling device but can provide you with your exact location (longitude and latitude) to give to the rescue agencies if you have a radio or cell phone.

As a reminder, please treat all incendiary devices with respect and dispose of them properly. DO NOT shoot them off as a disposal method. Contact you nearest fire department station and ask how to dispose of them. Many fire stations will take the expired flares from you.

There are a number of locations in which to find these devices. A visit to your local marine supply store is our first recommendation so you can talk to one of the store employees and see and touch the devices you will be looking to purchase. Here are a few online resources to help you in your research.

Orion, Pains Wessex, West Marine

My Signal Kit - One of the questions I ask while getting ready for an outing on the water is "what will I need to be seen, heard and found if I were to have an emergency on this trip?" After shooting off a variety of flares for our instructional video I feel very confident in the following devices being with me when I am kayaking.

2 hand held smoke flares for daytime use (Pains Wessex Pinpoint Hand flares)
Pistol style aerial flare gun with at least 5 shells (Orion 12 gauge plastic flare gun)
Signal Mirror (Came with Orion Kit)
Second Whistle(Came with Orion Kit)
Signal Flag (Came with Orion Kit)
Strobe & glow sticks
Waterproof Flashlight (Tekna Light purchased in Scuba diving store)

All of theses items are kept in zip lock plastic bags so they do not get wet. Then they are stored in a mesh bag so I can see what I am reaching for in an emergency. Due to the size of the bag I keep it behind my seat. In a capsize I know I have to maintain contact with my kayak in order to have access to my signal kit. Therefore, I have trained myself to NEVER lose contact with my kayak.

There are many kayakers that believe one should always have some flares in there PFD at all times in case they get separated form their kayak. I also know some kayakers have a bail out bag that gets attached to them when the conditions get rough (a fanny pack is good for this.)

I was never comfortable keeping those three little pencil flares in my PFD pocket. Even though I never heard of any premature flare discharges in a PFD vest pocket I didn't like the idea of having three mini-rockets right under my nose. Seeing the daytime "ineffectiveness" of those same flares convinced me a wide variety of signaling devices will be needed if I want to be seen, heard and found. Therefore, the size of my signal kit prohibits me from storing it in my PFD. As mentioned above, if you train yourself to keep in contact with your kayak you will have access to your signal kit if you keep it in or near the cockpit.

The above kit is my baseline. I add to it as I see fit. The farther off shore I travel and the more remote the location the more flares I will carry. If it is an expedition style trip then parachute flares make it into my kit.

As for electronic devices, I will carry a waterproof VHF radio (in a waterproof pouch) so I can listen to the marine weather forecast and more importantly communicate with others as needed. A GPS unit is a nice option if you have to give an exact location to rescue agencies. Once they have the exact longitude and latitude they will enter the coordinates into their onboard computers (if so equipped) and head directly to your given location.

List taken from USK video "Capsize Recoveries & Rescue Procedures"

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