The ocean environment can be extremely challenging. The noise from the wind and the crashing waves can drown out many sounds. The distance you are from your paddling partners can also make verbal communication impossible. I have been in rolling seas where I lost sight of my partner when he or she were on the other side of the wave.
There are many methods one can use to signal or interact with the rest of the group or the outside world. In our present electronic age we have cell phones, short distance walkie talkie's, VHF radios, emergency locating devices, and signal lights. We can also use flares, smoke, whistles, dyes, horns, ribbons, signal flags, mirrors, paddles, our arms and hands.
Regardless of the method of communication you choose to use, you need to know if the person receiving the message knows what you are sending. There needs to be a common understanding of the signals and messages. You also need to know how effective (or ineffective) some of the above communication methods are in the real world.
I remember a windy return trip from a compass run off of Martha's Vineyard. I asked two of the folks at the tail end of the group to capsize and signal the front of the group for assistance. We were going into a head wind. The two in the water only had whistles. They didn't even try shouting because they knew the paddlers in front were too far away. However, their amazement was apparent when the group did not hear their whistles. The distance was about 200 yards.
We had to send a paddler ahead to get closer to the group so they could hear a whistle. Due to the wind, those in front never heard the initial whistles. The fact that none of the lead group never turned around on regular basis to check on those behind is a discussion topic for another time. I often tell groups to test their whistles on calm days and windy days to see how far the whistle carries with and against the wind.
Since good flare demonstrations are difficult and tedious to arrange, many paddlers have never seen or tested the effectiveness of their flares, especially in the day light. That is one of the reasons we took the time to include a comprehensive flare demo in our Rescue Procedures Video (Volume 2). Just having communication devices along does not mean you can communicate. You can be that falling tree in the forest. If no one hears you, did you make a sound? Do you know what information to give over the radio if you make contact?
I urge you to test your communication devices and methods in many different conditions to see which ones work and which ones don't. Remember, don't test flares because if they are seen you are sending out a false alarm and rescue agencies may respond. Any time a rescue agency responds, the personnel are put at risk and they are not available to help others in real need. If you wish to test flares, contact your local agencies and see if they have a way you can test your flares in a controlled setting. Keep in mind that anyone can see a flare when they are close to it. Can you see the flare a mile or more away?
The message in this month's reflection is not to discuss the accepted protocols and methods of communication because each device needs to be discussed. My goal is to have you think about, test and review your present communication methods and capabilities before you need them. I have included some basic Paddle & Arm Signals as the August 2003 skill of the month. Also check the signaling page in the USK library. The only way you know if something works is to try it out. Also, the more you practice a skill the greater chance you have of performing it properly in an emergency.
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