I looked forward to Chrisís Cunninghamís April 2007 editorial. He wrote some time ago about his own experience with a close-at-hand item that if hadnít been there, he surly would have wished it was. This of course, is the basic premise with respect to at least certain selected item of safety gear.
Excuse me if I come across as somewhat passionate about safety gear. Iíve been involved with Canadian Coast Guard/ combined military rescues at sea over three decades of paddling, in situations where personal floatation, day and night visibility, signaling and communication ability have saved lives. My priorities with a PFD include wearing the PFD in the first place. Obvious? You would be surprised at some of the rationale paddlers have for not wearing one, but I will always defer to a personís freedom of choice.
Also obvious is making sure the biggest item in the PFD, namely the actual paddler is dressed for immersion and up to the physical demands of the trip or outing and operating within appropriate skill levels -- and that a known mental inventory with respect to navigation, topography, sea state variability and egress points is realized. There should be a backup plan for every decision carried through. This has to come first, before safety gear considerations. Iíd also highly suggest paddles research or even take the time to enroll in a VHF radio protocol course if offered (often club organized), hypothermia workshops, preliminary lifeguard training (which always include first aid training), and take part in a wilderness survival course. At least consider these options.
What an individual paddler includes within the context of carried PFD items is highly personal and can be subject to where the paddling takes place and often local paddling community ethics. Both risk assessment and the corresponding gear carried is hopefully informed by objective thinking. There are inexperienced paddlers who carry an abundance of gear who have given no consideration to the matters mentioned above, and conversely, expedition paddlers who carry a minimum of gear -- often including SOF aficionados. And there are examples of advanced expedition paddlers who have had to rely on their safety gear. It is also true that intermediate paddlers often carry only a few rudimentary items that probably should be augmented, just as there are advanced paddlers who carry a fair bit of safety and survival gear on their PFD. There are no absolutes; only individual choice and hopefully common sense.
Having given up on wearing a PFD myself in exchange for the freedom of an approved inflatable vest, some of my own safety and survival gear resides in two add-on pockets attached to the sides of the main belt and a modified upper back pocket. Some items are individually tethered inside the pockets, none long enough to reach beyond chest level. While the tethered out-of-production SeaSeat in the rear pocket that facilitates increased survival time at sea is of no relevance to this discussion given it is no longer in production, if you do become separated from your kayak, you ought to place some serious thought into how you are going to summon help and survive until that help arrives. Even along remote coastline with no immediate safety net, corridors of marine travel and aviation routes may exist. Suffering the immediate consequences of poor judgment is also within the framework of personal freedom.
I also run a quick- releasable tether off my vestís belt to the kayak that can be attached if I so wish. My main priority if I do bail out in bad seas, is how good are my real-world, cold-water re-entry skills, and will I have the dexterity to re-enter effectively. To that end, I carry a redundant neoprene hood and gloves in one of the pockets, along with a one-hand release rescue knife in a specialized, flapped compartment. In the other pocket I carry 3 small aerial flares wrapped in plastic, a smoke flare, signal mirror, diverís flashlight, fire-starting apparatus and a VHF radio. Know the local VHF chat channel and have the radio set to high output. On the back of my vest is a strobe light that has an additional bottom-mounted flashlight, the latter a redundancy. A ball-free whistle is attached to the front zipper, as is a small one-hand opening, redundant rescue knife. All items are rescue-tested in actual sea conditions, both for accessibility, plausibility of use, and must not hinder demonstrable re-entry methods.
I could replace the emergency SeaSeat cushion in the back of my vest with an actual hydration bladder which is what the pouch was designed for, but having used the survival seat in a real emergency; its worth is invaluable to me. More relevant to a possible boat-less, vest/PFD worn, land-based survival scenario, would be the inclusion of a tightly-packed, item-rich wilderness survival kit as some paddlers like to carry. But my kayak in my lifeline, so most other survival gear is stored onboard or accessible from the cockpit. Knowledge of local and destination small boating regulations as pertains to safety gear is also advisable. If possible, try to carry some of these items in or on your PFD. There are gear vests that can be worn over a more featureless PFD. Again, safety gear doesnít make you safe.
After careful consideration from internet discussion groups and the on-line forum and editorial content from Chris, Iíve added an identification tag to my vest and ordered a rescue streamer, which seems to be a little more specific than my old orange garbage bag, and can be used for other activities. Additionally, especially now that marine-use regulatory decisions regarding personal locators have been ironed out, Iíll be shopping for a compact model before resuming expedition paddling. I will have to downsize my bulky VHF radio to make room.