The Things We Carry
Sound Off and Light Up!
Signals That Work for Us
By Tamia Nelson
April 22, 2003
It's easy for canoeists and kayakers to get
lost in the landscape. That's one of the attractions of paddling. Jet-skis
and bass-boats shout, "Hey, everybody, look at me!" But canoes and kayaks
only whisper. I like that. It's one of the reasons I paddle across the
water, rather than drive. Still, there are times when the quietest boater
needs to grab folks' attention. It can even make the difference between
life and death.
How do you amplify your whisper to a shout? Technology has some
answers, of course, though it's not necessarily the answer. Cell
phones are great for staying in touch, but there's always the problem of
keeping them working underway. After all, insuring that electronic gear
stays dry in the perpetual damp of a small boat is one of life's more
interesting challenges. And you can't phone home from everywhere. Even in
crowded New York State there are places where cell phone coverage is
spotty to nonexistent. More importantly, your cell phone won't help you
alert an unseen trawler to your presence in a coastal fog, nor can you
count on being able to dial up lock-keepers and tugboat captains. If you
often venture out onto commercial waterways or busy harbors, it's good to
have a marine VHF transceiver in your pack.
On the other hand, if all your paddling is done on beaver ponds and
whitewater rivers, you probably won't want a radio. Then again, you never
can tell when you may need to get someone's attention, can you? That's why
Farwell and I never leave home without a few inexpensive signaling tools.
Some are required by state navigation law or the International Regulations
for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (mercifully abbreviated to
COLREGS, AKA "The Rules
of the Road"), but that's not why we bring them along. We carry them
because they might someday save our lives.
It's not a high-tech selection. First, there's a
Whistle. Remember Rose in Titanic, adrift in
the icy North Atlantic? She owed her life to a whistle. Shouting is hard
work, and fear, exhaustion, or cold can quickly reduce your bellow to a
bleat. As long as there's breath in your body, however, you can blow a
whistle. The resulting blast can be pretty penetrating, too. It won't
reach the bridge of an Ultra-Large Crude Carrier, but it's almost certain
to get the attention of a nearby buddy. It might even wake up a jet-ski
jockey whose eyes have wandered from the water in front of his speeding
A whistle may not look like much, to be sure, but that's no reason to
settle for whatever turns up in your next box of Cracker Jacks. Shopping
for a whistle isn't as easy as it seems. First, there's the Big Question:
To pea or not to pea.
OK. I know. That isn't quite what Hamlet said. But it's an important
question nonetheless. Whistle users are divided into two warring camps:
the pea and the no-pea. I'm not going to take sides, but if your chosen
whistle has a little bead rattling around in it (this is the "pea"), at
least make sure it's made of something waterproof. If it isn't, and if you
ever wet your whistle, it'll lose its voice in a hurry. Not good.
How can you know that your pea is proof against damp? Simple. Soak your
whistle, in fresh water or salt, for ten minutes or more. Then take it out
of the water, shake it, and blow. If you don't hear a shattering blast,
you need to shop for a new whistle.
I'll come clean. My favorite whistle is made of bright orange plastic,
with a bona fide waterproof plastic pea. It's attached to the zipper of my
PFD with a clevis pin. Since I always wear my PFD when I'm on the water, I
always have my whistle. If I ever hit an iceberg, I'm ready. Farwell, on
the other hand, opted years ago for an Acme City, a sleek, no-pea whistle
that was once the pride of the London Metropolitan Police, back in the
days when the most lethal weapon on the average bobby's belt was a 14-inch
truncheon. Today the truncheon's been replaced by a Heckler & Koch MP5,
but The Acme remains. It's made of nickle-plated brass, with a distinctive
"police whistle" tone. Farwell worries about corrosion, so he rinses it
off in fresh water after each salt-water outing. With no more care than
this, it's never let him down.
Whatever noisemaker you choose, don't forget that we paddlers
are the Silent Service among recreational boaters. A single trip with a
compulsive whistle-blower will convince you that whistles are best
reserved for emergencies and essential communication. I know of one group
whose whistle-happy leader became such a pest that his companions
mutinied, stealing his toy and crushing the pea to dust with needle-nose
pliers. Blessed relief! Silence reigned throughout the rest of the trip.
So much for sounding off. Now let's shed a little light on another dark
Flashlights. The COLREGS require that all "sailing
vessels of less than 7 meters in length" and any "vessel under oars,"
operating between sunset and sunrise or under conditions of "restricted
visibility," carry "ready to hand an electric torch or lighted lantern
showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to
prevent collision." This may require some translation. An "electric torch"
is a flashlight, and a canoe or kayak under sail is a "sailing vessel."
But is a kayak or canoe a "vessel under oars" when paddled? Beats me. I'll
leave the question to the admiralty lawyers. In any case, neither Farwell
nor I will venture afloat without a flashlight. Day or night, our ACR
Firefly Pluses come along on all our trips. The Firefly is a clever
and completely waterproof combination of flashlight and emergency
strobe, and it's no bigger than a stick of deodorant. Is it the only
choice for paddlers? No. The LED revolution has widened the field
enormously. Our Fireflies have served us well in the past, though. We'll
keep on using them till they can't do the job any longer.
A couple of cautions are in order here. The Firefly is both
attention-getting flashlight and emergency strobe. The word "emergency" is
important: if you have a strobe, save it for use as a distress signal. Use
a flashlight to show other boaters where you are "in
sufficient time to prevent collision." (But don't shine a light in
their eyes!) And never use your boat flashlight for camp chores. If you
do, your flashlight may go dim just when you need it most. The remedy is
simple. Use another light in camp, and always keep fresh batteries in your
boat flashlight. Then, when you really need a light to get the attention
of another boater, your flashlight is sure to shine bright.
End of story? Not quite. The Firefly's strobe is hard to ignore. But
strobes aren't authorized as distress signals under the International
Rules of the Road. While the Inland Rules explicitly recognize
"high-intensity white light[s] flashing at regular intervals from 50 to 70
times a minute" as indicating "distress [or] need of assistance," the
International Rules do not. (See Annex IV to the COLREGS.) If you
regularly travel in waters governed by the International Rules, therefore,
don't depend solely on a strobe to attract help.
Good things come in threes, they say, and both Farwell and I are
reluctant to trust entirely to battery-powered light signals. That's why
each of us also carries a
Signal Mirror. After all, the best strobe in the
world won't work with dead batteries, will it? And someday we may want to
attract the attention of a search plane in daylight. That's when we'll
waggle our signal mirrors and hope for the best. My mirror comes along
anyway. It's the sighting mirror on my Silva
Ranger compass. Farwell's compass isn't so obliging, but he has an old
military signal mirror with a handy central peep sight. My compass mirror
has no hole in the middle, but this doesn't really matter. Both do the
Be warned: signaling with a mirror isn't as easy as you might imagine.
If you think you'll ever need to use one, get some practice beforehand.
First, face the sun. You can't use a signal mirror with the sun behind
you. Hold the mirror close to your eye with your right hand
southpaws will need to reverse these directions, of course being
sure to point the reflective surface away from you. (You're not fixing
your makeup, after all!) Next, extend your left arm while making a
thumbs-up gesture with the left hand. Your thumb is your pointer. Place it
on the target. Now angle the mirror so that the reflected light just
illuminates the tip of your thumb. Finally, wiggle the mirror a bit. And
pray. A signal mirror isn't exactly in the same league with an EPIRB. It's
cheap and waterproof, though, and it takes up a lot less room in your
* * *
Is that all? It depends. Flares are a must for sea kayakers and other
boaters planning long open-water crossings, though I wouldn't bother with
them on most small lakes and rivers. And if you're really going to spend
time at the edge of the world, you'll probably want the whole panoply of
electronic emergency communications gear, including an EPIRB and a
satellite phone. That's a lot to haul in to the local beaver pond,
however. Most paddlers will content themselves with much less, or at least
satisfy their gadget lust with the sort of catalog offering that caught my
eye the other day. Described as "the ultimate survival tool," it looks a
bit like the result of an unsanctioned union between R2D2 and a TV
remote-control unit. Whatever its pedigree, it offers the discriminating
gear-head an unbeatable package of must-have items, including a "digital
computer module" with a compass, altimeter, barometer, watch, thermometer,
and (of course) low-battery indicator. And that's not all. There's also an
"implement pod" housing a "cutting blade," two screwdrivers, a saw, a pair
of scissors, and perhaps most important of all can and
bottle openers, not to mention a corkscrew. A signal mirror, survival
whistle, flashlight, and secret compartment complete the picture. The
price? Only $239.99 (tax and shipping not included).
I'm sure you'll agree that no outdoorswoman can afford to be without
this marvel. For now, though, I'll stick to what I have. My whistle,
flashlight, and mirror may not boast a single low-battery indicator
between them, but they've done everything I've asked of them for years.
Under most conditions they're all I need to sound off and light up. That's
good enough for me.
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights