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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 machine.

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 subject:

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 job.

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 pocket.

*   *   *

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 reserved.

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