It shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose. Few paddlers live within walking distance of a waterway, and fewer still are content to paddle the same waters day in and day out. So we end up transporting our boats to distant places. For most of us, that means mounting a roof rack on a car. And racks have come a long way from the ten‑dollar, auto‑supply store contraptions and bracket‑and‑two‑by‑four improvisations that were the norm when I was starting out. Today's racks are highly engineered systems, painstakingly designed to fit the complex curves and gutterless roofs of modern cars — or intended to supplement the often inadequate factory‑installed racks. This engineering doesn't come cheap, of course. Modern racks are pricey things, and the towers and bars that underpin their structure are only a down payment. Once cradles, rollers, and stackers are added to the reckoning, the total cost can sometimes exceed the price of a boat. Even if you avoid the fancier options, you're talking serious money.
This hefty tariff hasn't escaped the attention of would‑be pirates, who've discovered that stolen racks will fetch almost as much as stolen boats. And paddlers, in turn, have responded by fitting locks to their racks' towers. The logic behind this is simple: Lock your boat to your rack and your rack to your car. Problem solved, right? Well…er…no. Unfortunately. As Florida paddler Julie discovered:
I just finished reading ["There be Pirates"] and wanted to comment because my locked Yakima racks and kayak holders were stolen from my car in my driveway. Thieves just used pry bars and then skipped away into the night. I discovered this at 5 a.m. while standing there with the kayak on my shoulder, wondering, "What's wrong with this picture?" Spitting mad I was! That was a year ago.
The police were less than enthusiastic about recovery because identification can be a problem. With so many of us having the same equipment, what makes yours different from mine? One thing that can be done is to remove the end caps, then insert into the bars an address label or other identifying information. This should be done on both ends, on all pieces, just in case one is discovered and removed and the thieves are not as diligent as they could be. Also, the ID cards could be inserted more deeply so that removal is more difficult. Bicycles also can be identified in this way. In fact, I learned this tip when my son was engaged in BMX motocross.
I never recovered my stolen property, but I now remove my replacement racks all the time. Such a killjoy experience, but necessary. It takes a while to replace everything, and then one is constantly installing and removing the rack whenever one wishes to go out. … But it's necessary, and it is exercise. I can't believe the number of times I was asked if my equipment was locked, by honest folks. Locks prevent honest people from stealing, but they only slow down thieves.
Taken aback by Julie's letter, I did a little searching online and quickly turned up a depressing number of reports from folks who've had racks and fittings stolen from their vehicles. Fairings, saddles, stackers, gunwale brackets… The list goes on and on and on. And where do these thefts take place? Just about everywhere: put‑in and take‑out parking areas, the asphalt deserts around HyperMarts, even — as Julie's experience attests — in the paddlers' own driveways. Some boaters have had thieves steal racks from cars in locked garages.
Which brings me to Julie's main point: No lock will stop a determined thief. All it will do is slow him (or her) down. But there's some good news, too. That's often all you need to do. Pirates are pros. They play the odds. They prefer easy pickings to hard, and they like to work fast. So if your anti‑piracy measures look like being more than a mild nuisance, the pros will often look elsewhere. I'm reminded of the old story about escaping from the jaws of a hungry lion. You don't have to run faster than the lion. You just have to be quicker than the slowest of your companions. What's the connection? Lions aren't fussy about where their next meal comes from, and professional thieves don't care whose gear they walk off with. That being the case, why encourage them to take yours?
Moreover, a lot of land‑rats aren't pros at all. They're just opportunists. They'll steal something if it's offered to them on a plate, but they're not tooled up for serious snaffling. So prevention here boils down to…
Keeping Honest Folks Honest
And that's not too hard. It's mostly common sense. Don't leave your rack on the car when it's not in use. Remove it and store it someplace safe. (Removing the rack will also improve your gas mileage.) Then, when you're on the road with your boat(s), be sure to lock your rack to your vehicle, in addition to using a cable lock to secure your paddlecraft to the rack. But don't depend on any lock for much longer than it takes to buy a cup of java or pay for a tank of gas.
Put‑in and take‑out parking areas are much more problematic. Often isolated and seldom patrolled, they're made to order for both vandals and thieves. A little local knowledge goes a long way here, so any time spent talking to other paddlers and nearby outfitters is always well spent. Web searches can be productive, too. In low‑risk spots with a lot of recreational traffic, it may be enough to remove your rack and lock it in the trunk while you're on the water. At the other end of the spectrum, however, in places where casual theft is part of the local culture and vandals are ready to destroy whatever they can't steal, the only real solution is to park your car somewhere safer and arrange to be dropped off and picked up. Many outfitters now offer this service, and it's worth asking about.
In any event, don't do what this paddler did: