Safety is always a compromise. It is not possible to be on the water without taking a risk. On the other hand, the risks might be low, or seen as low enough. There are risks all around you, crossing a street for example, or living in a house, all are associated with some risks (rescue picture from wikimedia).
So the question is not how to make your kayaking safe, but how to make your kayaking safe enough according to your own requirements. The requirements will vary not only by how you judge a risk, or what level of risk you consider acceptable, but also with what level you currently are at with your kayaking.
If air temperature is good, water temperature is good, and your physical shape is good, then a starting point might be as simple as staying on relatively shallow water, without wind or waves, or with light enough wind and waves directed towards a beach that is easy to get up to, and being together with someone who can both paddle kayak and swim.
But weather is shifting, water depth is shifting, paddling can be tireing, and unexpected things tend to happen over the course of time. So if you are to paddle kayak more regularly, a higher level of safety is advised. Kayak accidents are not very usual, but every year also experienced kayakers die from things happening that was not considered to be probable or dangerous enough to guard against, or not likely enough to outweigh the joy of paddling kayak.
It is not possible to make a complete ladder over safety thinking, but below is some general safety advise:
- Get accustomed to the water of the current temperature and wave height, and respect the power of natural elements. This is an essential step, for without that you may easily misjudge the risk.
- Judge the situation from your own situation, not from the view of others. A person who swims better and longer takes less risks in a kayak which is a distance from the shore than a person who can not swim.
- Improve your chances with the standard basic safety features. A personal floating device is a good safety measure even if you can swim, also if you believe your clothing already adds to your flotation capability.
- Be prepared for something to happen. Judge the risk based on what the consequence is if something happens, as well as the risk that it happens. You might be a good paddler and the risk of you loosing balance might be very slim, but if the water is cold and you are far from shore and/or warm houses, the consequence of not dressing for the water temperature might be enormous would something happen.
- Avoid being on your own, but also avoid putting your safety in the hands of persons at a similar skill level as yours. (If their skill is better than yours, and you skill level is passed, they will have a margin before also their skill level is passed, and thus may be able to help you). If you are on the same skill level, and you are challenging that level, then you need to weigh the risk that they might not be able to offer help in the situation..
- Avoid exhausting yourself if you are not in a situation where it will be safe to fall in if you are exhausted.
- Learn to swim. The kayak is on the water, and even if you are not on the ocean, swimming ability is a very good safety measure.
- Judge where you paddle and in what situations you paddle based on your own abilities (either for kayaking or for swimming). If you make judgement based on others abilities, be sure that they both will have a margin would you need them as well as that they would be there for you at all.
- Dress for the circumstances. The two most important dress rules is to dress for the temperature in the water, and use a personal flotation device.
- Learn to paddle forward, and learn to make turns using the sweep.
With the above safety measures, a beginner can paddle a kayak without being very good at it, if it is done in the right place and time and company. Paddling is a joy, safety thinking should add to the joy and experience, not be so high that it hinders it.
- Learn and test the limit for your abilities. If you know your limits, you can also judge your margins, and you will be better at deciding what is and is not good ideas
- Learn to get back into the kayak using assisted kayak rescue in an environment so harsh that you are likely to risk falling out of the kayak, or limit your paddling to either:
- Situations where you do not need to get back in the kayak
- Even an unlucky change of weather during the trip will not pass the level at which you know you can get back into the kayak and continue paddling (this is after some experience likely to be calmer weather than the weather where you risk falling into the water).
- If your paddling companions are at a similar skill level to your own, rather than better, then extend the above advice on assisted kayak rescue (where your friends will be able to turn, get back to you, bend down and help with your kayak, help you get seated, and then start paddling again) to also own and carry a paddle float, and being able to do the paddle float rescue.
- Improve your stamina and flexibility, the less tired you are, the better you will perform both in and outside the kayak. The more limber you are, the easier you can keep the balance and do the techniques. If you are stretching yourself to the level of tired, try to do it where you can safely and easily get back on dry land.
- Learn to paddle backwards, this provides bot a stop of the kayak, as well as being able to turn and paddle in more crowded environments
With the above measures added to the basics, you do not yet rely on not falling into the water, you rely on being able to continue even efter such an event has occured, unlikely or not.
Warning: Would you be at the level where you actually fall into the water not due to a mishap, but due to being close to your level, then you risk getting into a bad circle. After falling in, you might be a little more tense, being more tense, you are more likely to fall into the water. Falling into the water and getting back up again is more tireing than paddling, so you risk falling more easily into the water, and having more difficulty of getting up again.
- Learn to do the low brace, and the low brace turn. The low brace is the easiest brace to learn, and the biggest extension of your stability from just paddling. It allows you to be in higher waves and being able to keep, or retain, balance in waves and wind. The low brace turn does the same thing, but while changing direction of your kayak, not least with the waves coming from behind.
- Learn to tow a kayak and carry a towing line, and paddle with people who are as good as you and know how to tow and carry a towing line. The need to tow is quite unusual. So unusual that it can be argued it does not fit here. But, if the need arises, there is a good chance that there is no other alternative solutions. The need could be for example an injured paddler or a kayak that has turned over and is flushed onto the rocks and need to be towed out in order to do a rescue.
- If you do not have a rudder, learn to use the skeg.
With this, we are now focusing more on staying stable in the kayak even with winds and waves. We are also focusing on getting where we want in other ways than using the sweep, thus being able to get on right course in worse conditions with less effort. The very first website I found with tips on paddling techniques shows a number of paddling techniques like bracing with animations.
- Go from using the low brace to doing what I call "useful bracing". That is, stop doing low braces and low brace turns too often, and change them into paddling forward as a way to increase stability while still getting where you want.
- Learn to do the sculling draw to move the kayak sideways. The sculling draw is as much a good exercise in kayak balance, as well as paddle behaviour, as well as in sitting correctly in the kayak. With practice of this sculling draw follows better balance, better understanding and feel for the paddle, plus the ability to get or stay close to where you want to be in an easy way.
- Learn to do the bow rudder, as well as improving the low brace turn into a stern rudder. Especially the bow rudder, which can be changed further into a midship turn, is a good practice in stability, while at the same time being a way to turn quicker, as way as being a turn that works better when turning from sidewinds up towards the wind than other turns.
All above improves your kayak paddling skills. None of them are needed, all of them are useful and a way to improve your handling of the kayak as well as balance in the kayak. But we have reached a point where there are people paddling kayak a lot that not really learn these techniques, so they are passed the basics.
- Learn to do the high brace. It is a good way to handle high waves, and it is a good way to stay upright even if a low brace will not save you.
- Learn to link draws, that is: learn to keep the paddle in the water while shifting it from doing for example a bow rudder, a forward paddling stroke and a pushing brace turn. This will help you manouver where space is scarce, as well as improve your feel for the paddle.
- Learn to do the re-entry and roll. It is for times when you can not make the eskimo roll, but with the help of a flotation device on the paddle can get back into an upright kayak.
- Learn to do the eskimo roll. This is the way to get safely back up in bad conditions. This safety technique will work in conditions where assisted kayak rescue and paddle float rescue are tough or impossible.
From here follows just more practice and more combinations. The above is passed what many kayakers ever learn. With that follows that it is only needed if you are pushing the limits upwards. On the other hand, it is also increased safety and increased joy if you like that kind of skills.