The time change has me thinking about how the days are getting shorter and the temperatures cooler. For many paddlers, the kayaking season is over. But it doesn’t have to be, at least not here in the Pacific Northwest. For many, the reason is the temperature, which is a problem that’s been solved. There is a huge variety of gear available and articles on how to find the right gear for you. The other reason people stop paddling in the winter is the lack of daylight. So I thought I’d share some tips for ein kleines Nachtpaddel (a little night paddle). What? No Mozart fans here?
Danger: Real and Imagined
There are real dangers paddling at night. It is harder to be seen and to see your surroundings. There are times it is difficult to understand what you are looking at and for some, it is harder to balance. It can be easy to get lost in familiar waterways when your reference points disappear in darkness. A single white light could be an anchored boat or a porch light on shore. It is difficult to figure out how far away a light is without anything else to reference. There are also fewer boats on the water, so if you do need assistance the nearest help may be quite some distance away.
For many people, the biggest hurdle is the imagined danger. People do not like the dark, or more accurately what is hiding in the dark. We fill our cities and homes with light. The first few times paddling at night can be a bit nerve-wracking. We are out of our comfort zone in the dark and this triggers our fight or flight response. Since we can’t see well our brains start paying very close attention to what we are hearing. Even the sound of wavelets splashing against the kayak can become concerning. Without visual evidence that it is just water, it is possible for our amygdala to hijack our brain and suddenly we are sure that there is a monster touching the kayak.
First Night Paddles
For your first night paddles, I recommend that you go with a group of other paddlers. There is safety in numbers, having someone who has kayaked at night before is a plus, but not required. I would recommend a short paddle in familiar waters. Your goal isn’t to cover distance but to become accustomed to being in your kayak in the dark. So paddling a short way into the dark and then just hanging out is a perfectly acceptable way to do it.
When I take people out who have never paddled at night, I often launch from a local marina. The launch area is well-lit but just outside the breakwater, it is pretty dark. The knowledge that there is light just a few paddle strokes away helps keep anxiety to a minimum. After some practice, you should feel less anxious. You now know what to expect when paddling in the dark.
The Legally Mandated Equipment
When preparing to paddle a kayak at night, in addition to everything you are required to have during the day, you must have a white light. It’s the law. Here’s what Homeland Security and the Coast Guard say: A vessel under oars (they mean paddles too) may exhibit the lights for a sailboat. If it does not, it shall have ready at hand an electric torch (flashlight) or lighted lantern showing a white light that shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision. So to be legal all you need is a flashlight or lantern.
If you do need to let another boat know you are there you should shine the flashlight or lantern so it illuminates your kayak. This way the person operating the other boat can see it. If after a reasonable time, they haven’t seen you then, if using a flashlight you should briefly point it at the approaching boat and back to your deck a couple of times. If you are using a lantern you should wave it above your head. Your object here is to be seen, not to ruin the night vision of the approaching boat’s pilot.
Above and Beyond
I keep a waterproof flashlight tethered to my PFD so I am always legal to paddle at night. I also have a Luci Light on the tail of my kayak when I paddle at night. This provides a 360-degree white light. The light is only blocked by the paddler, so it is visible to any boat approaching from abeam or astern. I also bring a headlamp that I use when I am preparing to land or occasionally if I need to see something on my deck. Finally, I carry a personal strobe attached to my PFD. Much of our gear has reflective piping and panels, and all of the decals on our NC Kayaks are reflective.
This additional lighting helps keep us safe. A ferry boat Captain thanked us for being well-lit and visible. A boat came up behind us one night when paddling back to Blake Island. We didn’t see or hear it, but because of the lights on our kayaks, they did see us.
Into the Dark
- Be safe.
- Paddle a well-lit kayak.
- Don’t let your amygdala hijack your brain.
Just those three things, and you can paddle into the dark and enjoy ein kleines Nachtpaddel.