Why We Use Safety Equipment

DIY plans for kayaks, canoes and other small boats

Why We Use Safety Equipment

Wearing a life jacket

Dive into any kayaking or canoeing corner of Facebook or Reddit, and you’re bound to stumble upon a lively debate about strapping on a life jacket (or PFD or BA, whatever floats your boat) at some point. It’s like clockwork—someone shares a pic from a recent paddle, and boom! The safety enthusiasts swoop in, deeming the lack of a lifejacket a cardinal sin in the paddling world.

But let’s be real, these attempts to be the conduct police don’t exactly turn us into aquatic superheroes. Instead, they trigger heated arguments about what defines responsible behavior. Come on, it’s a personal call, right? The safety vibe at your backyard pool isn’t the same as swimming au naturel in the Amazon post-piranha sighting. A picture might not tell us the full story.

Whether it’s debates about dry suits, paddling solo, or the art of the roll, the discussion’s core is always about the circumstances. Who cares what safety shenanigans we’re talking about? It’s all about the where, when, and how.

Now, picture this: I’m up the river from a popular state park, and every spring, there’s that magical warm day coaxing folks onto the water for a delightful kayak paddle. Bliss, right? Well, not so much when many decide life jackets are just a fashion faux pas. Ask them why, and you’ll likely hear, “They’re uncomfortable,” or “I won’t be taking a swim.”

Sure, Connecticut says kayakers should don PFDs from October through May, but that’s a mere technicality. Now, let’s talk safety gear, shall we?

I’ve been paddling for over 45 years, all conditions, sometimes solo, sometimes with paddling pals. I rock a life jacket not because it’s the law but because, hey, accidents happen. I don’t wear it when I sense doom; I wear it because doom doesn’t schedule appointments.

In all my years, my life jacket hasn’t played superhero or made rescues a cakewalk. It’s just ridiculously easy to wear. Between launch, lunch, and landing, I forget it’s there, except when I need something from its pockets. Maybe a couple of days a year, my rash-guard feels the sweat, but that’s the grand sum of its inconvenience.

Wearing a life jacket is my choice. We all have the right to assess our risk, but debating its necessity based on launch conditions misses the point—it’s for the curveballs we didn’t see coming.

Life jackets are for when I goof up, make a mistake, or have a lapse in judgment. It’s for the unexpected—weather changes, paddle mishaps, or the occasional heart plot twist. I wear it because I know I’m fallible, and it’s too darn easy not to.

Enter the unexpected. Safety gear is our escape plan for those curveballs life throws at us. Bad stuff doesn’t clock in on a schedule. Sometimes, you know you’re risking a capsize, like playing in wild surf or rocking a dry suit in freezing winds. But the times a helmet saved my day? Mostly post-kayak, navigating slippery rocks on shore. Who’d have thought?

Accidents and mistakes? Let’s consult the dictionary. Accidents are the surprises you didn’t see coming; mistakes are unintentional oopsies. So why do we justify skipping safety measures just because it’s not part of the day’s agenda? Nobody plans a kayak separation crisis, but it might happen.

Weather’s nice, water’s warm—you might skip the dry suit. With solid judgment, you might never truly NEED one. It’s about when safety gear makes sense, not just the weather forecast. Capsize near shore, and a life jacket might seem optional. Now picture being far from civilization with conditions hindering your cozy recovery. Suddenly, that life jacket becomes a VIP.

Storm surge hit my river last week. My dock played the “lift and never drop” game. I nudged it with my canoe, a mere foot away, in three feet of water. Life jacket on—I didn’t expect to need it. The dock, heavy and airborne, could have sent me splash-landing. I didn’t want that, so on went the PFD.

Judgment calls—we make them all the time. Driving to the launch? Loaded with potential chaos. Kayaking is risky, no “safe” way around it. But we go anyway, deciding if it’s a good day and what precautions to take. Check the conditions, predict what might go down, and admit accidents and mistakes are part of the game. Weigh the risks, prep accordingly. Safety isn’t free. Sure, a Coast Guard escort might be safer, but it doesn’t scream adventure. A life jacket might not be runway-ready, but it sure makes floating a breeze.

Our judgment should recognize we can’t foresee everything, we’re not perfect, sometimes we’re just plain silly, and nature loves a good surprise. The goal? Head back to the launch, convinced all the worrying was a wild water ride of its own.