Sea kayak adventures – attracting attention

93% of RNLI call outs last year were made by leisure craft and London’s Tower RNLI station at Tower Bridge on the Thames, surrounded by pubs and river paths, was the busiest in the UK.

Alcohol and leisure craft is a mixologist’s worst cocktail. Thankfully it seems those with the commercial pressure of training and health of safety adherence seem to be the most responsible.

Cry wolf

One should plan for one’s name never to even be whispered in the RNLI control room. If you unnecessarily ruin some poor lifeguard’s cup of tea too often be prepared for the local pub to go silent when you enter.

The RNLI are volunteers and the use of their service should be restricted to situations where the moment for self help has truly passed. If a sea kayaker is in danger of death, drowning, serious injury or experiencing severe hypothermia the coastguard should be called immediately.

Plans A, B + C

It is important to have multiple methods of communication available in remote areas. Bar being stuck in a cave, it should be possible to attract attention from anywhere in the world with the use of today’s technology. For this reason VHF radio, satellite phone, satellite broadband, mobile phone, EPIRB, flares, smoke, snap lights, torches, whistles and mirrors are all available to the modern kayaker.

Satellite Phone

A Globalstar sat phone is useful on remote islands. On Staffa, the Treshnish Isles, Ulva and even some of the remote parts of Mull such as The Wilderness and the Ardmeanach Peninsula it is sensible to have a satellite phone.

Satellite phones are useful for voice data and texts and are extremely small, lightweight and utterly reliable. I ensure that I have plenty of battery power, spare batteries, a solar phone charger and dry bags for the lot – seawater is incredibly corrosive.

Globalstar works well in all the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Russia and, for Scotland, it offers the quick data transfer and good voice quality. Globalstar also have a wifi terminal point that links your smart phone, pad or laptop to the satellite network.

VHF Radio

The ability to speak with any vessel in the vicinity is a great safety asset to any sea kayaker venturing to wilderness areas.

Kayakers exploring remote areas should however be aware of the limitations of a battery powered VHF marine transceiver. Hand held VHF radios are generally a line of site communication system and from the height of a kayak cockpit the horizon is only about three or four miles away. On the one hand a large swell can greatly reduce the range whilst a ship’s radio mast however is often a few metres higher so the range is often greater in flat seas.

Extended range

A sea kayaker can always climb a coastal hill to gain further height and the local coastguard often place their antennas on a hill extending their reception to twenty miles or so.

Mine is robust, waterproof and has a long battery life. It has a battery life indicator, a power save function and a clever gizmo that ejects water from the speaker grill using low frequency sound. Most crucially for kayaking the radio is submersible however, it is best kept in a dry bag due to the corrosive nature of seawater. The possession of a VHF radio requires training and a certificate. Remember – Channel 16 is only for emergency use. Always carry spare batteries.


If you have to use it the required phraseology is ‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday’. You will need to state the following (don’t shout, it distort sound and inhibits clarity):

  1. How many craft, craft type, how many in the group
  2. Position
  3. Nature of the problem
  4. Intended course of action


The last line of defence for signaling distress at sea after phone or VHF is flares. Flares allow sea kayakers to give a clear signal of distress whilst simultaneously indicating their position to nearby vessels or emergency services to assist.

Parachute rocket flare

The parachute rocket flare is the first flare used to send out a call for help. It fires a high rocket about 300m that burns bright and is held high by a parachute for about 40 seconds. With reasonable visibility this can be seen up 30 miles away.

Nevertheless, it should always be remembered that someone has to be in the vicinity and looking in your direction at that very moment. When far out to sea or in wilderness areas chances of being seen are reduced. I pack three Pains Wessex 40 second red 30,000 candela parachute flares.

Red pinpoint flare

The red pinpoint flare is a hand held flare best used at night but also visible during the day. It burns for about 60 seconds and is used is to indicate your location to emergency services already in your vicinity searching for you. It is not a rocket and must be held high so as to ensure the flare remains as visible as possible to craft in the vicinity. I pack a Pains Wessex 60-second red 15,000 candela hand flare.

Orange smoke flare

This flare is best used during daylight. It can be used as a distress signal in the hope of a nearby vessel but is best and normally used as a location beacon when emergency services are sighted. The smoke flare is normally used after a rocket flare has attracted attention as a distress signal. The smoke flare is useful for rescue helicopters in ascertaining local wind speeds and directions. They can burn for about 60 seconds. I pack a 60-second orange hand smoke.


EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon and this is a reliable way of giving an emergency signal if in remote locations or far out to sea. Modern models cater for the kayaking owner to register craft type so that the RNLI know they are looking for a kayak as opposed to a tanker.

Snap Lights

These are plastic tubes containing chemicals that, when mixed, glow for 12 hours. During night paddles, if strapped to helmets, snap lights are useful in keeping tabs on expedition members and keeping the group close together.

Strobe light

Flashlights / strobe lights make rescue location easier at night and many torches now carry this function.


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