Hit the water this summer, but paddle safely

— Created August 5, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

The Coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on a lot of activities, but Whidbey Islanders, like outdoor lovers across the country, have found plenty of ways to enjoy nature and water, in particular. But with increased activity, comes increased risk.

Sales of kayaks, canoes and stand up paddleboards have skyrocketed – many stores are having trouble keeping them in stock. Local experts offer some words of caution to go along with such a purchase, especially for novice paddling enthusiasts.

“There has definitely been an increase in interest in the sport, but also in people looking to purchase,” said Krista Loercher, owner of Whidbey Island Kayaking in Langley, which offers classes as well as tours and half-day adventures. “We don’t sell boats or gear, but we keep in touch with retailers and they are all seeing an increase. New inventory is pretty much out until the end of August, even until the fall.

 “On one hand, it’s terrific – people are getting gear at a low cost, but nobody is helping to make sure people are buying the right craft for what they want to do,” she continued. “I think by seeing kayaks and paddleboards in that mass merchandise environment, people think it must be safe, that it must be the right equipment for here. But that’s not necessarily the case.”

Loercher said there is a lot of equipment floating around out there that might be more appropriate for warmer, calmer waters. So perhaps a good first safety tip would be to know what kind of equipment one has and where it is meant to be used.

It’s also essential to learn how to use equipment safely. Whidbey Island Kayaking offers classes that can teach first-time users how to enjoy their time on the water safely. Or, if people are just pulling gear out of their garage after a long hiatus, a refresher might not be a bad idea.

“If someone has just bought something or if it’s a piece of equipment that’s been in the garage for five years and it hasn’t been used in a while, one of my suggestions is to play around with it close to shore,” said Loercher. “Deliberately fall off of it, make sure you can get back on while you’re in water that won’t be over your head. Make sure everything is working. Always test your gear before you really take it out. Make sure you know how every part works and that you know how to get back into it or onto it.”

On Whidbey Island, paddlers have choices. There are several lakes on the island where people can enjoy themselves and there is, obviously the lure of the Sound. While lakes may be a bit warmer, the water in the Sound is cold, and that can be dangerous.

William Walker is an outdoor and paddlesport enthusiast and retired owner of Ruby Creek Boathouse, which did paddlesports distribution and events. Safety has always been at the forefront of his water adventures.

“I’ve been on and around the water in the Puget Sound area since I was a little kid,” he told Whidbey Weekly via email. “Swimming, boating and fishing were my life as a youngster. I learned solid safety practices from my parents’ examples. As an adult, after 20-some years in ‘regular’ jobs, I returned to my first love at a couple of paddle shops in the Seattle area. For the next ten years I was able to pass the love – and the safety lessons – on to tons of paddlers as they found new adventures. I have friends who have died on the water, and their memory still motivates me to keep the message going even though I’m retired.”

Walker said it concerns him to see large numbers of paddlers on the water who may not be aware of basic safety measures.

“It’s extremely concerning and we see tragic results around Whidbey almost every year, even among ‘experienced’ boaters whose good luck just runs out,” he said.

There are many things beginning and experienced paddlers alike should do every time they take to the water to make sure they get back to shore safely.

“Wear a lifejacket – know how cold the water is and what it feels like to fall in and how you’ll get out if that happens,” said Walker. “Know your craft, what it will do, how to make it do that, and what it won’t do. Let someone on shore know where you’re going and when to expect you back. Bring reliable, waterproof communication. Know the area you’re paddling, including tides, currents, weather forecast, and how each affects the conditions you’re paddling in.”

“Whether people have their own crafts or are renting from somewhere, know the basic boating safety rules,” Loercher agreed. “Also wear your lifejackets – it needs to be on you to work. And always have some means of communication. At the very least, have a whistle on your lifejacket so if you’re in trouble you can communicate with a boat going by.”

Loercher warned just because there’s a good weather forecast, it doesn’t mean it’s a good forecast for paddling.

“You’ve got to check the wind,” she said. “It’s extremely important, especially around here and the north part of the island. I think a lot of people who get into trouble don’t check the weather. Looking for whether it’s going to be sunny and what the air temperature is isn’t good enough – wind is probably the most important part because it can impact paddlers.”

A healthy respect for Mother Nature, especially around Puget Sound, and exercising caution on the water does not necessarily guarantee safety for paddlers – regardless of experience – but it can help.

“Boating and cold water and swift current and big winds are not inherently deadly,” Walker said. “Treated with respect and preparation, all those things are a joyful way to enjoy the outdoors.”

Loercher said her company offers several classes – many of which are available online – to help keep people safe. They also offer short-term rentals as well as guided tours, which are a good way to check out the sport of kayaking.

“Do a tour with a guide,” she encouraged. “It’s a great way introduce people to it. They might find they like it, they might find they don’t. We consider it an honor and a pleasure to introduce people to kayaking for the first time.”

Walker said he understands the reasons people find paddlesports appealing.

“Freedom. Magic. Solitude. Nature. And this year, it’s a sport that takes us away from COVID concerns without worrying about social distancing,” he said. “All those things, plus knowing that as soon as I leave the shore, I’m in another world. A place where hurries and schedules and deadlines don’t exist (unless you count tides and currents, which are on schedules that wait for nobody).”

 Find more information on classes, rentals, tours and reservations online at whidbeyislandkayaking.com. Washington State Parks also offers information and safety tips on paddlesports at parks.state.wa.us/832/Paddlesports. To read more detailed safety tips on Walker’s former Ruby Creek Boathouse blog, find it at http://rubycreekboathouse.blogspot.com/2014/06/water-safety-know-and-prepare-for-risks.html.

“It’s such honor and privilege to share this island and its wonderful water – from the lakes, to the bays, to the sound with people,” Loercher said. “I am passionate about anything that gets people on, and in, the water safely.”