By Reinhard Zollitsch

“Pinheads on the ocean.” That’s what my wife said, when I asked her what my fellow competitors and I looked like, in my first Blackburn Challenge race at Gloucester, Massachusetts. Pinheads! What was Nancy getting at?

But a closer look at her pictures (even with max zoom) made me realize that all of us small boaters really do look like insignificant specks on the horizon, even through high quality 50 mag. binoculars. Pictures of me leaving on any ocean trip also look ridiculously minute, even though I felt I had barely left terra firma and was hugging shore. How is that possible, I thought? I should be more visible in my white 17-foot boat, at least from the side, I felt.  I can see me fine and even shore; there is no fog or haze, so what’s up?

On those rare occasions when I was on shore looking out to sea, it finally dawned on me. Red and green marker buoys, at a distance, look like lobster buoys; sea kayaks, especially white ones, look like cresting or breaking waves, while darker colored boats merge with the water. Only the motion of the paddles and the sun’s brief reflection give away the paddler.

I hear that rescue helicopters have the same problem seeing solo boats from above; they blend so perfectly with their surroundings that they almost completely disappear, as if they had fallen off the edge of the earth. Ask any of your friends who saw you off on a trip, how long they could see you, and you will be surprised how soon you were gone and out of sight.

Small boaters have to be aware of this phenomenon and do something for their safety. When I first noticed on my longer trips that cell phones were not the cure-all of communications problems, my answer was a satellite phone, which has never let me down since. Along most northern shores, cell phones hardly ever work, especially when you have a mountain range between you and the receiver station.

Next to losing contact with the rest of the world, small boaters have to work on improving their low visibility. The problem is not to be able to see better - climbing to the crow’s nest on a tall mast, or having radar, would solve that problem nicely, but unfortunately not for tiny sea kayaks. A new set of auto-focus binoculars does not do the trick either. More important is to make sure you are being seen by others, especially by bigger and faster motorboats, so collisions can be avoided.

Low-tech wiggle stick with orange flag

In recent years I have found two devices which helped in that department, and which should give paddlers a certain degree of peace of mind. The first one is a simple kid’s bicycle wiggle-stick with an orange flag on it. Not that again, I hear some of you moan, but wait, the trick is when and how to use it. I found an easy-to-store two-part stick, which I insert in a stern deck-mounted 3” flange from a local hardware store, only when I paddle in crowded waters and want to be seen by careening jet skiers or power boaters.

Wiggle-stick & radar deflector
Wiggle-stick & radar reflector

I would not suggest it for kayakers going out to practice their roll. In an emergency, though, where a recovery roll is needed, I am sure gravity would take care of the loosely fitting stick and allow it to drop out and be gone - big whoop. Get a new one. But in my 10 years and thousands of ocean miles this situation has never arisen for me. So I have stopped talking and worrying about the problem of doing a recovery roll with that stick still on the boat.

One thing is for sure: a wiggling orange flag on a 6 foot flexible pole adds greatly to a small boater’s visibility at sea. Maybe it doesn’t look very macho, but you get used to it. I’d rather look sissy but live to paddle another day. You’d be surprised to hear how many positive comments my pole received last summer from power boaters and fishermen. It always made me smile.

High-tech radar reflector

My second device to increase the visibility of me in my little boat is my new Luneberg lensatic radar reflector from WEST MARINE (see discussion in Aug. and Sept. ‘05 issues of ACK). It comes in three sizes; the smallest one will give you peace of mind for $ 150, weighing in at 4 lbs., and is just right for us small fry on the ocean. (The #2 reflector is designed for big sailboats at $ 240; #3 is used by our nuclear subs, which by the way have a very low radar signature, for a hefty $ 530 of our tax money.)

Close-up of radar reflector
Close-up of radar reflector

The reflector screws into a deck-mounted flange (which comes with the kit) and can thus be removed when not needed. However, since it is so small (like 3 tennis balls in a white plastic cloverleaf enclosure), and light (like a 2 liter coke or water bottle), I leave it on my touring boat all the time. Most boats with radar have it turned on at all times also, not just in pea soup fog. It is never in the way on my stern deck, and would not hinder a sea kayaker doing a roll.

Sure, any radar reflector would be better if it were mounted on a tall pole or sailboat mast, but since that cannot be had, it is definitely better than nothing at all, and also far better than any device that hampers your paddling like a “radar hat” or reflective ponchos, and those foldable but awfully clunky aluminum spheric balls.

Visibility for your own safety

Having paddled down the Hudson River to New York City in May/June 2005 and on along the shores of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts to Boston (see ACK, Oct. 2005), I encountered more boat traffic than I was used to in Maine or in Canadian Maritime waters. And I must say, I felt perfectly safe, comfortable and peaceful with my two new visibility enhancers. Maybe you should try something similar for similarly crowded waters, on a voluntary basis, I mean, before states and the Coast Guard demand something more awkward, expensive, and permanently mounted.

These past two summers were the end of my “zero-zero-visbi” days, as weather stations love to say about zero visibility. Rain or shine, I am a tad more visible now, and if someone still does not see me, I am oh so quick in my evasive maneuvers and reach for that mighty air horn by my side to give those ear-piercing five short blasts:


© Reinhard Zollitsch