5.2 Summoning outside help

The UK Coastguard exists to safeguard people on the sea around the UK, including sea kayakers. It is a good idea to inform them of your plans before setting out. This can be done:

  • By phone - look up the number of the coastguard station that covers the area

  • By VHF radio, if you have a license

  • Using the new RYA SafeTrx App, which also enables you to register your details

If you tell the Coastguard of your plans, ensure that you inform them once you are off the water.

If something does go wrong, sea kayakers need to be able to summon assistance. A variety of methods are available, summarized in the table below. In practice, it is sensible to have a range of options:

Method Advantages Disadvantages
Mobile Phone Most people already have one and are familiar with its operation. Call 999 and ask for ‘Coastguard’. Typically not waterproof. Poor signal in many sea kayaking areas.
VHF Radio Allows two-way communication with rescue services. Transmission may be picked up by other vessels. Requires at least a basic understanding of radio use and protocols. Handheld VHFs have limited range.
Personal locator beacon (PLB) Simple to use. Satellite communication ensures that transmission will most likely be picked up from any location. Modern units transmit precise location. No two-way communication. Unit has only one use, is still somewhat expensive and needs occasional battery checks.
Rocket flares Red flares are a widely recognised signal of distress Relies on someone seeing the flare and reporting it. Flares are quite dangerous to use. They have a limited lifetime before requiring replacement.

After carrying them for years, I’m recently given up on flares. They’re a pain to keep in date and dispose of, and they can be very dangerous to use. They rely on someone seeing and reporting the flare, and seem to offer no advantages over more modern methods.

I would advise anyone planning their own trips to buy a PLB. They’re small, simple and should work everywhere. VHF radios are useful, but spend your money on a waterproof phone case and a PLB first.

As well as having a means to call for help, kayakers also need to able to pinpoint their location for rescue services, who may be searching a large area. Options include:

Method Advantages Disadvantages
Handheld flares Extremely bright and distinctive, compared to any other method. Produce enough smoke to provide a wind indication to a helicopter. Flares are quite dangerous to use. They have a limited lifetime before requiring replacement.
Smoke flares Provide a wind indication to a helicopter. Useless in the dark. Smoke tends to stay low and disperse in high winds. Somewhat dangerous, but less so than flares.
Lights and strobes Simple and compact - dedicated marine units are available, but some tests have shown that even bike lights can be effective. Not as bright or distinctive as flares. Depend on a waterproof unit with charged batteries.
Laser lights Very compact, capable of producing a bright and distinctive flash if used correctly. Needs to be carefully aimed. Requires charged batteries.
VHF radio Can be used to pinpoint location using direction finding equipment on lifeboats and helicopters. Also enables 2-way communication to describe location. Requires charged batteries. Useful to have some knowledge of radio protocol.
Bright and reflective equipment Simple and easy to achieve. Reflective ‘SOLAS’ tape can be remarkably effective under searchlights at night. Not as distinctive over long ranges as lights. Decent ‘SOLAS’ tape is a little more expensive than alternatives, but much more effective.

I think there’s a stronger argument for handheld flares than rocket flares, but I gave up on carrying these recently in favor of strobes that last a great deal longer, are a lot safer and don’t require regular replacement. If you do ever use a handheld flare, hold it horizontally to reduce the amount of burning material that falls on your hands. Smoke flares have a very narrow range of uses, and I’ve never carried one.

I do carry all of the non-pyrotechnic options in the list above. Having many lights makes sense - they’re compact things. VHF radios are generally useful to have. Buying bright kit and sticking reflective ‘SOLAS’ tape all over your boat and paddles makes a lot of sense.