Paddling Etiquette

Disclaimer: The following Blog Entry was written for the May 2003 SMSKN Newsletter and is re-presented here for fun and good information!

2002 The Starter Guide to Essential Paddling Etiquette

7 Rules for Paddling Alone or in Groups

 By Berry Manter

Anyone who knows me knows I am not a poster child for standards of etiquette. My manners are marginal even when I am making considerable effort. I find it therefore curious that I have volunteered to write an article on “Paddling Etiquette” for you. However, there is something about being on the ocean in a very small boat that garners my rapt attention, utmost respect and a strong deference to protocol.

Etiquette began as a system of uniformly practiced social behaviors by which members of a community might better communicate their intent to care for one another, to convey their regard and concern for others in the manner they would like others to do for them. This is, perhaps, an expanded practice of the classic “Golden Rule.” And, as with all good ideas over time, commonsense and decency evolved into a competitive one-upmanship of intricately absurd rituals intended to separate those of superior social wheat from us bumbling chaffs. I have been taught that the proper gentlemen walks on the street side of the female he is escorting. This chivalrous gesture, I am told, was to protect his lady friend from the flung contents of a chamber pot, which in 14th-century Europe tended to land away from the building, a practice not commonly encountered in recent times.

If we must somehow come to believe that there are commonsense rules of the road for daily life then there must be the same for paddling our sea kayaks. Such rules would enable us to look after one another as we ourselves would want to be looked after and we could call these rules “Paddling Etiquette.” It is important to be safe and look out for one another on the water and we should consider ourselves better paddlers for adhering to such habits.

Here is my offering of seven rules for paddling both alone or as a group that will not only save our lives, but better endear us to our fellow paddlers, other boaters, Mother Nature and even our chosen attorney should some unforeseen calamity occur.

1) The Group Rule: If you chose to participate as part of a group of paddlers with a common destination, function as if the whole group were a singular unit. The level of the trip concedes to the level of the least experienced paddler, such that everyone leaves and arrives as a group and that no one is left stranded or left behind during the paddle. Nor should the group tolerate the usual “bolters,” those who feel obliged to demonstrate their paddling prowess and impatience by leaving the group behind. Consider such behavior rude, unless agreed upon in advance by one and all that the group should safely splinter.

2) The Safety Procedures Rule: It should be known by all in advance of setting off just what safety devices are available among the group members and what safety procedures (i.e., rescue skills) will be conducted in the event of a member in distress. Do you know where you are going? Has anyone checked a tide schedule or brought the correct charts? Itis valuable to establish the level of skills required prior to departure and decisions made as to whether the intended trip is an appropriate venture for everyone interested in participating.

3) The Proper Attire Required Rule: Though not in tuxedoes or ties, the correctly attired kayaker is enhancing the safety of others as well as themselves. I have seen folks show up in shorts and sandals for ocean trips when neoprene or a drysuit is by far the prudent choice. I have seen inexperienced kayakers tuck their PFD’s under their bungies as if the extra bulk interfered with their fashion statement, yet what could be more lovely than the safely attired kayaker?

4) The Tell Someone Who Loves You Rule, also referred to as a float plan, to be left with someone, ANYONE, who is willing to check their watch or calendar in the event you do not return. This rule politely takes into account that most of us have family or friends who would be bereft if we were swallowed up by the sea.

5) The Rule of Tonnage: This aptly translates into “you are in the littlest dang boat on the whole ocean and don’t forget it.” Kayaks are like bugs in the grass and it is up to the kayaker to know who is coming and how to stay out of their way. It is important to know where shipping lanes are and where working or recreational boat traffic will tend to be heavy. It is considerate to communicate one’s location and intended travel via VHF to other larger vessels if you are at any risk to encounter their massive hulls. It is to the advantage of the kayak with its shallow draught to travel where other boats cannot and therefore it is also safest to keep to these areas when reasonable to reach your destination.

6) The Leave No Trace Rule: Essentially no different than your mother telling you to pick up after yourself, “pleeeeze,” (and don’t make a mess to begin with, dear). Carry in, carry out–everything. Learn to do the “Crap Wrap.”

7) The Don’t Annoy the Wildlife Rule: There is something utterly annoying to Mainers about the disruptive noisy summer tourists with camcorders trespassing and “discovering” our neighborhoods, so we should practice discretion when visiting the native habitat of seals, nesting birds, and rafts of Eider ducks. If your presence causes a creature to flee you have entered into their personal space and this is considered most impolite and may also endanger their lives.

So, you have by now caught the drift of this idea of etiquette-on-the-water and collectively we might begin to expand upon this meager starter list. Offer to stabilize someone’s kayak while they secure their spray skirt. Bring treats to share during an island stopover. Help hoist other folks’ boats to the rack of their car. Courtesy comes from thinking of how we would like to be treated and extending that to those around us, whether they be kayakers, lobstermen, ship captains, Coast Guard Search and Rescue or seals and ducks. Taking care of one another’s safety and comfort makes us better paddlers in a way that is perhaps more important than the correctness of our strokes or variety of rolls we have mastered. How unlikely, you might think, to be hearing all this from me.

Author: Bill Ridlon

It’s 5:30 on Thursday, June 29th. I’ve rushed home from work, put the boat on top of the truck, grabbed the kayaking gear, and headed the few miles to Willard Beach. I’m the fi rst one here but others soon appear. Bob arrives, Ray drives up, Lyn shows up just down the beach, and Barbara comes in last, but with plenty of time to make the 6:00 PM launch.

Shortly, we’re ready to head out. But wait. There are two others that have arrived and plan to join us so we paddle out a few hundred feet and wait. Finally, we’re a concentrated group with all paddlers off the beach and we start across the channel to House Island. It appears that the two paddlers that arrived last don’t have a lot of experience with Level 2 paddles. They have trouble with the chop and they begin to fall behind the main group. No matter, it gives us an opportunity to practice keeping a disparate group together.

After crossing the channel, we stop on the little island in Whitehead Passage to make clothing adjustments. Ray offers to return with the two paddlers that are having some difficulty. They decline his invitation. So… we continue through Whitehead Passage and out around Cushing Island, passing between Cushing and Ram Islands. Out here, we experience the Atlantic swells, which are great fun if you’re prepared and experienced, not so much fun if you’re not. Three of the experienced paddlers head off towards Fort Williams and Portland Headlight while Ray and I stay back with the two slower paddlers, Andy and Samantha. Ray is paddling with Andy and I’m keeping watch over Samantha as we travel slower, and slower, and slower.

Suddenly I hear, “Bill?” It’s Samantha. I paddle over to her to find out what’s on her mind.


“I think I’m getting seasick.”

Well, this should be a challenge. I give Samantha the standard warning to not lean over her boat to vomit. She follows my advice and lets the ocean wash everything away. Quite quickly it becomes clear that Samantha will be going nowhere, other than possibly out to sea, without some help. I clip Sabino Moon 3 my towrope onto her bow and we start making a little progress.

Eventually, our little pod of 4 paddlers arrives in Ship Cove at Fort Williams and we join the rest of our group. We manage to get Samantha and Andy onto the shore and Andy wisely chooses to walk back to Willard Beach to collect his car while Samantha settles her stomach.

Our remaining group floats in the cove for awhile, listening to the Portland Symphony orchestra. We also paddle here and there around the cove, playing tag with the mosquitoes.

It begins to get dark so we put our lights onto the boats. The concert draws to a close. Some of us paddle closer to where we think the fi reworks will be launched. Suddenly, the first one is fired! Then the second, the third, fourth, fifth, and many more without a break in between. It’s quick, probably less than 2 minutes. But, seeing fi reworks erupt directly above you makes it all worthwhile. Seeing them from that perspective makes the word spectacular seem too tame for the experience.

The paddle back along the Cape Elizabeth shore to Willard Beach is almost as nice as the concert and fi reworks. There is no moon in the sky so lighting is by stars and navigation by lights along the shoreline. At about 10:00 PM, 5 happy paddlers slip back into Simonton Cove, load boats onto cars and trucks, and head for home.