As paddlers, we often suffer the inconveniences and risks associated with other boaters who do not follow appropriate boating regulations or use common courtesy when on the waterways. It is not uncommon to hear kayakers complaining about harrassment from jet skiers, or near accidents with ski boats where the driver was watching the skier and not where he was going. Just keep in mind that when you point the finger at someone else, there are still 3 fingers pointing back at you. By that I mean, there are certain rules, protocols, and general courtesy that we should be using as paddlers. I do not intend this to be an exhaustive treatise on the subject, but merely a brief look at some things we can do to be good neighbors on the water.
Kayaks can paddle in water where larger boats cannot. Whenever possible, paddle in those areas that cannot be accessed by larger craft. In other words, kayak in the shallow waters near shore, or just stay off to the sides of busy water channels. Stay outside the buoys that mark the traffic channel on the water. This does not mean that you can never paddle in the same areas that larger boats frequent, but realize that you do not necessarily have the right of way (a common misconception among many kayakers). If you need to cross a busy area, do so at a right angle to minimize the amount of time that you will potentially be in the way of other boaters. Like a pedestrian crossing a busy street, you will want to look both ways and wait for a large enough gap in the traffic that you can get across without being hit by a boat. I usually stop and let power boats pass in front of me since they can move much faster than I can in my kayak. If you see a boat coming toward you, stop and make an obvious change to your course so that there will be no doubt in the mind of the power boat driver what direction you are intending to follow. If you are in a group, get all the kayakers together in a bunch and paddle close together so that other boats do not have to try to zig zag their way through the kayaks in your group. Around boat slips do not cut through areas where you might get in the way of boats that are entering or leaving their slips. Keep in mind that in the same way that cars and trucks have blind spots, large boats can have even larger blind spots. It is always the responsibility of a boater to maintain a watch to prevent collisions, but you also have that responsibility as a kayaker and so need to operate your craft in such a way to avoid collisions.
When you come across fisherman out on the lakes and rivers, try to stay as far away from their fishing lines as possible. Notice which direction they are casting and paddle on the opposite side of their fishing boat. Look out for bobbers that indicate lines in the water. Wave and be friendly, but don’t go paddling right up next to their boats. During hunting seasons, you want to similarly watch out for duck decoys in the water and give them a very wide berth. It can sometimes be hard to see the duck hunters since they are purposely trying to camouflage themselves from the birds in their blinds. Some of the decoys look pretty real, as well.
When using public launches, be considerate of the other boaters and do not hog the ramp area. If there is an area that you can launch from in a hand carried boat that the trailered boats cannot use, then don’t use the ramp. If you must use the ramp, wait your turn, but then be ready to launch quickly and get out of the ramp area so the next boater can get his boat in or out. I have seen paddlers clogging up a boat ramp and taking their own sweet time to launch. I would be none too happy if I were in a fishing boat waiting to launch while a bunch of canoeists and kayakers are loading their boats. Have your boats loaded first before you put them in the water. If you must load them in the water, then do it away from the ramp area.
On many beaches, kayaks are prohibited from being anywhere near the swimmers. When there are no regulations in place and you are launching, landing, or paddling near swimmers keep in mind that your kayak can become a serious danger to the them (not to mention that swimmers can become a danger to you in your kayak if they try to grab your boat and climb on). If your kayak is grabbed by a breaking wave and is being surfed towards shore, you could hit a swimmer and seriously injure him/her. It is your responsibility to know how to handle your kayak in the surf to avoid this situation. If you are not experienced enough to control your kayak in the surf, find an area where there are no swimmers in the water.
Be aware of private property and do not land on it without prior permission from the owner. That includes docks and piers sticking out into the water. Different states have different laws about where you can and cannot land (below the high tide line, on the river bed, bridge right-of-ways, etc.). Find out the rules for the areas where you will paddle and follow those rules whether you agree with them or not. It is also good to be considerate of the amount of noise that you make on the water. Sound travels pretty far over water. People living in houses near the water may have their windows open during the warm summer weather. They may not appreciate hearing you yelling or using coarse language within earshot. I tend to hear more vulgar language coming out of some of the power boats where the beer is flowing freely, but I believe in the golden rule – “Do unto others as you would have done to you.”
Finally, don’t litter on the water or at the put-ins. Most kayakers and canoeists are very good about this, but it only takes a few jerks to ruin our good name. We don’t need to give officials and property owners any good reasons to restrict our access to waterways. Whenever you can, pick up litter and leave areas in better shape than when you arrived.
If you have any other suggestions for good paddler etiquette, I’d be glad to pass them on.