10 Safety Essentials You Need When You Go Kayaking…I Only Had 5

There I was. Floating in the midst of shark infested waters with no water, no food, and no idea where I was…

Now, before you get too worried about me, I was probably only a ten minute paddle away from aid. But my own vulnerability struck me on that gorgeous, sunny winter day off Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

I am — I believe — a better than average kayaker. I’ve soloed white water in a ducky, (an inflatable kayak), paddled upstream in strong currents, and combatted heavy winds and tides in the gulf. But that day, I got lazy. I didn’t prepare.

The trip was a last minute Valentine’s Day weekend that my husband cooked up. We didn’t even know if his back would be healthy enough for kayaking. But we loaded up his fishing kayak. Drove down to south Florida and picked up my Dad’s beautiful wooden ocean kayak — a Chesapeake light craft kit he assembled on his own.

We dropped off his grandchildren while we were there, and headed down to Islamorada. We haven’t been able to be on the water in a year or more! Boy, were we ready to get back out there.

But we were not prepared. I let my desire to relax and enjoy overcome my normal preparedness protocols. And when you do not prepare, things get dangerous.

So here are ten important safety essentials you should have. And we’ll start with the five that I didn’t have!

1. A Back Up Itinerary

Like I said this was a last minute trip, but we got the lowdown from my Dad who had been kayaking through the Keys and up around Turkey Point.

He told us a relaxing day kayaking trip would be to park on Tea Table Key, launch the kayaks, and paddle out to Indian Key. There would be a small beach and a dock on the far side. Nothing too difficult or fancy, and that’s just what we wanted.

But when we got to the turn off to Tea Table Key, it was gated and closed…

Okay, no problem. We’ll just use the public boat ramp on Islamorada. But it was closed for construction.

Fine. We’ll park alongside the road and launch from one of the small openings to the bay. But there were orange cones all along both sides of the road except for one small strip where only four cars could parallel park.

Moreover there were signs warning us not to park — even temporarily — on the side of the road. So parking to quickly unload the kayaks, and then park somewhere else was also out of the question.

Feeling thoroughly thwarted and let down, I asked good old Google what was going on?!

Turns out that the local municipality had closed Tea Table Key and the inlet to vehicle parking because there were concerns about the amount of traffic impacting the environment.

Well, at least we had an answer as to why our plan wouldn’t work, but now we needed a new plan.

After checking out several parks that all seemed too touristy for our taste, I found the Green Turtle Nature Preserve which had some short hiking trails and most importantly, a small boat ramp.

Sure enough the place was empty when we got there. We put in our kayaks. Loaded the cooler and fishing gear on my husband’s kayak, and parked the car.

Within 30 minutes of finding a new port, we were in the water triumphantly paddling out into the Gulf.

But…to where?

Before we had a nice picnic destination, but now…where was I paddling to? What were my landmarks? Were we at low tide or high tide? Is the current swift through these channels?

The more dangerous thing is that no one on land knew we had changed our plans. What if some unknown trouble left us unable to return? Any search and rescue would center on Indian Key — a place we never visited!

To send off a quick text to my Dad telling him of our alterations would have taken no time at all and been crucial information in the worst case scenario.

When you plan for excursions, you hope for the best, but you plan for the worst. In this scenario, we didn’t have up-to-date park information. We didn’t have a back-up plan, and we didn’t have an emergency contact with an up-to-date itinerary.

2. Waterproof Bag

This is a no brainer! Even on the water, you still need to bring things that you don’t want to get wet: your phones (cameras), GPS, radio, paper map, car keys, etc.

Pro Tip: Your electronic key fob actually corrodes pretty easily when it comes in contact with salty sea spray. So keep it zipped up!

I forgot our dry bags. But I randomly had a silicon bag that I had used for bacon that we ate that morning…so I used that. Don’t worry. I cleaned it first.

3. Proper Footwear

This one is not completely my fault. Long story short we moved during COVID and most of my stuff is still packed away in storage. So my wonderful toe shoes that are amazing for water sports are packed away, and all I had were my flip flops.

I challenge you to walk through mangrove muck in flip flops. Have you ever experienced that cornstarch quasi liquid/solid state matter called oobleck? Yeah, it’s like that.

Your foot sinks a good 10 inches into the muck with every step you take, and the action of your flip flop only increases the resistance that you have to overcome — preferably without falling flat on your face. It’s amazing I didn’t break my one pair of good flip flops.

So do yourself a favor and get some good stick-to-your-feet water shoes that won’t come off when swallowed by the muck.

Before we move onto the next two things, I think I should clarify that I did have these things on our trip! But they were not with me in my kayak and, therefore, useless when I might’ve needed them.

4. Food and Water

So you’ve probably been wondering: how does an avid outdoorswoman forget to take water? Of all the core substances that are crucial to life, you forget water?!…in FLORIDA!

And so I answer in my defense. I did pack water!..in the cooler…that was on my husband’s kayak. It’s not my fault that he couldn’t keep up!

Okay, so maybe it is my fault…

I intended us to stay together. But after he pointed out the mangrove island that was my guide, I just set my happy kayaking soul to paddling that sleek wooden vessel. As someone who grew up learning on bulky fiberglass sit-on-top kayaks, that streamlined ocean kayak cuts like a shark’s fin through the water.

Speaking of sharks, I saw a couple fins that were large enough to distinguish at a distance. They were about 75 yards off, so I couldn’t put a length on them, nor did I care at the time. Later that day, I had a couple of juvenile sharks following my kayak that were about three or four foot long. But the sight of those fins got me thinking…

What would happen if I fell out right now?

My immediate answer was glare at my husband who would undoubtedly be laughing at me instead of performing a T-rescue to empty my kayak of water.

That thought led me to look around at said husband only to find that he was nowhere in sight…

I hadn’t realized how far ahead I’d gotten. So I decided to take a break and get some water, while I waited for him to catch up…wherever he was. And…

You guessed it! That’s when I really started kicking myself. I had gone off and left my water – okay, and my husband – behind…and then my stomach began to growl. No water, no food, and let’s be honest, no idea where I was or the name of that key I was heading for,

So learn from me. Always keep your water in your boat.

Now let’s talk about buddies!

5. A Buddy

Technically, I had a buddy, but I had left him behind…oops. Being a buddy is about being available to help each other, and I was not an available buddy.

I went off, leaving my husband to chase the horizon. Now, I rocked on the waves scanning by backtrail hoping nothing had happened to him without my knowing.

After combing the horizon for a few minutes, I saw him rounding the bend of a mangrove cove he had been exploring. Relieved I tried to slow my pace for him, but herein lay another problem.

My kayak was naturally faster. Not only that, I needed speed. Seriously, in order for the rudder on my kayak to be effective, it needs the water moving across it.

Oh and don’t forget, his kayak was loaded down with fishing gear and the cooler. We weren’t even a close match for speed. Buddies should be evenly matched to avoid this problem.

Okay, enough talk about what I did wrong! Let’s talk about how years of forming good habits and learning from past mistakes paid off.

6. Life Vest

Unlike my water shoes, my trusty purple life vest was accessible. But just because you have a life vest doesn’t mean it’s the right one.

There are 5 classes of life vests that the U.S. Coast Guard recognizes. Classes I and II are for recreational uses where you’re less likely to come in direct contact with the water like motor boating or sailing. Yes, you’re on the water and you may decide to go for a swim. But you’re mainly staying on the boat.

Type III are for watersports where you’re more likely to hit the water and a high rate of speed. This includes water skiing, tubing, small boat racing, jet skis, etc. These life jackets have multiple belts for a better fit preventing it from flying off when you hit the water.

So please, don’t go water skiing in one of those orange U-shaped life vests. It’s not meant for that. It’ll go flying off or get tangled around you when you hit the water. You can look up what life vests are meant for what purpose here.

My life vest is a class III which covers pretty much everything you can do on the water.

7. Anchor or Rope

When you plan to kayak to a destination, don’t always assume there will be a dock. Many times if you want to get out and stretch your legs you have to tie off to some driftwood or have an anchor.

My husband and I found a small inlet behind Sea Shell Key, but the main vegetation there was mangroves.

Now mangroves are an important part of Florida’s ecosystem. The state protects them, and there are stiff regulations about what you can and cannot do to them.

We didn’t want to take any chances, so — after being sure the bottom was just sand and not coral (also protected) — we used his anchor to keep our kayaks from floating away.

Rope is also handy for if you need to get a tow. Maybe you overexert yourself, get hurt, or your boat springs a leak. Now you need a ride and your boat needs a tow. So keep some rope on hand just in case.

8. Sun Protection

The sun in Florida — even in Winter — is brutal. Sun protection is key. On the water, the sun’s rays reflect back up into your eyes and on your skin.

Use a hat with a full rim to keep the sun off your face and neck and sunglasses to keep the reflection from burning your eyes. Yes, you can burn your eyes.

Pro tip: Polarized shades also help you see things beneath the water because your eyes aren’t fighting the glare.

A long sleeve dry fab shirt and pants will keep your arms and legs out of direct sunlight while keeping you cool.

As a native Floridian, I have a lot of experience with sunscreen. Every brand, every type whether its a spray, gel or lotion has requirements for working as intended.

  • Rub it in! Even if it’s a spray, you must rub the sunscreen into your skin.
  • Apply before you start sweating.
  • Apply at least 15 minutes before getting wet.

I know that sounds super simple. But in Florida, if you forget to put on the sunscreen before you step outside, it’s already too late. Why? Because you’re already sweating!

Personally, I always miss a spot. My “thoroughness” in rubbing every spot of exposed skin is irrelevant. I will miss a spot!

For that reason, I’ve learned it’s easier and more dependable to just cover up than to trust my skin to sunscreen.

9. GPS or Map

Contrary to all the destination photos you see of white sand beaches, the Keyes are small mangrove islands with a few popular destinations with beaches. There are literally hundreds of these islands throughout the keys, and it’s easy to get them confused if you forget to look back for landmarks.

A GPS can plot the course you want to take and record the course you actually take while traveling. It’s the concrete way of knowing exactly where you are, and where you want to be.

Pro Tip: If you there’s even a possibility that your GPS could fall overboard, make sure it floats.

An old fashion paper map is good to keep on hand in case batteries fail or if the GPS falls overboard and sinks. But maps have the added work of properly orienting the map and figuring out where you are on the map, which opens up the possibility of human error.

10. A Whistle

If you’ve ever had to scream for help, you know that you lose your voice quickly. Shucks, if you’ve ever had to yell for your kids at the park, you know your voice doesn’t last. That’s where a whistle comes in handy.

A whistle has that high pitched timber that perfectly conveys the “I need your attention NOW” message. Whether your buddy is getting off course or you find yourself in danger and in need of help, a whistle is a small device that has a big job.

I only ever have had occasion to use my whistle once, and guess what…

I didn’t have it.

I was in a small JY sailboat crossing Boca Grande Channel with a younger sailor, and we were sinking.

The waves were crashing over the sides, and while I wanted to head toward land, the only thing keeping us afloat was maintaining the bow pointed into the waves and balancing our weight precariously. All of which were incongruous with the direction of the wind.

Whenever a motorboat went by, I both hoped and dreaded…I hoped they would see my frantically waving arms and help. I dreaded the wake they left behind for me to navigate.

Motorboaters are usually helpful if they see someone in need on the water. But that day everyone waved a hand and went on by. It wasn’t their fault. They thought we were waving happily at them.

What I needed was a whistle. Something that would make them tilt their heads and look closer. A sound that — when paired with my frantically waving arms — would cause a sense of alarm.

You’re probably also wondering what happened to the “Buddy” idea here too. Well, I’ll tell you.

My husband left me.

Yep, what comes around goes around! You see, he was in charge of sailing the 18 ft. Hobie Cat back. Now the Hobie is a racing boat, and there was no way we were going to keep up. Another case of mismatched buddies.

Spoiler! We survived. A coastal patrolman, when he saw our desperately flailing limbs and sinking hull, decided we needed him more than the perfectly buoyant motorboat he had been called to aid.

Ever since then, I have a whistle…sometimes two or three!

My husband and I enjoyed getting back into kayaking with this short day trip off Islamorada and, thankfully, returned without incident. But it could have ended much differently.

Use these ten safety essentials for your next kayaking day trip and you’ll be able to enjoy the journey without the heart stopping moments I gave myself. Happy kayaking!

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Elon Jones

Elon Jones

I am an avid outdoorswoman who writes valuable informative and creative blogs and persuasive copy for outdoor retailers and outfitters.