New York State is blessed with an enormous variety of waterways suitable for paddling. Before launching in one of these waterways, there are a number of factors directly impacting your safety that you should consider. This page is intended to be a guide to start preparing you for your paddling experience but does not cover all the dangers you may encounter when paddling.
Here are some quick tips to get started:
- Do your research before launching by learning about the route you plan to paddle
- Check the weather. Weather affects water conditions, which can vary greatly, ranging from calm water to extremely rough conditions that may be impossible to navigate
- Don’t paddle alone; a group size of three is ideal
- Always wear your PFD
- Bring a cell phone and a VHF radio
- Put together a Float Plan in case of an emergency and be sure to leave it with a responsible person
- Stay away from larger vessels
- Know your limits
- Remember kayaks and canoes are extremely difficult to see from larger vessels--see the picture and videos under Safety Resources on this page.
Every Waterway Has Unique Dangers
Rivers--There are a variety of rivers throughout the state of New York. Large and powerful rivers (such as the Hudson River) can be complex with many factors for a paddler to consider. Tides, wind, currents, commercial ships, large and fast recreational boats, and unpredictably swift weather changes can quickly turn a pleasant outing into a potential tragedy. Then there are smaller and fast-flowing rivers that can pose imminent dangers such as rocks, white water, water level, and debris that could lead to fatal accidents. We strongly recommend that you educate yourself about river conditions along the route you plan to paddle before launching any watercraft.
Canals--Paddling in canals is a unique experience. Unlike other waterways, as soon as you enter the water the canal is deep, often with steeply sloping shorelines, which could make getting off the water a challenge. Prepare yourself for how to travel through a canal lock and remember it can take some time to travel through, but don’t worry because lock operators are there to help during operating hours. Also, canals have large recreational or commercial watercraft, so don’t get in their way.
Lakes--Large lakes (such as Lake Champlain) are more daring than a lake a few acres in size. Weather on Lake Champlain for instance, can change dramatically and with surprising speed. When attempting open-water lake crossings, remember that the large fetch (unimpeded distance over which wind travels) over open waters generates larger waves than protected shorelines. Shallower water bodies will produce larger waves in similar wind and fetch conditions. On windy days, stay closer to shore.
Marshes & Tributary Streams--Although marshes and tributary streams make for attractive destinations, and some are readily accessible with no barriers to navigation, paddlers should be aware that some areas are not easily accessible at some water/tide levels.
Harbors & Bays--Harbors and bays can be just as dangerous as other waterways because of the vast amount of traffic from commercial and recreational watercraft (such as New York Harbor). Stay clear and respect other watercraft as most of them will not see you because of how small kayaks and canoes are.
Ocean--The Atlantic Ocean can have fierce waves and weather. It is best to have a sea kayak, with a spray skirt. Sea kayaks are longer and designed to be used in ocean conditions. Always check the tidal currents and the weather forecast before kayaking on the ocean. Strong tides may sweep you out far offshore, the weather in the ocean can change rapidly going from beautiful and sunny to cold and extreme. Unlike some other waterways, if you’re in the ocean land may be far away and the conditions of the ocean could make it impossible to get back ashore. It may be easy to ride a 3-foot wave, but bigger breaking waves may result in capsizing.
Watch for Other Watercraft
Kayaks and canoes are very difficult for other mariners to see. Keep an eye out for powerboats and other fast-moving watercraft. Along the Hudson River ocean-going ships and tugboats with barges navigate a winding shipping channel. Other waterways also have shipping channels; all are marked by U.S. Coast Guard-maintained buoys. Learn how to read these buoys so you know where the shipping channel is and avoid the channel or cross it at right angles if necessary. Commercial vessels, limited to traveling in a marked shipping channel, have the right of way over a kayak.
New York Harbor, for instance, is comparable to a very busy, multi-lane street with lots of intersections but lacks signs or basic traffic signals to help guide you. Learn the Nautical Rules of the Road to best prepare yourself before launching in busy waterways. Larger vessels are less maneuverable than kayaks, have the ability to do more damage in a collision, and have trouble seeing small watercraft. Also, commercial traffic usually has the right-of-way over recreational boaters. The safest option is to stay clear of other watercraft for your and their safety.
Know Your Limits
Make your paddling experience more enjoyable and safer by knowing your and your group’s abilities and limits. That includes your ability to handle severe weather; keep a close eye on the weather and let it guide your itinerary.
Bridges--Bridge heights above water vary with the tide. Use NOAA’s nautical charts to determine horizontal and vertical clearance.
Dams--Dams can pose a danger. Low head dams can be a challenge to spot from upstream. A boater approaching too close to a dam can be pulled over the dam. These dams tend to have a nickname of “drowning machines.” Most dams have a line of round orange buoys upstream. Never go below the markers. Be careful after floods; the safety booms sometimes get displaced.
Canal Locks--Navigational locks are intended to raise and lower water levels to allow boaters to travel up and downstream. Lock operators will provide step-by-step coaching to make locking safe and enjoyable for novice and experienced boaters. Phone numbers are available for each lock on the NYS Barge Canal system. A few simple preparations and the right equipment will make for a smooth experience. Check out the NYS Canalway Water Trail’s website for some tips.
Underwater Obstructions--Invisible underwater objects including completely or partially submerged logs, rocks, trash, and other matter could capsize or even puncture your boat. Sharp rocks, broken glass, or aquatic animals may be underwater in the nearshore environment and can cut your feet or damage your boat. Always wear footwear with good soles.
Before launching always check the weather. Some ways to check the weather are the internet, tuning into your VHF radio, or checking your local news channel. Learn to read the weather so when you are out on the water you can evaluate worsening conditions. Here are some forms of weather to pay attention to:
Wind--Wind pulls surface water, in return creating currents that make rough conditions. In open water, wind can create much larger waves, so it's best to stay along the shore during windy days.
Precipitation--Rain, hail, or snow precipitation can dramatically reduce visibility.
Storms--If thunderstorms are in the forecast, do not go out on the water. If you happen to see thunderstorms approach, get off the water and take shelter if possible.
Fog--Fog can lead to disorientation. Use a compass, steady wind, and wave direction or sounds such as a foghorn or crashing waves to orient yourself. Fog makes kayaks and canoes even more difficult to see from larger watercraft, so stay out of their way. Use your noisemaker when in fog. A larger air horn is better than a smaller one and both are much better than a whistle by itself.
Cold Water--Immersion hypothermia is a condition created by cold water immersion. Hypothermia can occur in any water temperature less than 70 degrees F. You lose body heat 25 times faster when submerged in water. Check water temperatures before launching and dress for water temperatures, rather than air temperatures. Once you lose enough body heat your muscles begin to stop functioning and eventually you lose consciousness. Check Charles Sutherland’s Cold Water Boating for further information on cold water immersion.
Tides & Currents
According to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s New York Safe Boating Guide, tides are defined as the “movement of water that will affect the depth of the water and the height of the waterline.” The changing tides alter currents in waterways and will affect your maneuverability. Plan to travel with the tidal current, when the tidal current turns, paddle with it in the return direction.
Tides create currents in ocean inlets and rivers that connect to the ocean, which can create eddies and rough water conditions. These currents are created by ebb (outgoing) and flood (incoming) tidal flows. It's best to use NOAA to check tide and current information before launching.
Portable Floatation Device (PFD)--PFDs provide extra buoyancy that enables a person to better float. The U.S. Coast Guard requires a PFD for each person on board. Canal regulations require that the PFD be worn when passing through a lock. A PFD must be worn in New York between November 1 and May 1 on any boats under 21 feet in length. Not only is it the law to wear a PFD but it is basic safety. It is extremely difficult to put a PFD on while in the water. Be sure your PFD is in good condition free of rot, tears, and punctures.
Nautical chart--Nautical charts help you navigate a waterway. They show specific waterway characteristics, such as buoys, depth readings, lighted marks, and more. Chart Number 1 explains all of the symbols. Keep in mind that mileage information on nautical charts is in nautical miles instead of land miles. One nautical mile equals 1.15 land miles. (A nautical mile is 6,076 feet land mile is 5,280 feet.) When planning a trip from a nautical chart, remember it takes longer to paddle a nautical mile than a land mile.
Compass--A compass may be your last resort if you find yourself lost. Have one and know how to use it. Many kayakers have one mounted to a boat and a handheld in a jump bag in case they get separated from their boat.
VHF radio & Cell phone--VHF radios and cell phones are vital tools to be sure you have a form of communication in an emergency. A VHF radio allows you to be able to communicate with other vessels and contact the Coast Guard on channel 16 in case of an emergency, as well as regularly check the weather forecast through NOAA weather radio. (Nearly all VHF radios also have weather channels.)
Emergency Supplies--It is the law that every boat must have a noisemaking device. It is best practice to have a whistle attached to your PFD and an air horn. It is best practice to carry a visual signal, such as flares for nighttime or smoke for days, and a flashlight in case of an emergency.
First Aid Supplies--Anything can happen when you are in nature. It is best to have first aid supplies to make sure you are prepared for the worst. Include supplies to care for cuts, scrapes, sunburns or other burns, bug bites, and stings. If you or someone with you require daily medication it would be in your best interest to bring it in case of an emergency. It is better to have more first aid supplies and equipment than not enough.
Drinking-Water & Food--Bring extra water with you to stay hydrated. Bring food to keep your energy up.
Sample Float Plan Form--It is always smart to leave a float plan with someone who knows the latest time you will be home and will contact authorities if you are overdue. A sample float plan is available here.
In an emergency, use channel 16 on your VHF radio or call 911 on your cell phone. Do not contact the Hudson River Valley Greenway or any of the local water trail managers, they do not have 24-hour monitoring and are not emergency responders.