(Please note that when and where to paddle, and with what equipment, is the sole responsibility of each individual paddler. The information below is provided for guidance only and is not exhaustive).
At its simplest, be able to reliably remount and paddle your ski in all conditions. Choose a ski that suits your abilities and paddling is a lot faster and more fun. Remounting requires regular practice, especially for the less stable designs in big conditions. Take the opportunity to practice remounts in waves whenever possible.
The other essential is to stay attached to the ski at all times. A leg leash is a mandatory piece of safety equipment at races, as is a pfd, and should be used offshore at all times. Skis blow away very quickly in a breeze; if you lose contact you may be faced with a very long swim home (if you are lucky…). It may also be a good idea to use a paddle leash as a backup.
Paddling in a group is obviously better from the safety point of view, however, as ski paddling is a relatively new sport in Europe, it may not always be possible. If paddling alone then take extra caution over location, conditions and equipment.
Wear a PFD. Tell someone onshore your plan and when you will be back.
Weather & Sea Conditions
Checking the wind, waves and tides before you paddle, especially over any distance, should go without saying. Always keeping in mind that what the forecast says and what actually happens are two different things. As a rule of thumb it’s worth taking notice of the weather forecast for the 6-12 hours after your planned paddle, if this indicates bad weather it is not unknown for it to turn up early. Avoiding strong offshore breezes a good idea if you are unsure of your own abilities or the ski’s handling.
Assessing conditions is complex and takes experience and learning. Most importantly, if you are unsure – there is always another day.
Where to paddle
This will depend on the conditions and how comfortable you are with controlling and remounting the ski. If you are still getting used to a new boat then it is best to stay close to shore and pick shorelines with an onshore breeze, where you can easily get out if it doesn’t go according to plan.
What to wear
Clothing is a conundrum for a ski paddler. The boats reward being paddled fast, but this may mean wearing less clothing than is ideal if you were to end up in the water or even just needing to be stopped for a while. Being stable in your ski and being able to remount quickly are advantageous here. Extended immersion will rapidly result in hypothermia for most of the year around British shores, particularly in early spring. The weather may be warm and sunny but the sea temperature will often be less than 10 degrees. Conditions and the location of a paddle will dictate what to take. If in doubt overdressing is the better option and carrying spare clothes in a dry bag may be an idea.
The different options all have pros and cons.
Flares work only if you know how to use them, and are close enough to shore for someone to see them. They have a very short time when they are actually visible and there is no way of confirming someone has seen you. They are however, compact, relatively cheap and good for pinpointing position to rescue services, if they are already searching.
Mobile phone in a waterproof case appears to be a good option at first glance. Mobile coverage, even a mile or so out at sea, has improved around the country in recent years. However there are still dead spots and it is important to know if these occur in the area being paddled. Using a phone in a waterproof case is also far from foolproof, especially touchscreen phones inside a wet case, even making an emergency call may prove almost impossible. Battery life can be an issue with some models. On the plus side a number of phone apps now allow real time tracking by an onshore contact and for distress messages to be sent. However it is still early days for these.
VHF is often quoted as the key piece of safety equipment for anyone going afloat. It has the advantage that an emergency call is heard by all vessels in range, who may be able to assist before the emergency services. The units are also generally more robust, waterproof and have a longer battery life than a mobile phone. There is some paperwork to legally own and operate a VHF, a operators licence needs to be obtained (after attending a course on proper radio procedures and operation) and the unit needs to be registered with OFCOM. One of the big drawbacks of handheld units on kayaks is that VHF range is generally limited by the height of the aerial above the sea surface. Obviously in a kayak (or worse, in the water) this may reduce the range to such a degree that it is impossible to contact the coastguard or other vessels.
PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) – These have dropped in price in recent years and being a similar size to a mobile phone, robust and easily operated do present a good backup option. They are able to pinpoint their location with good accuracy, which may be important if you are separated form the ski. On the downside there is again no confirmation that the signal has been recieved by the emergency services, it may take time to send and it needs to be kept above water to keep sending position information.
Skis, especially high performance boats are not well suited to assisting other paddlers. This is why being able to remount your ski unaided is the most fundamental skill.
It is possible to raft together to assist someone remounting – an idea for technique can be found in the video below.
Skis are simple craft and there is relatively little to go wrong. Breaking a rudder control line is the one scenario you should be prepared for.
The simplest solution here is a length of bungee with a hook to fit the holes at either end of the rudder yoke. In the event of a control line breakage it should be simple to pass the hook through the hole on the side that has broken (you’ll need to get in the water for this so make sure the leash can stretch that far, and that you can get back in afterwards…) and tie the other end off to the bungee behind the cockpit. Under tension this should provide a counterbalance to the remaining control line, allowing functional steering using only one pedal.