Kayaks and Powerboats: Cant We All Just Get Along?

Sometimes referred to disdainfully by kayakers as “stinkpots” (due to exhaust fumes), powerboats are a fact of life on the water. Along with wind and tides that don’t go your way, motorized boat traffic is part of the scenery, too. While U.S. Coast Guard regulations say that human powered craft have the “right of way” on the water, that doesn’t give any of us a special privilege to be “right in the way” of other boaters. Fortunately, kayaks can travel easily in shallow water, where powerboats are less likely to venture. Still, it is best to remain aware of your surroundings and practice good situational awareness regardless of water depth. Here are some tips to help you enjoy a safer boating experience, regardless of how your craft is powered.

Kayaks are low to the water, making them inherently difficult to see, so be as visible as you can. A kayak that is not brightly colored is even more difficult to discern from the background. Wear bright colors and fly a flag to stand out in high traffic areas. If you venture out in darkness or low light conditions, use reflective tape and a single light. U.S. Coast Guard navigation rules and regulations state that a “vessel under oars” at the very least must have a flashlight on hand to warn other boats of your presence in sufficient time to prevent a collision. You may also follow the same rules required of sailing vessels, which call for a white stern light and red/green side lights.

Beware of blind curves on creeks and rivers, and avoid lingering in these areas where a powerboat can’t see you until he is practically upon you. If pausing to fish for a while, try to position your kayak so the bow will be at an angle to the direction from which boat wakes are likely to occur. Many power boat captains will slow down to pass a kayak, but not all of them do. It goes without saying, yet bears repeating: Always wear your personal flotation device (PFD)! The fact that you were the high school swim team captain will do you little good if you are unconscious in the water after a collision. Roughly 80% of people who die in boating accidents do so while not wearing a life jacket.

Often maligned by kayak fishermen (perhaps more than they deserve), jet skis or “personal watercraft” (PWC) are often rented or borrowed and piloted by young or inexperienced operators. While they can be noisy and bothersome to anglers, PWCs account for fewer than 20% of boating accidents, and the accident rate has steadily declined in recent years.

However, among PWC accidents, collision due to inattention or carelessness is the major cause. The best advice is to move on to a different spot if your current one becomes infested with one or more PWC operators who are inconsiderate enough to remain in the area where you are fishing. It may not be fair if you were there first, but in the event of a collision, you may get to be the last one there, too.

For the majority, powerboat operators are a courteous, friendly lot. Don’t let a few bad examples paint them all as villains. All kayakers are not as responsible or courteous as they should be, either. You will often encounter kayak anglers staked out or anchored up next to powerboats as they fish the same water and congratulate or joke with each other about their catch. People who fish, whether from a powerboat or a kayak, are some of the best people you could ever meet. Besides, if you ever find you and your kayak in need of rescue someday, it just might be a “stinkpot” that saves your bacon.