Kayaking and boating water safety tips and measures

Man riding jetski

Sue Hewitt

Posted February 19, 2021

Whether you’re sailing, jetskiing or kayaking, knowing these basic safety tips could help prevent tragedy. 

After many long months out of the water in 2020, Victorians are flocking back to our bays and waterways in a flotilla of yachts, dinghies, kayaks and all manner of other watercraft. But whether or not you agree with Ratty from Wind in the Willows that there is “absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”, safety experts warn that many boating enthusiasts are out of practice and may have forgotten simple safety measures to protect them from harm.  

That’s why Transport Safety Victoria has launched a safety campaign: “Prepare to survive: Know the five”, urging people to take five steps before going out on the water. TSV is also  holding FloatSafe lifejacket clinics across the state to ensure you know the right gear to keep your head above water when you most need it.

Five things you must do to keep safe on the water  

Check the weather  

Check the weather is suitable for your planned activity, fitness level and vessel type before you leave shore, via the Boating Vic website , and check the Bureau of Meteorology marine site for current updates and warnings. Remember weather can change quickly so check regularly and if necessary, cut short your outing to avoid bad or changing weather conditions. The Boating Vic app provides real-time weather updates from the BoM. 

Practise getting back on board

Victoria’s oceans and inland waterways can be extremely cold all year round, and people lose body heat 25 times faster immersed in cold water than when on land. It takes just 10 minutes before the cold affects your muscles and you lose co-ordination of your arms and legs – and the ability to swim. After an hour in cold water hypothermia sets in and you lose consciousness. So it is very important to get out of the water as soon as possible – you’re more likely to die from hypothermia than drowning provided you are wearing a lifejacket.  

Practising getting in and out of the water in wet clothes in a non-panicked situation can help ensure you know what to do in case of an accident. Identify the best entry point on a boat, such as a ladder, and make sure the whole crew has practised not only getting back in the boat themselves, but also helping bring someone else back on board. 

All boats should be equipped with a ladder into the water and an engine kill-switch to prevent the vessel motoring away if someone does go overboard. 

Person on kayak in distance

Have a buddy plan  

Always tell someone where you’re leaving from, where you’re going and when you plan to return. Include details about your craft’s appearance and registration. And be sure to let them know if your plans change.  

Lock in an agreed trigger time with your buddy to call Triple Zero if you haven’t returned or they can’t get hold of you. Emergency services can mount a marine search-and-rescue to come to your assistance – the sooner your buddy raises the alarm, the sooner you can be saved. 

You can download an “I’ve gone boating” or “I’ve gone paddling” flyer from the web to leave with your land-based buddy, which records your trip details, including departure time, destination or route, number of people on board, details of your vessel and return time. Your  buddy can raise the alarm if you don’t return on time. 

As an extra precaution, use the Australian Coast Guard SafeTrx app, which monitors your journey and raises an alarm if you’re overdue. 

Carry a distress beacon 

If you do get into trouble and need to call for help, you shouldn’t rely on a mobile phone as reception can be patchy.  

Instead you should carry an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), which when activated transmits a message on a distress frequency monitored by satellites that will provide coordination points to search-and-rescue services.   

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) website  has details of a variety of distress beacons.  

If you’re paddling, consider using a personal locater beacon (PLB) which is small and light and is attached to your body.   

Wear a lifejacket

Make it a habit to wear a lifejacket, whether it’s required by law or not, and make sure you inspect and maintain lifejackets regularly. If you fall overboard into cold water, you’re likely to gasp, but a lifejacket can keep your head above water. 

There are three main types of lifejackets and the best one depends on your activity.  

  • For boaters, a well-fitted Level 100 Plus (Type 1) lifejacket is best. These provide a high level of buoyancy through an inflatable bladder or foam-filled panels and are designed to turn the wearer onto their back and keep them in a safe floating position, usually with a collar to support the back of the head. They are highly visible, with bright colouring and retro-reflective patches, and often have additional safety features such as lights and whistles. But they are not suitable  for water sports where you might hit the water at speed, causing the jacket to ride up. 
  • Water-skiers, kayakers and canoeists will be better off with a Level 50 (Type 2) lifejacket. Less buoyant and more flexible than the Level 100 Plus jackets, these won’t turn the wearer on to their back, but they will keep you  afloat and have high-visibility features.  
  • Level 50S lifejackets (Type 3) are similar to the Level 50 (Type 2) lifejackets, but without high-visibility features. Often dark in colour, these are generally suitable only if assistance is nearby and it is unlikely a search for the wearer will be needed. 

For information on types of lifejackets and the activities they suit, visit  wearalifejacket.transportsafety.vic.gov.au.