Dare to kayak Tahoe in the winter? Prepare for the dangers | NevadaAppeal.com

Dare to kayak Tahoe in the winter? Prepare for the dangers

Jack Carrerow
For the Nevada Appeal

Even in the midst of winter, kayaking enthusiasts and first-timers have been taking to the blue waters of Tahoe in ever increasing numbers. While this sport is a great way to get exercise and a great piece of scenery, it can be fraught with danger, if the kayaker is not prepared.

According to local residents John Kirby, Jack Leth and Jay Schmidt, all members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, paddling on the lake during the winter comes with added hazards.

“People have to be educated on not only the skill in operating kayaks and other watercraft, but on the hazards of being in the water,” Schmidt said. “Inexperienced kayakers aren’t aware of the fact that they have to be prepared to get wet.”

And it’s getting wet, in sometimes less than 40-degree water, that starts trouble.

“You will maybe have five minutes in the water before you can become disoriented,” Leth said. “Now, if you’re not wearing a PFD (personal floatation device), that’s probably the only five minutes you’ll have to get rescued and, even if you aren’t too far from the shore, people just can’t swim as far in cold water.”

For this one reason, all three safety volunteers say that everyone on a watercraft should wear a floatation device.

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While kayakers will often use the “buddy system,” there are those people who prefer the solitude afforded by single paddling.

According to a Coast Guard Auxiliary kayak safety article written by Kirby, “Kayakers, whether they are on the lake or out on the open ocean, need to understand the rules of the road, and have the necessary safety equipment if they are out by themselves. Carry a spare paddle in case one is broken or lost.”

The article continues, “Have you ever been out on the water, and all of a sudden a cold front comes sweeping in or just a strong breeze to push you offshore? Depending on the season, and the time of day, one of several life threatening occurrences could happen. Thunderstorms can bring heavy rains, rough water, high winds, and even hail.

“By the way, we failed to mention lightning, thunder and diminished visibility, or getting caught out in the dark. How would you stay warm and avoid hypothermia should you upset your vessel and get wet, or if the temperature drops suddenly? Have you practiced falling off your kayak or swamping your canoe and getting back on?”

Kayakers should also be aware of the 50/50/50 rule. According to Ed Lyngar of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, if you are in a kayak or canoe and not wearing a life jacket and fall into water that is 50 degrees or less more than 50 yards off shore, you have a 50 percent chance of survival.

His advice if you are a beginner, stay close enough to shore and wear your PFD at all times, so that you are certain you can swim, with your kayak or canoe to shore if necessary. Just wearing the PFD at all times will dramatically increase your chances of survival.

“There are times when you’ll see kayakers out in the middle of the lake without their PFDs on and when you ask if they have them, they reach down in the cockpit and pull them out,” Leth said regretfully.

Even though you carry the protection, Schmidt said that, in the event of an emergency, a person may not be able to put it on.

“Fact is, after three minutes in cold water, your fingers don’t work very well,” Schmidt said. “And that doesn’t make it very easy to put a floatation device on.”

Kirby adds that one of the biggest mistakes kayakers make is dressing wrong for the elements. “You have to dress for the water temperature, not the air out of the water,” Kirby said.

In an effort to help kayakers and other boaters stay safe on the lake during the peak boating season, the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers free boat safety inspections, instructing you on what is needed and explain why.

“Educating the public is only the first step in making the lake safer,” Leth said. “Getting the people to apply the lessons is a whole different matter.”

“Almost all of the people who take the classes are new boat owners, locals or part-timers who want to learn the rules and stay safe,” Leth said.

“What’s needed is to get the word out to the vacationer who might be renting a boat or kayak for the first time.”

For Leth, Kirby and Schmidt, volunteering for the Coast Guard Auxiliary is a passion each one shares for the lake and the people who take care of it, but they’d rather just have to concentrate on matters of prevention and not the rescue or recovery of victims who didn’t realize the power of nature.

“Every time we come across a situation where someone is in need of rescue or worse, because of some foolish mistake they made. It makes us wonder,” said Leth. “What were they thinking?”