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Coast Guard issues updated water safety guidelines

As the popularity of paddle craft — such as kayaks, canoes and stand up paddleboards — increases across the country, so have related marine incidents.

According to the United States Coast Guard, 143 paddle sport enthusiasts died nationwide in 2015, accounting for about 29 percent of all boating deaths that year.

In 2016 the Northeast saw 28 paddler deaths, which is double the national average, and 167 people throughout the country died while using a canoe, kayak or paddleboard, the Coast Guard reported.

With this in mind, the Coast Guard has recently released new water safety guidelines for paddle craft. These include requiring paddlers to wear life vests and carry whistles or other sound-making devices. At night or in low-visibility conditions, paddlers must also carry a white light with them.

The Coast Guard also urges people to label their vessels with their name and two working phone numbers.

“What happens is, with the smaller craft as opposed to a big boat, if someone falls off a paddleboard or small kayak the wind can push the craft away,” said John Andrejack, chief of the Jamesport Fire Department and the commanding officer of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s marine unit.

“It’s not a requirement, but the Coast Guard is asking people to label their craft so if they find a drifter they can return it quickly,” he continued. “If it isn’t labeled, we have to assume that someone was on that craft and fell off and [we] have to do a search.”

Other Coast Guard recommendations include carrying a VHF-FM marine radio and a personal locator beacon.

Safety personnel in Riverhead and Southold towns are praising the new requirements and recommendations, noting increases in marine incidents at the local level.

As of July 10, the Riverhead Police Department had responded to 10 boating incidents in 2017. On average, Riverhead’s marine division answers six to 10 boating calls a year, Lt. Dave Lessard said.

Kevin McQueeny, chief of the Wading River Fire Department, said his department has had six or seven boating-related calls so far this year, with three occurring in June.

According to a post on the WRFD website, the occupants of two kayaks were rescued June 10 after their vessels overturned a mile or two off Wildwood State Park. Additionally, two separate rescues were made on June 18, both involving small crafts off Wading River Town Beach and Creek Road. All occupants were brought back to shore safely.

“A majority of calls are small vessels because people go out unprepared,” Mr. McQueeny said. “Kayaking is a lot of fun, but when the weather changes and the waves change and people go too far out it can be very hard to get back in.”

Similarly, Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said one out of every three calls during the summer involves someone who has been swept away in a current.

On June 30, police and the Southold Fire Department responded to a call about a kayaker who fell off his vessel in Long Island Sound in Cutchogue. He was rescued safely.

In June 2016 a Connecticut man was found dead in Orient after a kayak he and his family were in was swept across Long Island Sound by wind gusts. His wife and daughter made it safely to shore in Orient. A fourth man, also from Connecticut and traveling on a paddleboard, was reported missing at the same time. His body was later found near Connecticut.

Southold Fire Department Chief Jim Rich noted not only the recent popularity of kayaking and paddleboarding, but the relatively low levels of athleticism associated with these sports.

“Obviously 20 years ago nobody knew what a plastic kayak was,” Mr. Rich said. “We had a fad of windsurfers. I think because of the athleticism that was required to use a windsurfer, people out there were more equipped to help themselves. Over the years, kayaking has become very easy and there’s a relatively low skill level to use them.”

Safety personnel urge people to follow the Coast Guard’s requirements and recommendations and to check weather and wind conditions before heading out.

They also caution people to be mindful of wind direction.

“The wind comes out of the south in the summer,” Lt. Lessard said. “A lot of people on the North Shore, from Wading River to Laurel, are in the Sound. They’re protected by bluffs until they get to a certain point. Once they’re out a quarter- to a half-mile, the wind drops onto the water. Until they hit that zone, they don’t realize how strong the current is. That’s when they’re in distress.”

Photo caption: A kayaker on Peconic Bay off South Jamesport late last month. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

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