Watercraft safety 101

By: Claudia Bouma, Photography by: Chris Bouma

Inland waterways can appear deceptively calm, so it’s important to know how to enjoy them safely.

Watercraft safety 101
Having taken up kayaking recently, we have had to become familiar with the boating safety requirements for both children and adults

We Aussies love to get out on the water and for good reasons: we’re completely surrounded by magnificent oceans and spoilt with numerous lakes, beautiful rivers and too many creeks to count. You would think we’re a water safety-conscious nation but the statistics tell a very different story.

In 2015, 271 people died in Australian waterways, according to the Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report.

Rivers, creeks and streams account for more than one third (37 per cent) of drowning deaths – claiming 99 lives − making it the aquatic location with the highest number of fatalities. Fifty-three people (20 per cent) died as a result of incidents involving watercraft, including kayaks and canoes.

Even more alarming is the fact that 33 per cent of the victims, 89 people, were aged 55 years and over. Accidents involving watercraft claimed the largest number of lives in this age group, accounting for one fifth of all drownings. 

As a result of these alarming statistics, the Royal Life Saving Society Australia has launched a four-year campaign called ‘Respect the River’ to educate people about the risks of swimming and boating in rivers.

The number of Aussies enjoying the water in a paddle craft – kayaks, surf-skis, canoes, stand-up paddle boards and pedal craft – has risen steadily as entry-level craft increase in affordability. People of all ages enjoy paddling but the challenge is to ensure this fun activity remains safe.


Having taken up kayaking recently, we have had to become familiar with the boating safety requirements for both children and adults.

Children under the age of 12 must wear lifejackets in the following circumstances: at all times when in a vessel less than 4.8m in length, and when in the open area of a vessel 4.8-8m in length while the vessel is underway.

For adults, lifejackets are required to be worn when paddling at all times on all waters, except when less than 100m from the nearest shore on enclosed and alpine waters.

The operator of the canoe or kayak is responsible for ensuring everyone on board complies with lifejacket requirements. Other safety equipment is not required, with the exception of a torch between sunset and sunrise.

Alarmingly, between mid-1999 and December 2011, only 15 of the 221 people killed in boating accidents in New South Wales were wearing lifejackets. As the saying goes, ‘Wear a lifejacket or wear the consequences’.


There’s a lot you can do to ensure you stay safe on the water. From clothing and equipment to knowing the rules, trip planning and understanding your limits, we can all learn to paddle smart and avoid becoming a sad statistic.


The clothing and equipment you choose make a big difference to how visible you are to others. At night or dusk, you must display a white light or a torch to show others where you are and to avoid a collision. You want to be able to be seen from every direction.


On the water you should keep to the right – starboard – wherever possible. Stick to the shorelines where you can to avoid larger craft. If you need to cross, pick the narrowest point and choose a starting point where you can see clearly in both directions.

Navigation markers are used to show craft (including ships) where they can safely navigate harbours and protected waters. Channels are marked by green starboard markers on the right and red port markers on the left as you go upstream. Where possible, try to paddle outside of these channels to keep out of the way of other boats. If you have to paddle in the channel, stay to the right-hand side and keep close to the edge − always avoid the middle of the channel. At other times it might be safest to stay closer to the shore even if it means being on the left-hand side of the channel.

Always cross well behind larger craft to keep clear of the boat-wash. Kayaks and canoes should give way to any craft under sail.


In many cases, the right equipment can make the difference between life and death. It can be something simple like a paddle leash or leg leash which can save you losing your paddle or kayak. Invest in a waterproof case to carry your mobile phone. A whistle for attracting attention can also be handy − and don’t forget your sun protection.

If you’re going offshore, consider a waterproof, hand-held VHF radio for communication and weather updates. You might want to carry an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which gives your exact location in case of an emergency rescue.

AquaYak, a Melbourne-based Australian kayak manufacturer, has designed a nifty outrigger kit for kayaks and canoes. The Outrigger Kit, made with two stabiliser floats, attaches to a kayak or canoe to dramatically increase its stability. The kit is made with high quality 316 stainless steel, is available in a large variety of colours, and can be installed in a matter of minutes.


Before you set out, check the weather, especially the wind direction, tides, swell, any flood warnings and plan your trip around the conditions. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return. Know what wind strength you can handle depending on where you plan to go. And remember, conditions can change rapidly.


It’s all about paddling within your limits – and that includes your craft, experience, level of skills and the weather conditions. Be realistic about your fitness and capabilities. Know your own strengths and weaknesses – and those of the others in the group.

Don’t travel too far and make sure you save strength for the return journey – conditions might be harder on the way home. Learn about what you can do to get yourself out of trouble if you capsize. 

If we all take the above advice to heart and become more conscious of water safety, especially in rivers, next year’s statistics will hopefully paint a better picture.

In the meantime, enjoy your paddling and stay safe!

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Check out the full feature in issue #96 January 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.