Kayaking for fishing, fitness, or pleasure is a wonderful activity and Oak Island offers some truly spectacular places to do it! But doing it safely around Oak Island requires a lot more thought and preparation than inland lake, pond, or river kayaking. Many of the Oak Island Water Rescue team members are avid kayakers, and we have collectively assembled this guide to help you enjoy the sport in our little slice of paradise while also doing it safely and reducing your risk of needing to call for our services.
Know the Tides
Everyone knows that tides rise and fall along the coast, but not everyone knows how often, or that these tidal changes impact the Intracoastal Waterway and all waterways in, around, and through Oak Island. That’s right, the tide doesn’t just cause the water level on the beach to change throughout the day, it causes all water everywhere on the island to change depth too. There are some variations throughout the year, but tides typically change from low to high, or high to low, in about 6 hour 20 minute intervals in a perpetual cycle. Tides are important information for kayakers to know for a couple primary reasons.
First, a falling (from high to low) tide can cause ALL of the water in shallow creeks and tributaries in the Intracoastal Waterway to go away, leaving your stranded in the mud. You can literally start in 5 foot deep water near high tide and be left sitting in the mud 4-6 hours later. You may enter a waterway with 2-3 feet of water only to find you cannot get back out a short time later because the creek you are in is now mud, or completely dried up behind you. Only go into these creeks and narrow waterways when the tide is rising, not falling, and make sure you are back into deep water well before low tide. If you do get stuck in the mud, STAY IN YOUR KAYAK! The mud in these tidal marshes is like quicksand with razor blades and you will sink up to your waist, or deeper. The more you move trying to get out of the mud, the worse things will get. You only have 2 real options if you find yourself stuck in the mud. Call 911 and we will rescue you, or wait for the tides to change again, bringing water back under your kayak. This means you may be sitting there for many hours, so see our list of things you need to bring on your kayak below.
Second, tidal changes don’t cause the water level to rise and lower uniformly. Tidal changes cause significant and strong water currents that often move 1-2 MPH (or more). That means if you are padding “with the current” caused by a tidal change, your speed through the water will be enhanced. You will be making great time! But what happens when you turn around to go the other direction? If you can only paddle your kayak 1-2 MPH, which is a pretty typical speed for many kayakers, you won’t be going anywhere. You will be padding, and getting quite a workout, but will either be stopped dead in your tracks, or making very slow progress which will make you far more fatigued. What happens if you get too tired and cannot paddle any longer? The current is going to start pushing your kayak with the current. Your only course of action is to turn around, paddle with the current, while making your way towards the shore to a safe spot to rest and wait out the tidal change.
Know the Winds and Weather
Just as tidal changes create currents that impact your kayaking speed, so does the wind. Oak Island has prevailing winds that blow from the southwest to northeast. Prevailing means “common”, not always. On any given day the wind can blow out of one direction all day long, change directions several times, or be enhanced by storms, the passage of cold or warm fronts, etc. Look at the forecast before heading out to make sure the weather and winds are within your skillset to handle, but winds can and do change frequently. Once you are on the water, the winds are what you see and feel, not what was forecast. Like currents, kayaking with the wind will increase your speed while kayaking into the wind will slow you down and can turn into an exercise in frustration and exhaustion!
Two of the best resources for tides can be found online at TidesChart or Tides4Fishing.com. Oak Island Water Rescue also maintains our own weather station that displays wind speed, direction, and a lot other great information.
Know the Water Temperature
This is usually not an issue in the summer months, but at least from September through May you need to pay attention to the water temperature. Hypothermia can be fatal even when the water temperature is fairly warm.
The water temperature in Oak Island is routinely in the 50s (and sometimes even lower) during late fall, winter, and early spring. These temperatures cause serious medical and survival problems in 10-15 minutes, can result in you falling unconscious in 1-2 hours, and results in death in 1-6 hours. Even as we approach fall or start into summer, water temperatures remain well below 80 meaning hypothermia remains a serious threat in all but the hottest months. Of course knowing the water temperature is only half the equation, you also have to dress for that temperature. And we don’t mean wearing a jacket or light coat. We mean dressing for being IN THE WATER in those temperatures. Kayaks, by their very nature, are small and unstable watercraft. Falling out of kayak or flipping one upside down is not a matter of if, but when. It is going to happen, someday, somehow, so you need to make sure you are wearing appropriate cold water gear when it happens. This may be a wetsuit when the water is warmer, or a drysuit when kayaking in the winter months.
Places to Avoid
Lockwoods Folly Inlet is the most dangerous place on Oak Island for kayaking, swimming, and boating. It is located at the far west end of Oak Island and is the waterway that separates us from Holden Beach.
What makes Lockwoods Folly Inlet so dangerous? For kayakers and swimmers it is the currents. Put plainly, they are downright nasty. First, you have the waves coming in from the ocean being channeled into the inlet. These create a strong south to north current. On a rising tide, this south to north current is enhanced, sucking everything on the water in towards the island. But on a falling tide, the tidal change creates a north to south current flowing out into the ocean, pushing everything inland out towards the ocean, while the ocean is still sending waves from south to north. This creates a “churning” or shear and often very violent currents form as a result. As if this wasn’t bad enough, this is also where the Lockwoods Folly River and Eastern Channel flow into the ocean. This all adds up to a very bad place to kayak or swim. We know it’s enticing, it’s quite beautiful, and kayaking over to Holden Beach may sound like a great way to have fun, but this area is, by far, the most dangerous place on the island.
Aside from Lockwoods Folly Inlet and the tidal mud creeks, most of the rest of Oak Island is inviting and easy kayaking, with one major exception, the ocean! Only the most experienced of kayakers should attempt kayaking in the ocean. Launching through the waves is challenging for everyone, and you can get into a lot of trouble quickly in the ocean with a kayak. Since ocean kayaking is only for advanced kayakers that is all we will say about the subject here. Unless your skills are quite advanced, just don’t do it!
The last thing to say about dangerous kayaking locations in Oak Island is to always watch out for oyster beds. These occur naturally in all waters around Oak Island. They are often visible at low tide, but can become impossible to see when under just a couple feet of water. Oyster beds are extremely sharp and cut skin easily. They are also riddled with germs and can cause an infection if you cut yourself on them. This is one reason we always advise you to STAY IN YOUR KAYAK, when stuck in the mud or not. Stepping or falling on an oyster bed is a real quick way to ruin a great vacation.
Proper Gear is Essential!
There are many things you need in your kayak or on your person to kayak safely around Oak Island.
- Always wear a United States Coast Guard approved PFD (Personal Floatation Device) also known as a Life Jacket, and keep it snug. Just having it on the kayak is not sufficient, it must be worn! If your kayak flips over and the life jacket floats away, it is of no use. You could also be injured or “knocked out” and your PFD will be the only thing keeping your head above water.
- “Sit Inside” kayaks are not appropriate for coastal waters. These are the hollow kayaks you often see at discount stores where you physically sit inside them and your legs are not visible. “Sit On Top” kayaks, where the entire boat is one molded piece that you literally sit on top of, are the only type recommended. These are “self-bailing” and cannot, for all practical purposes, become flooded with water and sink. Kayaks with rudders are highly recommended since currents are always an issue in Oak Island waters.
- Wear shoes! Proper footwear is critical, especially if you find yourself in oyster beds or anywhere barnacles are present. SCUBA diving shoes made from wetsuit material with hard rubber soles are excellent for most kayaking activities, and are very comfortable.
- Have a cell phone and flashlight in a waterproof container that floats. In addition to flashlights, have a couple “Glow Sticks” onboard. These do not require batteries and will greatly help first responders find you at night should the need arise. A flare gun and flares are also highly recommended.
- Always have a knife in a place where you can easily reach it, even when flipped.
- A small first-aid kit and storage for personal medications is highly recommended.
- Carry a portable VHF marine radio since cell phone reception on the water is not as good as on land.
- Have a marine whistle, bell or horn, within easy reach for low visibility conditions.
- Consider adding a throw bag or other rescue gear and know how to use them.
- Installing a bilge pump may be an option on some kayaks. At a minimum, have a large cup or something similar that can be used to pump or dump water out of your kayak.
- Waterproof matches can be very helpful if you find yourself stuck somewhere overnight. A blanket, or emergency blanket in a first-aid kit, will also make sure you are able to stay sufficiently warm if the temperatures drop or you are cold from being in the water.
- Towel(s) for drying yourself off should you get wet.
- Sunscreen is a necessity, especially on high UV days, as is insect repellent, sunglasses with UV eye protection. Oak Island Water Rescue maintains our own weather station that displays UV Index.
- Duct tape or “Speed Tape” can be used to make minor repairs in the field. But if your kayak has a deep cut or gash below the waterline, this should be considered an emergency situation and you should move to land immediately. Once safe, do not attempt to make it back to shore with a badly damaged kayak. If your only option is a sandbar or island, go there and call 911. We will be happy to come get you!
- A waterproof GPS is a great tool to have. You can use the one on your cell phone of course, but marine specific GPS units are affordable and often times much better for the task at hand. Many are offered as fish finders with GPS mapping built in and designed to be attached to the kayak. These are excellent, but you need to keep the maps up to date. Several “apps” are available for most phones that provide marine mapping and navigation functions. Don’t depend on Google Maps or similar applications designed for highway use since they lack sufficient waterway navigation maps.
- Extra batteries for all electronic devices and charging block for your cell phone.
- If you are “directionally challenged”, have a compass on board as well. Remember, Oak Island and the Intracoastal Waterway run east to west, the beach faces south, not east like most beaches on the east coast.
- Put all of your electronics, charts, camera, phone, and other smaller items in a waterproof “dry bag”. Purchase a dry bag that will float as well to make sure it does not sink if your kayak is flipped over.
- Have bottles of water on board as well. While you may only be planning to be out a short time, what if something goes wrong? Especially in the hotter months dehydration can kick in pretty quick. The recommended quantity of water is 1 gallon per person per day, and you should carry more than you think you will need.
- Beer is not a substitute for water. In fact, you should not be drinking any alcoholic beverages while kayaking or boating.
- Install a flag on a 3′ or taller mast on your kayak so that you are easier to see by boats and others on the water. If you are kayaking at night, make sure you have a light on the mast as well.
- Have a paddle (oar) onboard, even if your kayak has pedals. Pedals break, get locked up, seize, etc. You cannot count on pedals alone to get you safely back home. A spare extra paddle is also recommended.
- If your kayak has pedals, have the tools required for a quick repair available. You may need a couple of wrenches, screwdrivers, or sockets to make quick fixes in the field.
- If you plan to anchor your kayak, have a 3-5 pound claw or mushroom type anchor attached with at least 25 feet of 1/4″ to 3/8″ paracord or similar anchor line. NEVER TIE THE ANCHOR LINE TO THE KAYAK! The anchor line should only be held to the kayak using a cleat or carabiner so that the anchor can be quickly released in an emergency. When anchored, only anchor the kayak at the front or rear, never the middle. If a large wave or wake from a boat hits you broadside, a kayak anchored in the middle will flip or become flooded. Anchor Trolleys are great way to anchor a kayak and allow you to quickly move the anchor point to the front or rear of the boat.
- If you use a claw type anchor, did you know there is a right and wrong way to tie the anchor line to it? If you followed the manufacturer’s directions, chances are you did it wrong! There is a clever and simple way to properly attach the anchor line so that you can easily dislodge it from coral, oyster beds, or anything else underwater it may get snagged upon. See this video for more information.
Things To Do
- Make a float plan: Notify friends or family of your paddle itinerary. Make sure they know who to contact if you don’t return on time (That would be us, call 911). Write down where you intend to put in, take out, and when you expect to return.
- Secure all gear to the kayak, preferably using inside storage compartments so that you don’t lose everything when the kayak flips over.
- Always carry clothing to protect from wind and rain that can quickly compromise your safety and cause hypothermia, even in warm weather. Dress in layers. Temperature changes can occur rapidly even in summer.
- For emergencies, call 911, but assume the coverage will be inadequate. This is why we recommend having a portable VHF marine radio with you as well as your cell phone. If you need to call for help using using a VHF radio, be familiar with the procedures as described by the US Coast Guard. If you forget the proper procedures, don’t sweat it! Just get on the radio and ask for help from the United States Coast Guard using channel 16. Chances are they will call us to rescue you. Just know that once you make contact with them, help is on the way.
- If you are planning for an extended trip, consider a satellite phone or a SPOT Personal satellite tracking system (can give outgoing message where cell phones do not work). Make sure everyone in your party knows how to operate the emergency equipment. Consider what power source to use for this equipment.
- Research the section of water you are kayaking using correct maps, like those provided by NOAA.
- Kayaking in a group is highly recommended
- Know the abilities of you and your group and do not exceed them.
- Watch out for boat traffic both large and small. Boaters will be in speed boats, jet skis, and other motorized craft that can be dangerous to kayakers. It is also not uncommon to see large shipping vessels or yachts. These generate substantial wake and waves that can easily flip a kayak.
- Know how to get back into your kayak if you flip it over. This includes knowing how to flip your kayak back upright as well as physically climbing back into it. If your kayak does not have a “Flip Line” to grab onto, this YouTube video shows one method of flipping and getting back into your kayak. A much better approach, and one that you can easily build yourself, is to add a “Flip Line” rope to your kayak. This allows you to easily flip your kayak over, and is especially useful for large or heavy kayaks, as well as making it much easier to get back in the boat. Here is a great YouTube video showing how to make one and how to properly use it.
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