Winter is here and the days are getting shorter. You might be considering an early morning or evening paddling session. Night paddling is an experience that I’d thoroughly recommend you try out, just make sure you paddle safe.
The obvious question is what lights to use. If you ask a group of people, you’ll get a dozen opinions. Here’s my opinion.
There are legal requirements and there are recommended options.
In NSW, canoes and kayaks are not legally required to display lights at night. It is legally sufficient to carry a torch that can be used to alert other vessels of your presence. See NSW Boating Handbook, which lists numerous recommendations in addition to the requirements
What I recommend is that you take reasonable measures to ensure your own safety. That includes avoiding collisions with powered vessels; being visible if you get into distress; being visible to other paddlers in your group; and having enough light to navigate safely in the dark.
For collision avoidance I’d recommend the Kayalu Deck Mounted Light. $74 from Expedition Kayaks. It mounts securely on your back deck where it can be seen for quite a distance. Because it’s behind you, it doesn’t obliterate your night vision which is a point I’ll come back to. The mounting is designed to cinch down on a sea kayak deck line, but they can be fitted to the tail of a oceanski by fixing a stainless eyelet to your rudder hatch cover. It runs on AA batteries and has a good battery life so you can take it on a long Hawkesbury familiarization paddle.
There are other options which are along the same lines. Some people use small torches in plastic drink bottles to diffuse their beams.
At the lower end of the scale, many night races like the Hawkesbury and Burley 24Hr Relay use cyalume chemical light sticks taped to stern and bow to provide enough light to avoid collisions between paddle craft and locate kayaks in the dark. They have the advantage that they don’t blow your night vision and are effective over a reasonable distance when viewed by other paddlers who are also using them. They may be ineffective when viewed from a powerboat where the driver is using strong on-board lights.
If you’re using cyalumes, you should still carry a torch to be compliant.
Having a fixed light on your boat exceeds the legal requirement, but I’d also recommend having a spare torch attached to your PFD. (You’re paddling in the dark, you should be wearing a PFD). A light attached to your PFD gives you options if you capsize and get separated from your boat. I use a Pelican 1930 L1. It’s a little pocket rocket of a torch which can be slipped into my pocket, or clipped on a lanyard. I’ve used mine on HCC and BG24 races for the past three years and it’s still going strong. They’re not for continuous light, they’re for getting attention when you’re in trouble. It has an optional red filter, so I can use it to read maps without wrecking my night vision. Red also attracts attention more than a white light when used as a distress sign.
At the lower end of the scale, you could simply keep a cyalume stick in your PFD for emergencies, but you’ll struggle to get anybodies attention by waving a glow stick in the middle of Botany Bay.
If you’re worried about finding yourself in real trouble, floating alone in the dark you should look very hard at a personal locator beacon like the ACR ResQLink+ or a high intensity strobe like the ACR Firefly.*
Many people favour headlamps. They are certainly useful if you’re reading maps, or having to do anything that requires working light ie messing with your hydration system when it stops working in the dark. Where they’re not so good is when you turn your head to look at the paddler next to you and blind them for the next hundred metres. If you use one, consider using the red filter, or a low light setting.
Before you light up your kayak like a Xmas tree, you should also consider that some lights have special meanings when used on the water and incorrectly displaying them may cause you different problems. For example red and green lights are used to indicate direction of travel. If you use them incorrectly you may actually cause a collision.
Finally, I’ve mentioned night vision about five times in this article. While it’s not for everybody I’d recommend trying it at least once. There are things in the darkness that you’ll never see when the lights are on. There’s a story about the things that go splash in the night [here].
*The products mentioned are examples of the gear I use. Do your own research. Make your own decisions. My choices are not necessarily transferable to your uses.