Photo: Texas Dept. Of Parks and Wildlife
According to a report by the National State Boating Law Administrator's Association in 2014 over 21.7 million Americans took to the water by canoe, kayak, or paddle board representing an increase of over 3 million participants since 2010. Unfortunately the increase in participants has come with an increase in accidents including fatal accidents at a time when accidents among other boating activities are on the decrease. The most deadly incidents appear to be in the power boat/paddle boat collision category. According to a report by the U.S. Coast Guard, over the past decade the number of boaters killed aboard canoes or kayaks has grown by 71% rising from 78 fatalities in 2005 to 133 in 2014.
Paddle boats don't come with electrical alternators or generators and so "running lights" are not associated with paddle and oar propelled vessels. But in fact the nautical rules of the road require "flare up lights" to be displayed by such craft "in time to avoid collision". Such a flare up light can be as simple as a battery powered flashlight waved in the direction of an approaching power boat. Why not carry a really good quality light,since your life may depend on it? There is usually plenty of room in a canoe or kayak for such a device. A couple of years ago new federal regulations required paddle boarders to carry lights and whistles on their person. How many are doing that? We think it is also important to note that it is the oar or paddle ( in some cases small sail boat, or peddle boat) propelled vessel that has the obligation to display that flare up light upon the approach of a powered vessel. The legal thought process here is that the oar, paddle, or small sail boat makes little noise and is otherwise unlighted and highly more likely to detect an on coming power boat than the power boat is likely to detect the paddle or oar propelled vessel.
"Peddle Boats" Photo Fairfax Co. Govt
Peddle boats may present a special case as some may consider them "mechanically propelled vessels". Such a designation would require the display of red, green and white "running lights'. There are available on the market battery powered portable "running lights". We would still recommend the use of a "flare up light" on such boats even if displaying battery powered "running lights". These boats are very small, very slow, not very maneuverable and any running light system they can support is going to be relatively short range, displayed rather close to the water, and not nearly as visible as conventional "running lights" on conventional motor boats. None of this is meant as legal advice. Always conform to the latest applicable regulations, but nothing prevents you from going the regulations one better with the portable "flare up light" and extra caution as a look out. Never , however, display "extra lights" that might be confused with the red green and white "running lights".
We note that small sailboats like the ever popular sunfish have been sailing after dark for decades and have not been involved in any dramatic number of collisions with power boats. This is just our first hand observation, but we think this is because of an observable habit of many small sail boat operators. Many, if not most, savvy small boat sailors carry really good quality flash lights and periodically illuminate their sails regardless of whether or not they have detected any other vessels in their vicinity. Paddlers, peddlers, and rowers should follow the same practice and illuminate their hulls every few minutes in a like manner. Be sure to have fresh batteries before a night outing. If you are drift fishing or anchored in your small non motorized craft why not illuminate what you are doing as well as your position with a good Coleman lantern or its battery power equivalent. You will be less prone to injury, the light attracts fish, and prevents "allision" ( collision =involuntary contact between moving vessels/ allision = same between one moving vessel and a stationary vessel or other object). We're pretty sure than most of these involuntary contacts between powered and non powered vessels happen in reduced visibility , but not all.
While it is commonly thought that non powered vessels like sailboats usually have the right of way when meeting, or being overtaken by powered vessels , there are times when when the non powered vessel must give way. For example just because you don't have a motor you are not allowed to interfere with the navigation of a powered vessel "constrained by its draft to a narrow channel". Not only are you not allowed to obstruct commercial shipping channels but the same can apply to a yacht harbor entrance. Your paddle craft may only require a few inches of water to remain afloat and maneuverable, but that cabin cruiser entering between the buoys and day marks may well be constrained to the marked channel. Even paddle boarders should take a course in the nautical rules to avoid collision.
The weather you start out in may not be the weather that holds all day. This is why non powered vessels should carry breath activated "sound devices" (loud whistles), if there is no room for a compressed air horn. By regulation paddle boarders should have a whistle in the pocket of their required life jacket or hung around their necks precisely so that you can make your position known if you become enveloped in fog or a blinding rain squall.
If you are reading this as a post , we suggest following up with a review of the paddle board regulations found in our Paddle and Oar Vessel Section or if you are reading this while in that section simply scroll down to the post on the paddle board regulations. For a short video introduction to the rules to avoid collision check out this YouTube video. Remember, your canoe, kayak, peddle boat, or even paddle board is legally a "vessel" not a toy. The waterways present enjoyable opportunities for recreation, but they are also arteries of commerce, transportation systems, and there are rules that apply to operating vessels, no matter how simple upon them. Failure to observe the rules can be fatal, and...no its not automatically the fault of the power vessel. Stay safe out there!