My favorite subject… Communication is the biggest challenge encountered by humans!!!

Communication is a tricky subject in our every day life and can become a nightmare on the water. With windy conditions, distances, a little stress coming with a sudden breeze, attention to others can decrease fairly fast. There are rules to help you communicate well with your fellow paddlers, keep it simple and plan in advance!

One of the first things paddlers fail to realize is that communication starts before you hit the water. It starts on land. Talk about your trip before you go. How far, how fast, when do we need to be back, what kind of conditions make you uncomfortable, where do we meet if we are separated?

Who will be the leader and make decisions on the water?

Who is skilled at rescues, who’s carrying the VHF radio, and who packed the food (always keep an eye on that one)?

And off you go. Now if it’s windy, and you’re a bit behind because of last night’s birthday party, how do you communicate with the rest of the group?

Communication is an important safety tool, and a necessity when traveling in groups. Some devices also allow you to listen to your marine weather forecast, ask general information, get in contact with other ocean users, and now even let your friends and family know where you are. At the end of this post you’ll find a list of links leading you to articles and reviews about the devices listed below. The list will keep growing as I find more so keep an eye out.

Communication devices have been divided in 2 categories:

  • 1 way communication: You send a message but cannot receive one back. Obviously there are some limitations there, you can’t be sure anybody received the message and you can only ask a limited number of things (usually 1 way com are designed to call for help, but you can’t give the urgency level or specify you just ran out of coffee, is there anybody in the area with an extra pound?).
  • 2 way communications allow you to talk and receive a response. Immediately, this sounds like the solution. Anyhow, due to price, size of the device, and limitation of transmission, 2 way com have their setbacks as well.

In 1 way communication and 2 way communication, we find 2 categories as well:

  • Communication within the group
  • Communication with the rest of the world

This is starting to get complex, there should be something out there that does it all! The reality is, a mix of everything, adapted to the activity and the risk level is more appropriate. The big difference will usually be how far you can transmit and reach when you call, and how much information you can give when you do.
So brace yourself and don’t get discouraged, there are some cool gadgets coming up.

We’ll start with the simplest and keep on going: One way Communication within the group, Two way communication within the group, One way communication with the World, Two way communication with the World.
But first a quick reference list in case  you know what you’re looking for:

1 Way Communication Within The Group

  • Whistle signal (air horns)
  • Paddle signal
  • Light signal

2 Way Communication Within The Group

  • Walkie-talkies
  • Cell phones
  • VHF radio
  • Whistle, paddle and light signal can be used in some conditions

1 Way Communication With The World

  • Whistle, paddle and light signal
  • Mirror signal
  • Large inflated bags
  • Fires
  • Flares
  • Strobes, Lasers
  • Personal Locator Beacons (PLB)
  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB)
  • Satellite Messenger Personal Tracker (SPOT)

2 Way Communication With The World

  • VHF radio
  • Cell Phones
  • Satellite phones

1 Way Communication Within The Group

  • Whistle signal (air horns): you can agree to a number of whistle signals within your group before you hit the water. In windy conditions this will work much better than screaming. The hard part is to make sure everybody remembers the signals to avoid confusion.
  • Paddle signal: same as whistle signals, it works well when your voice can’t carry out to the rest of the group. It’s visual and quite clear as long as everybody is familiar with the signals.
  • Light signal: obviously this is for low light environments, same as above.

2 Way Communication Within The Group

  • Walkie-talkies: a great way to keep in touch. If the lead and sweep paddlers are far apart, it’s easy to keep communicating. Also if the group decides to split up for a couple hours, you’re still able to get updates from the other half, find out if they’ll be on time or delayed, if they need a hand or if everything is going as planned. The chances of reaching somebody outside of the group are slim as walkie-talkies use frequencies rarely monitored by anybody. And you want to know how far you can transmit with the other device before you get too far apart…. it depends on the models, topography (maybe you loose contact once the other group has disappeared behind an island), and the power source (the stronger the power source, the longer you’ll be get reception).
  • Cell phones: we all know, cell phones are great. BUT… you need reception in order to use them, and they generally don’t like water! Cell phones are best used on land for calling at pre-arranged times. You can always raft up on the water in an emergency, get the phone out of its waterproof case, and make a call if you have reception… Avoid relying on your cell phone only.
  • VHF radio: this is possibly the best marine communication device out there. You get your Marine Weather Forecast on it, you can reach the Coast Guard and a network of boats in your immediate vicinity. Within the group it’s a good way to stay in touch, so decide on a channel and keep listening. Or agree to get in touch every hour, turn on your radio 5 min before and get your update regularly. VHF radio can be waterproof (that’s a big bonus), and the batteries last a long time as long as you mostly listen (if you transmit a lot, you’ll want to have some spare batteries that match your Radio). The only draw-backs: in strong winds it’s hard to hear more than just “cracrcracraccara”, and it’s line-of-sight so if there is an island or anything solid between you and the other device you’re trying to reach, you have lost contact.
  • Whistle, paddle and light signal: we already looked at these previously, they can be a simple 2 way communication, as you can signal back and forth but not exchange detailed information (you can signal  “go over there” but not why, how fast… and the other side can only reply “ok” or “no”).

1 Way Communication With The World

  • Whistle, paddle and light signal: this is a primitive way to communicate with the rest of the world. You can’t tell if anybody got the message, and if somebody did, you can’t tell how they will interpret it. Never the less, in a emergency situation, it has worked very well for lots of people in distress. Waving your paddle back and forth repetitively in a populated area will probably get some results, so it’s worth a try.
  • Mirror signal: learn the technique, and you will need some sun! The advantage of the mirror is that it is recognized as a distress signal, and it carries far. You still won’t know if you’ve succeeded until you’re rescued!
  • Large inflated bags: bright colors work best, and it floats… that’s always a bonus if you are on the water. Some advantages of these bags are: they don’t take a lot of room, they’re cheap, and you can use them for many purposes besides communication ( some plastic bags are big enough to sleep in, they are waterproof -but not breathable-, and some say you can even get in them while you are in the water in the instance you have been separated from your boat).
  • Fires: for communication, make lots of smoke. Smoke is visible from long distances on clear days, and bright flames work well at night. There is obviously something else to fire. It keeps you warm, it keeps you busy, it helps the group morale a lot…. Make sure you have the means to start a fire with you, always!
  • Flares
  • Strobes, Lasers
  • Personal Locator Beacons (PLB)
  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB)
  • Satellite Messenger Personal Tracker (SPOT)

Related Links

You can also make up your own hand signals for: “what a great day”, “I want to eat” and “stop whining!!!”