Kayaking in Donegal
Donegal journalist and paddlesport enthusiast Siobhán McNamara looks at the huge rise in the popularity of kayaking, and chats to Shane McCrudden from Killybegs Coast Guard for the best advice on how to stay safe on the water
There are a number of leisure activities that have seen a phenomenal surge in popularity since lockdown began, and kayaking must surely rank among the highest.
Indeed, last summer it was all but impossible to buy a kayak locally or online as demand soared. And it would seem that hundreds of kayaks have already been bought in Donegal so far this year.
It comes as no surprise to those who have been participating for years that more people are discovering the benefits of kayaking at this time of such uncertainty and anxiety.
It is well documented that physical exercise greatly benefits mental health. So too does being out on the water; therefore combining these two elements makes for the perfect antidote to all things Covid.
As watersports go, kayaking is particularly accessible. Boats and kit are relatively affordable - a decent entry level kayak, paddle and buoyancy aid can be bought new for under €500. They are easily transported on car roofs, even fitting inside some larger cars, and can certainly be moved comfortably in vans or small trailers.
Furthermore, kayaks require little maintenance and they lend themselves to all sorts of environments, being suitable for boarding from a range of shorelines, slipways and jetties.
And best of all, kayaking can be enjoyed by absolute beginners.
However, ease of access to the activity does not diminish the serious risks involved. Water safety is something that should never be taken lightly, as local rescue services know all too well. They are encouraging kayakers to familiarise themselves with basic safe practices and to stick to them at all times.
Shane McCrudden of Killybegs Coast Guard said: “A personal flotation device or buoyancy aid is a must. Everyone who goes out on the water should wear one.”
Another really important piece of basic safety advice for kayakers is to tell someone where they are going and what time they expect to be back. This applies even if they are not planning on going far. Failure to return on time could be the first indication that a person is in difficulty, so the more information available to searchers, the better the chances of a successful outcome of a search and rescue mission.
“We also advise people to carry a means of communication,” said Mr McCrudden. “Being realistic, we don’t expect every kayaker to be going about with a VHF radio. But at the very least, have a mobile phone that is well charged. Keep it in a waterproof pouch. You can get a waterproof carrier for it but we say to people that even a ziplock bag will do if you don’t have a proper carrier.”
It is a good idea to talk to other kayakers and water users in the area. They will generally be happy to share their experience and local knowledge.
Mr McCrudden added: “Get to know tides and currents, and the local lay of the land.”
The landscape can look very different from the water, and people can become easily disoriented if they get into difficulty. It is a good idea especially if kayaking in unfamiliar waters to make a mental note of places that would make a good exit point in an emergency.
Mr McCrudden also stresses the importance of being aware of how quickly weather conditions can change, especially on the water.
He gave an example of one such instance that could all too easily have ended in disaster.
“People can be inclined to explore and go into caves in calm weather,” he said.
“If the wind picked up, the swell would pick up too and you could get trapped inside. That happened to swimmers in Cork recently. Lucky enough the cave was a blowhole and they managed to get out.”
The Coast Guard officer is appealing to kayakers to put contact details - or at the very least, a phone number - onto their kayaks and paddles to avoid unnecessary searches.
“Kayaks should be identifiable in some way,” said Mr McCrudden.
“Sometimes kayaks get washed off the shore and there is no name or contact number on them.
“If we can’t make a connection to the owner we have to assume that they are missing.
“If you have a contact number on your boat, we can ring and ask if you are in or out. That means the difference in 20 minutes or a search potentially of two days.”
When asked if he had any particular advice relating to inflatable kayaks, Mr McCrudden was adamant in his reply.
“They have absolutely no business being in the water,” he said.
A group of local kayakers in Donegal Bay was asked if they had anything to add to this advice that would help those who were new to the activity.
Their responses included: wear sun cream and a cap; bring water and even a small snack such as a banana or cereal bar; use a paddle leash to tether the paddle to the kayak; carry a whistle attached to the buoyancy aid (using a whistle in an emergency situation led to the successful rescue of a kayaker on Lough Melvin last year); bring a rope as you never know when someone might need a tow; wear layers as conditions on the water can feel quite different to those on the shore; keep a full change of clothes in the car; and most importantly, make sure that while paddling, no-one in your group is getting left behind.
Canoe Ireland has further advice for kayakers and also has information on training courses. Whether someone is taking up kayaking simply to relax and enjoy the surroundings on a sit-on-top boat, or is keen to take it to the next new level of adventure with playboats or touring kayaks, there is a warm, welcoming and supportive kayaking community in Donegal.
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