Best Water Practices to Keep You Safe on the Bay

San Francisco Bay is one of the most stunning places to get on the water in the world. However, our dynamic micro climates, swift moving tides and heavy commercial shipping traffic means taking to the water without a plan, and some basic knowledge, can take a good day and make it a bad one. Quickly. 

While there are lots of ways to get on the water, everyone who does is entering the same world — the world of the mariner. While being a good mariner is really a lifelong, continuous learning project, the journey of a thousand nautical miles starts with a single stroke. To start you out on this journey, here are a few tips to make you safer out there.

Create a float plan.

If you have ever heard of a “flight plan” then you can guess what a “float plan” is. Making one can mean the difference between life and death. Full stop drama intended. A good float plan means someone who is not going with you knows where you are going and has an expectation of when you should return. Checking the weather and knowing the tides and currents before you go out is essential. One great tool for doing so is the Bay Area Sea Kayakers (BASK) Trip Planner. The BASK Trip Planner allows you to get very specific information for all the various launches in the area. Please consider signing up for BASK if you find yourself using the tool frequently. 

Deep water moves faster than shallow.

So you’ve found yourself moving against the current and a quick check of the shoreline shows you are not making any headway. In fact you are going backwards! There have even been power boats, full throttle, under the Golden Gate and still going backwards. For you science buffs that is due to the Venturi effect, where the tide is accelerating through many of the bays narrowing slots. Think real big squirt gun. So if you find yourself in this situation — head for shore. With deep water moving faster you’ll find relief where it is shallow. 

Red, right, return.

You see a boat on the water and like the eyes of the Mona Lisa it seems to be following your every move. If only you could predict where they are going than you could correct course and get out of the way. So here’s where finding a red thing or a green thing can help you out. Boats always want to go between the Red and the Green. Whether it’s a piling or a buoy, that color is the key to figuring out where the boat highway is. All mariners will want the “red” markers (buoys or pilings) to be on their “right” side when they are “returning” to port. Conversely, on their left side when they are leaving port. Red things will also be represented by Triangular shapes and marked with even numbers. Green markers will be squares with odd numbers. By using the axiom you can then reverse it all to make sure you are not in the channel. 

Not sure who has the right of way?

Thankfully it’s easy to figure out. It’s based on tonnage and the heavier vessel has right of way. Did you know it can take more than a mile for a container ship to stop? Swerving to miss you is not an option, either — recreational traffic in the shipping lanes has been called “splats.” Think bug on a windshield. Also, remember being right is not as good as being alive. My dad used to always say “They can put ‘You were right’ on your tombstone. “

Check the ferry routes before you go out. 

Knowing where the ferries transit is easy to plan ahead of time. When in doubt, take a predictable and early line to cross behind any oncoming traffic. Commercial skippers love predictable people. Don’t leave them guessing.

Please always write your name and phone number on all your gear. 

Not only could you someday be reunited with that paddle you absentmindedly left in the parking lot, but it can also help find you if things go wrong. This can really help the Coast Guard out and save a bunch of tax payer money in the process. When the Coasties find a board or boat floating loose they may have to initiate a search — concerned that someone is in distress — when in reality you are at home and just forgot to secure your gear. A basic search can cost easily upwards of $25,000 and pulls the Coast Guards attention away from what may be a real life-saving situation. 

Use the proper gear.

Did you know life jackets are required by law? Now you do. Did you know that a leash on a paddleboard is not? Well it should be. While we try to stay away from “never” and “always,” you should almost never leave your board and a leash will help make sure that happens. While there are certain times where a leash is dangerous — like swift moving rivers — if you are on the bay, you should be wearing a leash. All on-the-water apparel should be synthetic-based, like polyester, spandex, nylon, radon, etc. We could write a whole article on what to wear, but let’s sum it up with the old kayaker saying, “Cotton Kills.” VHF Radios, whistles, cell phones in waterproof bags and lights are also recommended for anyone straying too far from the shore.

Becoming a Mariner does not have a finish line. 

The learning continues every time you go out. Start paying attention to the environmental queues, making solid plans, gearing up with the correct gear and you can make being on the water safer for everyone. 

How to help:

Consider supporting one of these local nonprofits that urgently need support during the pandemic.

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