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Deputy warns of inevitable kayak fatalities on Buffalo waterfront

Kayakers jockeying for position against power boaters, water scooters and yacht captains are compromising safety on the Buffalo River, according to law enforcement officials.

“It’s only a matter of time before we have fatalities,” said Sgt. Richard Lauricella, who heads the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit. Speed also is becoming a factor, said Josh Fennel, an operations petty officer with the U.S. Coast Guard Station Buffalo. The speed limit in the Outer Harbor is 10 mph, he said.

“A lot of boats going really fast in a small area creates a safety issue,” Fennel said. “Inexperienced kayakers have capsized. It’s a growing concern with so much traffic out there – especially with all the kayaks.”

The Sheriff’s Marine Unit began a safety crackdown last week on paddle craft that lack required equipment: night lights, life vests and a whistle/sound-making device. Violators will be issued summonses, Lauricella said.

Patrolling the Buffalo River one recent afternoon, Lauricella was concerned about the inexperience of those who rent paddlecraft.

“You’d probably say she’s a novice paddle boarder because she is having difficulty,” he said of a young woman who attempted to stand up and paddle. “She’s wearing a floatation vest, and that is a good choice. But is it wise for her to paddle out into the boating channel?”

Last year, the Sheriff’s Marine Unit investigated 14 vessel accidents and issued 76 warnings to boaters for questionable behavior on area waterways. The most common infractions were unregistered vessels, reckless boating and insufficient or no visual distress equipment on board vessels.

“On the Fourth of July, many boaters come out who are not familiar with operating at night, and now they’re all out here at one time, and they’re all leaving at one time from a congested area – the Buffalo River, Buffalo Harbor, the Niagara River,” Lauricella said. “We will stop boaters who operate in a reckless fashion.”

Statewide, paddle craft represent 4.7 percent of the vessels involved in accidents, but they contribute to 36.2 percent of all fatalities, according to the 2015 New York State Recreational Boating Report.

The proliferation of kayak rental outfits may make it easier for non-paddlers to experience a new form of recreation, said Katelyn Waddle, public affairs specialist for the Coast Guard.

“When people rent, there is a lack of experience,” Waddle said. “If people shift their weight and accidentally fall out, they normally do not know how to get back in. Before you leave the dock, practice holding onto the kayak.

“We suggest paddlers stay closer to shore on the Buffalo River because the depth and the width of the channel limits the ability of larger commercial vessels to turn,” Waddle said. “We recommend that they stay out of the way because the paddle craft are much more mobile and agile.”

Jason Mendola owns Elevator Alley Kayak on Vandalia Street. A certified kayak instructor, Mendola conducts a safety course for his guides stressing rescue and crowd management.

With the sport blowing up, more and more people are going out to large-box stores and purchase kayaks that handle less weight and are not as buoyant,” he said. “They end up weighing more than the craft’s maximum capacity.”

To Mendola, the main problem is kayakers who don’t wear life vests.

“We supply our customers with a life vest and whistle,” he said. “We don’t rent at night, but when we offer night tours, we double up on lights, with one on the stern of the kayak and one on the life vest. We also give them a 10-minute lesson in paddle use.”

Andrea Vaillancourt-Alder, owner of Angola-based Seabirds International, instructs kayak instructors. She wants to make sure all paddle craft rental companies in the area adopt a standardized safety policy.

“I’m all about getting the local instructors together,” she said. “Right now, the media is creating a boaters vs. kayakers situation. We’re all in the water together. There should be camaraderie.”

She suggested implementing a safety policy that includes minimum standards for training, an emergency action plan and a kayak patrol craft for each rental company to monitor their kayaks in use.

“All these groups are wonderful because they get people opportunities to be on the water, but many are not safe,” Vaillancourt-Alder said.