By Molly Egloff - Contributing writer
With the renaissance at the waterfront in Buffalo, the harbors and rivers are coming to life with hundreds of people venturing out on watercraft. There's dozens of ways to enjoy the water, including speed boats, sail boats, jet skis, wind surfing, or even just lazily floating on an inner tube.
It is extremely important to understand the basics of paddling - both kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) - in the mix.
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Paddling has taken off in a big way in Western New York. With more and more people hitting the water, it's more important than ever for beginners to know what they are doing.
Nancy Maisano, owner of Longboards At The Beach gave the rundown of what's important when paddling as a beginner.
First of all, understand that Lake Erie is not the Wild West, Maisano said. There are people looking out for your safety and making sure that you're not making any boat-based infractions. On land, there are the police. In the water, the Coast Guard is looking out for you. And since the congestion in WNY waterways has increased so much, they are cracking down on safety rules and regulations.
See federal boating regulations at uscgboating.org/images/420.PDF
All of Longboard's renters will go out on the water with the essential safety equipment - the kayak or paddleboard, a paddle, a life-jacket with a whistle attached, and knowledge of how to navigate around larger boats. Their operation has been inspected by the Coast Guard, and their renters have received zero safety violations, Maisano said.
Although the rules may not be as strict as with larger boats, certain items are required when you are out on the water on a kayak:
Life jacket/vest: Coast Guard-approved, and of the correct size and type for the intended user. Inflatable life jackets are an option for those 16 years of age and older (these are only recommended for people who are decent swimmers). When buying a life jacket, make sure that it fits comfortably. Try a "paddling" motion like in a kayak while you are in the store purchasing it. Some that are alright for swimming may chafe shoulders uncomfortably when paddling a kayak.
Whistle: This can signal distress, as well as get the attention of other boaters while on the water.
Running lights: A vessel with manual propulsion (as opposed to a motor or sail) should at very least have an electric torch/flashlight/lantern with white light to prevent collision if they are on the water at night (most people kayaking will come in at dusk).
Lights/visual distress signals: When operating at night, you must carry visual distress signals that can be used to find you in an emergency. These are not required during the day, but from sunset to sunrise. This could be as simple as an electric distress light that meets Coast Guard requirements, or could be as flashy as a flare (however, do not light any of these on the water unless there's a real emergency - that will get you into trouble).
It is also required that when you are out there, you follow the rules of the "road," and act responsibly. Maisano and her employees instruct their renters on proper waterway etiquette before they leave the dock/beach. She said that while paddlers technically may have the right of way, you have to be mindful of the fact that it is much more difficult to stop or turn a large heavy boat than it would be to put the brakes on in a car. While the boater may be required to stop for you, you should look out for your own safety and not put yourself at undue risk. Treat the main thoroughfares like a busy street. A kayak or paddleboard would be similar to riding a bike - stay to the sides, yield to larger vehicles, "drive" defensively, and cross with caution.
Maisano also stressed that especially when you are a beginner, good equipment is key. You may not want to spend top dollar when you are first starting out with a hobby, but you should understand that cheap equipment can make a new activity extremely frustrating and much less enjoyable. She mentioned that cheap kayaks can be rather tippy and difficult to keep on course. They also may not be rated high enough of a load to carry a fully-grown adult. The Jackson kayaks Longboard rents are heavy-duty and extremely stable, which makes for a pleasant paddling experience, Maisano said. Longboards also has purchased carbon paddles that are durable but lightweight. Carbon paddles can make all of the difference in how your arms feel at the end of a few hours.
Find information on launch sites in the Buffalo area at dec.ny.gov/outdoor/23898.html
Longboards also offers SUP rentals and lessons. Maisano said the best way to get started with this activity is to take a beginner class. Anyone can sit in a kayak and paddle out from the dock, but standing on a flat board and paddling takes a bit more practice. This will give you the opportunity to work with an instructor who, beyond the basic technique, will also teach you things like how to fall off, how to get back on, and what to do when the water conditions change (as well all know, around here the weather can change very quickly). From the lesson, you can go many different directions with your SUP abilities - everything from leisurely paddling around with friends to taking fitness classes - yes, on the board, and in the water!
Maisano said people frequently ask, “How likely is it that I will fall off of the paddleboard?”
It doesn’t happen as often as one might think, she said. Maybe one or two out of a class of 10 come back "wet" at the end of the hour. She also said that not as many people as you would think wear swimsuits when they come down to rent a kayak or a board, or to take a class. Guys usually wear swim-trunks, but women frequently wear more comfortable in athletic clothes.
As far as paddling footwear goes, sandals or water shoes are fine for the kayak. It is recommended not to wear shoes you don't want to get wet - while you will likely not dump your kayak, you probably will still get them wet when launching, and nobody likes paddling around in swampy sneakers. When paddleboarding, they have lockers to leave shoes in (as you will be barefoot).
Dress for the weather: Yeah, your bikini may be “super cute” and brand new, but don't forget that it's frequently a few degrees cooler on the water than it is inland at your house. Also remember that factors including wind, clouds, rain, dusk and falling in can quickly affect the temperature you feel. Paddling becomes significantly less fun when you're shivering, so it may not hurt to bring a shirt.
Wear sun screen: The sun overhead can not only be quite powerful, but the light reflecting off the water can burn you places that you're not used to burning. Also, even on cloudy days you can get a significant amount of UV rays coming down, so lather on that SPF. Hats and sunglasses are also a good idea.
It's fun to drink when you're at the beach, but operating a vessel while intoxicated is a federal offense: The rule on boats is still .08 blood-alcohol content, and if you're over the limit, you could be subject to up to $1,000 civil penalty, or a criminal penalty of up to $5,000 and up to a year in jail. Be smart and safe!
Be a good neighbor: Carry in and carry out! That means no trash in the water. Remember, the fish need to use Lake Erie, too, and know that littering is punishable by law if the Coast Guard catches you!
Try before you buy: Rent equipment at least once before you purchase a kayak or a paddleboard. That way you can get some instruction from the rental shop, pick a pro's brain with any questions that you might have, and try it out before you invest a lot of money. Chances are good that you'll be hooked after your first time out, but it never hurts to make sure.
Molly Egloff is a Syracuse native, longtime Irish dancer and member of the Queen City Roller Girls who moved to Buffalo after graduating from SUNY Fredonia State five years ago. She blogs at her Facebook page, facebook.com/stayactiveWNY.