Ever since we first considered opening a sea kayaking outfitter in Portland, our primary concern has been safety. Our business would be a cinch if all we did was simply let people hop in kayaks and paddle off into the islands of Casco Bay. The reality is that the risks that come with paddling in Maine coastal waters require us—and all other serious sea kayaking outfitters—to invest an enormous amount of time, energy and other resources into making sure that we minimize the inherent risks of sea kayaking as much as possible. It's a very safe sport when it's done right, but it can otherwise be very high-risk.
We're proud of the steps that we've taken during our first season to ensure that safety is our top priority. Many of these steps involve simply adopting industry standards, as articulated by organizations such as the American Canoe Association, the Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides, and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Other steps we've taken are more customized to meet the needs of our unique operations and location. Because we are determined to build the trust and respect of the Portland community, whose public space we rely on for our operations, we want to share just a handful of the safety policies, procedures and practices we've established:
Rental screening process
As anyone who has rented a kayak from us knows, we don't let anyone go out with our gear before we have a firm grasp on their skill level and their planned route. We often turn away potential renters – or ask them to adjust their planned route – based on our judgment of their preparedness. We havefirmpolicies about who uses our kayaks for rentals. We will not allow anyone to venture far beyond the shoreline and into the islands unless they have experience with kayak rescue skills. At least one paddler in every group must know how to perform an assisted rescue and all solo paddlers must have mastered a self-rescue technique. For those without these skills, we may allow them to paddle in the protected areas near the East End Beach, if conditions are appropriate. We also encourage such paddlers to take our "Rescue Clinic" and/or join a guided tour. We spend a significant amount of our time educating potential renters about the dangers and hazards involved in kayaking in Casco Bay, and we take seriously every decision we make to let a group venture out on their own. We do not allow any children under age 8 to paddle in our kayaks, except in special circumstances, and we generally require that all children under age 13 paddle in a tandem kayak with an adult. All individuals under age 18 must be accompanied by an adult or a guide.
Each of our staff members bring a wealth of experience from previous jobs, but during our first season we have invested dozens of combined hours of staff training in order to develop their skills and knowledge further. We held a day-long training in the spring and we hold additional staff training sessions every couple weeks. We run through drills – both on land and on water -- that present high-risk scenarios that staff might need to handle. Our goal is to prepare our staff to deal with any potential situation – from paddlers lost in fog to a capsized kayaker with hypothermia adrift in the bay. All of our staff are required to be proficient in kayak assisted rescues and self rescues. They all spend several days assisting other experienced staff before they make any important safety decisions on their own.
All guides working for Portland Paddle are Registered Maine Guides and have undergone multi-day courses with other outfitters to prepare them for the leading groups on coastal waters. They each have extensive sea kayaking and outdoor leadership experience.
Paddler Information Forms and Waivers
Everyone who goes paddling with us is required to fill out a two-sided sheet that serves four purposes: 1) Gather crucial information about the renter, including emergency contact, medical info, cell number; 2) Identify the renter's skill level and which kayaking skills they have developed; 3) Inform the customer about what we require and expect from them in order for them to stay safe; 4) Inform them that they are ultimately responsible for the many inherent risks involved in paddlesports.
Additionally, every single customer renting a kayak or paddleboard from us must check off each box in the following checklist:
First aid preparedness.
All Portland Paddle staff members are required to hold current certifications in First Aid and CPR, and they are encouraged to become certified in Wilderness First Aid. Additionally, two of our staff are Wilderness First Responders. Each guide is required to carry a first aid kit, and we always have a first aid kit on hand in the Paddle Van.
Guide to client ratio.
Maine state law requires that all commercial tours provide one guide for every 12 clients. Portland Paddle prefers to go further, and maintain a ratio that is closer to one guide for every 8 clients. Still, we typically have an even smaller ratio, with an average around 1:6. We believe that this ratio is safer and leads to a overall more enjoyable trip for everyone.
Guide gear requirements
Having the right gear is a big part of ensuring safety when sea kayaking, so all Portland Paddle guides are required to have the following gear in their kayaks at all times when they are on the water:
- Rescue Stirrup
- Fleece jackets or wool sweaters
- Tow Belt
- Wool Hat
- Hypothermia Tarp or Shelter
- 3 to 5 Flares
- VHF Radio
- Cell Phone
- Fog Horn (or another type of loud noisemaker)
- First Aid Kit
- Energy Bars or something similar
- Spare Paddle
- Bilge Pump and Paddle Float
- Basic Boat Repair Kit
- Leatherman or small tool kit
Weather monitoringSea kayaking and paddleboarding are heavily dependent on weather conditions, so we've taken a series of steps to ensure our staff always has a good handle on the weather. When weather conditions become hazardous, we shut down all rentals and cancel tours. The guide scheduled to lead a tour is responsible for deciding whether to cancel that tour due to weather and staff working at our base are responsible for making decisions about when to cut off rentals due to weather. Making judgments about conditions is one major focus of our staff training. Staff must also check the marine forecast at least twice during each day: Once in the morning before opening and once in the early afternoon. We have several weather-monitoring methods readily available at all times. First, our VHF radios are equipped to monitor NOAA weather stations. Secondly, all staff cell phones are equipped with several apps – one to monitor radar, another that provides the latest marine forecast and another conventional weather app. We also regularly survey the current conditions on the bay by eyesight, and often with binoculars, to gain a real-time sense of what it's like on the water.
Safety-oriented kayaking lessons
We strongly encourage almost everyone who rents kayaks from us to take one of our lessons so that they can develop the skills to paddle more safely without a guide. We believe that having familiarity with kayak rescue skills makes kayaking far more fun and safe. That's why we offer our three-hour "Rescue Clinic" every Saturday for just $45. We believe that the more paddlers there are with rescue skills, the more safe everyone on the water will be.
Customized nautical charts and safety info sheet
It's easy to get lost anywhere on the Maine coast, and even in Casco Bay, where there are plenty of landmarks. Islands blur together on the horizon and one's sense of distance becomes distorted. Moreover, fog or rain can roll in quickly, making it difficult to see objects just a few feet away. To reduce the chances that our customers will get lost, we created a series of laminated nautical charts. One goes out with every group of paddlers. We also have compasses available for customers who are venturing far from the mainland and can't provide their own. Additionally, on the back of our charts, we added lots of other safety information, including emergency contact info, potential unsafe scenarios and tips for safe paddling on the Maine coast. For example, paddlers can read what to do if thunderstorms are approaching, or if someone capsizes.
Salt water and sun can be rough on gear, and when gear doesn't work properly, the potential for dangerous situations becomes much higher. That's why we invested in high-quality gear, including PFDs, kayaks, sprayskirts and paddles. It's inevitable that gear will break down occasionally, but we strive to minimize these occurrences by buying excellent products and caring for them diligently.
Staff safety talks
Every group or individual who goes paddling with Portland Paddle's gear is given a "safety talk" that covers the most important considerations when paddling on Casco Bay. Among the topics covered by staff in this talk are the following:
o Avoiding and coping with boat traffic
o What to do in the event of a capsize
o What to do in the event of a thunderstorm, fog or other weather conditions
o Staying together in a group on the water
o How to adjust PFDs, sprayskirts and kayak footpegs properly
Encouraging the use of tandem kayaks
Tandem kayaks are generally much more stable than solo kayaks, so we encourage everyone without significant experience to use tandems. Moreover, if one person in a group of paddlers gets sick, injured or exhausted, it is much easier to deal with the situation if there is one tandem in the group. In such a situation, the paddler having difficulty can be put in the front of the tandem and let the other paddler get them to safety. We persuade many potential renters that they will be better off – and much more safe – paddling a tandem rather than solos.
Ensuring reliable and quick communication is a crucial aspect of minimizing the risk of sea kayaking. We rely on both cell phones and VHF radios for most of our communication in addition to a series of hand and paddle signals that we use on the water. All guides are required to carry both cell phones and VHFs, and we also have both forms of communication at all times at our base on the mainland. Guides are required to call the base for a check-in on all tours that last more than two hours. Guides also use their VHF radios to communicate with other boaters on Casco Bay and to monitor radio traffic that might affect our operations.
We also encourage—and often require—renters to carry a cell phone in a dry bag. We record this number and call them if they are running late or if marine conditions deteriorate.
Emergency action plan
In addition to a thorough range of policies and procedures designed to prevent emergency situations, we have developed an emergency action plan to provide guidance to our staff if a dangerous and/or life-threatening situation were to occur. We have shared this plan with various stakeholders and made changes based on feedback we have received. This plan helps to ensure that we react to emergencies in an efficient, immediate and consistent manner.
Experience and expertise
Portland Paddle strives to have the most thoroughly trained, highly skilled, best-prepared outfitter staff in the state. Currently we have six Registered Maine Guides on its staff, two ACA-certified instructors and three wilderness first responders. Zack Anchors, who co-founded the business with Erin Quigley, has been kayaking – in both whitewater and ocean environments – for 25 years and guiding at outfitters throughout North America for 14 years. Portland Paddle's approach to safety reflects his years of working at different outfitters – some with stellar safety records and others that verge on the irresponsible. Zack has incorporated all the best safety practices he's observed over the years into Portland Paddle's own policies, while also taking steps to avoid the less safe practices he's observed at some outfitters.
Starting a conversation about safety
The policies and practices described above account for just a small part of Portland Paddle's overall approach to ensure safe paddling. If you any questions about anything here, please contact us. We're also happy to field suggestions about how we can further minimize risk and educate the broader public about how to sea kayak safely. We can always be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-370-9730.