There are lots of ways we can stay connected whilst out on the water. In this article we are going to look at a few of the most common communication methods used by paddlers on the sea and inland.

Mobile Phone

Most of us own a mobile phone and it is probably the first communication device we’d consider taking out on the water with us. It makes sense; you don’t have to buy a new piece of kit and you already know how to use it.

Mobile phones – the obvious form of communication If, like mine, your phone is of the ‘smart’ variety, you may be a bit hesitant to take it on the water with you. There are lots of waterproof cases, and even some waterproof mobiles, on the market and I’m sure there are great ones out there but I haven’t found one I trust 100% yet. So I have a £10 pay-as-you-go phone that I put in an Aquapak whilst on the water – I really don’t need to be checking my emails whilst paddling! Mobile coverage in the UK is getting better all the time but can still be very patchy in many of the remote areas and some not-so remote areas we like to paddle. An emergency 999 (or 112) call will connect to any available network, if your usual doesn’t have reception. Even if the signal is too poor for a voice call it may be possible to send a text message. (To send a text to 999 you must be registered – see http://www.emergencysms.org.uk/ )

Pros Cons
Relatively cheap Some areas have poor reception
You probably already own one Need to be waterproofed
Useful for routine and emergency communications Only the person you are calling can hear you

VHF Radio

On the sea VHF Radio has a few key advantages over a mobile phone – most important is that your transmissions may be received by multiple VHF users. National and international regulations make it a requirement for many vessels, although not kayaks, to monitor VHF Channel 16 (the International Distress, Safety and Calling channel). If, for example, in an emergency your transmission is not received by a Coastguard linked shore station it may instead be received by another vessel who could relay it to the Coastguard. Also, other vessels hearing that you are in distress may be able to offer more immediate assistance than the Coastguard. On the other hand, it is worth noting that if the Coastguard received a distress call via mobile phone they would then broadcast that fact via VHF radio, allowing the same vessels to offer assistance albeit by a slightly more convoluted method. Another advantage of VHF Radio is the ability for the rescue services to pinpoint your location via a process known as direction finding. Direction finding is possible via the Coastguards shore stations, which can be used to approximate your location, and by equipment carried on most RNLI Lifeboats and Search and Rescue Helicopters, who can effectively use your transmissions as a homing beacon. A similar process is possible via your mobile phone but relies on your transmission being picked up by multiple masts and can’t be used in the same way to home in on you by lifeboats or helicopters.

VHF radios – practical and efficient As well as the two major safety considerations above, VHF Radio allows you to access weather forecasts, communicate within a large group or between multiple groups of paddlers in the same location. In some places, like at the Old Forge in Knoydart (on Channel 12), you can even use VHF radio to arrange a dinner reservation! VHF Radio should only be used by, or under the supervision of, an appropriately qualified person. In the UK the radio should also be registered with OFCOM.

Pros Cons
They are designed for marine use and most are waterproof Relatively expensive
Your transmission can be heard by many people at once Legally should be licensed and operated by a qualified person
Can be used for routine and emergency communications Requires another station to be in range

Personal Locator Beacon

This satellite based technology is not new (they were first introduced in the US in 2003 but the technology has been available in for ships and aircraft since 1982) but recent years have seen the units get much smaller and considerably cheaper. A Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB, is a small device about the size of a mobile phone which contains a GPS receiver and two radio transmitters. The PLB is usually activated by deploying an antenna and pushing a single button.

PLB – Personal Locator Beacon Once activated the PLB transmits its GPS coordinates to one of 14 SARSAT satellites, which provide global coverage, via its 406 MHz transmitter. The signal will be relayed by the satellite to a Mission Control Centre via a ground station. The Mission Control Centre can then access the PLB register to find your details and pass your location to the relevant agency to coordinate a rescue – this process takes between 3 and 45 minutes. The unit will also begin transmitting a signal on 121.5 MHz which can be used to home in on your location by the rescue services in the same manner as VHF, described above. A PLB, like the McMurdo FastFind 220, will cost less than £200 and is, in my opinion, worth its weight in gold for anyone who likes to head off the beaten track. There are other satellite communications systems out there, like SPOT, but be aware of their limitations before relying on them.

Pros Cons
One button activation Can only be used in an emergency
Will transmit your location to a dedicated SAR Coordination centre Can’t supply any additional information
Works globally with no need to worry about reception No way of knowing if anyone has received your signal until help arrives
Battery will last for several years
Free registration and no annual fees or licenses

Distress Signal Flares

Distress flares come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with a different purpose. The types we are most likely to be interested in are Red Handflares, Orange Handsmokes, Day/Night Flares and Red Parachute Rockets. The Red Handflares and Orange Handsmokes pretty much do what they say on the tin, the Red Handflare is handheld and burns red for 60 Seconds at 15,000 candelas, it can be used day or night. The Orange Handsmoke is similar but emits a dense orange smoke for 60 seconds, it is best used during the day. The Day/Night Flare is a combination of the two, with a red flare at one end and orange smoke at the other, which can be activated one at a time.

Distress flares selection Red Parachute Rockets are also fairly self-explanatory, the flare shots a projectile to 300m which falls back down on a parachute whilst burning bright red. There are other flares available but these four are the most commonly used by paddlers in the UK. The Day/Night is compact enough to be carried in your buoyancy aid front pocket, some carry the others in the back pocket of their buoyancy aid. I prefer to have mine in a dry bag somewhere close to hand. Flares are essentially explosive devices, so some thought needs to go in to how you will store, transport and dispose of them. Setting off out of date flares on fireworks night is illegal and has been known to end with bomb disposal being called out on at least one occasion.

Pros Cons
Doesn’t rely on electronic signals Need to be replaced every 3 years
Can be seen for a significant distance around Disposal can be difficult
Doesn’t require a license in Great Britain (NI has different rules on pyrotechnics) Potential for misfire or worse

Conclusion

These are just four of the most commonly used communication devices used by paddles in the UK, there are others we could have mentioned ranging from whistles and signal mirrors to satellite phones and laser flares. Exactly what you carry will depend on what type of paddling you do and where you paddle. My own paddling is mostly in the West Highlands, where mobile reception is patchy and VHF can be hit and miss depending on what vessels are around you and how far you are from a shore transmitter. Also the geography of the area often means I’m a long way from civilisation. Therefore I choose to carry a mobile, VHF, PLB and flares. I carry my phone, VHF, PLB and a Day/Night flare in my buoyancy aid and keep more flares in a dry bag attached behind my seat.

Your full arsenal of communication devices For new paddlers starting out and considering what to buy first, I’d definitely recommend starting by waterproofing your current mobile phone, or considering buying a cheap one, and buying at least one of a VHF, PLB or set of flares. If you paddle in a location that has lots of other water users around the VHF is probably the place to start. If you are heading anywhere vaguely remote then I couldn’t strongly enough recommend a PLB, it genuinely could make the difference between life and death in an emergency. If you show this article to your nearest and dearest they might even buy one for you!

Mark McKerral from Paddle Lochaber Mark McKerral has been paddling and sailing on the Scottish west coast since he was 12. He owns Paddle Lochaber, a BCU approved paddlesport provider. Mark holds BCU coaching and leadership awards across all disciplines. Check out more from Mark and his team at Paddle Lochaber