Staying Safe on the Placid Peconics

The water is an oasis from the troubles of the world, and since we’re swimming in troubles right now, we’re also taking to the East End’s waterways in droves.

But would-be mariners who have never stepped off the dock before should not be swayed to complacency by the calm they can find in the Peconics. All waterways should be treated with respect, especially when you are in a small craft like a kayak or a sailing dinghy or a stand up paddleboard.

While it might seem like a beautiful June afternoon in your backyard a couple miles from the beach, the Peconics are known for their afternoon breezes, and the bays’ ample topography means you might find yourself setting off from a protected area only to find when you round a headland that you are facing straight into a gale or fighting unexpectedly strong currents.

A gentle breeze of 8 to 12 miles per hour can easily push kayaks around, perhaps not in their intended direction, and can also generate waves of two to three feet in open water — taller than the sides of a kayak. 

While experienced and strong paddlers may be able to hold their own in such conditions, they also know not to head downwind as they’re setting out on their travels, because winds tend to build throughout the day and you don’t want to face down a headwind when you are tired on your way home.

Novice paddlers should certainly consider only embarking into the Peconics on a calm day, preferably in the early morning.

Another consideration this early in the season is water temperature. As of this writing in late May, the water temperatures here were still in the high 50s and low 60s.

The National Center for Cold Water Safety (coldwatersafety.org) advises that “you should treat any water temperature below 70F with caution.”

They caution that breathing begins to be affected when swimming in waters under 77 degrees, and Olympic swimming competitions require that water temperature be above 77 degrees for this reason. 

If you are boating and fall overboard this early in the season, you’ll likely be fully clothed, which can add to the difficulties you face once your clothes become drenched. On a calm June morning, you may have nothing to fear. But when that wind kicks up, you’re increasing the odds you could end up in the drink.

“Cold shock is as extreme between 50 and 60F as it is at 35F,” cautions the Center. “This means that an unprotected immersion in this temperature range will cause most people to completely lose control of their breathing – they will be gasping and hyperventilating as hard and fast as they can.”

If you have the means to outfit yourself to enjoy a day on the water, there’s no excuse to not have life preservers or a waterproof handheld VHF radio on board, even on paddlecraft. The weather can change rapidly on the water, and it is essential to be able to think quickly and act responsibly in deteriorating conditions. 

Make a float plan before you go out — tell someone where you are going and when you intend to come back. Write your emergency contact information somewhere on your vessel in Sharpie so that first responders can figure out if someone needs to be rescued if they find your vessel adrift. 

And, for god’s sake, if you are heading out in any vessel that can achieve some degree of speed, learn something about the rules of the road. 

When encountering another power vessel on a head-on course, pass to the right, just as you would when driving a car. When, in traveling on a collision course in any other angle in relation to another vessel (this is called crossing), the boat that would overtake the other boat must “take early and substantial action” to avoid a collision, usually through a change of heading.

 The boat that is not overtaking is called the “stand on” vessel and its captain is entitled to continue on course at their current speed.

Self-propelled and wind-propelled vessels may not have the ability to maneuver, and power vessels must yield to them. Power vessels must also yield to fishing boats with their gear set, and to ferries, which are on a set, known course.

This is the rule for a simple reason. If you have the means to travel quickly, you also have enough headway to maneuver quickly. 

You also have the power to not endanger people in paddlecraft with your wake. Use this power wisely. We’re all friends on the water.

Even though the waters of the Peconics can seem placid, the East End’s first responders conduct many search and rescue operations and boat collisions here each year. Most of them could be avoided if we all take these simple safety precautions seriously.

Beth Young

Beth Young

Beth Young built her first boat out of driftwood tied together with phragmites behind her family’s apartment above the old Mill Creek Inn in Southold. Nowadays, she spends most of her time kayaking, learning about shellfish, writing newspaper stories, trying to sail a Sunfish, and watching the way the bay changes from day to day. You can send her a message at [email protected]

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