Paddle craft are vessels such as canoes, kayaks, row boats, surf skis and stand up paddle boards.
Learn what safety gear you need for different paddle craft and waterways, and how to get set for an enjoyable trip so you come home safely.
Licensing and registration
Low-powered kayak and canoe exemption
Paddlers of certain low-powered kayaks and canoes are permanently exempt from licensing and registration rules in Victoria from 1 July 2020. Read more: Exemption for low-powered kayaks and canoes now permanent. Please note that this exemption is for kayaks and canoes only. Other low-powered paddle craft do not comply with the exemption requirements.
Wear a lifejacket
- You must wear a lifejacket when paddling craft such as a kayak, canoe, surf ski, raft or row boat. You'll also need a way to remove water from your vessel.
- There are extra requirements if your craft is motorised, or if you're heading more than 2 nautical miles offshore.
- Using a paddle leash will help prevent you being separated from your paddle if you capsize.
- If you capsize, stay with your vessel – it is much easier for rescuers to see, and it enables you to reach for your safety equipment
- Where possible, travel in a group to maximise your safety
- You may need to communicate in an emergency or advise someone of a change of plan, so always carry a mobile phone, flares or a distress beacon.
- Also, put something on your craft which can identify you – such as a name and phone number. This will help emergency services find you.
Learn about paddle safety equipment
Check the weather
- Always check the weather before heading out. Be prepared to defer your plans until another day if the winds are too strong and the waves are too big.
- Wear suitable clothing for the conditions
- Ensure your craft is fit for purpose and well-maintained
Be seen, be safe
- Paddle craft sit low to the water and can be difficult for other boats to see. Make yourself visible by wearing bright clothes and using fluorescent paint on your paddle.
- Consider fitting a flag to your kayak
- At night, carry a white light easily visible to approaching vessels
Let someone know before you go
- Tell someone on land where you are going, your departure point and when you intend to return.
- If you change your plans, let them know.
- Give them a description or photo of your craft and details of the number of people on board. This will assist emergency services, should the need arise.
Learn about trip preparation
Keep clear or to the right of vessels
- Obey the rules of the waterway that you are operating on, be vigilant about your route and avoid shipping lanes
- Many collisions between vessels result from a lack of understanding of the rules of safe navigation
- You must always navigate on the right (starboard) side of a river or channel
Keep a good lookout
- You are responsible for keeping watch as to what is ahead, behind and to either side of you.
- Look out for other vessels, swimmers and potential danger at all times. And always allow plenty of time and space in which to carry out any manoeuvre.
Know your limits
- Paddle within your limits – and that includes your craft, your experience, the conditions on the day and your level of skills.
- Be realistic about your fitness and capabilities and save strength for the return journey.
- If the vessel is a decked canoe or kayak or is otherwise fitted with individual cockpits, the number of persons carried on the vessel must not exceed the number of individual cockpits in the vessel, irrespective of the age of the person.
Know how to get back in
- Learn how to avoid ending up in the water by using support and bracing techniques. Learn how to use a paddle float and stirrup.
- For decked kayaks the Eskimo roll is the best and fastest self-rescue.
- Practice these skills before they are really needed!
Improve your skills
Sea kayaking is a magnificent recreation that can take you to many wild and pristine places along our coast. However, paddling a small craft involves risks that may prevent return to shore – so you should take some additional steps for safety.
Conditions change quickly at sea and your training and equipment are your greatest aids to survival.
We have worked with the Victorian Sea Kayak Club to produce advice on safe sea kayaking.
Fitness is critical for enjoyment and survival. If weather or sea conditions worsen, you may need energy in reserve to complete your journey. Be conservative in your plans until you have suitable fitness and experience.
Choice of sea kayak
Choose a seaworthy craft suited to you and the conditions you are likely to experience and be aware of the limitations of the sea kayak you are paddling, tempered by the commitment you are willing to make to learn to be safe and proficient. Learn from kayak owners and retailers about the pros and cons and trial different boats.
- Hand toggles: at both ends of the boat for carrying, rescues and to hang onto your boat in surf.
- The kayak: must float after capsize with cockpit flooded. Bulkheads provide buoyancy in both ends, accessed by waterproof hatches.
- The kayak should be correctly fitted to the paddler. Minimise cockpit volume.
- A pump: to empty a flooded cockpit. Foot or electric pumps are recommended, with a backup sponge and bailer or hand pump.
- Compass and map: of the area (learn how to use them).
- Spare (split) paddle: securely on the deck.
- Deck lines: to hang onto your boat in the water and assisting rescues.
- Spray skirt: must be a firm fit to deal with surf.
Review the additional paddle safety equipment required offshore, and recommended extra safety gear.
Offshore paddling kit
- Ways to call for help: phone in a waterproof pouch, VHF marine radio, personal locator beacon.
- First-aid kit – have the skills to use it.
- Water and food – accessible and extra for emergencies.
- Warm dry clothing in a dry bag.
- Repair kit suited to the boat and the trip.
- To minimize capsize risk, learn support and bracing strokes.
- If you fall out, stay with the kayak. A kayak is a lot easier to spot than a swimmer.
- Learn the paddle float rescue, paddle float roll, or re-enter and roll.
- If overturned, the best self-rescue is the Eskimo roll. Learn how to do this.
- Carry a 15-metre tow rope – know when and when not to use it.
- Seek instruction on, then practise, the various methods of rescuing and being rescued. These are essential skills.
East Coast Kayaking has some handy instructional videos on YouTube.
Stand up paddleboarding (SUP)
The most important things to remember are:
- Offshore winds are the worst to paddle in. Less wind is always better.
- Use a suitable leash, so your board doesn’t leave you if you fall off.
- Wear a lifejacket if heading more than 400m offshore. We recommend buying a comfortable one and wearing it all the time
- Think about how you will call for help if you can’t get back to shore. Is there someone who can raise the alarm for you?
- Join a club and paddle with a group – you’ll learn more paddling skills from others and have them there to help you along.
You can view a recording of our 2021 SUP safety seminar on YouTube.
You can download our paddling safety advice as a PDF or accessible Word document:
We've also produced a flyer for recording your trip details to leave with a friend or relative. The flyer has a shiny surface – so it's reusable if you write on it with a water-based marker that can be easily wiped off.
If you would like us to send you an "I've gone paddling" flyer – and a Paddle Safe Paddle Smart brochure – email your name and full postal address to email@example.com.
Prepare to Survive
We encourage all boaters and paddlers to view personal story videos and read expert advice on our Prepare to Survive site.