Water Safety Hints for Sit-on-top Kayakers in Morro Bay &
Gateway to the KayakMorroBay Yahoo! Group
Edited by Mike Baird mike [at} mikebaird d o t com
The address of this page is http://morro-bay.com/kayak or http://kayak.morro-bay.com

Readers might best think of this article as advice only for sit-on-top kayakers.  Thus, I will not even discuss, for example, spray skirts, sea socks, or paddle floats below - all tools for the sit-inside kayaker.  I don't advise that beginners use sit-inside kayaks, and I do not feel qualified to give any advice to the sit-inside kayaker.  Please note that I am not a qualified instructor or guide.  I profess no credentials or qualifications other than self-learning about paddling safely in Morro Bay since I started paddling here in 2000.  You alone assume full responsibility and liability for your actions - I hope that some of my advice you will find useful.  Please submit questions, comments, or corrections to me, Mike Baird, e-mail mike [at} mikebaird d o t com. Thanks, and Enjoy!  Thanks to Stacy Rankin and Curt Johnson for allowing me to use some of their photos below.

Kayak Morro Bay - Join our free kayak group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/kayakmorrobay/ - we usually go out the last Sunday of every month.  Please register (vote in the poll)  for events at the Yahoo! Group if you want to join us.

Visitors and first-time paddlers in Morro Bay often ask members of our "Kayak Morro Bay Yahoo! Group" about what to expect, where to launch, safety hints, etc.   This page is intended to organize and preserve some of the answers to those questions.  California Kayak Friends ckf.org says "This part of the California coast/bay can be very calm (sometimes) but don't expect it, expect the unexpected and please prepare for it with all your safety gear aboard your vessel."  Kayaking on Morro Bay can be one of the most rewarding, healthy, and educational activities you could ever think of!  Morro Bay is largely unspoiled - heavily populated with over 100 species of birds and sea mammals...  The weather is usually wonderful and the waters calm and fairly protected (even "glassy") as shown here. It is also often so foggy that you can't see the shore.   Calm water often leads people to treat the water too casually... and therein lies a potential danger.

We have some strict rules for paddlers who want to join us.  These rules are meant to alert the paddler to real dangers that exist.  The Yahoo! Group description says in part: "Participants are required to wear properly fitting Coast Guard Approved Personal Flotation Devices (PFD's) at all times on the water, and must be able to perform an unassisted self-recovery from a capsize (almost no one can do this in difficult situations without the proper equipment (read sit-on-top kayak) and training and experience).  Among canoes and kayaks, 75% of fatalities are classified as "capsizes" by the Coast Guard.  This suggests that sit-on-top kayaks are the only safe boats for new inexperienced paddlers.  Local kayak rental shops will irresponsibly rent visitors dangerous sit-inside "recreational warm-calm-water" boats that even the manufacturers do not recommend for areas like Morro Bay ... mostly because people like to stay dry.  Sit-inside kayaks, if used, must have bailing equipment and both fore and aft sealed flotation chambers, or fully secured flotation bags.  For all boats, tow ropes front and rear are required.  New paddlers are welcome.  We are mature people paddling sit-on-tops and closed-deck (sit-inside) kayaks, with an occasional canoe.  We like to paddle together on the water, observing wildlife with respect.  Liability Disclaimer: Organizers assume no liability or responsibility for you.  We are not professional guides or instructors... you alone assume full responsibility and liability for your actions if you participate."

Here is an expanded response to a recent visitor's query... "We do not recommend using sit-inside boats on Morro Bay unless you are confident in being able to do an unassisted self-recovery in the event of a capsize.  Winds can pick up fast and the water can get challenging.  Check the weather first at  http://morro-bay.com/weather/.  Twenty-four-hour weather information may be obtained by calling (805) 988-6610.  Weather is also broadcast on several of the radio stations in the area including: KUHL (1440 kHz) every hour on the half-hour and KSMA (1240 kHz) at 6:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. When emergency conditions exist, special weather broadcasts are announced on Channel 16 and given in complete detail on 2670 kHz (after a preliminary announcement on 2182 kHz) and on Channel 22A. The National Weather Service also broadcasts on VHF Channel WX1 (162.55 MHz).  The Morro Bay Harbor in San Luis Obispo County is easily identified by the 581-foot-high Morro Rock just north of the harbor, and by three tall smokestacks at the harbor’s PG&E power plant. The harbor entrance, one of the roughest on the West Coast, has a hazardous bar warning posted up to 40 days a year because of turbulent seas. The boat operator should exercise caution regardless of experience. Throughout the year, extreme high and low tides result in swift currents inside the harbor. During stormy winter months, waves up to 18 feet batter the breakwater, causing hazardous boating conditions at the harbor entrance.


Knowledge of the predicted tide action will help you understand both the expected currents and water levels - on a falling tide you can get stuck in the mud easily. Getting grounded on a falling tide is easy to do in Morro Bay - the bottom is sandy here luckily 
Fast currents can upset a novice paddler, and also make it difficult for you to return, especially if you are also fighting wind. 
There is a tide chart generator for
the Morro Beach Coast including Estero Bay -- From sc.edu - graphic and a more relevant one for inside Morro Bay and the Estuary (typically lags ~15- 20 minutes, ~1/2 - 1 foot less) From sc.edu - (best) graphic
An excellent alternate tide chart generator is at Tideschart.com's
The Tideschart.com website reaches more than a million visitors a month and provides a lot of information about tides as well as weather, water temperatures and fishing times.
You can see which way the tide is flowing by looking at boats moored in the harbor - they will almost always point into the flowing water unless the wind dominates. 
Be careful not to paddle in front of a moored boat or buoy where a rapidly flowing tide will "clothesline" you much like hitting a tree branch while paddling down a stream. 
If you don't think that this is a problem, read the story about how two of the six boats in a Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival kayak outing sank in the bay on Jan. 19, 2004. "Three of our 11 kayakers (the three were in two sit-inside kayaks... one double and one single) capsized on the return... the very strong current at the time pulled them under the bow of a moored 40' boat as we were returning from the sand spit across from, and back to, Kayak Horizons... we had the Coast Guard, Harbor Patrol, and a private motorized skiff come to the rescue... The main lesson learned is not to take inexperienced paddlers across the channel and in front of moored boats during fast tides and strong winds.  Telling inexperienced paddlers not to go in front of a moored boat or buoy has no effect on some, who will instinctively try to 'get around' the threatening obstacle."  It is just amazing that there was not a fatality during that event.  The Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival (2007) has cancelled that activity out of concerns for liability.

Don't paddle in the harbor channels where motorized craft operate.  If you have to cross a channel, wait for a clearing and get across promptly.  Don't put yourself into a position of conflict with other boat traffic, and always yield the right-of-way when you can to all other craft.


Channels in the bay are shown at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/kayakmorrobay/links and http://ph.groups.yahoo.com/group/kayakmorrobay/photos.  The best put-in is at the Morro Bay State Park Marina by the Museum across from the golf course.... this gets you quick access to the back bay nature areas without encountering boat traffic (which is never bad actually).  Morro Bay State Park Marina is a popular put-in Morro Bay State Park Marina is a popular put-in A good rule-of-thumb is you can put in at the Marina if there is 1.5 feet of water (see the tide charts).  If you want to paddle starting closer to Morro Rock you can put in at Coleman Beach across from the three smoke stacks by the power plant.  You can launch at sandy Coleman beach at any tide level.  Warning, on a fast outgoing tide you may be challenged returning in the main channel near the ocean mouth, especially if the winds are also working against you.  You can pretty much paddle the whole length of the bay in a long day.  A popular itinerary is to paddle to the sand spit peninsula and take a break, and walk over to the ocean (you have to find an approved corridor across the dunes, as much of the area is fenced off much of the year for Snowy Plover protection).  On the water, give the wildlife plenty of distance - there are many seals and birds that are distressed by aggressive kayakers.  If sea otters and seals and birds are looking at you, you know that you are to close to them.  During pupping season (March, April especially) it is essential that you give the harbor seals that are hauled out plenty of space.  (It is also the law!)  During pupping season (March, April especially) it is essential that you give the harbor seals that are hauled out plenty of space.
Smart kayakers wear helmets and wetsuits when exploring our rocky coast areas (e.g., off Montaņa de Oro) and making surf landings
.  Winds, typically 5-10 knots produce nil chop
, but can easily change to 15-25 knots in minutes - here the water gets extremely choppy and Mike ended up assisting via a tow line expert paddler Betty back to safety - no problem for this properly equipped and experienced team... but first-timers would have had a real problem.  It is almost always safest to paddle with others.  Be cautious however, and don't get a false sense of security.  Your partners may not have the ability or common sense to able to assist you in the event of an emergency.  Irresponsible paddlers actually become a liability to the group, putting everyone in unnecessary danger.  Water drownings are the most frequent cause of death in the California State Park system as described in the PowerPoint presentation Aquatic Safety in California State Parks where it states that in 2004, for example, there were 31 drownings and 23 other fatalities.  There were 10,016 Aquatic Rescues in California State Parks in 2004.  About 4,000 people die from drowning in the United States each year.  The National Center for Health Statistics says that Approximately 50% - 75% of all drownings occur in open water.  Alcohol use is involved in about 25% to 50% of adolescent and adult deaths associated with water recreation.  Read about the dangers of hypothermia -- it does not take long to succumb in in waters 53-58 degrees. Many drowning victims are actually hypothermia victims. Survival in cold water depends on many factors. The temperature of the water is only one. Others include body size, fat, and activity in the water. By swimming or treading water, a person will cool about 35 percent faster than if remaining still. Down-proofing -- the technique of staying afloat, facedown, with lungs full of air, and raising the head every 10 to 15 seconds for a breath -- conserves energy, but also results in rapid heat loss through the head and neck. This technique reduces survival time by nearly one-half in cold water. An average person, wearing light clothing and a personal floatation device (PFD), may survive 2 1/2 to 3 hours in 50° F water by remaining still. This survival time can be increased considerably by getting as far out of the water as possible and covering the head. Getting into or onto anything that floats can save a life.  Needless to say, if you can't swim you have no business kayaking on Morro Bay.   

Most paddle outings in Morro Bay are uneventful as shown here, and paddlers sense or experience no danger.  Here a paddler is shown in a sit-inside kayak with no flotation in the front end.  Her PFD is also ill-fitting.  It is a calm day, the winds are nil, and the tide is slack, and she is paddling around buoy # 5 at the mouth of the harbor .  Her boat is not equipped with a bailing device or a pump.  In the event of an unexpected capsize (it happens), if she were paddling alone, it could be a long cold wait for a rescue, or a long cold swim to the nearest land (it is not clear what would be the preferred remedy).  There is essentially no possibility of a self-recovery by such an ill-equipped lone paddler.  In this case, her experienced and properly-equipped paddle partner Photo by Marc Kurth has an unsinkable sit-on-top, and is wearing clothing suited for water exposure.  In this situation, however remote the possibility, if required, the probability of a successful assisted rescue is excellent.


Check List for your Kayak Outing (it is assumed your boat has adequate flotation and is appropriate for your abilities): 

Special notes for novices from foldingkayak.com:

Special note on hunting in Morro Bay - there are conflicts between paddlers and hunters that can be avoided by knowing the laws, rules, regulations, maps, hunting dates and times, etc.  See the California Fish and Game Commission's regulations http://www.fgc.ca.gov/html/regs.html for details.  For a history of the conflict between hunting and non-hunters in Morro Bay, read Neil Farrell's summary article, and Sharon Eckardt's protest articles.

If you have any hesitation in paddling Morro Bay during your visit, you might want to engage a qualified expert guide.

Related links - many of these were used in obtaining source material and ideas for this article:
The Kayak Morro Bay Yahoo! Group has accumulated many related safety links at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/kayakmorrobay/links/ 
How to Rescue a Swamped Sit-inside kayaker -- http://www.sit-on-topkayaking.com/Articles/Safety/RescueSink.html
related safety articles at
Safe Boating Hints for Morro Bay, by the State of California, Dept. of Boating and Waterways
Paddle Signals
Paddle Signals for Sea Kayakers -- "An international attempt to find a set of standard arm and sound signals for sea kayakers."
NEW http://ccpn.wetpaint.com/ <= this is a real neat new (2007) wiki devoted to all sorts of local kayak events and activities

morro-bay.com home
Please submit questions, comments, or corrections to me, Mike Baird, e-mail mike [at} mikebaird d o t com.