Friday, 22 February 2013

VHF radios and sea kayak fishing PFDs

After three seasons, my Stolhquist Fisherman PFD gave up the ghost.  Every zip on every pocket had stopped working, rendering the pockets so useless that I cut the flaps off one of them. But the inner netting pocket is too small to keep anything useful in and is obviously exposed to the wet, and I needed somewhere secure to keep my Aquapac-protected phone plus fishing tools.  So once again I am heading to the marketplace for a decent sea kayak fishing PFD.

Now we have many things to be thankful to the Americans for, but just occasionally the size of their internal market means that the big global producers of kayaking clothing and equipment tend to focus on what will sell well for their American customers.  In the case of kayaking PFDs, this means that the majority are designed for either for sit-in kayaks (meaning they have a low back), or inland sit-on tops (SOTs) kayaks, as high performance sea worthy SOTs remains something of a niche market in the US.

This means we have companies like Stolqhist and MTI producing angling PFDs that are intended principally for fly fishing on inland waters.  Which is fine, but those products rarely transition well to sea kayak angling.  For example, MTI like to place a lash tab right above their pockets, making it difficult to attach a handheld VHF unit there.  This is not a problem if you are fishing inland lakes as you're unlikely to use a VHF radio.

However at sea, a handheld VHF unit is essential for safety and staying in contact with other boats in the area.  Most VHF units come with a clip to attach to a lash tab, but the positioning of that tab must allow easy access to the radio. It should keep the radio close to your mouth, so that no bending down is needed to use it. Ideally - in extremis - a waterproof VHF unit should remain usable even if you're in the water and the positioning of the radio must not place the radio so low that it might catch or snag any rigging on your kayak if you need to attempt a re-entry.
Struggling to speak into a badly positioned VHF radio.
The radio would be practically underwater if you took a spill.
That last point is crucial to safety.  If you've been sea kayaking for some time, you know that the chances of you coming out of your kayak at sea are higher in bad conditions. With wind and waves battering you and your kayak, you don't want to waste time to fiddle about trying to take off your VHF unit because it keeps snagging on your anchor line or some deck rigging as you try a re-entry. Besides, even if you do take it off, what next?  You're trying to keep your head above water and climb back onto a bucking kayak. Perhaps the kayak is upside down. Whatever. You certainly don't need any extra hassle. Remember that most people are only capable of 4 or 5 re-entry attempts before they get too tired and have to rest. I've had that happen to me and it's very unpleasant, you start to wonder if you'll ever get back on your yak.

You want that VHF unit somewhere secure, well out of the way, preferably up near your collarbone where it won't catch on anything as you clamber on board. Unfortunately, designing PFDs to make it easy for SOT kayak users to easily re-enter their craft after a capsize doesn't appear to be high up on the agenda of most companies.
The Kokatat Bahia Tour has a lot of front bulk, made worse if you attach a VHF unit to point furthest from the body, where it hangs vertically making the aerial prone to catching things.
A case in point is the Kokatat Bahia Tour PFD.  This PFD has just one lash tab, placed low down at the furthest point from the body, making it unsuitable for a VHF unit.  With most of the buoyancy in high back PFDs being in the front, they can be bulky there making re-entry difficult. Given that the higher a hand held unit is the further its signal will travel, it seems obvious that the lash tab position on the Bahia Tour is going to reduce the radio's effectiveness and just makes it awkward to use.  This rather thoughtless lash tab placement is unexpected from a manufacturer with Kokatat's reputation and spoils what would otherwise be a good PFD.
The Kokatat Bahia Tour's single lash tab.  How about giving us another one Kokatat?  :-)

Time for a change?

PFDs are made for many different aspects of kayaking.  White water, touring, recreation and angling.  In theory there are several top end sea touring PFDs (for example the Palm Kaikoura) that would be well-suited for sea kayak fishing, but unfortunately nearly all of them have low backs as their main markets are for sit-in sea kayaks, not SOTs.  Low back PFDs are less comfortable to wear in the high-back seats that are commonly used with SOTs.

In fact Palm are another case in point. While they have the well specified Palm Kaikoura as their top of the range touring PFD (shown below left), their high-back touring model suddenly comes down in specification (the Taupo, shown below right). Hmmm, no lash tabs at all on the Taupo? Nope, 'cos people who use high back PFDs don't need 'em!
Pam Kaikoura: lash tabs in abundance...
Palm Taupo: hey, where'd the lash tabs go?
The fact that SOT kayak users are considered second-class citizens in the kayaking world is understandable, as they came from a recreation background, i.e. they're not serious kayakers.  But that view is rapidly becoming out of date and it's high time for a change in the manufacturers' thinking.  These days, high performance glass and carbon fibre SOTs that are purpose built for angling are gradually getting more market share (with the exception of the US, where plastic remains king).  These new kayaks are intended to be paddled long distances and are just the sort of craft that can take you well off-shore in conditions previously only tackled by sit-in sea kayaks.  But even in the "plastic bath tubs" that many kayak anglers start off using, it is possible to get some distance off-shore and to experience challenging sea conditions.  As kayak anglers, we really need PFDs to match our hobby's requirements and where we can now fish.

I'm not advocating "rough conditions" sea kayak angling, but do you want to be out there with a "recreational" PFD when conditions get bad? Is your emergency strobe visible? Can you quickly change channel on your VHF if asked to do so? Could you access it if you were turned overboard? Is there a D-ring that would assist you being winched up to a rescue helicopter?

When I'm fishing at sea in my kayak, my fishing buddy can be anything up to a mile away from me.  Our VHF radios are always on, if the weather's a bit iffy then we're on channel 16 listening out for coastguard weather notices or warnings, but if the weather's fine we keep it on channel 12 and keep each other informed about what's happening via the radio. Things can change quickly when your at sea, not least the sudden appearance of fish!  You need rapid easy communication with your fellow kayakers and any nearby boats, and a VHF radio is the essential piece of kit for sea kayak fishermen to do that.

My essential feature list for a sea kayak fishing PFD

  • Front lash tab for VHF radio placed high up to facilitate frequent use and channel change.  
    • Lash tab preferably slightly angled to try and minimise VHF aerial from catching on things as you re-enter the kayak.
  • Rear lash tab for emergency strobe light, positioned to be accessible over the shoulder.
  • Solas reflective panels on front, back and top of shoulders.
  • Big splash-proof front pockets.  
  • High back design, with plenty of ventilation for hot weather kayaking.
  • Strong rear D-ring for rescue.
  • Not too much front bulk.

You would think that feature list would be easy to find but it isn't!  If you have any sea kayak fishing PFD recommendations or comments, please let me know.


  1. Have you tried the Yak Ravine? seems to fit the bill you talk about, im looking to get one, any thoughts opinions much appreciated...

  2. I haven't, but it's a low back PFD. Looks to have reasonable spec otherwise.

  3. Thanks for the article, it is very instructive. I found this website if you would like to read further information:

  4. The problem is even worse with the new floating DSC enabled hand held VHF radios as they are larger than the compact radios like the Icom M88 that lacks both these features.

    Instead of a pocket it would be better for the vest makers to provide Velcro straps to maintain the orientation of a radio attached to a D-clip using the belt clip of the radio or a similar approach.

    One option with the current vest/PFD's is to use an external mic/speaker attached to the top of the vest while having the radio inside a pocket. For example using the Icom HM-67 mic with the M92D radio. Not ideal but maybe the least bad solution at this time.

  5. Very good points. I've been considering an upgrade to DSC but none of the current handsets are aimed at kayakers. Internal pocket and microphone might be the way to go. Either that or an NSC triggered emergency app on the phone.


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