L. Michigan


 Lake Michigan can be very dangerous, with weather conditions changing quickly, and motor boat traffic creating additional hazards for boaters unprepared. Here are some guidelines to make your paddle safer. The Chicago area has several sea kayaking clubs and many businesses offering guided tours and/or instruction. Check IPC’s webpage for a list of clubs and businesses.


  1.  Check the Chicago near-shore marine forecast on NOAA weather radio-either the Romeoville station or by using NOAA's web site: www.nws.noaa.gov

  • Know the wind direction and velocity.  Winds out of the N, NE, E, SE and S can create wind-driven waves that may test your paddling skills.  Winds out of the SW, W, and NW won't build large waves within a mile of shore.
  • Know the predicted wave height.  The wave size corresponds to the wind speed, how long it’s been blowing, and the distance over water it’s been blowing.
  • Know the water temperature.  Wear clothing that will protect you in case of immersion. 



 2.  Make certain you have all of the paddling essentials with you before you go on the water:

  • Boat -- Sea Kayaks--make certain the bulkheads are sealed and that the hatch gaskets are on watertight. 
  • Recreational Kayaks—many do not have enough flotation so you need to insert a pair of float bags in front of your feet to add to the foam pillar in the boat.  You may also have to do the same with the stern unless the boat has a sealed bulkhead and a watertight hatch behind the cockpit
  • Spray Skirt -- A must on Lake Michigan if the waves are 1 foot or more.  Most recreational kayaks can be fitted with a spray skirt but if the skirt part is so big that a wave crashing onto the skirt causes it to collapse into the cockpit, you'll be swamped in no time.
  • Paddles -- one to use plus a spare.  Paddle shafts can and do break, so get a breakdown paddle that you can stow under the deck bungee cords where you can reach it when needed.
  • PFD (or life jacket) -- has to fit you properly and you have to wear it zippered while paddling.  If you capsize without your PFD on, you'll have a very difficult time holding onto your boat and your paddle while struggling to get back into your boat.
  • Paddle Float -- a self-rescue aide particularly useful if you paddle alone.  Learn how to use it before you actually need it.
  • Bilge Pump -- essential for getting water out of your cockpit if you capsize
  • Signaling Devices -- the bare minimum would be a whistle fastened to your PFD.  Compressed air horns are much louder and easily carried in your dry bag.  A signal mirror works when the sun is shinning.  Aerial flares are easy to stow in your dry bag accessible from your cockpit.  For night time, a flashing strobe light on your PFD and aerial flares are about the only items that are visible.  The international distress signal is sets of three blasts on the whistle or horn, or setting off three aerial flares.  Waving your paddle at a passing boat also works.  Sending a "mayday" call on a VHF handheld radio tuned to channel 16 works if you're in range of a receiving radio.  Harbor masters and marine police monitor channel 16.
  • Clothing -- wear synthetic clothing which can help keep you warm when it's wet.  DON'T WEAR COTTON.  Use a wet suit (farmer john/jane), a synthetic top, and a paddling jacket for water temps in the high 50s and low 60s.   Use a dry suit for water temps lower than the mid 50s.  You may have heard it's OK to go out in swim trunks and a tee shirt when the sum of the air temp and water temp is over 100.  This is a myth.  Dress in such a way that you can stay warm long enough to get back into your boat before becoming hypothermic.
  • Personal items -- sun glasses, sun screen, water, rain gear if weather dictates





1.  Paddling from Diversey Harbor

·         Obey the red and green traffic lights for going into or out of the harbor.
Outside the harbor, observe the "No Boat" markers along the shore.

·         Remember that beaches are off limits to kayakers from Memorial Day to Labor Day with a few exceptions where the kayakers can use small portions of some beaches designated as part of the Lake Michigan Water Trail.

·         Stay out of the way of motorized craft-even if you have the right-of way.  You have to keep a constant watch for motor craft because they're not going to see you until they're very near you and often the big cruisers are on auto pilot. You won't show up on anyone's radar

·         The new sea wall from Diversey Harbor south to North Ave. Beach and North to Belmont Harbor reflects both wind driven waves and motor craft wake waves, so even on a calm day, there may be confused waves outside of the mouth of Diversey Harbor.


       2.   Destinations out of Diversey Harbor

·         Water cribs -- strong easterly or westerly winds make for a tough trip to either the Wilson Crib or the Harrison Crib since you'll be paddling one direction against the wind.  It's wise to paddle against the wind for the first part of your trip so that the last part of your trip, when you're more tired, is easier.

·         Montrose Harbor -- typically the choice when the wind is out of the N or NE.

·         Navy Pier -- a good choice with SE, S, or SW wind.  Stay out of the large boat lanes as you near the breakwater.  Know that the "No Boats" buoys pertain to kayaks too as you near the water filtration plant.


      3.   Practice, Practice, Practice  

·         Practice in the presence of other paddlers only.

·         Do self tests to see how your skills are progressing.

·         Purposely capsize your boat near the end of your paddle close to the take-out.  This will let you know if your choice of clothing is working and it allows you to practice getting back into your boat using self-rescue skills or assisted rescue skills if someone is paddling with you.

·         Capsize again the next time you paddle, but do it near the middle of your paddle.  Again, it will let you know if your choice of clothing works for you for a longer period of time rather than at the very end of your paddle.  It also makes you do the self rescue or assisted rescue in water that may not be as well protected.

·         Advance your paddling skills in more turbulent water next time.   Start in 0-1ft. waves with little wind and paddle frequently enough so you know you can handle these conditions.  Next pick 1-2ft. waves and a little stronger wind.  As your skills improve, your confidence increases and you will be a safer paddler on the lake.


The above safety tips courtesy of Dan Leigh, ACA Sea Kayak Instructor, Prairie Coast Paddlers




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