Testing kayak lights for the Thames Tideway in 2013

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On 2010-03-23 representatives from SBOAC, THCC, the PLA, Canoe England, Battersea Canoe Club and Chelsea Kayak Club met at Shadwell Basin to test different navigation light set-ups for kayaks paddling on the Thames Tideway during hours of darkness.

The meeting was part of an ongoing dialogue between the PLA and the Tideway kayaking community to improve the safety of kayakers which has become a priority due to the increasing numbers of kayaks on the Tideway and, in particular, as a response to a near miss with a Thames Clipper in December 2008.

The test

Observers stood on the Thames Path just to the west of Shadwell Basin and watched as seven boats with varying illuminations crossed to Rotherhithe, re-grouped for a few minutes under bank-side street lights and then returned to Shadwell. All the kayaks then proceeded 200m up river past The Prospect of Whitby close to lights on the bank and returned. Finally, two groups of three and four paddled separately down river close to the bank past Free Trade Wharf, crossed to Rotherhithe, paddling back up river until opposite Shadwell and returned across the river.

Conditions were slightly misty/rainy with good to moderate visibility.

General observations

  • Headlights are barely visible from beyond 50 to 100m and then only if pointing directly at the observer
  • Only boats with lights for and aft had all round visibility
  • A tightly spaced group of lit kayaks is very much more visible than a spread out group
  • Flashing lights had good visibility from a distance. According to the PLA flashing lights are OK as an addition to a constant white light. But beware if you use a diving light such as the one available from Maplin (see below), as the flashing mode is "SOS" in Morse Code; this caused a search and rescue call out incident early in 2012 when an onlooker called the coastguard.
  • Visibility of kayak lights is reduced close to the banks in pools of ambient light
  • At close range the brightness of most lights seem similar but when viewed from a distance it varies greatly

Lights tested

The different light types tested are shown below with scores out of 10 based on the post test discussion.

Light Notes Source Cost Score
4 LED dive torch with diffuser Waterproof with diffuser made from translucent plastic bottle Force 4 £17 8
Tektite 4 LED stern/marker light Tek-Tite UK £30 6
Flashing LED bike light/strobe Bike lights not usually waterproof Widely available £10 to £40 6
Tektite 2 LED stern/marker light Tek-Tite UK £20 5
LED head torch Not usually waterproof Widely available £10-£40 2

A pictorial guide to making the diffuser light is available on Flickr (click on the image below).


Conclusion on best practice

Following the test there was an email discussion between the PLA, SBOAC and the participants concluding that best practice for kayakers could be summarised as:

1. Lights to be 'all-round', rather than directional, either by design or adaptation with a diffuser.

2. Each boat to be lit fore and aft.

3. Crossings to always be in tight formation.

The PLA has now published a a number of guidelines for kayaking on the Tideway on their web site including a Guide to lighting and other safety tips for small leisure craft