Paddle smart, paddle safe

Canoes and kayaks are classified as vessels and must comply with NSW marine legislation.

An understanding of the safe boating rules that apply to canoes and kayaks will help paddlers enjoy their sport in safety.

Conflict between canoes and kayaks and power vessels may occur when the available water is restricted, particularly in busy waterways such as Sydney Harbour.


Lifejackets must be worn when paddling at most times on all waters, regardless of your distance from the shore.

For full details of the lifejacket wearing requirements, refer to Lifejackets.

Navigation lights

Between sunset and sunrise a torch is a minimum requirement, but it is strongly recommended that the craft has an all-round white light visible in every direction.

Safety in canoes and kayaks

Paddle craft are small and sit low in the water, making it difficult for skippers of other vessels to see them in some situations. Take care when operating near other vessels and when crossing channels. It is important to be clearly visible while on the water.

Suggested precautions are to:

  • Dress brightly (preferably high visibility)
  • High visibility flag on the canoe/kayak
  • Paddle in tight formation
  • Keep a proper lookout
  • Paddle during daylight hours or adhere to the night lighting requirements for canoes and kayaks
  • Stay close to the shore line
  • Keep to the starboard (right-hand) side of the channel.

Paddle craft are lightweight and narrow, resulting in poor stability. Take care when boarding paddle craft, and placing any large or heavy items on board.

Be careful of sudden movement within the craft that may affect stability, as stability is largely dependent on the placement and movement of persons onboard.

Paddle craft are very portable and may be used in diverse areas from busy harbours through to remote inland waterways. Be sure to familiarise yourself with the particular hazards that may be present before embarking on a canoe or kayak trip. See the section on special areas in the Boating Handbook.

If you intend paddling in remote areas, tell someone where you are going and when you intend to return.

Conduct a safety check before heading out

Before you set out:

  • Check the latest weather and wave report, and plan your trip accordingly
  • Check your equipment is in working order
  • Advise friends or family of your time of departure, return and proposed route
  • Carry a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch
  • Carry sufficient drinking water and sun protection
  • Dress appropriately for the conditions
  • Use a paddle or leg leash in windy conditions
  • Find out as much information as possible about the area you are going to paddle.

To learn more about the boating rules and lifejacket requirements, and for links to paddling organisations:

Sydney Harbour

Sydney Harbour with its connected bays and tributaries is one of the world’s premier waterways, providing unmatched opportunities for all forms of boating, from powerboats and yachts to canoes and kayaks.

It is also one of the world’s busiest harbours, with canoes and kayaks sharing the water with large commercial ships and ferries.

An understanding of the safe boating rules that apply to all vessels, as well as the specific rules for canoes and kayaks, will help paddlers to enjoy their sport in safety

General safety and traffic flow

Conflict between canoes and kayaks and larger craft can occur in confined waterways which are often busy with powerboat traffic, as is the case around Sydney Cove, Walsh Bay and Darling Harbour. When using these areas, paddlers need to be alert and keep a good lookout at all times, as the areas listed are all very busy with commercial traffic.

To alleviate potential conflict when paddling in these areas, it is recommended that you stay on the northern shore of Sydney Harbour. This will reduce the possibility of further conflict with larger vessels, while also raising general awareness of paddlers operating along the northern shore.

When paddling on Sydney Harbour and its tributaries:

  • Avoid shipping lanes and main traffic areas
  • When you need to cross, take the most direct route at right angles to the direction of traffic
  • Always pass behind rather than in front of bigger vessels and beware of their wash
  • Keep a good lookout at all times, using your eyes and ears
  • Don’t assume skippers of large vessels can see you
  • Wear a lifejacket (mandatory when more than 100 metres from shore)
Map of safe and restricted paddling regions on Sydney Harbour
Paddle safety on Sydney Harbour map - click for a larger view pdf version

The map of Sydney Harbour shows orange shaded areas which are prohibited to paddlers. The yellow and pink shaded areas are commercial and high traffic shipping channels, where paddlers must operate with extreme caution. The blue shaded areas should be entered only for the purpose of crossing from one side of the shipping channel to the other. When crossing these channels, paddle as nearly as practicable at right angles to the general direction of the traffic flow.

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