QUINCY -- The buddy system is the simplest rule to follow for kayakers, and the second-simplest is to wear a life jacket.
Mark Frankenbach, an experienced kayaker from Palmyra, Mo., believes that following those two rules puts a kayaker in a much better spot in case of any problems. On a large body of water, such as the Mississippi River, a kayaker separated from his vessel might be unable to return to it.
"If you do tip over, and a gust of wind grabs your boat and blows it away, you're going to be out there swimming for quite a while trying to get to shore, especially against the current," Frankenbach said. "You may not be able to get back to your boat."
Kayaking has increased in popularity, with sales jumping 15 percent in 2015 and 21 percent in 2016, Statistica, an online statistics company, said. With the increase in popularity, some kayakers are not taking proper precautions, such as wearing a life jacket. This can put their lives in jeopardy, especially when they are taking on big, open water like the Great Lakes.
The U.S. Coast Guard said 152 people died nationwide while using kayaks or canoes in 2016, an increase from 139 in 2015. Mostly drownings, the deaths represent 22 percent of all U.S. boating-related deaths in both years.
"A lot of folks can walk into a big-box store, purchase a kayak, get a paddle and be on the water that afternoon without realizing the dangers that are associated with it," said Mike Baron, a Coast Guard boating safety specialist.
Kayaks are easy to tip because they are light and typically have an open cockpit that can fill with water. The Coast Guard worked with the Water Sports Foundation this year to produce a safety pamphlet to be distributed when a kayak is sold. It says paddlers should wear a life jacket, and pack a whistle and phone or VHF radio.
Frankenbach said there is nothing particularly dangerous about kayaking on the Mississippi River when it's at normal pool.
"Right now, the river is as low as it's been in a long time, and since you have the reregulation dams, it's kind of like a big lake right now," he said. "When it gets up to flood stage, your novice should stay away or least go with somebody that's experienced."
Kayakers should also learn boating rules, such as who has right of way and how boats are supposed to pass each other, and be wary of barge traffic and the navigation channels. Windy days should also be avoided.
Ray Thomas is the organizer of the Quincy 5 Miler race, which features kayaks and other self-propelled vessels, and he said safety is a top concern in staging the event. All participants are required to wear life jackets at all times.
Thomas knows that even the most experienced kayakers can experience problems. His friend and Quincy 5 Miler regular Gary Kingham, 70, of Ogden, Iowa, died in January after his kayak capsized while he was paddling the Des Moines River with a friend.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.