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Kayak Self-Rescue Techniques

Posted by Darren Bush on 7/25/2013 to Kayak

Self-rescue is one of the most important, yet least-rehearsed skills that a kayak paddler can have. The ability to get yourself back into the boat quickly is vital in colder water conditions, and even in warm water, nobody wants to swim hundreds of yards to shore towing a boat full of gear (and water). It is not enough to carry a paddle float and have some shock cord rigged behind your cockpit. You must practice your rescues, and honestly, you must practice them in the kinds of conditions that would cause you to capsize. This means that some windy summer day when the water is warm and there is some chop, go out with a friend and take turns wet-exiting and re-entering. While youíre out there, practice group rescues, too.

Now that Iíve hopefully impressed upon you the importance of practice, letís get down to the fun stuff, the gear. Most self-rescue methods rely to some degree on a piece of specialized equipment. The exception to this is the reenter-and-roll method, in which you do a somersault under water and get back into your boat upside down and roll up. I know, I canít do it either, and it does sort of assume that you can roll. That said, all other solo rescues I know of rely on safety equipment, so here weíve offered some thoughts on what works and what doesnít. There are basically two types of rescue aids, paddle floats and sponsons.

Paddle Floats

The most common type of paddle float is a dual-chambered inflatable bag. In the event of a swim, you slip it over the paddle blade, inflate it, and build an outrigger by either attaching by shock cord or physically holding the paddle shaft to the back deck. This outrigger allows you to climb back into the boat. There are inflatable floats out there under many labels, and most are essentially the same. Then thereís the Sea Kayak Rescue Float from Northwater Rescue Equipment. It has the same function as the other types, but rather than being inflatable, it is a solid block of foam.


Sponsons are inflatable pontoons that attach to the sides of your kayak and effectively increase the beam by a foot or more. The type we have at Rutabaga, Seawings, are the best weíve seen out there. They require one-time setup of some quick-release buckles which stay attached to your boat. After that, all you have to do is clip them on and inflate them. The inflation hoses are long enough that you can inflate both chambers from one side of the boat. Then just climb back in.

Beyond Theory

Having covered the theory behind each type of device, letís look at how they function in real conditions, taking paddle floats first. The main criticism of the paddle float method is that it isnít practical in rough conditions. You end up having to reach behind you to retrieve the paddle, which leaves you in a vulnerable position, if you can even get back in at all (a real consideration in steep seas). This may be true, but lots of folks accidentally capsize while trying to get their bologna sandwiches out of their day hatches, and in that situation, no problem. Also, if you have a so-so roll, you can inflate a paddle float on your paddle and then do a reentry and roll. Any float will do here, but for an inflatable, I like the Voyageur Blade Aid. It costs a few bucks more, but the self-closing valve is a lifesaver (literally) in cold water when your hands are so numb it feels like youíre wearing oven mitts. No chance youíll forget to close the valve and have to start over.

For the quickest rescue of them all, grab the float from Northwater. No inflating, which is good, because when you hit that 40 degree water, all the air zooms out of you anyway. One problem I have had with the Northwater float is that when I use a really short paddle and a really narrow boat, the float doesnít have enough buoyancy to allow my really big (230 lbs.) self to get back in the boat. For almost everyone, though, it works just fine.

One other minor problem ó where do you put the thing? Seawings address one of the major shortcomings of a paddle float. Specifically, if you do manage to reenter your boat, you are back in the conditions that capsized you in the first place. With the Seawings on, you have a mega-stable platform on which to compose yourself, pump out your boat, and take a nap, if you wish. You can even leave them on and paddle home, albeit a bit more slowly than you would otherwise. Two drawbacks apply here. First, the paddler size issue. I canít use Seawings on my Valley Nordkapp (21 inch beam). As soon as I get on the back deck, the thing dumps me again. Second, you have to have the rigging set up ahead of time, which means you canít borrow somebody elseís boat, and if you go to Alaska and rent boats for a kayaking honeymoon, forget it.

As Iíve noted above, some of the techniques just donít work for me, and some may not work for you. Lake Superior during a Small-craft Advisory is not the time to find this out. You must practice. If you cannot use your method of choice in rough conditions, do not go out alone, and the same cautions apply to groups. It sounds a bit dire, but safety is important. Keep in mind that in warm water and good company rescue practice is fun. If you need pointers, Rutabaga Outdoor Programs offers classes in kayak rescues, so ignorance is no excuse. Get out there, have fun, and be safe.

P.S. Did I mention you need to PRACTICE self rescues? Only a few hundred times? Good.

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