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Active Outdoors

Active Outdoors: Practice kayak rescue and re-entry skills before you need them

  • Amy Fullerton, the eastern sales representative for Seattle Sports, shows how to use one her company's inflatable paddle floats and a rope sling to get back into her sea kayak. This is a skill you want to practice before you need it. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Amy Fullerton, the eastern sales representative for Seattle Sports, shows how to use one her company's inflatable paddle floats and a rope sling to get back into her sea kayak. This is a skill you want to practice before you need it. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Two kayaks are more stable than one, and even a smaller paddler in a smaller boat can help someone safely re-enter a kayak if they’ve flipped. Here, Amy Fulleron stabilizes Vaughan Smith's boat as he climbs back in. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Two kayaks are more stable than one, and even a smaller paddler in a smaller boat can help someone safely re-enter a kayak if they’ve flipped. Here, Amy Fulleron stabilizes Vaughan Smith's boat as he climbs back in. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Vaughan Solo: Even a very big guy like Vaughan Smith, a kayak sales rep from Maine, can get back into a tiny kayak cockpit using a paddle float and a rope sling. Notice the pump in the front deck rigging, ready to remove any water from the cockpit. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Vaughan Solo: Even a very big guy like Vaughan Smith, a kayak sales rep from Maine, can get back into a tiny kayak cockpit using a paddle float and a rope sling. Notice the pump in the front deck rigging, ready to remove any water from the cockpit. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Amy Fullerton, the eastern sales representative for Seattle Sports, shows how to use one her company's inflatable paddle floats and a rope sling to get back into her sea kayak. This is a skill you want to practice before you need it. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
  • Two kayaks are more stable than one, and even a smaller paddler in a smaller boat can help someone safely re-enter a kayak if they’ve flipped. Here, Amy Fulleron stabilizes Vaughan Smith's boat as he climbs back in. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
  • Vaughan Solo: Even a very big guy like Vaughan Smith, a kayak sales rep from Maine, can get back into a tiny kayak cockpit using a paddle float and a rope sling. Notice the pump in the front deck rigging, ready to remove any water from the cockpit. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

Twice last summer, my sweetheart Marilyn – aka “She Who Calls The Wind” – and I found ourselves out paddling our sea kayaks in conditions that were less than optimum. High winds and tall, steep, closely spaced waves made paddling ... interesting.

Those were, without any doubt, the best two paddling excursions of last year.

Both times we were in kayaks we knew well, we were wearing top-quality PFDs, and we had trained, experienced guides with us. So we were never in

any real danger. But, we could easily have found ourselves in the water and needing to somehow get back into our boats.

There are a number of different ways to deal with a flipped kayak. Ideal is rolling it back upright, but that’s not possible in every boat, and not all of us have the skill to do it at all, let alone every time. I sure don’t. So it’s best to have a backup plan and the equipment and skills you need to get a flipped kayak upright and yourself into it. These skills are not that difficult to master – but it’s wise to practice beforehand in a place where you aren’t in trouble if you fail.

The best way to learn self-rescue and re-entry techniques is to take a class, preferably with an instructor certified by the American Canoe Association (americancanoe.org). Their clinic listings are broken down by date, not location, so you can’t easily find one near you. Instead, your best bet is to contact your nearest kayak shop. Chances are, they either offer or know of courses nearby. The other great resource here in New England is the AMC (outdoors.org) and the paddling committees of their local chapters (look under “Get Outdoors”).

There are dozens of kayak rescue and re-entry videos on the web, some great, some pretty awful. A couple of the better ones I’ve found are youtube.com/watch?v=N9qtEJOCqOw and youtube.com/watch?v=e98E3FgSxfM. And, if you want to see why you need to practice: youtube.com/watch?v=ewQdgZ2tg-Y. If you spend some time watching these and other videos, you begin to get a sense of what you need to know to proceed if you find yourself unexpectedly in the water. You can also attend the demonstrations that are offered at the various paddlesports shows and demos I wrote about back in May. If you missed that column, let me know and I’ll send you a link.

You’ll also see why it’s absolutely imperative to have your PFD on at all the times when you are paddling in a kayak. Watch these re-entries and imagine you have to first get your PFD out of the boat (if it didn’t float away when you tipped) and get it on.

If you can’t find a clinic where and when you want it, you can still make your paddle adventures safer by first watching the videos, then learning and practicing on your own. I’d strongly recommend doing this with a “buddy” so you can watch out for each other. And again, pick some place with shallow, calm water and no wind to start. You want to be able to stand up and walk yourself and your boat back to shore.

There are two real upsides to practicing self rescue and re-entry. One is, of course, that you are setting yourself up to be safer while paddling, so you can paddle more and have more fun. The second is, on a hot summer day, practicing kayaking skills is a great excuse to get yourself out on and into the water, so you stay cool and, again, have more fun. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Wet exit

The first thing you’ll need to practice is a “wet exit,” getting yourself out of the boat when it’s upside-down. This is simple in most recreational kayaks, but more difficult in kayaks with smaller cockpits or when you are wearing a spray skirt. Make sure you have someone standing right next to you to help the first time. Here’s a video that shows the progression youtube.com/watch?v=kvX0e1HaHSk, and one that shows in more detail what to do underwater: youtube.com/watch?v=DalK4uBOTRo.

What you’ll need

Besides your kayak, paddle and PFD, you are going to need a paddle float and a pump (to remove the water from your boat once you are back in). Those are the basics and should be snapped into your deck rigging where you can reach them easily every time you paddle. The videos show you how to use them.

If your upper body isn’t strong enough to haul yourself back into your kayak, you are also going to want a rescue sling, which is simply a loop made of 13 feet (a length that work for most kayaks) of floating rope or webbing. This makes a “stirrup,” so your leg strength can help get you back into your boat.

One of the things you’ll find out the first time you tip your boat over is how well it floats when it’s full of water. Some of today’s “dime store” kayaks are simply empty tubs that barely float at all – you can’t pump them out if the cockpit stays submerged with the boat upright and you in it. For those, you need float bags that inflate to proved air space that floats the boat higher in the water when it capsizes. Without float bags, these boats are extremely dangerous. Best to find out before you are in real trouble.

Assisted re-entries

When you and your friend are out practicing solo re-entries, you can also practice assisted rescues. Again, there are many great videos on the web. Here’s one I like: youtube.com/watch?v=tYieR0PX9nA.

Thanks due

I want to thank Vaughan Smith, one of the authors of Guide to Sea Kayaking in Maine and a sales rep for Stellar Kayaks (stellarkayaksusa.com) and Cannon Paddles (cannonpaddles.com), and Amy Fullerton of Seattle Sports (seattlesportsco.com), the company that makes top-quality paddle floats and other paddling accessories. These two great paddlers spent a couple of hours on a chilly, windy May afternoon, splashing around in cold, muddy water so I could shoot the photos for this column and EasternSlopes.com. Thanks guys!

(Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)

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