Safety Skills

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Regardless of where you plan to paddle, or in what type of paddle craft, there are important skills that you need to learn, practice, and be prepared to perform.  When paddling, capsizes do occur and do not constitute an emergency if the paddlers are prepared as they should be.  In the photo above, both paddlers are wearing life jackets (PFDs), are dressed for immersion in the colder water temperatures of Lake Michigan, and are using appropriate sea kayaks that can be emptied of water and re-entered quickly without having to take the boats to shore.  So what are some of the basic safety skills that a paddler needs to learn?  The four basic safety skills that novice paddlers should be learning can be summarized as follows:

  1. Rafting up
  2. Wet exits
  3. Rescue swimming
  4. Assisted rescues/re-entries
  5. Solo rescues/re-entries

A simple, but often overlooked safety skill is the knowledge of how to “raft up” with other kayaks.  When several kayaks come alongside one another and the paddlers are able to hold on to the boats on either side forming a “raft”, this raft can be a very stable platform making capsize nearly impossible, if done correctly.  When taking a water break, having the group of kayaks raft up can prevent accidental capsizes.  When a capsize does occur, having the remaining members of the group who are not involved in the capsize and rescue raft up will keep them from adding to the challenges already involved in rescuing the person who is in the water.  Rafting up can also be used to allow one of the paddlers to be able to stand in their kayak, which may be beneficial in identifying a location to get ashore or to signal someone on shore or in a passing boat.

Any paddler who is using a sprayskirt to cover the cockpit opening of his/her kayak needs to have learned and practiced a skill known as a “wet exit”.  A wet exit refers to the process of removing the sprayskirt from the kayak and then swimming free of the cockpit following a capsize.  While the actual skill needed to perform a wet exit is pretty minimal, the issue is that most people will tend to panic following their first unexpected capsize and may not figure out how to safely remove the sprayskirt under these circumstances.  It is important that you do not use a sprayskirt when paddling until you have had training and practice in doing an actual wet exit.  Just having someone talk you through the process is not adaquate.  As an instructor, I have my students practice their first wet exits in waist-deep water as I stand right next to them prepared to remove the sprayskirt for them in the event that they fail to do it themselves.  For most people, a couple of practice attempts will be sufficient to get them past the initial fear of capsizing and exiting the kayak.  However, some people may have phobias which make it almost impossible to calmly remove their sprayskirts once underwater.  If you are someone who has these phobias, it is extremely important that you find an instructor to work with you until you can overcome your fears.  Besides finding the right instructor and a safe venue for learning, you need to be honest with the instructor about the extent of your fears.  For your first wet exit attempts, it will only be necessary that you can get out of your kayak safely following a capsize.  Eventually, though, you will need to be able to exit your cockpit without letting go of your kayak and paddle which might otherwise get away from you in wind or current.

Because capsizing is just a normal part of kayaking, all paddlers need to be prepared for what to do when it happens.  For recreational kayakers not using a sprayskirt, exiting the kayak is usually pretty easy because of the large cockpit openings.  The paddler will likely just fall out of the kayak.  If you are wearing a life jacket/PFD (as you should always be), your life jacket will bring you back to the surface even if you are disoriented.  Since recreational kayaks take on a great deal of water following capsizes,  assisted rescues are very difficult with these types of craft.  Therefore, your best option once you are out of your kayak is to leave the boat upside down if you can, and swim it to shore to empty the water.  The air trapped in the upside down cockpit will reduce the amount of water that you have to remove.  Rolling the kayak rightside up while in deep water will result in the boat scooping up a significant amount of water making it much heavier and harder to empty.  Since you should only be using recreational kayaks within easy swimming distance of shore on calm waters, swimming your kayak to shore should not present a problem.

Whitewater kayakers, especially beginners, will often find themselves trying to swim to shore following a capsize and wet exit in a river.  When swimming in a river, paddlers are recommended to use what is called a “defensive swimming posture” to prevent possible foot entrapment and avoid collisions with rocks.  The paddler should swim on his/her back with feet downstream.  Feet should be at the surface.  The swimmer angles his body with the head toward the shoreline and uses a backstroke to ferry towards the river bank.  The swimmer should not attempt to stand in the current until his/her rear end hits the bottom of the river.  Sea kayakers who capsize in the surf and wet exit need to keep their kayaks closer to shore than they are or a wave can lift the kayak and turn it into a dangerous projectile that can seriously injure them.  A long carry toggle on the bow and stern of a sea kayak makes it safer for a swimmer to control the kayak while swimming it back to shore.

Since recreational kayaks take on a great deal of water following capsizes,  assisted rescues are very difficult with these types of craft.  Therefore, your best option once you are out of your kayak is to leave the boat upside down if you can, and swim it to shore to empty the water.  The air trapped in the upside down cockpit will reduce the amount of water that you have to remove.  Rolling the kayak rightside up while in deep water will result in the boat scooping up a significant amount of water making it much heavier and harder to empty.  Since you should only be using recreational kayaks within easy swimming distance of shore on calm waters, swimming your kayak to shore should not present a problem.  If you are not physically able to swim your kayak to shore, the most important thing is to get yourself to shore.  Kayaks are replaceable.  People are not.

The two paddlers in the the photo above are practicing a skill that is known as an “assisted rescue/re-entry”.  For sea kayakers, this is probably the next safety skill that you will need to learn following a wet exit. The paddler in the helmet is stabilizing the empty green kayak for the swimmer who will be re-entering it from the water.  Once back in the kayak, the “rescuer” will continue to stabilize the kayak while the former swimmer pumps out any excess water that is in the cockpit and then reattaches his sprayskirt around the lip of the cockpit rim.  Once the capsized kayak has been re-entered and made seaworthy once more, the two paddlers can continue their voyage, assuming the person who capsized was prepared for this event and can maintain a safe body temperature.  There are many variations of the basic “assisted rescue/re-entry” that can be used depending on the design of the kayak, the skill of the rescuer, and/or the condition of the person in the water.  The more different rescue techniques that you learn and practice, the better able you will be to assist your paddling companions when they capsize, and the more prepared you will be when someone needs to assist you back into your kayak.

The third safety skill that most sea kayakers learn is some sort of solo rescue/re-entry.  While it is advisable to paddle in groups with other kayakers, circumstances can occur which may make it necessary for everyone to have to rescue themselves.  There may not be someone available to offer you an assisted rescue if everyone has capsized at the same time, which can be the case if a strong gust front or katabatic wind has just blown through.  The best form of self-rescue is the ability to roll your kayak upright without having to do a wet exit.  However, this skill takes most paddlers quite some time to learn, and so it is important to learn other forms of solo re-entry in addition to a roll.  Like the assisted rescues, there are a variety of different techniques that one can learn.  There are pieces of safety equipment like a paddle float or a stirrup that can be used by paddlers to make it easier to re-enter their kayaks, but all sea kayakers should learn and practice a variety of methods for solo re-entry following a capsize.

Whitewater kayakers must also learn wet exit and rescue skills.  The skill of wet exiting is the same for sea kayaks and whitewater kayaks,  however, solo rescues and rolling are generally much more important since it can be more difficult and dangerous for other paddlers to provide assisted rescues while on the water.  In whitewater, assisted rescues are often performed by rescuers who have landed their kayaks on shore and may throw a rope to a paddler who has wet exited and been unable to get to shore, or may set up some kind of rope assist for a kayak or paddler who has become trapped in their kayak or on the river bed.  These are very important skills

When you take any boat out on the water, you are expected to have made preparations for what you will do in the event of a capsize.  For fishing boats and power boats, you have rules about the equipment you are required to carry and the knowledge and means to call for help in the event of an emergency.  The requirements are really no different for kayaks.  Besides the rules which govern the equipment you are required to carry, you need to have a plan in place to protect your life should a capsize occur.

If you are unsure of what your current level of safety preparedness is, read the following pamphlet from the American Canoe Association.  If you still have questions, please contact PaddleSafely.com to find the answers you need to stay safe on the water.

American Canoe Association (ACA) pamphlet “Paddler’s Safety Checklist”

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