Twenty five years ago this spring I was preparing for a solo sea kayak voyage that departed from the Fraser River (near the border of British Columbia and Washington State) and over four months later arrived 1200 miles north, at the mouth of the Chilkat River near Haines, Alaska. It was a truly wonderful, beautiful, gratifying experience. Ralph Frese, canoe builder/blacksmith, and friends I met in the Vancouver area (Steve Schleicher, kayak designer, and Joe Matuska, paddle builder) helped with very valuable resources and advice before departure. I think every bit of their help proved to be sound and credible. And I’m going to pass an important part of that help on to you in this article. (I didn’t solicit advice from Mr. Canoe about kayak self-rescue, and Steve and Joe are, of course, not responsible for any mistakes of omission or commission I may have made in the following, or for my interpretation.)
The kayak as it was conceived by First Nations people in the far north and Arctic regions of the world, and as it evolved over uncounted thousands of years, is (despite being one of the smallest vessels afloat, and dependent entirely on the skill and endurance of the human operator) the most seaworthy craft ever devised. Variations in design and construction (importantly including innovations during the last several decades) have also defined the kayak as the most versatile water craft of all. The kayak is the only vessel that can and does navigate every type of natural liquid water on earth. The most unique and salient feature of the kayak is that as long as its hull remains intact, and the paddler remains in place and competent, the vessel remains seaworthy.
That means that a mistake or a mishap resulting in capsize is not necessarily indelible. The unique design of the kayak gives you a quick and immediate eraser. Use that eraser. Be fully prepared to use it. The people who conceived the kayak also survived dependent on it. They hunted, fished, and traveled everywhere in it. All skills and knowledge appropriate to full and effective use of the kayak were fully mastered by all, at the earliest age, and from one generation to the next and the next. Some paddlers were more proficient than others in this or that particular. But there were no skills or knowledge that were considered “advanced” techniques that were the exclusive province of a few “elite” kayakers. Termed by European observers the “Eskimo roll”, the basic technique to recover from a capsize was at least as essential and necessary a skill for anyone paddling a kayak as the forward paddle stroke. In fact the roll was an absolutely essential skill; the “wet-exit” was superfluous. The first people to design, build, and use kayaks sewed or laced themselves into the boat (in lieu of the modern pop-off neoprene sprayskirt), and the water in which they paddled was plenty cold. They yust rolled up if they capsized. Period.
If you capsize while paddling a kayak, you too should immediately roll up. Otherwise, why paddle a kayak? Paddling a kayak without being able to roll it (on both sides) is like riding a bike with no brakes. You can do it in very special limited conditions, but why take the chance or so limit yourself?
The subject of this article is, what happens if you miss your roll and wet exit your kayak? You’re in the water, next to your upside down kayak. (In most cases, do not let your boat or paddle get away, and don’t turn your boat right side up, where breaking waves will fill with water the uncovered space left by your absence.) Whatcha gonna do now?
The answer is, roll it up. Get back in your upside down boat and roll it up. Whether you were intentionally paddling alone or not; whether your fellow paddlers have seen your mishap, and/or are willing or able to come back to assist (or not); re-enter your upside down boat (keeping hold of your paddle of course), set up, and roll up. Of course, it’s better to roll up first, rather than wet exiting and then re-entering and rolling. But once you’re swimming, you don’t have that choice anymore. Re-enter your upside down kayak as follows:
If time and conditions permit, orient yourself or your kayak so that you will roll up into the oncoming waves. Would you rather do a right hand roll? Then orient your kayak so that its port side is towards the coming waves. (The port side is the left side when you are sitting in the boat facing forward. The port side of a boat is always the same side, regardless of which way you are facing, whether you are in or outside the boat, and regardless of whether the boat is capsized or upright. If you put a mark on the port side of your boat when you are in it, facing forward and upright, that mark will always be on the port side of your boat, OK?) Alternatively, you can just eyeball the situation, and if your kayak’s starboard side is facing oncoming waves, just do a left hand roll when you re-enter and roll up. The point is, roll up into the seas or breaking waves, not away from them.
OK. You’re still in the water, alongside of your kayak. Position yourself and your paddle alongside the cockpit of your upside down kayak, so you are between the oncoming waves and the kayak, facing the stern. Holding the paddle and the near side of the cockpit rim with one hand, grasp the far side of the cockpit rim with the other hand, submerge briefly and re-emerge with your head inside the boat, in the air still trapped in the cockpit, still facing the stern. Take a breath, relax, and submerge again, extending your arms, keeping your grip on the cockpit rim and the paddle shaft. Weightless under water, you will find it easy (with perhaps a little practice) to bring your feet and legs between your arms and do a back somersault into an upside down sitting position, with your legs inside the boat, and your feet finding the foot braces, and your knees finding and locking into the knee brace positions. Now, set up and roll up, as usual.
Sorry. I started this saying I was first gonna tell you how to re-enter your upside down kayak, and here you’ve already rolled up. Well, that’s about all there is to it. Just try it. Try it first in the most benign conditions, with a properly prepared kayak. And think about it. Work on some of your gear and improve your boat’s flotation so that seaworthiness and stability are least compromised with water in the cockpit. Figure out how to keep as much water as possible out of the cockpit when rolling up, and how to expel remaining water and secure your spray skirt after you have rolled up. And then try it (safely) in progressively more challenging and different conditions.
The first time I tried it, I re-entered and rolled my kayak (overloaded with 200 pounds of gear) and ended up with about two inches of water in the bottom of my cockpit. The cockpit is intentionally fairly short. The forward bulkhead is where it should be (just barely ahead of my feet), and the aft bulkhead is right behind my behind. So I was seaworthy, with just a couple inches of water in the four foot long cockpit, though I still had to reattach my skirt and expel the water.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could re-enter your kayak upside down, and then, before rolling up, re-secure your spray skirt? You’d roll up with almost no water in your boat, and no screwing around trying to re-attach your skirt while upright and vulnerable, in the same conditions that capsized you in the first place. The only problem is it’s hard to reattach your spray skirt, set up, and roll, all on one lung-full of air. I think a simple, thoughtfully installed hose might allow a prepared re-entry roller to take a few lungs-full of air while reattaching the spray skirt before rolling back up with an essentially dry boat. I guess that person could attach a paddle float before re-entering as described above, if they are not sure of their roll. Such a thoughtfully installed simple rescue breathing hose might even make a quick wet-exit due to a missed roll unnecessary. But I haven’t yet tried a rescue breathing hose so it’s just a thought. Let me know what you think, know. or figure out.
This upside down underwater reentry can also be the most effective method for an assisted rescue. The best way is for the swimmer to reenter and roll up, and then for rescuers to approach and steady the previously capsized boat while the erstwhile swimmer bails or pumps and reattaches the spray skirt. if a swimmer is not able, for some reason, to do a roll, and if a rescuer can safely place her bow close to the capsized paddler’s cockpit after the “swimmer” has re-entered and signals ready, then the “victim” locates and grasps the rescue kayak’s bow, and quickly snap rolls up.
(By the way, this technique for entering a capsized sea kayak is also useful for putting on a survival suit in the water. It’s always better to don your survival suit on a boat or ship before abandoning, as ordered, a foundering or burning ship. But sometimes things don’t work out that way, and you may find yourself in rough seas with a survival suit in your grasp or within reach. Lay the suit out on the water face down. Grasp the lapels with both hands, while facing the head end of the suit. Submerge beneath the suit and somersault your feet between your arms and into the suit, making sure one foot (only) goes into each leg of the suit. Stretch out prone, face down, maintaining a grip on the lapels. Get your arms, one at a time, into the suit before you roll over, if possible. Then roll over, pull the hood over your head, and finally zip the zipper. It’s easier and quicker to do it this way than any other way I know, especially in rough seas.)