Sea kayaking safety and rescue

Introduction

So how safe is sea kayaking in Sweden ? Well, a lot of people do it every year without getting into trouble, but there are also some obvious and significant dangers that are often ignored, more so it seems, than in other outdoor sports. I suspect that this comes about because many people have paddled about in lakes on calm sunny days and never capsized, and so don't think it is likely to happen at sea. And they are right, it is unlikely, but if it does happen and you haven't practiced (or even thought about) what to do, then you can be in a lot of trouble. Even if you only go out on nice summer days, the weather can change quickly, strong winds can develop in minutes, and if you stay overnight on an island, there is no telling what the next day will bring. Even in August the Baltic sea is seldom warm enough to swim in for very long, and a stiff wind can destroy warm surface layers in no time. Planning to stay close to shore is no comfort either, as in bad weather you will be worse off in the breaking surf near rocks (and you will never get to all the wonderful islands that are the reason for paddling in the archipelago).

All serious organised tours demand that clients do a short rescue-training course before the tour, but most trips are done privately, and I know many people who go island-hopping with no idea how to deal with a capsize. However good you are at paddling, you can always capsize, perhaps with an unexpected wave while taking a drink, or a bum paddle stroke while relaxing too much on a completely flat sea.

Basics

At the very least you should know what it is like to come out of the boat upside down so that you don't panic when it happens accidentally. But when you have done that it is a small (and necessary) step to empty the boat and climb back in with support from another boat. A small step, but not an obvious one to think out from first principles when you or your friend is suddenly and unexpectedly bobbing about in the waves. I don't intend this document to be an instruction manual, but I will briefly describe the simplest assisted rescue to show how easy it is :
The victim and the rescuer drag the upturned boat over the nose of the rescuer's boat to form a cross, and the boat empties through the cockpit. The rescuer then rights the boat, puts it alongside hers, and leans over and holds it tight while the victim climbs in, keeping his weight low over the boat as he does so. For a more complete explanation see : http://www.paddlermagazine.com/issues/2000_4/article_65.shtml
Once you have done this and know how undramatic a capsize can be, you are not only vastly safer, but you can also have much more fun by pushing your limits more, or just relaxing more. Rent a pair of kayaks for an hour some warm summer's day and try it.

When you are out paddling for real, think about how far apart you and your paddlemates are. Groups often like to spread out, but think about how long it would take for someone to notice that you have capsized and to get to you, bearing in mind the water temperature and what you are wearing.

Advanced techniques

There are more advanced rescue techniques, and if you are serious about sea kayaking you will want to learn them.

The Eskimo roll

Of these, the most famous, the Eskimo roll, is probably the least useful to sea kayakers. It takes a lot of training to develop a reliable roll, and if you are that commited to the sport then you will most probably only capsize in conditions of cold and fatigue that will also compromise your previously reliable roll. Having said that, if you want to develop your paddling career, I can recommend learning to roll because it's fun, builds confidence, and allows you to practice extreme paddle strokes. Once you have mastered all the permutations of left-hand, right-hand, forward-sweep and backward-sweep rolls, you will have a control over the boat that essentially means that never really capsize, you just lean the boat further and further until you happen to reach 180 degrees...
A good tutorial on rolling is at : http://www.schools.ash.org.au/daptohigh/eskimoroll.htm

Update August 2002 - for the first time ever, I capsized accidentally this weekend, ironically while surfing the bow wave of a Search and Rescue boat. OK, so I was deliberately pushing my limits, but it was still a surprise when I couldn't get enough lift from my rudder stroke, and rolled over. It was less of a surprise that my first attempt to roll back up failed, as I've always suspected real life would be different from training. In this case, I put it down to not having time to take a good breath, and consequently hurrying the set-up of the screw roll. So as not to worry the SAR guys by failing again, I then repositioned for a Pawlata roll, and came up OK. It was good to be able to recover from a capsize so easily, but it confirmed my suspicion that Eskimo rolls are not always there when you need them, even after several hundred practice rolls.

The Eskimo rescue

A much more useful skill to learn early on is to pull yourself up from a capsize on the paddle or bow of a rescuer's boat. This requires patience while hanging upside-down in the water and waving your hands around in the air waiting for your rescuer to position her bow or paddle (resting on the bottom of your boat) into your hands. If you get impatient (or hypoxic) you can always bail out and perform a conventional rescue, but the eskimo rescue saves a lot of time and exposure to cold water.
For an historical perspective, see : http://www.seakayakermag.com/1997/jun97/eskroll.htm

The Re-entry rescue

If you do have to exit your boat before your rescuer arrives, you can perform the spectacular-sounding, but actually quite easy re-entry rescue, whereby you do an underwater somersault back into your boat while it is still upside down, and then pull up on the other boat as though you had never left yours. This saves a lot of hassle, and as long as you have a pump to empty out water that will inevitably come into the cockpit, it is my rescue of choice for a heavily laden boat. Ideally you put on the spraydeck while you are still under water, but that is a lot harder than the rest of the manoever. Variations include doing an eskimo roll when you are back in, and putting a float on your paddle to do an assisted roll.
For more details, see : http://www.kayakshops.com/waterwalker_articles/float_roll.htm

Equipment

Once you have paddled with a leash to tether your paddle to your boat (or wrist), you will probably never paddle without one again, even on safe inland waters. After a capsize it is very hard to keep hold of both your boat and your paddle, but even when things are going well it is so convenient to be able to drop your paddle to drink, look at the map, or take photographs. A hand pump is very useful for emptying a partially-filled boat, and a paddle float can turn your paddle into an outrigger so that you can climb into your boat alone, a task that is all but impossible except in dead-calm conditions.

Now go and have fun.

(More kayaking pages)

(More outdoor pages)

(MRH homepage)

© Mark Harris Aug 2001