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Jump In and Get Wet!

by Dan Lewis

Kayak touring is heaps of fun! I discover something magical every time I go out in my boat, whether on lake, river, or ocean. There is, however, always the chance that you will tip over while kayaking. In my experience, this is extremely rare. I've only tipped over once on the ocean (except in surf), and that was in a huge tidal rapid. Generally, if you stay within your limits, and are relaxed and loose, going over is unlikely.

But what if I do? asks a niggly little voice in your head. Good. I believe it's important to be conscious of the risks in any activity (see article on philosophy of safety). It would be foolish to go kayaking while in denial of the reality that skinny little boats have the potential to tip over!

I often hear people say "We talked about how to do rescues, but we're not sure if it would work...". This is especially true with people who don't paddle a lot, maybe go on a trip with friends once a year, the odd day-trip, that sort of thing. The truth is, you need to do more than talk about rescues, you need to jump in, get wet, and learn how to make rescues work. What I'd like to do here is introduce one simple rescue that provides a solid foundation for progressing on to deep water rescues. Practice this one first, and get really good at it.

Here's what you do: Capsize in shallow water, 3 or 4 feet deep (did you hear the one about the statistician who drowned while wading across a river with an average depth of four feet? Wear your lifejacket). After exiting the kayak (see article on Fundamentals), stand up, and proceed to the bow (front end) of the boat. Leave the kayak floating upside down. Get a firm grip on the grab-loop or carrying toggle, and walk the kayak and paddle back towards shore. Don't try to rush it - these things are heavy when full of water! Keep breathing. Yell, grunt, or curse to motivate yourself (works for me!). Toss the paddle up on shore when you get there, to get it out of your way, and to ensure it doesn't float away while you're pre-occupied with the kayak.

Now to dump the water out. In shallow water, put one hand on the up-turned keel, the other on the over-turned bow deck, underwater. Use both hands to twist the boat. This will pop the cockpit rim out of the water on one side, which breaks the suction. Otherwise, this suction can make it nearly impossible to lift the kayak. Next, slowly lift the bow, letting the water drain out. When the boat is empty, lift it up high before turning it back upright. Otherwise, you will scoop water back into the cockpit as it rolls over. If the kayak is simply too heavy for you to lift, roll it over by draping your body over the hull in the middle of the kayak. Reach over and grab the cockpit rim, then hang on and fall back into the water. Your body weight will bring the boat over easy. Then you can whip out your pump, and pump the kayak dry (this can take 5 or more minutes!).

This is an excellent rescue to learn for a number of reasons. One, it always works (if you are paddling in shallow water). When I learned to paddle I did a lot of putzing along close to shore, exploring every little nook and cranny. This is an excellent rescue for that phase of your learning.

There are several key habits you can develop during this practice which will pay off in spades when you progress to assisted rescues in deep water. First, you learn to go to the bow when you want to dump water out of the kayak. The reason for this is that most kayaks have a bulkhead fairly close behind the seat, so not much water is trapped there. Most of the water will be in front of the seat, in that nice roomy space for your legs and feet. Always grab the bow to dump a kayak, never the stern.

Second, you are learning to grab the toggle to hang on to the kayak, not the deck lines or (ouch!) the rudder cables, which can slice deep into your fingers. It's easy to forget these details in the midst of a crisis. Take the time to develop good habits at the onset.

Third, you're learning to twist the kayak before lifting, to break the cockpit suction. This is often why people seem unable to lift the kayak and dump the water out. (The week's worth of red wine in the bow could be another reason).

And finally, you're learning to know when to not give up, but give in. If you can't lift the boat to dump the water out, don't sweat it. It's hard enough at the best of times, and nigh unto impossible when the boat is loaded, the seas are rough, or you are tired (in other words, the type of conditions where you are most likely to need rescues). Don't waste time struggling with the boat. If you are using proper technique, twisting before lifting, and it won't go, just flip the boat upright from the middle, and start pumping. We have the technology (we did bring the technology, didn't we?).

This rescue will enable you to deal with simple capsizes close to shore. You can take it one step further by practicing swimming, towing the kayak with you. Start out by swimming parallel to the beach, such that if you tire you can simply stand up and walk to shore. Then, with a spotter, try to swim your boat to shore from a hundred feet out or so. Much more than that and you are better off to stay with the boat and await rescue.

With all these exercises, take care to reduce your risk. Have someone spotting you who could help you if needed. An ideal location would be a warm lake, with a sandy beach. No wind is best, or else light winds, blowing towards shore, not away from it. Make sure there are no currents which will sweep you away from shore. Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Have warm, dry clothes, energy snacks, and a flask of hot drinks handy. And remember to smile and have fun!