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What happens if my kayak capsizes

It eventually happens to all paddlers; you will fall into the water – either purposely or unintentionally. What happens to you and your gear during this process can range from just another day on the water to a major incident. This posting will cover what normally happens, and what one can do to minimize the ordeal.

Let’s explore what the action of falling into the water is commonly called in the paddling community. This is called a WET EXIT. Yes, there is a name associated with this - so, understand if there is a common name for this paddle maneuver, there is also a technique. With all paddle techniques, it does take practice to make it safe and effective. But it does start with getting over the initial fear of falling into the water. A wet exit is simply going from a stable, upright seated position (staying dry) in a kayak to tipping the kayak on its edge where the paddler falls into the water. At this point, the person is no longer considered a paddler, they are now classified as a ‘SWIMMER’, until they are back in the seat. That looks like this:

There are several factors which cause wet exits: inattentive paddler, impaired operator (alcohol), collisions, environmental aspects (winds, waves, and current), inexperience (either paddler or craft), horseplay, or even health issues. Basically, anytime you get on the water – anything can produce a capsize. It happens to even the most experienced padder – as there is a common saying amongst instructors, “We are all in between swims”.

Once someone falls into the water a new set of rules applies – rescue priorities. The hierarchy of rescuing someone in the water is PEOPLE, BOAT, GEAR. For those who never have experienced falling out of a kayak, there is usually separation of the person from the kayak, the paddle, or both. Your kayak will also fill with water, the specific amount does vary each time. Along with this separation, there is usually a period of time when the swimmer has to regain mental fortitude and deal with what to do next. If one is not dressed properly for the water temperature, this initial contact can create quite the shock, not only mentally but over time will become physically hazardous.

paddler capsize

There are several scenarios which can play out once there is a wet exit. The best outcome for the swimmer is to get back into the kayak with a self-rescue (if paddling alone) or have a knowledgeable paddle partner provide an assisted rescue. Problems arise and compound when there is inexperience, factors (as stated above), and not properly dressed for the paddle environment (including the PFD or helmets – for white water). Time in the water as a swimmer is a precious commodity one should not take lightly.

For the unfortunate ones who do not know how to perform a self-rescue or an assisted rescue, there are some measures to keep in mind to increase your survival time. First and foremost – Wearing your life vest (PFD) keeps your head above the level of water, keeps your body buoyant, and frees up your arms to able to grab objects (like your paddle and/or kayak). Paddlers should always carry a means of communication. Besides a whistle attached to the PFD, your phone in a waterproof case and/or a VHF radio can be a lifesaver. Once a capsize happens, get in the mindset to close your mouth and hold your breath. Upon coming back up to the surface, open your eyes and breathe. Locate your paddle and kayak, and hold onto those. If you are close enough to the shoreline swim yourself (and gear) back to land. If you happen to be far from the shoreline – attempt to get the attention of other boaters. You can raise your paddle in the air and slowly move it side to side – with the hopes they will see you. Keeping a hold onto the kayak provides additional buoyancy for the swimmer, and does offer a better visual que for those looking for you. When a power boat, or another kayaker does come up to assist you – LISTEN and FOLLOW their instructions. Should you find yourself in a situation where there is nobody around – either reach for your phone, or your VHF radio and contact emergency services.

A safe place for conducting your first wet exit experience would be in a quiet lake or pond. Ideally, this would be near the shoreline, about waist deep water and have a firm bottom in which to stand. If possible, have a friend stand in the water near you, so they can offer support (both emotional and physical) when needed. After your first one, you will notice the times after this are less stressful and become easier. As one repeats this process, become more familiar with just how far you can bring the kayak on its side (edge) before it tips over. Over time, one should develop a second nature holding onto the paddle as you fall in, along with regaining physical contact with the kayak shortly after capsize. Preforming rescues would be your next phase of learning – this experience would be best taught by certified kayaking instructors.


For the Paddler Within…