Recreational Boating Safety – Re-Boarding a Flipped Kayak

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
There has been a rash of kayaking deaths in the past couple of weeks. As I write this, there is a search underway for the body of a missing kayaker off Galveston Island. His overturned kayak, along with his life jacket, were found just a couple of hours ago. All of the kayak deaths involved flipped kayaks and paddlers who were not wearing a life jacket. This column will be about reboarding a flipped kayak.

While kayaking can be fun, it can be scary when your kayak flips over, especially if it’s the first time and you have not practiced reentering (sit inside style kayaks) or reboarding (sit on top style kayaks). The methods of recovery are somewhat different for both styles. The most important thing you can do is practice before the inevitable flip over happens.

Sit On Top (left) and Sit Inside (right) Kayaks

Be Prepared
There are a number of things you can do to prepare for the inevitable kayak flip over. While the goal of this column is to help you learn to get back on or in your kayak, there are other alternatives, one of which I have used.

  1. Practice reboarding your kayak in a swimming pool or calm water, and have a friend standing by to assist you if necessary.
  2. Wear a Personal Flotation Device at all times when kayaking. Kayaker drownings have increased each year, and in every single drowning case, the kayaker was not wearing a PFD.
  3. Wear shoes designed for water sports such as kayaking. They should have a rugged sole, as often the water bottom is dangerous to bare feet. Flip flops won’t work- they come right off in the water. Your water shoes should fit snuggly so that they don’t come off in the water. We had a drowning death a couple of years ago where the boater was barefoot in 4 feet of water. Because he entered the water over an oyster bed, he slashed his feet severely. The official cause of death was exposure, but not being able to stand up was a major contributing factor.
  4. If you are a kayak fisher, then you probably have some expensive equipment on board. You need to make sure your equipment such as a tackle box is secured by tie downs. Rods and paddles need to be tethered. They make some nice commercial tethers, but simple synthetic twine works quite well. Once you get used to a paddle tether, you don’t even notice it is there. Get some straps for your eyeglasses and sunglasses. Get the kind that floats. The one time I flipped my kayak I lost a $300 pair of prescription glasses.
  5. Dress for immersion. If you are kayaking in cool water, wear some immersion pants and an immersion jacket. Do not wear cotton, as it gives you no insulating power whatsoever. Your PFD is one of the best things to protect you from hypothermia.
  6. Never kayak alone. This means kayak with a person who has their own kayak. I have a two-seater kayak. Having another person on board with me isn’t much help because we both will be in the water if the kayak is flipped.
  7. Have some form of waterproof communication with you. This could mean your cell phone inside a waterproof container or a waterproof marine VHF/FM radio. Either should be in a pocket of your PFD. If your PFD doesn’t have a pocket, then wear a fanny pack under your PFD. I always carry my marine radio with me when I kayak. It is both waterproof and it floats.
  8. Have a knife on your person. You may find yourself entangled in your equipment tethers and you may have to cut those tethers. That doesn’t mean you have to lose your equipment; you can secure your equipment back on the kayak but you my have to cut the tether first. I recommend a short non-folding dive knife with one edge that is serrated.
  9. Make sure you have the Coast Guard required whistle, and attach it to your PFD. One of the best whistles you can buy is the FOX40 whistle. Some kayaking PFDs come with their own whistle.
  10. File a float plan. The float plan available on the Coast Guard App is easy and convenient. Not filing a float plan was another contributing factor to the death mentioned above. No one knew the boater was even out on the water.

The conditions of where you’re kayaking will probably have more of an effect on how easy it will be to flip your kayak, than the type of kayak you are in. If you’re paddling on a calm lake or inland waterway, you probably won’t encounter anything that’s going to flip you. That said, I flipped my kayak on a calm lake. I was reaching around to get something out of my tackle box and simply lost balance. Sea kayaking can be a little bit different and in some cases more dangerous. While sea kayaks are designed to be stable enough to handle the rougher conditions in the sea, it is possible that a larger wave or an unexpected change in conditions could cause your kayak to flip. With other types of kayaking, such as whitewater, the possibility of flipping over is greatly increased. The rough waters can regularly cause your kayak to flip, so it would be advisable for you to have had some kind of safety training prior to hitting the rapids or rougher seas. Another cause of flipping over is due to a wave from a passing boat, tug, or ship. Where I live, many kayakers ply the waters of Galveston East Bay. To get into the bay they must cross the Intracoastal Waterway. The ICW has heavy barge traffic, and the waves created by the barges are often enough to swamp or capsize a large motorboat, let alone flip a kayak. Your goal as a kayaker is to wait for a break in the barge traffic then swiftly cross the ICW.

Sit On Top Kayak Recovery
If you flip your sit on top kayak, the first thing to do is not panic. Exhaustion is your biggest enemy at all times. If you have enough practice reentering your kayak, and conditions are calm, go for it. But it is prudent to first let your buddy know you have flipped your kayak, so call out before your buddy paddles out of sight and out of hearing range. It might take some time before they realize you are not following and they turn around to see why. Here are the recovery steps:

Step 1: Flip it Back
Make sure you are not entangled in any tethers, then position yourself near the center of the kayak. Reach across the bottom of the hull and grab the edge with both hands if possible. If you can’t reach all the way across, you may have to reposition along the hull to a narrower portion. Pull the far edge of the kayak to you and it will right in the water. Try to do this step quickly to prevent entry of water into the hull through your hull compartments.

Step 2: Re-Enter
Now that your kayak is righted, make sure your paddle is secure. With one hand grabbing either side of the kayak, bring your feet and legs to the surface behind your body. Now pull yourself over the kayak until your abdomen is over the seat. A quick kick of your feet can help propel you to that position. Make sure you are balanced before moving to Step 3.

Step 3: Get Back in Your Seat
Now that you are balanced and leaning over your kayak, spin your body so that your butt changes places with your abdomen. Once your butt is on the seat, swing your legs onto the kayak and then sit up slowly.

Step 4: Assess Yourself for Injuries
Make sure you don’t have any cuts that may require attention (you DO have a first aid kit in one of your dry compartments, right?). Use a towel to dry off as much as possible. If hypothermia is a possibility, you may consider returning to shore.

Sit Inside Kayak Recovery
Sit inside kayaks can fill with water while flipped over, so the first step should be performed as quickly as possible to minimize the flooding. If you are lucky, the upside down kayak will form an air pocket that keeps water from filling the cockpit. Also, when the kayak flips, you will still be inside! So, the first step is to make a wet exit. This means you have to swim out of the kayak before you can get back in it.

Step 1: Right the Kayak
The quicker you right the kayak, the less water you end up with in the cockpit. Reach underneath the kayak and grab the sides of the cockpit, one hand on each side, then pull it up and push it over, so that it flips away from you.

Step 2: Climb Back In
Reach over to the opposite side of the kayak and grab hold of the side of the cockpit. Bring your legs close to the surface, give a little kick and pull yourself across the cockpit with your belly pointing down. Be sure to secure your paddle before attempting re-entry to your kayak.

Step 3: Get Seated
Once you are balanced, spin your body around and enter the cockpit feet first. Reposition yourself in the seat. At this point you may need to bail out the water in the cockpit.

Alternative 1: Help from Your Buddy
It was much easier for me to type the steps to reentering your kayak. In reality, you will have to deal with the weight of wet clothing, and the bulkiness of your PFD when performing the gymnastics of re-entering a flipped kayak. This is where a buddy can come in handy. Your buddy can help you right the kayak, and your buddy can steady the kayak while you climb back in. I recommend this method over the by yourself method. Remember, exhaustion is your number one enemy, and your buddy can certainly help make the recovery easier.

Alternative 2: Swim to Shore
You may find yourself in heavy waves that prevent you from reentering your kayak. Rather than exhausting yourself trying, your better option might be to hold on to your kayak and push it to shore, provided you aren’t several miles out. When I flipped my kayak, I tried a couple of times to reenter, then realized it would be easier to push the kayak the 100 yards to shore.

Alternative 3: Have Your Buddy Tow You
Hopefully only one of you went into the water. If you find that you can’t reenter your kayak, you can have your buddy tow you to shore. If conditions are bad, your safety comes before your property. If it is safe for your buddy to tow your kayak, then try that first. If things aren’t working out, abandon your kayak and have your buddy tow you to shore.

Alternative 4: Make a Mayday Call
It is conceivable that conditions become so bad that even being towed by your buddy is not a viable solution. You may have to make an emergency call for help on Channel 16 of your marine radio, which should be attached to your life jacket at all times.

Watch the Videos
After reading the above, you will find that it all comes together by watching a couple of instructional videos. Note that my friend who made the sit on top recovery video said he was not wearing a life jacket for demonstration purposes, and that the recovery method is easier when a life jacket is worn.

Sit On Top Recovery:

Sit Inside Recovery:

Nothing can ruin a kayak trip worse than flipping your kayak. The key to minimizing the effect of such is to be prepared. Have the right equipment, kayak with a paddle buddy, practice reentering your kayak in a pool or calm waters and know when you are becoming exhausted and use an alternative method of recovery. Always wear your lifejacket.

[BC: Jan-24-2023]

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