Is a spray skirt safer?

-- Last Updated: Mar-12-07 8:39 AM EST --

I saw a woman yesterday on a small quiet river in a dry suit / PFD and no spray skirt in a glass sea kayak. She paddled out to the mouth of the river and checked out the wind on the wide CT River and turned around. I kept thinking about the safety aspect of wearing a spray skirt.

If you have some experience and can't roll and really aren't at the point of paddling where you lean the boat for manuvers, maybe it's actually safer to have no spray skirt on if you know you're going to stay in a calm water area? I think in this woman's paddling alone yesterdy on this quiet river in CT - yes.

Our club in CT requires one and I still think it's a good practice, setting some better paddling standards but often I feel for a beginner it's one more thing they have to deal with on a capsize - as long as the water is not breaking into the boat. Curious how others feel?

if a sprayskirt makes them unsafe
the THEY are unsafe. It’s kind of a seperate issue. There’s nothing wrong with not wearing a sprayskirt, if the person can’t remove one easily then that’s a problem right off and they should correct that before paddling in any kind of water with it.

If they wear a sprayskirt and they have a rescue situation because of that then that’ll be a learning experience.


– Last Updated: Mar-12-07 10:14 AM EST –

on the spray skirt. There are two kinds of risks that no amount of wet exit practice can anticipate.

One is someone who is calm enough about pulling the skirt in a predictable situation, but loses it completely when it is a real life capsize. There was an incident like this off of Cape Cod a few years ago where the student had done fine in practice, but seems to have not been able to overcome their panic to pull a reasonably well-fitting neo skirt when they capsized in real water a couple of hours later. It had a tragic result, for everyone.

The other is if a capsize is possible in cold enough water to cause shock - which doesn't have to be awfully cold for some people, especially if they are not already rollers and so not accustomed to dunking their head in the water before each paddle.

I found out in my first unplanned capsize that I was on the bleeding edge of the first situation - I did manage to pull the skirt but it was on pure adrenaline that I managed to figure out a solution. I was sincerely thinking that I was going to drown right there. This was despite having practiced pulling the thing and exiting any number of times earlier.

Based on my own responses, I don't think that anyone who isn't seasoned in real life capsizes or has not started solidly towards a roll should ever be in a skirt that won't come off easily, either fall off the coaming or by pushing off the bottom of the boat. I am still pretty cautious about that for myself, and will wear err on the side of looseness if I plan to be a really challenging new situation. I quite like the neo skirts with a knee strap for this reason - lots of ways to get out if you need it that'll still work with thick winter gloves.

The counter issue is that, in paddling situations where there are waves, a cockpit full of water isn't safe either. I know of at least one outfitter who has solved this problem for newbies by only using cloth (cordura) skirts with fairly thin bungies for beginners, since they use glass boats. They have found that a panicked paddler can just push out of the boat with them in a capsize.

I think I’d be more likely to capsize if I wasn’t using a skirt. Worrying about getting the coaming under would keep me from relaxing and letting the boat move under me. I’d also feel limited in the maneuvers I could do.

But I can see wearing a skirt having the same effect on someone who was worried about releasing it.

Last summer in The Oshima Straits
I took a break after coming in from the exposed ocean. It was really hot and the straits were mirror flat so I decided to stow the skirt. As I was crossing, the current had tirned and suddenly I was being chased by 5-6 ft breaking waves. I surfed a couple and then broached. I stayed upright, but had a seasock full of water. Made for about 10 minutes of ustable paddling.

All depends
Hi Jay,

I’ve made the same observations and musings you have here on the Hudson River. If I’m teaching a class then we use sprayskirts. The idea is to build skills and the sprayskirt allows you do to do more with the kayak. If I’m running a tour, then the main focus is to build enough skills to get comfortable in the kayak and paddle it effectively to go travel, no skirt really required. For those tourers that do want to use a skirt, then they have to do the wet exit drill at my harbor before we head out. Them’s the rules.

See you on the water, (no longer iced in!)


Hyde Park, NY

PS: Jay, looking forward to seeing your design in the Impex Outer Island Ocean Cockpit. I’ve got several local paddlers signed up for the Hotline as soon as the demo arrives. Looking forward to it.

Understand what you’re saying.
In some situations going skirtless is OK.

Even a small chop and small boat wakes can get water over the coaming though. The sort of people you describe are not likely to be any better off with water coming in and sloshing about.

A better argument for those who don’t want work on leans/braces/rolls would be they belong on SOTs. Worked fine for me for a couple years - until my interests changed.

All my skirts and akuilisaq come off very easily (and I’ve practiced with and without loop). If folks aren’t averse to wet exit practice (or just bite the bullet at first until it’s calm/smooth/easy) any bugs will be worked out and this stuff will not be an issue.

I have met many paddlers who have not done wet exits, or very few. They put it off and put it off until they convince themselves they don’t need to. I simply don’t understand their thinking/priorities. Certainly doesn’t bode well for their self rescue potential.

When I switched from SOT to SINK I did wet exits and paddle float recoveries first thing (and moved on to other easier recoveries from there). I made Kim wet exit first day she had her first SINK and again when she switched kayaks. She balked at first, then immediately understood why. Still astounds me this basic step is not a given when people are getting into sea kayaks.

But back to the skirt. I always wear mine in boats with keyhole or ocean cockpits - even though it’s a bit hot to most of the year here. I don’t always have it attached to the coaming - and will often pop them on flat water legs for air circulation.

I think the skirt can be used at as a focus point during a wet exit - one that controls the timing and prevents the mad flailing rush to get out where panic increases and people get injured.


1 - release skirt

2 - keep hold on kayak and paddle

3 - slide out (maintaining #2)

#s 2 & 3 are typically easier then, as #1 puts you in a better position to do them in a controlled manner. Keeping things task focused and by the numbers can help keep the mind from wandering into panic or simply freezing up (seen people do this - and just sit there inverted…)

Like taking off pants. Undo belt, hold pants at sides, slide off. Without a belt I can end up with pants falling around my ankles, and be subject to embarrassment or injury. I suppose I could wear Sansabelts, but I find belts useful and sensible for most pants. Shorts, generally not (shorts being the rec boats/SOTs of the pants world).

Without the skirt, and practice, it’s anything goes. People trying to get out before they’re even all the way over, getting twisted, etc. They know why they aren’t wearing a skirt (to get OUT!!!) - and this can reinforce the rushed exit reflex.

Skirt’s part of a system. It think it better to encourage it’s use. Folks with serious entrapment/panic issues they can’t quickly overcome with a few practiced exits (but are otherwise OK in the water) should seriously consider SOTs (but should still practice dumps/remounts and not assume the SOTs will present no issues). People with other/larger water issues should reconsider their choice of recreation.

I guess I just can’t relate to people who want to paddle a sea kayak, but don’t want to wear a skirt, or get confident with wet exits, or learn better boat control with leaning/edging, bracing, and get at least somewhat competent with self rescue methods including working on rolling. That’s what sea kayaks are made to do.

Rec boaters I get, and put in a different category. Skirtless dump and swim level of ability is probably OK (when used as intended near shore on calm inland waters). Might get a little fuzzy with some many crossover kayaks on the market now. People just need to be clear on what they want to do, and where, and why.

Difficult to judge…
Without a skirt you can capsize and sometimes not even get your hair wet… but then you’re swimming. With a skirt you have a better chance of a successful high brace, but if that fails you’re going under…

i know that there are shops where
you rent a bot-but no skirt…then the shop has (supposedly-not a lawyer here) one less layer of libility worry…


Depends… At my age
I’ve thought about using them, but I’ll just schedule convenient stops.

Sprayskirt use
I have a friend who loves her WS Cape Horn kayak. She does not know how to swim well at all and hates the idea of getting her head wet or water in her ears. So, for her to wear a spray skirt would be very scary and I would not trust her to keep her wits about her to get it off in a capsize. So, we stick to calm water, sans skirt, when she joins me. This is unfortunate because without the skirt she will not be able to perform leaned turns or have fun playing in the waves without fear of filling the boat.

As long as one stays in calm water the spray skirt really only serves to keep sun off your legs or keep you warm. I see no need to complicate things with the potential danger of the skirt until the person is consistently comfortable enough in the water to hang upside down in the boat for a moment or so without panic.

I would urge all kayakers to take swimming lessons or do what ever it takes to be comfortable in any type of water in which they plan to kayak, whether or not they wear a spray skirt. People can do all sorts of dumb things when they are panicking, whether they have a spray skirt on or not. Going out in rough water or water with large boat wakes without a spray skirt is foolhardy, IMO. So depending on the circumstances, a spray skirt is a good or bad decision.


I vote for skirts
I don’t think there is a clear answer for the general case.

In this case, I’d wonder a bit about a padder with a glass boat and a dry suit who did not use a skirt.

To each his own, but I never paddle with out a skirt because I’d have to paddle very differently (and less capably) with out it. If one wants to develop automatic responses (eg, when bracing), one should always wear a skirt (in my opinion).

It’s quite possible that an easy-to-remove skirt would be a good choice for people starting out. (I’ve always use neoprene.)

As one with VERY little sea kayak
experience, I’m curious. How common are capsizes? Maybe I’ve been kayaking and c-1’ing in whitewater too long, but I find it hard to see why capsizes would occur in boats that are fundamentally stable.

In whitewater, all decked boaters use spray skirts whether they can roll or not, and regardless of whether the river of the day is challenging for them.

My rolls are kind of “off” right now, but that doesn’t mean I won’t run rivers will within my proven ability. If I didn’t use a skirt, I couldn’t run these rivers.

I would think I could get in my little sea kayak and make various bay crossings with low risk of capsize. But if I don’t use a skirt, I can’t go.

On any body of water where wind and waves might cause water to enter the boat, I’m going to use a sprayskirt.

I have been kayaking for over 20 years and have only capsized in surf, with the exception of one capsize in my s-o-f on its maiden voyage and that was definitely my fault because I was not paying attention and not used to the skinny, tippy boat.

I, too, can’t really understand all the stories I hear about people capsizing in their kayaks in the middle of a lake. I just can’t imagine what people are doing as most kayaks are very stable. It would be very interesting to hear from people who have capsized in calm water. Getting in or out of the boat can be challenging for a newbie, but in the middle of a calm lake? What did you do? Drop your paddle and lean over to reach for it? Please tell me! I need to know.



– Last Updated: Mar-12-07 4:04 PM EST –

Most of my unintentional capsizes on the lake in my sea kayak have been due to fooling around, as opposed to being overwhelmed by conditions. It's usually something simple like reaching too far for a bad toss(water bottles, balls, frisbees, etc) or some other silliness.

I'm not counting all the ones due to missed braces, etc. while practicing. If you're pushing yourself you're going to get wet.

A Neverending Beginner’s View
My first incident was in a very calm but cold paddling situation, when all of a sudden, a rather large boat decided to “open 'er up” nearby and I capsized. The nylon skirt wasn’t an impediment with exiting (I now think that a neoprene would have), and I didn’t have experience with wet exits at the time. I had a wet suit and layers, and I’m not sure if it helped keep the cold & wind out once I get back in the boat, but I think it did.

Another time, I was in calm, warm water, and practicing a (not very good) high brace. The blade dove, and I went down with it. I had more experience with wet exiting this time, and exiting with a nylon skirt was pretty easy.

In my earlier paddles, when the boat felt tippy no matter what, I found that a little water in the boat made the boat feel even less stable as the water sloshed around.

However, I do think that a skirt can introduce a fear factor to a novice who may feel entrapped by it. Fear is not a novice paddler’s friend.


Ways to capsize
I am also one who tends not to capsize, because I am not a big guy with a lot of torso weight out there and I have been (overly) tentative in taking chances with leans etc, and I paddle really supportive boats. So my relatively few easy-water capsizes have been as above - the most recent when I was diving down to grab a pair of goggles before they hit the bottom (I got the goggles).

But I have been on paddles where newer paddlers hit the water when they got a 12 inch swell on their beam, in the course of normal paddling when they followed a diving blade on down themselves, and my brother-in-law when he raised his hand to wave hi to someone. Most of these are cases where the paddler started getting into trouble and stiffened up rather than staying loose and helping the boat recover - they weren’t necessary capsizes by more seasoned paddlers’ standards. But when you are new, you’re new.


– Last Updated: Mar-12-07 3:05 PM EST –

"How common are capsizes? Maybe I've been kayaking and c-1'ing in whitewater too long, but I find it hard to see why capsizes would occur in boats that are fundamentally stable."

In fact, capsizes are rare for sea kayakers, in large part, because people tend to paddle in conditions that are appropriate for their skill level. The issue with capsizing is mostly restricted to new boaters.

Anyway, a "true" sea kayak isn't "fundamentally stable" at all. Sea kayaks are "dynamically" stable by design. That is, you have to be active in keeping the boat upright. If one is not attentive, sea kayak are real easy to capsize.

The reason to use a skirt in a true sea kayak is to be able to use the boat properly. With my sea kayak without a skirt, I'd take on water when edging in flat water (and I edge frequently). In a true sea kayak, if you are not waring a skirt, you aren't (really) edging.

Also keep in mind that bracing is going to less useful without a skirt.

"As long as one stays in calm water the spray skirt really only serves to keep sun off your legs or keep you warm." Nah, the skirt lets you use the boat properly.

Anyway, from observing teaching new WW kayakers, it appears to be fairly easy to teach people to pull skirts (neoprene ones) when they capsize. (The hard thing is to get people to not pull the skirt and roll instead!)

Yup, just edging etc…
In my sea kayaks I would be taking on water regularly if I didn’t use a skirt. Every brace, edge, turn, scull, etc… gets the coaming in the water.

As far as stability… many sea kayaks are very stable if you allow them to move with the water. This often means water is coming over the gunwales. Being relaxed and allowing the boat to accommodate the seas requires a skirt.

I think most inexperienced paddlers find boats with a beam less than 2’ to be unstable. This is why rec boats and most transition boats have beams of 24" or more. Most sea kayaks have a overall width of 22" or less and sometimes a waterline beam of about 20"

Well, my Necky Looksha Sport is not
a “real” sea kayak, so I guess I’ll have to wait to find out what this “dynamic stability” is about.