Paddle Float Self Rescue

As I contemplate taking a coastal kayaking IDW/ICE this summer I found myself thinking again about the paddle float self rescue. I wonder why we continue to teach it and practice it. If you are out in rough conditions your first line of defense is the brace. If you capsize anyway the best recovery technique is the roll (assuming you can do one). If despite trying to brace and then to roll you find yourself swimming and alone or too far from your buddies who might help you, what are your practical options? I emphasize “practical”. There are clearly two possible courses of action: reenter and roll with a paddle float or the traditional paddle float self rescue. Whichever you do, you will confront the same situation if you are able to get back into your boat: an unstable boat full of water, spray skirt not on, and a paddle with a paddle float still attached. So from that standpoint both procedures are the same. The only question is can you get back into your boat. My assessment is that the odds of being able to get back into your boat with a paddle float self rescue are slim to none in truly rough conditions, even for experienced and skilled paddlers. But then experienced and skilled paddlers are likely to be able to reenter and roll so that doesn’t count. Are we fooling ourselves? Are we misleading people entering the sport into thinking they should learn a technique they will not be able to do and that is harder than a reenter and roll? Or am I missing something? I am interested in your reaction.

just climb back in
and avoid more time in the water and possible injury. My belief is that paddle floats, and most hand pumps, are deck mounted fashion accessories sold to provide a false sense of security to paddlers.

I would rather just scramble back in, or re-enter and roll and not waste the time to find, attach to paddle, inflate, affix to boat, climb in, undo the rig and then deal with getting the water out.

With that said, I have and do continue to practice with the silly thing if there is one present on another paddler’s boat. They can be a useful tool for teaching rolling by providing some support to learner’s paddle end.

Works Fine For Flatwater…
and that may be enough for some folks as they have good judgement about what the conditions to paddle in.

Beyond flat, better to have assisted rescues down and partners to go with. And, better than that, to have rolling down.


I’d agree that a fair number of capsizes happen in calm conditions where a paddle float rescue will work. I’ve rescued folks in mid-lake who could have easily rescued themselves with a paddlefloat reentry. I think it’s a good skill to know, but the limitations should be made very clear when it’s being taught.

Worth Teaching
Despite recommendations to always paddle in a group, there will always be the paddlers for whom that isn’t always too practical. Retirees who can paddle during the day themselves but can’t find much company for that, that kind of thing. And up to a point the paddle-float self-rescue is a very practical tool.

We have a guy locally who is in the retiree group, wife doesn’t paddle and lives a bit off from others. Is quite fit, bikes and skis, but is not someone who’ll have a reliable roll real soon. He was paddling on a lake and got hit by surprise with wind and waves that were running (he reports) up to a couple of feet. In any case, the conditions were clearly marginal for a paddle-float self-rescue. It took him two or three tries, but he did get back into his boat OK. The experience made him appreciate the value of a roll for sure, but the paddle-float thing made all the difference in that case.

That said, the conditions that are being contemplated are real big-water stuff - lots mroe than two foot regular waves. So maybe anyone who wants to do big water ought to be encouraged to go straight for the roll, to at least get to a place where they could do a re-enter and roll using the paddle-float.

PF rescue works, if taught correctly.
As a paddler, I’d say you’re dead on…screw the float and get back into your kayak as quickly as possible using a scramble or reenter and roll.

But as an instructor, I still think it’s important to teach students all methods (as well as their merits and drawback), including the PF self rescue to beginners and the PF reenter and roll at the next level.

The secret to a good PF rescue is to teach it correctly. I find they are often taught quite poorly, which results in the student learning a very impractical rescue.

A few things:

  1. Keep it simple…don’t use deck rigging to secure the paddle to the boat, but instead grip the paddle to the cockpit coaming with your hand. Using the rigging is less effective (the exception is for people with very small hands) and adds an extra step of extracting the paddle (a risky move in rough water) at the end of the rescue.

  2. Try a self-drain. If conditions are relatively benign (3 ft or less, or bigger waves that are just swells), teach the student to use a solo bow lift to drain the boat so you can reenter an empty kayak (one major advantage over a reenter and roll). It’s an effective technique, but requires the swimmer to move to the front of their kayak, which could be risky in rougher water.

  3. Don’t “plaster” yourself to your boat. I see a lot of paddlers trying to keep their chest glued to their deck throughout the rescue, with both feet in the cockpit, which is an awkward position and very hard to maintain balance. After getting that first leg in the cockpit, we teach our students to begin rotating toward the paddle float with each move, with the aim of entering the boat on their hip. This way the student is always facing the paddle float, which makes it easier to extend the lead hand out on the paddle shaft, and also keeps their weight out on the paddle float.

  4. Look ma, no hands! After you get your body over the boat, you don’t need to hold the paddle into position with your off water hand. Your body weight will lock the shaft down. Releasing the off hand makes it easier for the paddler to rotate to visualize the paddle float, as well as to switch hands as they begin to rotate into the seated position.

  5. Bring the paddle over to the front immediately after reentry. Since it’s not under the rigging, you just lift it over your now seated torso, place it in directly in front of you, and lean forward to lock it into p lace so you can pump out or put your spray skirt on.

  6. Do it fast! The whole process (including a drain) should take between 45-60 seconds).

  7. You can paddle with the float still on, which makes an excellent brace to keep you up in the rough water that knocked you over the first place. The float can come off once you’re in a good place to do so.

    Using the above approach, most students nail it on the first try. I find it interesting how amused instructors can be with their students failures (the golden rainbow, etc), when in fact, those failures often point out the flaws in their teaching!

    As an aside, I can tell you from experience, that a traditional PF reentry can be done in rough water. I was required to demonstrate one in breaking waves in Triangle off Tybee for my Open Water IDW/ICE (in additional to reenter and rolling). Seas were probably around 5 feet. But I digress…

    To recap: not necessarily the fastest method, but it’s still worth teaching, if taught correctly!

By the way…is the IDW/ICE you’re contemplating the one Dale Williams and I are teaching June 22-24 on South Bass Island?

If not, you may be interested in this. We’re doing a 3-day Basic Coastal and Open Water Coastal Kayaking IDW on Gibraltar Island (in Put-in-Bay) on Lake Erie. It’s a residential program (food and lodging are covered) and since it’s grant-funded through the state of Ohio and the ACA, it’s really cheap. $250.00 for the 3-day IDW.

Let me know if you want more info.

Dr D
Dr D,

You make valid points.

I’ve only been paddling for 1.5 yrs now and I dont even intend to learn the PF self rescue. It simply doesnt make sense to me to waste the time. If the water is not too cold I’d prefer to dump water via bow lift and then do a re-enter, install skirt, and PF roll. If water is too cold I’d be more prone to do the same except w/o the bow lift/water dump and install of spray skirt.

If I was paying for instruction (which I have…too much) I’d prefer the instructor taught me how to roll so I didnt waste time or money on learning a std PF self rescue.