Safety advice for a newish kayaker?

Hi Folks:

I’m a beginner kayaker and had my first wreck today. I’m trying to run a mental diagnostic of today’s events and figure out the gear mistakes that I made. I was hoping that a more veteran paddler would be willing to offer advice.

I was paddling around some rocks inshore and an incoming wave pushed me against a large submerged boulder. In doing so, the wave turned the cockpit toward the incoming water and flooded my kayak. The next wave that hit completely submerged my kayak. I bailed, made my way to shore and eventually re-entered my kayak there (which was thrown on to shore after I exited.)

In addition to assessing my maneuvering and judgment errors, I was trying to figure out whether kayak gear could have prevented the spill. My kayak is a Field and Stream Eagle Run 12" fishing-orientated kayak. It’s very stable but has a large cockpit.

Would flotation bags have prevented my kayak from filling with water so quickly? How about a spray skirt (the Eagle Run appears to be primarily targeted for use without one)? Any other ideas?


A sequence of things

– Last Updated: Sep-24-12 9:03 AM EST –

Waves and large cockpit very stable boats don't go together well. Two parts -
As you found, large cockpits and waves create a heck of a good opportunity for a flooded boat.
"Very stable" boats generally mean a high degree of primary stability and a wide boat. Sea kayaks, intended to handle waves, are much narrower and are designed to be wiggly on flat water but take the angle of the face of a wave in stride and return to upright after the waves passes underneath them. It is a very different stability profile than a flat water boat, which tends to be much less adept in handling that situation.

As to handling the waves and paddling out of the problem, you need to edge into the face of a wave then can paddle over the top. But that requires a level of contact with the boat that you may not have because of the size of the cockpit. Your thighs or knees need to find some kind of surface to use to control the boat, that surface just plain may not be there in the craft you name.

A good set of float bags can reduce the amount of water you acquire, if you can find a way to anchor them securely in a large cockpit boat. I wouldn't count on that - waves are very good at taking things out of a boat unless the stuff is really well tacked down in there.

A skirt is easily challenged at stopping dumping waves at a certain size - the wave will collapse it. Most boats that are well suited for fishing have that scale of cockpit.

You will note that most fishing boats for bigger water are actually sit on tops - your experience today is the reason for that preference.

I just went back and confirmed the description on this boat. It is marketed by Dick's, as in the big box store, and has a 45" x 18" cockpit and is 29" wide. No bulkhead in front. Assuming I have the boat right, any skirt you get for this boat will cost a bunch and will not handle being dumped on by waves. 29" is not the widest glorified rec boat out there, but it is still several inches wider than a full out sea kayak.

Given that this all happened on the shoreline of a coast with at least one rock in it, I am guessing that your actual goal may be to do some paddling on the ocean. Or at least inland oceans like the Great Lakes. I suspect that you can find better places to get advice on that then Dick's. If you provide some information on what are you are in, folks here can probably suggest some good outfitters to go to about getting set up for salt water paddling.

In sum, don't spend any more money trying to make this boat into an open water/ocean boat if that is your goal - nothing you can add to it will ever turn it into that kind of boat. Enjoy it for what it is, on quiet flat water, and stash your cash for a more apt boat and learning how to use it.

Also, messing around in rocks and wearing a helmet should go together. If you don't have a helmet, don't go there.

Well written response…

In addition to what Celia said
Never paddle alone. You could easily have suffered an injury and not had anyone to help out.

It would be helpful
Use some modicum of common sense and discretion when picking places and conditions to paddle. Don’t expect to be instantly competent. It might take years and lots of experience before you’re ready to tackle some stuff. Even experts–whatever that might be–get into trouble at times. The first requisite is very good judgement.

Where were you paddling?
You might look into getting some instruction for coastal paddling in a seaworthy kayak.

If you let people know general location, someone here can probably point you to someplace you can get some basic instruction and you can learn about what kind of boats are best for the location you are paddling.

adding to what others have said
There are some things you could do with your kayak to make it more likely to stay upright, hut truthfully the main thing is to avoid the waves and rocks (and often, just the waves only) until your skills and gear are up to it. The better your gear, the less skills you need (to a point). The better your skills, the lesser gear you can use (to a point).

Working in waves and rocks is called rock gardening (or rock hopping in the UK) and is a subset of sea kayaking. It takes a lot of the high level skills of sea kayaking and adds in skills from whitewater kayaking. Generally not something for a beginner to do.

Where we move a kayak a little with every paddle stroke, all kayaks can be moved a lot by waves. So along with knowing how to move your boat as best possible, an important part of rock gardening is knowing how to get the wave to move you how you want and how to avoid getting moved by a wave when you don’t want.

Very important is also how to get yourself back in to your boat in the conditions you will be in (so with waves washing over you), because rock gardening (like kayak surfing) will involve you getting knocked over reasonably often. The safest recovery from being knocked over is a roll - pretty much considered a requirement for higher level rock gardeners and surfers.

I wouldn’t be around rocks with any waves at all until you are skilled around at least moderate surf near nice sand. Some key skills like paddling backward through a wave are pretty key to safety around rocks.

I wouldn’t do much around surf in that particular boat. You could address some flooding by putting an air bag in the bow (is the stern at least sealed with a bulkhead?), but with such a big cockpit I don’t know if a skirt would help much.

I also wouldn’t do much around anything challenging (i.e. rocks or surf or being far from shore) without some lessons whether from a professional or a much more skilled friend.

The good news is that the journey to being able can be a fun one.

Many good smart reasonable people

– Last Updated: Sep-24-12 12:36 PM EST –

find themselves stumbling into situations like this every day and most of the time, not always, they come out of it just fine. The dangers associated with paddling are not immediately apparent to the average first time paddler. Some people involved in promoting the sport are disinclined to spend a lot of time explaining the dangers because they don't want to scare people.

To put this in perspective - I have paddled canoes all my life. I am 60 years old. I have paddled a great deal in significant white water and on many extended trips - some in the arctic. I have made mistakes and fortunately lived to tell about it. I have a lot of experience - still I consider myself just an intermediate paddler. I have enough experience to recognize dangerous situations - usually. That is perhaps my biggest strength.

I started paddling a sea kayak for the first time in my life last year. I have a good sea kayak and it fits me well. I have a fair amount of salt water sailing experience - most of it in fairly protected waters (long island sound). Even with this experience I know that I have significant limitations as far as kayaking goes. I do not have a roll yet. I have not been out in truly rough salt water yet. I am confident these things will come with time - and probably quicker than they would come to people without the experiences I have had. Still, there is zero chance that I would go into an area like you describe without a good well fitting sea kayak and at least one - preferably two - experienced paddlers with me. Also, I would not go into that sort of area unless I had the ability to re-enter my kayak and pump it out in rough water which is not an easy thing to do. While some may disagree on this I personally would probably no go in that sort of area unless I could roll my kayak confidently.

I will admit that I sometimes paddle alone. But I know that I am taking a significant risk and I take steps to control that risk as much as possible. One thing for sure, at my skill level (advanced beginner at best) I only go out alone on calm protected water long before dark and I carry a communication device and a PLB as well, and I leave a trip report with a relative.

This is a dangerous sport, make no mistake about it. It takes a long time to develop the skills you need to control your risks. Take it seriously, be cautious, (not fearful), and find some folks to paddle with and they will bring you along to the point that you will be able to paddle almost anywhere with a great safety margin.

skills and gear
Added to all the other good advice.

First: get a boat with bulkheads or bags and a reasonable size skirt. If you want something short and plastic and durable, there are several short touring and cross-over boats that are fun and well designed. Like the jackson journey or dagger alchemy.

Second: learn the skills required to paddle it safely. This means not just the steering and support strokes to stay upright but the judgement to avoid hazards

Third: practice those skills on a regular basis in conditions that you might actually need them. A lot of people forget this one. They take a class, learn some skills, strokes, rescues and then never practice. Or they learn some rescues in a calm lake or pool then never test them out in the conditions they will be used.

You’ve received…
Some pretty good responses so far, so I’ll just add a bit of info on technique.

When a wave builds upon a submerged rock, it builds quickly and then dissipates on the other side of the rock into a gentle swell (unless conditions are rough). You have to lean the kayak into the wave, brace with the paddle(low braces work fine in this situation and are much preferred by this kayaker since the risk of injury is low). If the kayak broaches, as you suggested yours did, the full weight of the water will be on the spray skirt as you lean into the wave.

A skirt of the size required to cover such a large cockpit would, most likely, collapse under the weight of the water. Even though the time the skirt would be under stress is short, the forces would probably exceed the friction that holds the skirt to the boat. Any skirt that stayed on would likely be very hard to release if you had to exit the boat for other reasons.

For this reason, if there isn’t an issue with storing gear in the bow, a large float bag up there would help limit the amount of water taken. This may even be sufficient to avoid making a wet exit the boat if the cockpit is swamped (though stability may be compromised).

I once took a 2 person large cockpit boat out during a demo day with my son in front (Coyote Point, SF Bay, 2-3 foot chop). I was really skeptical about the boat, but since we had lots of support and wetsuits, I decided to give it a try. The boat had little rocker and the first wave raised the bow insufficiently to crest the wave. As we passed through, the boat filled completely and we were essentially swimming. It was pretty funny, actually, since without a spray skirt, this event could not be avoided. A canoe would have fared better since the tend to rise up more than this barge did.

In this instance, the cockpit design was incompatible with the hull design and in waves (either less cockpit area and a skirt or more rocker up front), its performance envelope was easily exceeded. The boat, even in modest wave, was simply unsafe and could only be used in lakes or calm water - never on the ocean.

I’m not saying your boat fits in this category,

since I don’t really know the performance characteristics of your boat (though I have some guesses based upon experience), but I will say that you should do some testing to find just what you can, or cannot do, with the boat before stocking it full of gear and taking it out in rough water.


concur… great answer celia

Thank you all for the responses. Celia, everything you said makes a lot of sense. I figured that a short, plastic, wide kayak would be the way to go for inshore paddling but it looks like its time to revisit that decision.

All in all, I’m pretty happy that I had this experience when I did. It was a gorgeous warm day, on warm water with little wind and I feel like it was a perfect time to learn lessons, a few bruises aside. Indeed, I think the most surprising revelation from this weekend was that there aren’t really good days and bad days for being out on the water. It can be a perfect warm day with little wind with dangerous waves. And the waves can can change in a blink of an eye based on any number of factors including where the tide is at. You have to take the water as it is and show it the respect it demands.

Rogue waves
As you said, there are no good nor bad days, as long as you are prepared for what comes up. Waves, even very large ones, can appear even when conditions seem placid. The story that follows is an example of same:

I once took a first time kayaker on Monterey Bay for a bit of paddling in what seemed to be ideal conditions. We went out, did some practice and rescues, and then I started searching for waves so he could practice what we’d learned before he left the water.

As I was passing the point outside Macabee Beach (some may know this place, so it can be useful to reference same), I was well inside my usual route and I noticed the rocks lurking just about 2 feet under the water. Since we hadn’t seen a wave all day, seriously, lakes have more water movement than the bay did, I turned to Max and said, “If there were any waves, we wouldn’t want to be here because of these rocks.”

I looked out to see and saw a 5’ swell barreling in on us. I had time to say, “Like that wave,” and low braced the boat to turn my back to the wave as the boat began to rise. I was able to surf completely over the rock garden, but Max, being the novice he was, braced on the wrong side of the boat and capsized. I was able to haul him out of the rocks (not more than 10-20 feet away) and get him back in the boat.

On the plus side, the lesson stuck and he was actually able to brace later after another rogue wave and even roll the boat after a capsize.


Look for signs in the water …
Look for little clues in the water … do you see little patches of white bubbles …that means a wave has broken there recently … more of a foam line …then good chance larger breaking waves are going off every few minutes … when a swell rolls through do you see rings on the water surface? That means there is a shallow reef nearby and when a larger swell rolls through it’s going to break. It’s doubtful the waves that got you were "rogue"waves those one in five hundred events … you probably just were not aware of water, something you learn by paddling a lot.

Practice bracing, paddle in a group, work on wet exits and use of paddle float for re-entry. Stay away from rocks until you get more experience. Wear a helmet when you work up to them. Practice on wind driven waves before you try the shore break.

Also tidal factor
I am guessing that where you were may also be shallow enough that things can get trickier when the tide falls. It is the opposite of what you would think if you don’t know water - high tide is often easier to handle than low tide if there are rocks, or the mouth of a river. The extra few feet of water tends to cover up the really tricky parts and put them a few feet under your boat rather than on the surface with you.

Waves are one thing, rocks and waves are another, tidal flows and anything else are another. All of these take some time to learn to handle.

I think some days are better than others
While I agree with all that has been said, and Celia’s advice is always spot on, I do think not so good days can be predicted to some extent.

What is the wind speed in the weather forecast? Most TV forecasts will tell you or use Under 10mph is nice, under 5 is very nice. 10-15 can be fun once you are up for it, as can be 15-20 if you can deal with it. Above 20 should be avoided, as well as small craft advisory days. Thunderstorms in the area or off shore tropical storms or hurricanes can also affect conditions. I found all these can be found in an ordinary weather report.

Have fun and be safe,


If you bought a fishing oriented kayak are you around the rocks in the ocean to fish? If you are then you should now understand why SOT kayaks are used. You can secure your fishing gear and the entire boat is one big sealed float. If you get dumped you turn the boat back over and climb back on top.

You were luck to be close to shore.