Safety in cold water and wind with light weight kayaks

I’m sure this topic has been covered a thousand times but I thought I would share one more story to the pile of safety tips. I paddle almost every day here in the San Juan Islands. I wear a dry suit and watch the weather, of course, and don’t go out in crazy conditions. I was in my Stellar SR surfski yesterday and was thinking about a surfskier who had died of hypothermia a few years back. He had all the proper gear including a good dry suit. He capsized in rough January conditions and before he could grab hold of his boat it blew away in the wind and drifted too far to swim after. Other surfskiers came to his rescue but he still died of hypothermia draped across the back deck of a fellow paddler. The lesson we all learned; Leash your boat to your body. I do it even in the mildest conditions. I have a 2 meter piece of spectra cord with easy to use plastic clips on each end. One end to the anchor point in the cockpit and one to either my body or a leash loop on my paddle. Ive learned that I have a instinct to hold my paddle no matter what so leashing the paddle to boat is a good option for me. Stay safe out there and happy to hear other ideas but this is one idea my whole paddling community has embraced for years.


I thought that ‘by default’, surf skiers always go with a leg leash.
(in the same way a whitewater paddler will always wear a helmet)

also, see:

Unsurprisingly surfskiers are all over the map with safety measures. I think the leg leash is a hold-over from the surfboard crowd. In the real world, the leg leash is not that practical for surfski. I paddle both surfski and decked kayak. I wear a leash in windy conditions for both boats. I often leash to my paddle rather than my body, added advantage is that I can let go of the paddle to get back into the boat as needed. When a decked boat capsizes it scoops some water which adds to its weight, which can slow it down. I have only accidentally flipped in my surfski once in the past 5 years and only once in my decked kayak about 20 years ago. Ive got a fairly solid brace and wicked sense of self preservation. I still practice wet-exit and reentry every year to remember how to do it with my ageing body.

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cWhen I took intro lessons in SoCal, the instructor told me most paddlers leash the ski to one of their legs. I’ve seen even a heavy sea kayak start scudding away from someone who had to wet exit and failed to hold the boat, so I will absolutely be leashing my ski to me.

Keep in mind that a capsized SINK scoops up water, slowing down its flight. There’s more drag than with a SOT deck.

The prospect of weighing down a light paddle with a sturdy leash makes that choice easy.

I more or less exclusively surfski, paddling 1-3 times a week depending on how much light is available.

I and everyone I paddle with wear a leash 100% of the time, even if dead flat. Here in SoCal the wind changes quickly, so what started as a dead flat paddle can easily end with some wind.

I always leash to my leg. Even in flat water when I lived back east, I would use a leg leash even on calm rivers when I was in my drysuit.

There is quite a diversity of opinion of needed safety gear in the ski community, but for the most part I think leashes are close to 100% usage on the ocean.

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This is often something that lurks in my mind in a sea kayak. Sure, I know to never let go of my kayak. Sure, I practice this frequently. But the very nature of an accidental swim out of a sea kayak suggests the opposite of a high level of perfectly organized control over the situation. The only thing I know for sure is that it could take a single clumsy second, and these situations can be rife with clumsy seconds.
It wouldn’t be that difficult, in open water windy situations where it would be safe, to have a Velcro wrist strap with a short line? Or maybe just attach my contact tow on my deck to my lifejacket or a quick release belt? Let’s face it, there’s nothing uncommon about kayak rescues/recoveries where a swimmer and kayak get separated. Any sea kayakers here ever use anything besides just knowing not to let go of your kayak?

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While I have used a leash when conditions got bumpy on Lake Michigan, I’ve never considered connecting a line to my body.

I have a North Water micro tow line with a quick release which might serve that purpose perfectly. Thanks for the idea. Will play around with it when the water turns liquid.

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I consider maintaining connection to your craft even more important than a PFD. I personally wouldn’t trust the standard leg leashes for surfski if I were out a good distance in bigger conditions, so I use a heavy duty SUP leash retrofitted with a large lockable carabiner attached to my pfd.
I never have an issue with entanglement and can easily access the line if I need to manually release.
I only use this leash in conditions that warrant it, otherwise I use a standard or no leash at all.
What death were you referring to? I haven’t heard of anything recently. Was it the one that occurred in Minnesota?
If so, I believe that may have been due to a leash failure.

The Surfskier death was in Bellingham WA back in 2008 time frame. He definitely didn’t have a leash and after that death the local surfskiers began to implement some serious safety protocols. My leash is quite simple and light and easy to implement. 2 meter piece of 1/8" Amsteel cord which is super strong and very light. On the ends I use light clips that are made from plastic for commercial fishing. The clips are very strong and easy to operate with cold fingers. One end clipped to the kayak and one end clipped to me. The leash is on the kayak all the time and easy to access even if I don’t start with it on. If the goings gets weird I clip-in.

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Would you be able to post an image or two of the lease you built?

Here is a photo of my simple leash design. 1/8" Amsteel cord which is super strong and “Scotty” plastic clips. The main virtue of the clips is light weight and easy to used with cold fingers.

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I see that most of the leash uses discussed here are in open water. In moving water, including tidal, you need to be concerned about entrapment. The latest American Whitewater safety report has a incident where a paddleboard yoga instructor was drowned when her board was pinned by out-going tide against a bridge abutment. She fell off and was not able to free herself from the tether.

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Thank you. I will be making one of these.

Very relevant to this, I was out surfskiing in 30-35kt winds last week. Nasty, steep 5-8’ wind waves. On the standout set of the night I felt like I was looking straight down as a monster picked up my tail and sent me rocketing down the face.

I went for intentional 2 practice remounts and 2 unintentional swims. One of the times i went for an unintentional swim I was on the downwind side and had to pop under the boat to get upwind to remount. I went under the bucket but the ski slipped out of my hand for a split second and blew (a few feet) away! It was a good learning experience - I will be more careful when going under the ski next time! (Edit - to be clear my leg leash is all that saved me. The boat blew away the moment my fingers lost contact. Without the leash it would have been blown to shore in about 30 seconds and I’d have been left a half mile off shore!)

Sea kayak, ski, sup, prone, sot, outrigger, coconut tree, whatever - when its windy, use a leash!!!


I’m pretty much a newbie - so may not be in the know. All of the sea-kayaking books that I’ve read mention that drysuits keep the water out but provide little insulation - and that insulating layers need to be worn under the suit based on the water temperature. If other surf skis got to him quickly would he have been in the water much longer than in a self-rescue (assuming he had had a leash)? If far from shore he still may have been cold until he paddled ashore.

I’m not aware of all of the details - but for newer inexperienced paddlers a drysuit alone may give a false sense of cold-water security. I realize that experienced paddlers are already aware of this.

Yes, there are a lot of missing details here. You are correct, a drysuit provides no thermal protection, it only keeps you dry.

To die of hypothermia with limited immersion time and with immediate assistance means he had on woefully inadequate thermal layering underneath. If you’re properly layered in a drysuit, you will be full of sweat while paddling, but fine for a long time in cold water.

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Both of you have hit on a important part of this story. The surfskier that died did not have adequate layers under his drysuit. So two factors lead this tragedy, first his surfski blew away. He spent a lot of energy trying to swim to catch his boat and got really cold. He began to suffer from hypothermia. He was so weak that he couldn’t get himself up on the back deck of a surfski to get taken to shore. The surfskiers basically had to stand-by him in the water until a larger vessel could get to him, by then it was too late. If he had a leash to his boat he might have pulled himself out of the water quicker. Water around here is about 50 degrees in the winter.

I don’t think this has been mentioned:

Work on your brace. Practice it a lot. An ounce of prevention…

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@Paddle-on_Lads -
The spectra cord you’re using as a tether can be nearly impossible to cut free should you need to.
Try cutting it with a paddling knife sometime… You can’t always get to the end clips in an entanglement.

Even a piece of paracord would cut easily in an emergency and still be strong enough to keep you attached to your boat- although the small diameter of paracord is more likely to snag on something.

I would suggest a 3/16” or 1/4” Nylon or Dacron since it would be less likely to snag on something but still cut relatively easily.

Be safe and good luck—

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I agree 100% that the spectra cord I use is impossible to cut and might be too strong in the event you want to cut away an entanglement. Many light cords are plenty strong for this application. Even a simple para-cord. I don’t have a knife handy anyway, might be a good addition to my paddling kit.