Wet exits: timing of pulling the spray skirt tab?

I am still very much a newbie…

I have been alternating receiving a couple of private lessons with some padding outings on my own. When paddling alone I try to enjoy the glow of this “new hobby” phase but I also make sure I am moving forward with skill development at the same time.

I am mentally reviewing my recent wet exit and paddle float recovery session and I think I may be guilty of pulling the tab on my spray skirt too early when I flip my boat over? This might be due to this just being an unnatural and unsettling thing to do: intentionally going upside down while strapped into a boat? So maybe I am just rushing it? Should I try to make sure I am fully upside down first and then start the exit? Would this better prepare me for actual conditions and timing in a real rollover? Or should I just get used to doing the quickest, most efficient exit I can and rely on muscle memory in the process?

I have not attempted rolling yet: I want to get comfortable with the wet exit, flipping boat over and getting back in procedure first…


One of the processes in many rolling training sessions is to get used to being upside down. This is easier in a pool and is best done with somebody standing beside the kayak to roll you back up. In classes I am familiar with, the student wears a SCUBA mask or swim goggles and a nose-clip. They brace their legs under the deck so they can STAY in the kayak when it is inverted and then they either capsize themselves or the instructor spins them over. The idea is to hang in there for a few seconds so you can overcome the reflexive panic that usually happens when you are suddenly upside down. Sometimes the instructor will tell you to count to a certain number or to slap their hand on the side of the kayak to signal that they want to be rolled back up.

One of the biggest obstacles in developing a functional roll is the panic instinct to get the head above water. Practicing a balance brace and coming out of that onto the back deck of the kayak, leading with your torso while keeping your head low below your shoulders, is a useful step to learning a roll. As shown in this video, which is the last step in the full roll shown in the second video:



(Learning to roll is easier with a Greenland paddle, but getting comfortable with being inverted and not rushing the roll-up is the same with other rolling .)

This guy has good advice on body positioning too:


Second what Willowleaf says about being used to being upside down. You could try just flipping, counting to something (2, 3, 5, whatever) and then pulling the tab to swim. Good habit to get int, so you don;t get like my girlfriend who once she realizes she is going to flip, has popped her skirt and is out of the boat. Nice in these cases as she usually does the flip without getting her hair wet, but has made it real hard for her to learnt to roll.

Some skirts will fall off on their own. More likely with nylon skirts than neoprene, but can happen either way.

I personally don’t like SCUBA masks, as they always seem to have a little water in them which goes right into my nose when upside down.

Best to not pull the skirt until you feel settled and in position to exit while having a solid grasp on the paddle and can make sure you can maintain contact with the boat. Granted as you get more accustomed to the move that time gets shorter. Bit as a pragmatic matter, if you need to wet exit it challenged conditions,you may need a little extra time to get organized. Best to be used to taking some time so it is not a panic when things are messy.

The first time I did this I was surprised at how smooth, quick and easy the process was. But I will try taking a little more time next time.

I know folks in pool training will smack on the bottom of the upside down boat a couple of times to indicate all is well, etc, but I bet when you capsize for real you would more naturally get the mission done as quickly as possible?

But the point of “where is my paddle” is a super valid point.

I am doing this (for now) in a fresh water lake with a pleasant temperature. I wear my dry suit so I can get used to slithering around on the deck during recovery while wearing it. I plan on always wearing the suit while padding in the open sea around the San Juan’s. The air temperature is in the low 70s right now, very pleasant. But the water is very cold…

@Celia said:
Best to not pull the skirt until you feel settled and in position to exit while having a solid grasp on the paddle and can make sure you can maintain contact with the boat. Granted as you get more accustomed to the move that time gets shorter. Bit as a pragmatic matter, if you need to wet exit it challenged conditions,you may need a little extra time to get organized. Best to be used to taking some time so it is not a panic when things are messy.

Great advice … get your brain organized, remember to keep your paddle, and hold onto the boat. The latter is most crucial; many of us keep a spare paddle, but none a spare boat.

Doing things slowly and deliberately will carry over into rolling when that is your next project.

A well-fitted SCUBA mask should not leak. My first rubber one did but I invested in a better silicone one that fits my smallish face better and I have had no problems with leaks. It can take trying on a lot of models to find one that fits your facial structure best.

In the classes I took the instructor told us that as soon as we were inverted we should bang hard on the sides of the boat three times with one hand before pulling the skirt and exiting. He told us to do this to alert other paddlers that we had flipped but I think it was - as stated by several above - to get us used to being in the upside down position.

The first two things I would think about after capsizing are to tuck to the front deck, and hold onto your paddle. A quick forward tuck is perhaps more critical in whitewater paddling, but if you are paddling in the ocean and get knocked over in beach break, you might also be in very shallow water. If you ever get jammed onto your back deck in shallow water because you failed to tuck, you can take a real beating that you will never forget (how do I know?). When you start to learn to roll, you will also start from a forward tucked position (usually), so it is good to learn to get into this position instinctively.

You want to control and hold onto your paddle whenever you can. In whitewater or ocean surf, if you let go of it you might never see it again. But you also want to keep it more or less parallel to the water surface so that one blade does not get jammed into the bottom. This will generally require you to move one hand to the center of the paddle.

Hopefully you can release your skirt with just one hand while controlling the paddle with the other. But some spray skirts with tight rubber rands may require you to use two hands, in which case you may need to use the thumb of the hand that you have the paddle in to hook the grab loop of the skirt.

Smacking the bottom of the hull with both hands is often done to request a bow rescue from another paddler nearby. Bow rescues are fine to practice and might actually work on calm flat water. I can tell you that if you capsize in difficult conditions like whitewater or surf, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to get to you and effect a bow rescue in a very timely fashion. I would concentrate on holding onto the paddle instead.

Pulling the skirt off while not yet upside-down is a natural reaction, or at least it was for me. Once you have done that a few times, it is no big deal to know you can settle upside-down first and THEN pull the tab.

I used a dive mask when first learning but found out that noseclips and swim goggles work better and are less cumbersome. You can ditch the goggles and just close your eyes instead, though goggles are useful to confirm your position when learning.

Noseclips are useful not only to avoid stinging sinuses (less pronounced in sea water), but to minimize chances of sinus and ear infections. After you learn to roll, you’ll want to sometimes practice rolling without noseclips by gently breathing OUT through the nostrils when capsized, if only to know that your muscle memory will take care of rolling up as long as you don’t freak out because you flipped without noseclips on.

I agree with Willowleaf and others that you should hold on to the paddle throughout. Even a little bit of waviness or wind can send it away from you, if you don’t hold it. Ditto for the kayak!

PhotoMax, since you mentioned practicing in a freshwater lake, I want to strongly endorse the excellent advice Pikabike gave you about using noseclips. Water forced up your nose is distracting and uncomfortable. Worse, though, are the sinus infections that can sometimes result. Fresh water is full of microscopic critters that can make you sick whether inhaled or swallowed; salt water, much less. I speak as a paddler in the South whose nearest lake can reach 88 degrees in a hot summer. Imagine the stew in that! I ALWAYS wear noseclips to practice rolling. To practice wet exits I use a noseclip or occasionally just hold my nose.
Good for you for learning how to do this stuff.

Great info and tips from all of you; thanks!

The two Orcas Island lakes seem very clean but seeing as one of the two used boats I purchased did come with an unused nose clip I will begin using it for sure…