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Self-rescue while tripping


Jan 30, 2006
Hey folks, here’s a simple question:

Have you ever successfully self-rescued after unintentionally capsizing in a loaded boat while on a trip?

I’m talking here about paddling on a trip with a full load (including water), getting yourelf into a bad place, capsizing, and then self-rescuing without help from a buddy. I’m not talking about surfing, playing, or generally messing about, nor cases where you are practicing self-rescues with a loaded boat.

I’m asking because I’m doing a little risk management analysis and I want data from real experiences, not theories about best practices or techniques. Deep Trouble and its sequel have many stories of people who don’t successfully self-rescue: I want to see if we can share any success stories. There might not be any…

I wrote an article about lessons from a trip way back when in California Kayaker Magazine. Page 8 at http://calkayakermag.com/CaliforniaKayakerMag-Spring2012.pdf. Had 1 rescue talked about, but not a self rescue.

I can't remember a time I had to self rescue from a swim, except as practice. I have had to roll a few times, and in general, I have found rolling easier with a loaded boat (it seems that once you start the extra mass of a loaded boat rolling, it likes to keep rolling to upright). Have also been rescued and performed assisted rescues on others.
Although you mentioned not playing or practicing, going over is going over. Discount it if you will but my experience with a loaded boat was the same as Peter's. The full boat, with weight at the bottom, was easier to roll up. Just as having a lot of gear on the deck makes the boat a little top-heavy/unstable/more wind load, so a well packed (weight on the bottom), upside-down boat, wants to right itself.

The key is not to panic. I fully acknowledge it's easier "not to panic" while practicing or with a group. But then again, I recall that when I did go out solo, I had a different mindset. I recall reminding myself - if anxiety appeared - "You know how to get back in the boat. You have the paddle leashed to your wrist. You have a tether to the boat."

The last time I went over unexpectantly, I was in an empty boat at a lake with wind blowing. Though I had a paddler with me, she was so far ahead that I was essentially by myself for most of the self-rescue. The boat wasn't loaded so it doesn't fit your criteria. It was harder to work with because the loaded boat wouldn't have held as much water and each dry bag would add a bit of flotation. I did so many things wrong - the great epiphany - that I was inspired to take a rolling class and spent the following fall/winter waterboarding myself each week.
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I've never done a "for reelz" self-rescue while loaded and on tour, but I have done several combat self-rescues on day trips. I think it's important to practice with the boat and set-up you'll actually be using. So if you wind up with cargo on your back deck for example (as sometimes happens when you're on very long tours and have to "eat your way into the boat"), that could really affect the balance of the boat, the ease of righting it, and how you can (or can't) maneuver on the rear deck during a re-entry.

BTY, I'm sure it's just a reflection on me, but when I saw the thread title, my first reaction was: "Yeah, self-rescue would be a lot harder while strung out on 'shrooms or the gentle herb or tabs... "
That's a great question Andrew,

None for me. Now that you ask it, I can't think of any from people I've paddled with either. Like Peter I may have rolled once or twice, but in a situation that if I blew the roll the outcome would have been disastrous. More like I stupidly lost my balance while reaching form my day hatch on a flat calm day.
I have 2 times, but for the fact that both times I was not loaded down for a trip. But I did do it purposely on my last camping trip to see how it would be in a loaded kayak.

I found that when the kayak was loaded it was easier to turn it from a wet exit and also to roll it then when it's empty. I load my heavy gear, canned food and water bottles close to the cockpit and as low as I can get at the keel-line. Then I brace it into place with dry bags, tent and sleeping bag so it stays pressed on the hull bottom. When the kayak is upside down the weight is "high" and above the water so rolling it is actually easier then when it's empty. That was a pleasant surprise to me. Exactly opposite of what I was expecting.

The 2 times I actually got dumped by waves I was empty but for a very small amount of gear. Once my wife came over to assist. (1st time)

The other time I was alone and I had to do a re-entry. I tried 2 times and got dumped before I could get back in, because I could not keep balanced on top of the rear deck as I tried to get back in the cockpit. So I then used a paddle float and then it was fairly easily. Keeping weight on the float and leaning into it, even on the chop made the whole thing exciting, but it was not all that difficult. I and my wife had practices a bunch of times before I ever had to do it for real. So far Anna has not been dumped so all of her reentries have been practice drills.

I can state that the experienced paddlers who told us to practice the drills were 100% correct.

They told us to get very comfortable doing reentries and we took that advice seriously That's some VERY good advice. Both times when the waves were large enough to dump me the re-entry was easy. Very easy with my wife helping, and once I used the float on the 2nd time I got dumped, it still only took me about 1 or maybe 1-1/2 minutes to be back in the kayak.

Of all the advice I was ever given by experienced paddlers, the advice to practice rescues was the one tip I hold as MOST valuable.
My experience does not meet your criteria (no "for real" solo combat rescues), but please don't discount your own realistic rescue practice sessions; they will tell you far more about the effectiveness of your rescue techniques than another paddler's experiences. For example, before setting off for seven weeks of solo paddling in Baja in 2000, I practiced all kinds of solo rescue techniques with a loaded boat and determined that if my roll failed me, reentry and roll was the way to go over a paddle float rescue. Then I got to Baja and put my techniques to a test and soon discovered that reentry & roll was practically impossible because my wetsuit and PFD combo was so buoyant I couldn't begin to get under the boat to get into the cockpit! At best, I could slide into the cockpit sideways on the surface of the water, which resulted in tons of water in the cockpit when I rolled up. No good. So I realized then that if my roll failed me, I'd go straight to a paddle float rescue without wasting any time or effort trying to do a reentry and roll.

IMO, any change in your boat, your paddle, or your paddling clothing can have a profound effect on the effectiveness of a particular rescue technique so you really have to figure it out for yourself with your own kit.
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Thanks, gang. As I suspected, we don’t have many stories to share. But we do know many stories of failed self-rescued. The data point in one direction, it seems…

So, in terms of actual vs perceived risk, are we fooling ourselves into believing that we are safer than we are?

I’m in the midst of rethinking some things about paddling and this issue is an important part of that process.

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If you are considering self rescue, shouldn't you also consider bracing skills? I've had mine tested (a) off Solander Island when it took some time to move out of the clapotis zone because I was fully occupied with bracing (b) an unexpected wave train at Tatchu Point when I was in close to shore on a flatwater day (c) a higher than expected breaking swell between two rocks at Maquinna Pt when I had to go into full on surfing mode.
It's been said that the main purpose of rolling is to allow you to be in conditions that will improve your bracing.
If you want to consider self rescue during a daytrip, I escaped a whirlpool in Seymour Narrows by rolling up repeatedly (3 times) until the whirlpool dissipated enough that I could take my leave.
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Nootka, I agree with you completely about bracing, its value, and its relationship with rolling. Building on your bracing point, I would argue that three things radically reduce risk while kayak tripping:

1) A strong soft skill set: risk assessment, decision-making, seamanship etc. This skill set keeps you out of situations that will capsize you. These skills are not easily taught and are acquired through a lot of experience. That is why kayak courses tend to include them almost as add-ons — if they include them at all.

2) Strong bracing skills. For most people, a really reliable low brace will do the trick, especially if skill set #1 is solid. I like Oscar Chalupsky’s rule: if you’re not paddling, you should be low-bracing.

3) Paddle with a skilled buddy or two. If skills #1 and #2 fail you, your buddy is your backup.

I want to believe that other self-rescue skills reduce risk, but I just can’t find much evidence to support that belief. In my discussions with people, I can only think of one person, an experienced instructor and guide, who saved his own life with a self-rescue (paddle float). Everyone else I know who wound up in trouble needed the assistance of a buddy.

Like many on this board, #3 often doesn’t help me, as I paddle mostly solo. That means that my risk increases and that I have to double-down on #1 and #2 in order to keep my risk at an acceptable level.

I'd put paddling with a buddy at #4, and rolling at #3. We know that every 1000th wave is double the "average" amplitude, so you could get knocked over and have relatively benign conditions to roll up in. The same could apply to some boomers. And to my case of misjudging timing wrt swell height - if I had been knocked over I would have had flattish water to roll up in.
I’m largely going to agree with Nootka here. Mostly because all of my expeditions were done solo and there was no one there to back me up. Despite paddling thousands of miles in the Gulf of Alaska, and scaring the unholy crap out of myself on numerous occasions, I never actually tipped over (on accident).

There might be a selection bias in the AM‘s question though. Who unsuccessfully self-rescued this here to respond? Yes, my question is 1/3 rhetorical, 1/3 tasteless, and 1/3 snarky, but still apt.
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Okay, I’m now going to reveal why I asked the question in the first place. Drumroll…

I am about to transition (whether in part or entirely TBD) to paddling a solo canoe. The fine folks at Clipper are building me a boat that, once outfitted with a spraydeck made by the equally fine folks at North Water, will replace my touring kayak. I’m happy to be buying from two excellent local companies.

The reason for the switch is a humble one: my long-suffering lower back has gone on strike. The discomfort has reached the point where it really is detracting from my overall enjoyment. So time to change things up. I have always liked canoeing and it is very comfortable, given the large paddling station and options for leg position (sitting, hurdler, kneeling, etc.).

As part of this process, I’m assessing how my risk will change. I started by asking the question: is canoeing inherently riskier than kayaking? My gut reaction was “Hell, yes!”, but as I drilled down into what I actually know, that has shifted to a “Yes, somewhat, but not as much as you first thought.”

For example, it seems that everyone here stays upright by exercising sound decision-making skills (#1) and knowing how to brace (#2). Those same skills cross over to canoe.

Rolling is out of the question with the type of canoe I’m buying, so there’s that. And self-rescue is harder than with a kayak. But as my little survey confirmed there are very few stories that we can share of successful kayak self-rescues, so I think we are overestimating their worth.

Anyway, I’m still working on understanding the risk difference, but I thank you all for chiming in. I really wanted to hear from paddlers about their experiences.

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Adding to the thread with my two cents. I too have not had an unintentional loaded capsize. As with many I generally keep my solo trips pretty conservative. There have been a few times where I could (should) have been a bit cautious of conditions, but good bracing and some enthusiastic cursing (it helps, I swear) has kept me topside.

Given the increased difficulty of self rescuing a loaded solo canoe, I think the risk equation changes somewhat. The likelihood of a capsize might change a bit (or maybe not) but the consequences are more significant.
But if you're already making good decisions about paddling within your capabilities I don't think the risk increases hugely in a canoe.

There's probably also some risks that are reduced by using a canoe. Sometimes my legs go a little dumb after a long day in a kayak. Not really asleep, but definitely a little groggy. If you can change up your sitting position more while canoeing, that probably reduces the chance of an on shore injury (tripping over driftwood, slipping on slimy surfaces, etc.)

Not to mention the biggest risk: your back hurting too much to paddle. That would be a real tragedy.
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Capsize on a solo trip? No, never.

Back problem - I had back problems decades ago and it was kayaking that fixed it, twice. It was the sitting up and the body rotation that did it. It was a dramatic fix on one trip. At launching I helped my companion into the water and "ouch" my back. I basically crawled across the sand dragging my kayak into the water. Got in and paddled for near an hour, leapt out and walked up the beach and suddenly realised, "No back problem!!!"

Numb legs - the only time I ever felt that was after about 10 minutes on a test paddle of a demo kayak. The seat was very comfortable and pressing on the outer sides of my legs. I make sure my seats are humped fore and aft along the centre line so the pressure is against the inner leg, a bit like a bicycle seat and I never have numb legs.
To name a few (on multi-month long trips):
These are all from many years ago (last 'long' trip was in '09):

The worst was one predawn (dark) launch into a moderate surf (Cape Bowling Green, AUS).
I got out past the 1st couple sets of breaking waves, then got knocked over.
I tried several times on each side before finally successfully coming up.
(cause of not coming up right away: faulty equip. set up - loaded deck bag sloshing around - learned the hard way)

Exiting (predawn) the Forster Tuncurry bar (AUS) on an outgoing stream (ebb) against incoming surf. Original plan (that should have kept with) was to exit the stream once beyond the surf line, but I was moving along so well, I stayed in the current. I got swallowed up by a large wave breaking against outgoing current. I'm sure it was only several seconds, but seemed like forever going downward. After resurfacing and rolling (with imploded sprayskirt), I was able to paddle out of the 'current' (in water filled kayak) fairly easily so as to pump out kayak)

And, a very 'odd' one (it happened so quickly - didn't really have time enough to get worried about the situation), paddling by Wreck Rocks (near Agnes Water, AUS), unexpectedly got hit by a large wave. It knocked me over, but I remember distinctly, it was between chews of a gum, I instinctively rolled back up (really, even though a full roll, I was bracing on the wave that just rolled me). (I just checked my trip notes - this was my 2nd (unplanned) roll, '93. My first was on Lake Superior - though, even then, if I wasn't successful, there were others that could have assisted me)

So, to reiterate what others have mentioned previously
The key is not to panic
I can't remember a time I had to self rescue from a swim
If at all possible, I advise against swimming; don't panic, keep trying. For the most part, if I'm in conditions that forces me to bail, I'm in conditions where it's improbable that I'll be able to get back in the kayak.
If at all possible, I advise against swimming; don't panic, keep trying. For the most part, if I'm in conditions that forces me to bail, I'm in conditions where it's improbable that I'll be able to get back in the kayak.

This, to me, is the crux of the issue. Exiting your boat, whether on a river or in the salt, is a very risky proposition. Sometimes it is your only option to survive, but it comes with significant risks, especially if you are solo. Mary DeReimer (a WW instructor) encourages paddlers to practice a perfect roll (smooth, effortless, solid) because there are many situations where a so-so roll is not going to get you up, and other situations where it might take several perfect rolls until one finally works. IMO, if a kayaker hasn't successfully performed many, many combat rolls in really difficult conditions (tide races, whirlpools, gale force winds, etc.) then they shouldn't paddle solo if those conditions are even remotely possible on their chosen route. The same goes for practicing paddle float rescues and other solo reentry techniques: It's fine to learn them in benign conditions, but if you plan to rely on them as a solo paddler you've got to practice them in conditions that are bad enough to flip you over in the first place.

Since rolling isn't an option for you and your canoe, AM, then you'll need to work on your reentry techniques until they are up to the challenge... or paddle with others who can assist you if needed. There are worse things in the world. :) And, BTW, sorry about your back!
Wasn't asked, but truthfully the larger impact of a loaded boat to me is usually on assisted rescues, not self rescues. The boat is heavier with all the gear, so more of a challenge to pull over a deck to drain in a T-rescue.