A sail, a swim and a kayak self-rescue: doing the paddle float re-entry for real

The wind had been whipping in from the Strait of Georgia at 20 knots for several hours, carving the water into a bouncy succession of blue and white furrows. That made for a bit of a grunt paddling my sea kayak from English Bay out towards Point Grey, but also for a lively ride as my bow cleaved through each oncoming wave and slammed down into its following trough.

After 45 minutes of paying it forward, it was time to come about and hoist my Falcon sail for a free ride home. Naturally, the wind had fallen a bit, but there was still plenty to push me along. I had a fine run across the wind towards North Vancouver, then jibed to speed past Siwash Rock and Third Beach. It was just after I’d cleared Ferguson Point and was skimming offshore of Second Beach that things literally went sideways. Whether it was the proverbial seventh wave or a boat wake that had aligned in phase with a swell to create an exceptionally steep wall, suddenly the boat lurched way over to leeward. With no time to brace, I was in the drink.
Even if age hadn’t made my once bombproof roll a sometime thing, the drag of the submerged sail meant it wasn’t a realistic recovery option. So I got my skirt front whipped up to my shoulders quicker than Amy Schumer, then somersaulted downward out of the cockpit.
Wet exit complete, I reached under the boat and released the sail forestay line by touch, then lowered the mast. Or maybe I raised it, since I was pivoting it up to the downward-facing deck. Anyhow, I got the mast, boom and sail loosely furled and clipped into their bungi cord deck loops.
Launching myself across the bottom of the inverted kayak, I grabbed the cockpit coaming on the far side, then let myself slide back into the water so that my falling weight pulled the boat towards me and upright. (The other way ̶ pushing the near side of the boat up and away from you ̶ is a really effective method to dunk your head arms-length underwater while accomplishing nothing else.)

back onboard after a capsize and self-rescue

safely back onboard

Next, I flicked on the electric bilge pump. With water emptying from the cockpit as I set up my self-rescue, the boat rode higher and steadier with every passing moment. I got my paddle secured across the rear deck and perpendicular to the boat, glad that my Seaward kayak has a pair of tight webbing straps for this purpose and not the uselessly stretchy bungi cords found on some boats. After grabbing the inflatable paddle float from the rear deck bag, I quickly had my temporary outrigger complete. Facing the rudder, I did a combination swim-and-lunge on to the rear deck, slid my legs into the cockpit, and then danced a prone pirouette to get turned around and facing forward. Total elapsed time from capsize to back in boat: about five minutes.

To paraphrase Derek Hutchinson’s famous line about rolling your kayak, “To be able to self-rescue is a sign of success; to need to self-rescue is a sign of failure.” Clearly, I’d had an attention lapse that had let that ninja wave ambush me. There were other contributing factors: I was sailing across the wind. That’s the least stable angle of sail, since any tipping motion levers across the short side-to-side axis of the boat instead of the long end-to-end axis, as in downwind sailing. And since I was only on a daytrip and not ballasted with touring cargo, the boat was riding high and twitchy.

“To be able to self-rescue is a sign of success; to need to self-rescue is a sign of failure.”

On the plus side, I’d done at least three things right. Firstly and most importantly, earlier this summer I’d rehearsed my self-rescue. I’d picked a windy, wavy day and warned the lifeguards at English Bay beach that the capsizes they were about to see would be deliberate. Then I’d tied my boat off to one of the deep water marker buoys so it wouldn’t get washed into the mast-snapping shallows as I figured things out. The sail went up, then I went over.
A warm, sheltered swimming pool is great for your first lessons in the paddle float re-entry rescue. But to really work out the bugs and develop confidence, you need to complete your learning in open water, with the boat you’ll really be paddling, set up as you’ll actually be paddling it. (Hence my raised sail.)
Secondly, I’d installed an electric pump in my boat. Even with the occasional light reswamping as I was setting up the paddle float, it let me get back into a boat that was less flooded and more stable. And once my skirt was refastened to keep out the waves, the pump evicted all but an inch or so of water as I dismantled the float outrigger. (I’ll do a future post on my homebrew adaptation of an off-the-shelf electric bilge pump.)

back underway

back underway

The third thing I’d done right was to wear my farmer john wetsuit. In the warm water of early autumn, I wouldn’t have gotten hypothermic before being able to reboard (or being ignominiously washed up among the bathers at nearby Second Beach). But having the suit on gave me a bit of extra buoyancy (naturally, I was also wearing my PFD). The wetsuit also ensured I wasn’t distracted by shivers as I self rescued. Best of all, it meant that once I was back in the cockpit, instead of being chilled by the wind and having to flee straight for shore, I was toasty enough to re-hoist the sail and complete a long, sweeping series of victory legs back to English Bay beach. I landed there with a slightly soggy body and an entirely undampened spirit.

PS: I ordered the kayak sail mentioned in this posting from www.falconsails.com. I have no connection with them beyond being a happy customer.

9 thoughts on “A sail, a swim and a kayak self-rescue: doing the paddle float re-entry for real

  1. Fantastic to hear that someone actually practices solo “self rescue”. So many people always assume there will be another paddler to stabilise as they re-enter. The only time I’ve ended up having to bail from my sea kayak was when I was solo sailing. Luckily my reenter and roll was still working. :)…Ian “Paddling South”


    • I’m with you Ian. Not just because I do a lot of solo touring, but because I’ve always imagined that in the kinds of conditions that might knock you over, your paddling buddies would have their own hands full keeping themselves upright and have little attention to spare for you. (And vise versa.)


  2. Nice story.
    I would like to see some info about your electric water pump.

    I kayak sail a lot. Early on as I was trying to advance my skills I would go for a swim every now and then. After some years of really going for it, it is surprising how rare it is I go for a swim. When I am ready for a swim (I am with a group), I will take difficult tacks and do things like let go of the paddle to take some videos. Amazingly even doing that my rate of going for swims is about 1 time per 2 years.

    But still,
    If you paddle alone, and want some excitement, you must have some good self rescue skills.

    I have done (and plan on doing another one this winter) a long distance adventure race called the Everglades Challenge, that goes through some scary places, at night, and many times in rough weather. So self rescue skills are mandatory so I do a lot of self rescue practice. Esp during the winter at pool sessions.

    Here is some self rescue practice on Lake Erie.

    I made the sail Philip was using.
    My website is http://www.falconsails.com

    Our facebook page

    Patrick Forrester


    • Patrick’s point that capsizes are rare is a good one. In at least 15 years of kayak sailing, the time I described in this article was only my second unintentional swim. This time it was sailor failure. The one previous time it was equipment failure: I’d extended the arms on a set of off-the-shelf amas (outrigger sponsons) so the greater spread would give me more resistance to tipping. But that also put more leverage on the plastic ferrules joining the arm sections. I was also using two large sails, more sail area than the outrigger maker had intended, so one ferrule eventually snapped and dumped me in the drink. Not the manufacturer’s fault; you have to take responsibility for your own mods and hacks. I replaced the plastic ferrules with hand-made oak joints and sailed that system without further incident for many more years.


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