How to Do a Kayak Self Rescue

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This article is part of our series: Kayaking Safety and Rescue Techniques

Instructor demonstrates what to do in the water

Paddling with a pal is more fun—and safer. If you do go solo, though, or you dump your boat when your paddling crew is far away, then you’re in for either a self rescue or very long swim. This article assumes you’ve mastered the wet exit. Here are the basic self rescue steps that will get you back in the cockpit again:

  1. Do a wet exit.
  2. Reach under your boat and grab your paddle float.
  3. Hook a leg inside the cockpit to keep the boat close.
  4. Deploy the paddle float, attaching it to one of your paddle blades.
  5. Flip the boat over and set up the paddle like an outrigger (with float in the water).
  6. Grab the paddle to boost yourself (while also kicking your legs in the water) onto the rear deck.
  7. Carefully pivot and slip your legs into the cockpit, then turn around.
  8. Pump out water, attach the spray skirt and paddle on.

It’s wise to learn the wet exit, self rescue and T-rescue from an experienced guide or instructor, and to practice it in a calm, safe environment until it’s second nature.



Video: How to Do a Kayak Self Rescue



Before You Capsize

kayaker doing a brace stroke to try and prevent capsizing
  • On shore: Figure out how to attach the float to a paddle blade; practice so it will be easy to do in a rescue situation. If the float is inflatable, check for air leaks.
  • Before you launch: Check that your paddle float is securely stowed—under the deck lines in front of the cockpit or in another easily accessible spot.
  • In the water: If you feel your boat rolling over, try to perform a brace to prevent capsizing. If you don’t know how, read How to Brace or, better yet, sign up for a class.



First Steps After Capsizing

a kayaker in the water, about to flip their capsized boat
Once the last-ditch brace stroke has failed, take a deep, calming breath, then follow these steps:
  1. Perform a wet exit. (Tip: Whack your boat as a distress signal because someone might be close enough to hear you.) If you lost hold of your paddle, retrieve it now.
  2. Reach under your capsized boat and retrieve the paddle float.
  3. Hook one leg into your boat’s cockpit; that keeps it close by and frees your hands.



Setting Up the Float and Righting the Boat

a kayaker positioning their kayak paddle perpendicular to the boat, preparing to do a self rescue re-entry
The goal is to get the float on the paddle, the boat upright and the paddle properly positioned:
  1. Quickly attach the float to a paddle blade (just as you practiced on shore).
  2. Slide your leg out of the boat, reach under the cockpit and grab the far edge of its coaming.
  3. Pull that edge toward you while simultaneously using your opposite hand to push the hull up and away from you. The boat should roll over relatively easily.
  4. Create an outrigger: Orient the paddle’s shaft perpendicular to the boat, with one blade of the paddle right behind the cockpit and the other end with the float in the water. (You can slip the paddle blade under the deck rigging for added security, though this isn’t mandatory.)



Re-entering the Boat

a kayaker about to re-enter their boat
The goal is to get out of the water, onto the deck, into the cockpit and back on your way:
  1. Position yourself facing the boat on the stern side of the paddle shaft; grip the shaft firmly with one hand and place the other hand on the boat.
  2. Kick with both legs together (a dolphin kick) as you also boost yourself using the paddle shaft as support—aim to land your chest on the deck behind the cockpit.
  3. If it’s difficult to catapult your chest fully onto the deck, slip one knee over the paddle shaft; then use your inner thigh to hold your body out of the water as you shimmy yourself fully onto the deck.
  4. Keep a hand on the paddle to maintain stability while you pivot and slide your legs into the cockpit backward; then turn around and settle into the seat.
  5. Stow your paddle float, pump water out of your cockpit, reattach your spray skirt and resume your paddling adventure.



Advanced Rescues

a kayaker that has successfully re-entered their kayak after performing a self rescue
Don’t take your mastery of a self rescue as a green light to paddle alone. Nor should this skill be the only rescue you learn: Others include the roll and the T-rescue. Your best way to learn all of these, of course, is with proper instruction. See if an REI store in your area has a class. You can also check with other kayak specialty shops or kayaking clubs in your area.


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Contributing Experts

Megan Green Wells

A NorCal native and the daughter of a paddling guide, REI Co-op Outdoor School Market Coordinator Megan Green Wells teaches many skills: hiking with your dog, rock climbing, mountaineering, snowshoeing, stand up paddle boarding and kayaking.