How To Fall and Other Rescue Tips for Paddlers

by Kim Hawkins

What’s the worst thing you can do when kayaking and paddle boarding?  Most people will say it’s falling off – not only is it embarrassing, but it can be scary and dangerous.

You may not know how to swim – even if you’re wearing a lifejacket that can be disconcerting.  The water may not appear clean, and so now you’re worried that it may be in your ears, nose, and/or mouth.  Your kayak/board/paddle float away. You’re in a dangerous area – harbor, boat channel, middle of Long Island Sound, or in the middle of a swarm of fish being chased by bunker (yup, beautiful to look at, nerve-wracking to think of falling in!) You may not have a lifejacket on, or it’s an inflatable waist pack that has to be inflated, pulled over your head and secured – and needs to have a live cartridge.

First things first.

  • Make sure you are wearing a life jacket and that you have a waterproof container and a phone with you – ESPECIALLY if you are paddling on your own. Only go out in conditions that are appropriate for your ability.
  • Sit or stand up straight, look where you’re going. If the water becomes rough – maybe you’re encountering a boat wake, or going under a bridge – kneel down, if you’re on a paddleboard, on a kayak make sure you keep your paddle in the water, paddle quickly, loose knees and rock with the motion.
  • Didn’t work and now you’re in the drink? Breathe – it will help you not to panic. Remember this blog, it will give your brain something to focus on.  Grab your paddle and your vessel.  If you have your vessel you can hand paddle to your equipment, or prone paddle to shore/help. If you are on paddle board, you are attached by an ankle leash – your board is not going far.
  • Once you have your gear, reach across and grab the handle, seat, anything you can get a grip on, and pull yourself over. On a paddleboard you are essentially slithering on, like a snake.  On a kayak, it’s a bit harder, as your kayak sits 8” on average above the water.  Pull yourself across the kayak, and roll your butt into the seat.  If you’re in a sea kayak, you’ll most likely need to pump out water.  At Downunder we only use sit on top kayaks that are self-draining.
  • Didn’t work? Another form of self-rescue is coming in from the stern, approach the rear of the vessel, and shimmy up to the seat/middle, before righting yourself.
  • If you have a mate paddling with you or there is someone nearby that can assist, call them over. They should paddle up to the side of your vessel, reassure you, and reach across to grab your lifejacket – then pull you onto the vessel.  Sit still for a while, catch your breath, laugh, have a drink of water, maybe review what happened to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and give it another go.  If someone is assisting you, it is critical that they act as a raft, and that you do not panic and pull them over. If necessary, they should push you away, and try again.  Use a whistle to call for help.  Have you hold onto the vessel and tow or push you to safety.  Use a phone to call for help.
  • Injured? It may be necessary for your companion to pull you across their vessel and paddle you back. Call for help – don’t be a hero, and be vigilant – why did they fall off, how did they get injured, what was the hazard, are you at risk.
  • Hopefully, you can regain your composure, and like falling of a horse, get back on again and give it another go. If you’re rattled, head back, and consider taking a lesson.  We promise we can help you to be successful, erasing the bad experience from your memory.

With this information, we hope you’ll give it a go, and have a fun and safe paddling experience.

Check out this video of TJ Altieri demonstrating the right and wrong ways to capsize and self-rescue in a sea kayak.