Novice Guide – How To Self Rescue In A Kayak

Novice Guide – How To Self Rescue In A Kayak

You’re out on the lake, or on the sea, everything is going great, but then the wind starts picking up. There’s a bit of a chop to the water, but you think you can handle it. Then bam! Totally unexpected, you’re out of your boat and in the water.

This isn’t supposed to happen; you only go out on calm water, never tackle anything beyond your capability. But it just did happen! Now what?

It’s a pity you never bothered with that beginner’s kayak class, since you didn’t intend to do anything difficult anyway.

Don’t worry – you’ll probably get back in your yak with little more than a bruised ego and, if you’re really silly, a water-damaged smartphone.

(Hey, visit the homepage if you’re looking for kayak reviews!)

Capsized kids kayak

By Isles Yacht Club [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

My point?

Well, obviously you should have taken your personal safety seriously. The water and the weather can change in minutes, and it can take you totally by surprise. Although it’s not strictly kayak related, I have had direct and very scary experience of this fairly recently.

Breakwater at a harbour

Charles Sutherland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I was fishing off a concrete breakwater at a local harbor. The sea was dead calm, the sky was a beautiful blue, and there was nary a breeze. My guard was totally down.

So, the top of the breakwater is about fifteen, maybe twenty feet above the level of the sea, and I’m standing there just watching my rod twitch. Suddenly I realize, “I’ve got one!”.

I started reeling it in, it was a big one, and then WHOOSH! A freakin’ huge wave breaks against the concrete pier and totally swamps me. My second rod, over the side – my tackle box is swept away too. Heck, I’m nearly in the harbor! Luckily I kept my footing; I was okay. But it was a close one.

I landed the fish though!

So, that’s my long-winded way of saying “be safe on the water, and learn how to deal with a worst-case scenario even if you don’t expect it”. Because of course, you don’t expect it!

Self-Rescue In a Kayak

I know, the above isn’t you – it’s probably just foolish old me, taking unnecessary risks. But still – how do you self-rescue in a kayak?

It’s not a question with a single answer; it depends on a few different factors. Are you alone? Have you just fallen in, or are you capsized? Sit-in or sit-on-top kayak?

My first, most important piece of advice is to either get help from a friend who knows their stuff (or go to a class; my local pool does kayak classes including self-rescue scenarios) or at the very least practice it a few times in a safe situation. Shallow water, good weather, close to land.

My second piece of advice – no, make that joint first – is to have your safety gear with you whenever you take a trip in your yak. PFD at the minimum, a paddle float is a good thing to have too. In fact, I would say that it’s essential if you are going out on your own. And put your valuables in a dry bag too.

Hands gripping capsized kayak

By flickr user “abkfenris” [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What If You’ve Capsized?


If you are in a SOTK then when you capsize it should just be a case of flipping your yak over again. They’re usually pretty stable, so they are often actually quite hard to flip. But you managed it, clever clogs – well done! Now, if you try to get back on, chances are it’ll flip over and throw you back in the water. Good kayak.

Seriously though – try to get hold of the opposite side of the kayak from your position and pull it up and over towards you.

To reach the other side, you may need to get up onto the hull of your kayak. Get a grip on it with your free hand, have your other hand with the paddle on the kayak with the paddle held out of the way.

Then let your legs come to the surface and use them to propel yourself forward and up at a shallow angle until you are on top. Grab the other side, and lift it up and over.

Try not to crack yourself on the head when it comes around, though. And keep your paddle safe – a leash may be another good investment. For now, you can either keep hold of it or catch it under a bungee on your deck.

You might be able to use the same technique to get yourself onto your deck now.


The technique for a sit-in kayak is a bit more involved. Because the sit-in kayak has a cockpit into which water can flow, you need to empty it as much as you can before flipping it over. Although your kayak should have enough buoyancy to stay afloat even with water in the cockpit, you will probably find it very hard to stay balanced on the water if you get in while it is still swamped.

The technique I would recommend is to have a paddle float – again, this is an essential piece of kit if you’re out alone, especially if you’re a novice. Although you can do this without the float, it makes it so much easier.

Keeping hold of the bow of your kayak, inflate and fit the paddle float to the paddle. Then hold your paddle shaft close to the float, and simultaneously push up on the bow of your overturned kayak and pull down on the paddle float while kicking up. This should give you enough force to lift the kayak and start draining some of the water from the cockpit.

You may have to repeat the procedure a few times, but it should allow you to get enough water out that you can flip it back over. You should now be able to flip it from the bow and pump or sponge any remaining water out once you get back in.

Wet exit

If you capsize while in a sit-in kayak, you need to get yourself out. If you’re wearing a spray skirt, it can be pretty tough if you don’t know what you’re doing – the skirt should be tight enough that if you just push yourself away from the boat, it will stay attached.

The trick is to lean forward, pull the grab loop at the front of the spray skirt, then push away from the cockpit while leaning forward. This puts you in a more advantageous position because your legs will be in the correct position to come out, sort of curled up. If you lean back, as you push out your legs will be jamming you in against the thigh braces.

Capsized kayak and partner

Photo By: Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki (

Self-rescue Techniques

Once your boat is righted, you can try to get back in. There are plenty of ways to do this, and there’s no right or wrong way in my opinion. If you safely get back into the boat and get yourself home for a stiff drink and a warm shower, you’re a winner.

I saw this video on /r/kayaking recently too, which I thought was a great watch. But remember, watching isn’t enough – do!

The Scramble/Ladder/Cowboy

The gist of this method is to right your kayak first of all. Then get yourself onto the kayak, rear of the cockpit, and shimmy along until you can get back in. It looks a bit like someone climbing a ladder or riding a horse or rodeo bull or something. I dunno.

Here’s how to do it:

Step by Step:

Launch yourself from the water onto the boat. You can either go from the rear, or from the side rear of the cockpit. If you try it too close to the cockpit, you risk tipping the kayak again.

If you go from the side, make sure you get right across the kayak with your shoulders over the far edge – this makes you a bit more stable. Then swivel on your belly and get your leg over – if you did it from behind, you’ve probably already got your leg over.

Now shimmy up the length of the kayak, keeping hold of the paddle to use for stability, and keeping your feet in the water for stability too.

Shimmy until your waist is past the cockpit, then sit back, so you land in the seat. Keep hold of your paddle; you can use it for stability as you get one leg and then the other into the cockpit.


Using a Paddle Float

A paddle float will make your re-entries much easier as a novice and will give you the confidence to know that if you come out, you can get back in with very little difficulty. As you grow more experienced, you may decide to forgo the paddle float, but I would personally keep it to hand all the time. Even if you can self-rescue much more rapidly without having to stop to inflate a float, it’s nice to know it’s there if you need it.

See the paddle float in action here:

Basically, fit the paddle float to the blade of your paddle. Then, hold one hand on the coaming around the cockpit and the other hand holding the paddle shaft furthest from the float against the deck of the kayak to the rear of the cockpit.

Bounce yourself out of the water using a kicking motion, using the resistance of the float to push yourself up and out, landing behind the cockpit on your chest.

Still using the paddle for support, swing your legs up and into the cockpit, still on your front, and in the same motion swivel around and sit up.

There you are, you’re in!

Advanced Techniques

There are other ways to self-rescue in a kayak, which I’m not going to go into here. Perhaps with a bit of practice in a safe environment, you will be able to teach yourself to Eskimo roll or to re-enter a kayak that is still upside down, but if you really want to improve on these techniques, I would suggest you find an experienced kayaker, an instructor or attend a class.

There are also options such as a kayak ladder or a rescue stirrup, which are great but I feel that being able to get out of the water and into your yak without too much extra equipment is more desirable.

Inuit narwhal hunting roll

Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Even without being able to roll, the above techniques will hopefully be enough to get you out of trouble on your own. If you are kayaking with a partner or in a group, you can use the techniques on your own or with the aid of others to get yourself out of both.

If you’ve never practised a self-rescue on the water, I suggest you give it a go before you need it for real – you’ll thank yourself when it happens.

Happy paddling!