Kayak and Canoe Safety: Deep Water Re-entry

Posted on June 29, 2012

The following is re-printed from The Ohio Smallmouth Alliance Newsletter from the Fall of 2011, and is an article I wrote about the importance of learning and practicing deep water re-entry for kayakers and canoeists.

Deep Water Re-entry

[From UPSTREAM The fly fishing blog of Ken Morrow, Certified Angler Education Instructor, Certified Adaptive Fly Fishing Practitioner.  Friday, August 26, 2011Kayak Safety: Deep Water Re-entry]

“I tried to climb in and almost turned my kayak over. I remembered this thing called deep-water re-entry that I had never practiced and was wishing I had. Since I don’t have a float I was going to take my pfd off and tie it to one end of my paddle, but the surf of an incoming tide kept getting stronger and there was no way I was going to be able to get back in without touching bottom…”

I read the above quote from a fly fisherman in Georgia on an Internet forum today. He has been kayak fishing in the ocean for some time now, and kayak fishing in fresh water lakes and rivers for several years. He considers himself an “experienced” kayak fisherman.
I guess it depends on how you define “experienced.” Generally speaking, in the outdoor recreation field, when we tag someone as “experienced” that implies that they know what they are doing. It implies competence. That clearly isn’t the case here. Calling a paddler who cannot get back in a boat they’ve fallen out of “competent” or “experienced” is like calling  an ice skater who doesn’t know how to stand back up when they fall down on the ice an expert skater, except that the ice skater probably won’t die.

This sort of recklessness is…unfortunately…the norm in kayak fishing instead of the exception. Even among kayak fishing guides, very few are formally trained or certified instructors unless the state requires it. Currently, most states do not regulate canoe and kayak fishing guides.  Anglers should be aware of this and ask prospective guides and outfitters they are considering hiring what training and qualifications they have. It isn’t unreasonable to ask for verification of their claims. They should have liability insurance. They should be trained in CPR and First Aid.  And anyone taking money to teach lessons should certainly meet these minimum qualifications.

All kayak and canoe anglers need to know how to get back in a boat they fall out of, how to paddle without wearing out too quickly, how to read water, proper steering and boat handling techniques, and the maintenance and use of all appropriate safety equipment. A basic paddling course from the American Canoe Association (ACA) or British Kayak Union (BKU) will cover these things in a single weekend at a very reasonable cost. It will pay dividends for the rest of your life. ACA also teaches the kayaking courses in the USA. The American Red Cross offers a course called Basic Water Safety that is well worth taking if you spend time around the water. This is a one or two day course at a very nominal fee that is taught by Red Cross Water Safety Instructors. I have been through the Red Cross Water Safety Instructor, Advanced Life Saver (now called Life Guard), and Basic Water Safety courses in addition to swift water rescue training. And I have saved the lives of three people (including two young children) since I was a teenager using nothing more than the techniques I learned in Basic Water Safety.

Deep water re-entry is not difficult and is just common sense for anyone who understands the basics of boats and water. But in an emergency you won’t think of those things. Trust me…trust every expert in the field of boating and water safety for the past century or more…you won’t think of it. Ask any self-defense expert how much of their self-defense training they expect to retain in an unexpected and sudden life-threatening attack. They train every day, and they’ll tell you they expect to bring to bear about 10-20% of that training. But that 10-20% will be enough. Most emergency response training isn’t that severe, but you often still get an adrenaline rush and things happen fairly quickly. You never expect it. Training is what will carry you through. And you must practice perishable skills – things you will forget over time, complex tasks with multiple steps, etc.

In deep water re-entry you simply grab the far side of the boat and kick your feet to bring them to the surface. If the boat is upright, you kick with your feet and push down with your arms to raise your torso above the water and over the boat. Allowing the boat to center underneath your body, plop yourself immediately into the center of the boat and lay as flat as possible until it stops rocking (a second or two). Then get situated. If the boat is capsized, kick your feet and pull hard and fast with your arms back toward you to flip the boat. Don’t worry. It will glide away from you on the water’s surface as it flips over. So it won’t land on top of you. If it is a canoe it is likely to fill with water when you do this. So if it has no flotation, don’t! If it has integrated flotation, do it and climb in the swamped boat. Paddle it the way you normally would. Get to shore as soon as possible and evacuate the water from the boat. But a kayak with scupper drains is self-bailing. You will be sitting high and relatively dry in no time. If you practice these techniques when you can just have fun with them in a relaxed situation, you’ll be ready to use them when you need them. If you paddle much you will need them sooner or later.

The following is a video of one version of a deep water re-entry.

Adapted Techniques

If you are so over-weight that you cannot successfully re-enter a sit-on-top kayak from the side, you can put one hand on each gunwale while treading  water at the stern of the kayak.  Next, push the boat down with both arms as you kick forcefully to lift your body as high out of the water as possible.  Now, slide the boat back under your body and lay down on the kayak with your arms and legs spread over the sides and begin to slide forward using your arms to pull.  Keep your center of gravity low to the deck of the boat.  Once you get your legs forward of the seat, sit upright and get back on the seat.

If you only have one arm, or one arm is too injured to use, you should be able to execute a deep water re-entry using the first method described and depicted in the video.

If you cannot kick your feet, or have no legs, use the method described for those who are over-weight.

This video demonstrates how to flip a heavier boat or canoe and deep water re-entry.

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