I love kayaking. So much so that I wanted to share the experience of paddling with others. Now I own NC Kayaks and will talk about kayaking with anyone who will listen. The rewards of kayaking are numerous and often personal. There are the obvious benefits of exercise and the unmeasurable mental health benefits of being on the water, but like everything, it has its risks. When people first start kayaking they usually go when the weather is calm, the water is flat and warm, and the only safety gear they own is a PFD. To be fair, your PFD has the most impact on your survival if the unexpected happens. But there are other things to consider.
For many first-time kayakers, the biggest fear is getting stuck in the kayak if it rolls. They imagine that it’s just as difficult to get out of an upside-down kayak as it is to climb out of the cockpit when upright. They’ve perhaps watched videos of kayakers rolling and assume that without being able to right the boat, they’ll have no other option. After they paddle a few times and practice a wet exit or two, this fear goes away. They see how easy it can be to eject while inverted. Their fear of being trapped has dissipated, but sometimes a little fear is a good thing. Sometimes a little bit of fear can help us avoid really scary situations.
Tips for Avoiding Entrapment
Avoid Loose Gear in the Cockpit
When loading your kayak for adventure, the unused space in your cockpit might seem like ideal extra storage. I have seen paddlers who add gear between their legs after they get into their kayak. Or they put their inflated paddle float in the cockpit after they’ve self-rescued. If they were to roll with these loose items in the cockpit, something could get trapped between their legs. With gear stuck between their legs, they could be too wide to fit through the cockpit opening.
It sounds easy enough to remember to pull this gear out of the cockpit before trying to exit, but many wet exits are unexpected and suddenly finding yourself underwater can be startling. Unsecured contents in your cockpit shift when gravity is suddenly pulling in the opposite direction. Add a spray skirt between you and the gear, and suddenly you have a lot to do while hanging upside-down, underwater in your kayak. Most novice and intermediate kayakers will remember their wet exit practice, and react quickly from memory. But they probably didn’t practice with loose gear in the cockpit. When their legs get stuck partway through the process, they panic, creating all the ingredients for a tragedy.
I will say that there are certain items that I do carry with me in my cockpit in specific spots. For example, our 3L Hydrapaks wedge really nicely into a space between the seat and the side of the cockpit. On kayak camping trips, my wife keeps her Chacos tucked behind her seat. In both of these cases, the items are securely stowed and don’t budge during a roll.
Check Your Footwear
Another issue many kayakers (and even gear manufacturers) overlook is laces and elastic. I have a pair of kayaking boots from a popular manufacturer that came with an elastic cord to tighten the fit on the top of the foot near the ankle. If your foot slipped past your foot brace, it could easily become entangled. If it were to get looped around a foot brace, it would hold you in the kayak. You may be able to pull it free or wiggle it loose, but mid wet exit is not the time to find out your foot is tied to your foot peg.
Check the gear you already have and consider any laces, mesh, straps, or cordage on your footwear and the lower ends of your pants. You don’t want anything that will keep you in the kayak if you’re trying to escape. You may be able to make some easy modifications – I cut the loop off of my boots, for example. As you purchase new gear, be on the lookout for potential entrapment dangers.
Even Check Your Safety Gear
Surprisingly, even the straps on your PFD can be an issue. This is one I’ve never heard about, but I experienced myself. It was a hot summer day and I wasn’t wearing my spray skirt. My lowest PFD adjustment strap was dangling behind me, low on my back. The ends of the straps are folded over and stitched so they can’t be pulled through the buckles. The strap fell through the gap behind my seat and then moved with my paddle stroke. It ended up hanging through a space that is too narrow for the folded-over section to pull through. The more I pulled, the tighter it wedged in, and the harder it became to get it free.
I was fortunate that I was just trying to get out of my kayak (while upright) in a few inches of water next to the beach. Normally, my spray skirt would keep the straps from being able to get entangled with the seat. I consider myself very lucky to have found this issue when I did. It could have been an extremely dangerous experience if I discovered it for the first time during an emergency.
Stay Safe Out There
There is a saying among kayakers: we are all between swims. In my decades of kayaking, I have found this to be true. You can’t plan for every situation. The water is endlessly changeable and immensely powerful. With experience, I’ve found that my unintentional swims are few and far between, but I don’t believe for a moment that I won’t find myself swimming again. It’s not a matter of skill, planning, or equipment, it’s just a matter of time.
Many kayaking accidents are not due to a single mistake or failure but to a chain of decisions and events. No single thing causes the accident. It’s a series of small errors – each easily overcome on their own, but when combined in the right circumstances, they become insurmountable. The more variables you can eliminate or plan for, the better off you are when the unexpected happens. Preparation, practice, and experience can make all the difference. I hope these tips for avoiding entrapment have given you some concepts to think about as you launch, to help you become a safer paddler. Happy paddling!