This story was originally published in August 2020.

You’re paddling along and all the sudden, your sea kayak flips. Maybe a wave hit you from the side, or maybe you leaned over too far to inspect a lilypad. Whatever the reason, you’re in the water. So what do you do now?

One option is to swim to shore, but dragging a kayak through the water can be extremely slow and will likely take a lot of energy — especially if the shore is a long way off. Furthermore, the nearest land may be especially rocky or swampy, which could make it dangerous or impossible to land on. Often, the best option is to get back into your kayak right where you are — in the water.

At first glance, getting into a kayak while swimming in deep water may seem like a difficult skill to master, but with a little practice, it soon becomes easy. In fact, there are several different ways that kayakers complete this task, using different equipment. Here’s a bit of what I learned during a day-long paddling skills and safety course led by Karen Franceour, a registered Maine sea kayak guide and owner of Castine Kayak Adventures.

The right equipment is key

First and foremost, you’ll need to be paddling a sea kayak, which is a kayak that has a sealed compartment in both bow and stern. These compartments, also known as bulkheads, prevent the boat from becoming entirely filled with water when it flips. They also keep the kayak afloat so you can easily re-enter it. Many recreational kayaks do not have sealed bulkheads.

In addition, you’ll need a few simple, inexpensive pieces of equipment: a paddle float, a stirrup (which is a simple ladder made of floating rope) and a hand pump. All of this should be placed under the decking that criss-crosses the deck of your kayak for easy access. (Some of this equipment can also be fastened onto your decking with clips for added security.)

A paddle and well-fitted life jacket (which should be worn at all times on the water) are also necessities. And there’s a long list of other items that kayakers regularly carry to stay safe and comfortable while paddling, including (but not limited to) extra clothes, sunscreen, food and water, navigational tools, a first aid kit and a whistle.

Karen Francoeur, a registered Maine sea kayak guide and owner of Castine Kayak Adventures, holds up a stirrup, which is a simple ladder made of floating rope that’s used for entering a kayak in the water. A stirrup is one of many tools that can be used in emergency situations while sea kayaking. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN

A paddle float and stirrup rescue

The paddle float and stirrup rescue is great for beginners to learn because, when done correctly, it keeps your kayak fairly stable and doesn’t require much body strength.

Once you’ve flipped your kayak by accident, try to relax. Keep a hold of your paddle and boat. One way to do this is to float on your back (supported by your life jacket), extend your legs in front of you and hook one of them into the cockpit of your kayak.

Retrieve your paddle float, fit it over one blade of your paddle, blow it up and buckle it around the shaft of the paddle to keep it secure. This will be used as an outrigger for stabilization as you climb into the boat.

Karen Francoeur, a registered Maine sea kayak guide and owner of Castine Kayak Adventures, blows up a paddle float while demonstrating one of the many ways to re-enter a sea kayak in the water. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN

Once the paddle float is inflated, flip your kayak upright so the cockpit is facing the sky. This can usually be accomplished by pushing one side of the boat up with one arm.

Next, you’re going to secure the paddle — or outrigger — to your kayak with the stirrup.

To do this, loop one end of the stirrup (the end that does not feature the ladder) over the paddle blade that is not covered with the paddle float. Extend that lassoed paddle blade across your boat to the other side, so the paddle shaft is resting just behind the seat of the cockpit, perpendicular to the boat. Throw the stirrup over the boat so it’s on the other side (hanging off the paddle), then reach under the boat with a foot, hook the trailing stirrup and pull it under the boat (underwater) until you can grab it with a hand. Pull the stirrup so it wraps around the bottom of the kayak.

The last step of preparing the outrig is to wrap the stirrup around the paddle shaft on your side of the boat. How you do this is important for keeping it secure. When wrapping over the paddle shaft, the rope of the stirrup should be moving toward you. When passing under the paddle shaft, pass it between the rope and the boat, staying as close to the boat as possible. Do this two or three times until there’s a step in your stirrup that, when you step in it, brings your knee to the surface of the water. Then place your foot that’s closest to the stirrup (and the back of the boat) into that step.

With your hands placed on the sides of your cockpit, use the step and leverage and stand straight up. Lean somewhat over your cockpit. Then place a hand on the paddle and lean toward your paddle float, which should be resting on the water. It may seem unnatural at first to lean toward your paddle float, but it will keep your boat from tipping in the opposite direction.

Bracing one hand on your paddle shaft and one hand on the kayak, face the back of your kayak and swing your free leg into the cockpit so your knee is resting on your seat. Then bend the leg that’s in the stirrup, point your toe and your foot should slide out of the loop. Bring that leg into the boat as well.

At this point, you should be kneeling on your seat, facing the back of your boat. You have great potential to flip over in this position. To prevent this, continue to lean on your paddle float so it’s pressing against the surface of the water. Then slide your legs back behind you. If you do yoga, this would be much like the seal pose. Turn your body, facing your paddle float, until you’re sitting in your seat. Then you can use a hand pump to pump out the water trapped in your cockpit.

BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki practices using a paddle float and stirrup to get into her sea kayak after it has capsized. Credit: Courtesy of Karen Francoeur

A word on buddy rescues

If they’ve practiced rescue techniques, a paddling companion can help you get back into your kayak without a paddle float. This is just one of the many reasons that paddling with someone can be safer than paddling alone.

Just like in self rescue, there are several different methods for conducting a rescue with a partner. It usually involves the rescuer securing the paddles to the side of their boat (a carabiner attached to a paracord is great for this), righting and emptying the flipped boat, then using their body weight to stabilize the righted boat as their companion climbs in.

Whatever method you choose, practice it so it becomes muscle memory. Avoid practicing in shallow water so you don’t hit your head on a rock or the bottom when tipping. Watch tutorials and experiment with different techniques. Get to know your rescue gear. After you gain some experience, I’m sure you’ll find that you have more confidence while out on the water. In fact, you might just tip your kayak for the fun of it.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...