Recovery and Rescue

You may have noticed that we have not yet talked about learning to roll your kayak anyplace on our site.  That’s not because we don’t consider a roll (also called an Eskimo roll) a good tool to have in your repertoire of skills, it’s simply because over and over again we have heard people say “Oh, I’ve always wanted to kayak, but I know I could never learn to roll so I never bothered to try it”.   If fact, until sit-on-top kayaks became popular, more people probably turned away from kayaking because of the perceived need to know how to roll than took the plunge to try it out.  We’d much rather get people hooked on kayaking gently and then have them learn a variety of rescue and recovery techniques than not try at all.

That being said, the most important rule in all boating is to know your own skills/limitations and stay within them.  When out in your boat YOU are responsible for your own safety.  Not the other people in your group, not the local land manager, not another passing boater, not the U.S. Coast Guard.  Although hopefully you can rely on all of them to help out in a true emergency, if you can’t accept this amount of responsibility for yourself then perhaps you should take up badminton.  If you can’t re-enter your kayak from deep water, stick to shallow spring runs and do not paddle outside of easy reach of land until you have learned at least a couple of re-entry methods.  If you paddle in swift water, cold water or off-shore then you really need to learn to roll as well as a couple of other methods. If you are not a good swimmer or tire easily or are paddling in unfamiliar waters or changing weather, ALWAYS wear your PFD.  If you are uncertain of paddling in a new area, then do your homework before starting out by talking with people who have paddled there recently, calling the local land manager or outfitter, researching the area online, going with people who have paddled the area before or hiring a local guide.  If you are unsure of the weather, reschedule the trip for later and/or paddle someplace else.

What you DO need to have if you want to progress beyond basic float trips, is the knowledge of how to get back YOURSELF back into YOUR boat quickly and reliably under a variety of sea and weather conditions and how to assist another paddler to do the same.  That means having a variety of re-entry methods (recovery) and rescue (helping another) techniques tucked away in your personal skills toolbox.


Since none of us is really good at rolling, there are many on-line videos that demonstrate rolling, and you really need someone to show you the ropes in the water, we’re not going to discuss rolling here.  But we are going to describe several other re-entry techniques that we HAVE practiced and used.   We plan to take some rolling classes to fine-tune our skills and perhaps then we can describe rolls for you later.  Remember, we don’t do white water or even really fast moving rivers, we are rarely more than 100 feet from shore, and we hardly ever paddle alone.

Recovery (or re-entry) is the act of getting yourself back into your kayak  and ready to paddle again after a planned or unplanned exit.  While it may be inconvenient, it is not an emergency situation. There are several ways to accomplish this.  You should practice all of these methods in flat water near shore and find the ones that work best for you.  You should also practice with each of your boats since what works with one boat may not work well (or at all) with another boat.

1)  Swim it in
If the weather and water temps are moderate and the shore is close, probably the easiest way to go is to simply swim the kayak to shallow water, empty the boat, and renter.  This is made easier if you remembered to attach a short bow or stern line.  Throw a loop over your shoulder so you have both hands free to swim and tow it in.  If you have a friend with you, they can tow the boat in while you hold on to your own boat’s stern.

2)  Cowboy Scramble
This method is called the “cowboy” because you straddle your kayak as you would a horse.  If your kayak does not have a rudder you can start from directly astern (when this technique is sometimes called “The Ladder”).  Push down on the stern and it will sink under you.  Lie down on top of the kayak facing forward and shimmy up until your hips are just ahead of the seat back.  Sit up carefully and plop your buns into the seat, then swing your legs into the cockpit.  If you have a rudder you will have to approach the boat from the side in front of the rudder, then twist yourself around. The tendency is to want to wrap your legs around the kayak – like riding a horse.  Don’t try it! – keep your legs spread out on either side to help maintain balance (think pontoons ) for as long as you can as you crawl forward.  If you have a friend with you, they can steady the kayak from alongside by holding onto the front of the cockpit while you are crawling forward.  See video HERE.

3)  Side Scramble
This method takes a bit of upper body strength but most can learn to do it with practice. Using this method you are going to enter from the side, directly into the cockpit.  There are three tricks to it.  One is finding the correct place to grab the cockpit coaming – try reaching just a little past the middle both in the front and back. The second trick is to stretch out on the water, kicking your feet and pulling yourself over the cockpit horizontally, not kicking up from the bottom and trying to get a lot of height vertically.  So grab the cockpit sides and push down sinking the kayak a little in the water, give a big kick with your legs on the surface of the water, and heave your entire body up over the cockpit so your belly button is over the middle of the seat.  Balance yourself there for a couple of seconds.  Realign your hands if you need to.  Then the third trick is that you need to do a quick flip to get your buns in the seat.  Push up with both hands and flip over, keeping your back to the seat back.  You will end up with your legs hanging over one side, but with your buns in the seat your center of gravity is quite low and you should be in a stable position.  Again, grab a few seconds of rest while you adjust your balance.  Now you can either bring first one leg and then the other into the cockpit or you can swing one leg all the way over, leaving both legs out.  If your cockpit has a lot of water in it or has a very small opening, the second method may work better.  You can paddle a ways to shore or shallow water in this position or grab your bilge pump and start to empty the cockpit of water.  See video HERE.

4) Paddle Float
A paddle float makes an outrigger or pontoon out of your paddle which helps greatly with stability.  If you do not have a friend out there with you to help stabilize you boat during a recovery you should really be carrying a paddle float.   Paddle floats can be either foam or inflatable.  Place the paddle float onto one blade of your paddle, secure it to the blade, then inflate if necessary.  Place the shaft of the paddle immediately behind the cockpit coaming with the paddle float on your side.  Hold the paddle shaft and cockpit coaming with one hand (or secure under non-stretch deck rigging if it is available near the rear of the cockpit) and place the other hand flat on the center of the deck toward the stern.  Lying on your stomach, give a strong kick with your feet on the top of the water and get your body mass over the back deck of the kayak.  Next, hook the ankle nearest the cockpit over the paddle shaft near the float – knee on the aft side and foot on the forward side – and take a few seconds break to make sure of your balance.  Now hook your second foot over the paddle shaft and move your first foot into the cockpit.  Your body will be pivoting on your stomach as you do this so your knee will be in or just in front of the seat.  Once stable again, move the second foot into the cockpit.  The last step is to quickly flip your body so your buns are in the seat instead of your knees.  You can lean slightly towards the paddle float for balance while you do this.  Once settled, move the paddle around in front of you and pump out the boat.  Last, remove and stow the float.  See video HERE.

5) Heel Hook-Paddle Float
We like this variation better than the more traditional Paddle Float recovery since it doesn’t require as much upper body strength. Place the float onto one blade of your paddle, secure it to the blade, then inflate if necessary.  Facing the stern of your boat, hook your elbow into the cockpit to keep the boat close.  Place the paddle shaft behind the cockpit and secure the blade without the float under the deck line (non-stretch) on the far side of the boat.  Now, turn to face the cockpit.  Grab the shaft of the paddle and the near-side (non-stretch) deck line with your stern hand and the cockpit coaming on the side nearest you with your bow-side hand.  Let your leg facing the bow float up and tuck it into the cockpit.  With your bow hand, reach across the cockpit and grab the far side of the cockpit coaming.  Then straighten your cockpit leg and pull your other leg into the cockpit.  Turn yourself around, switching hands on the paddle as you turn.  Move the paddle around to the front and pump out the water.  Last, remove and stow the paddle float.  See video HERE.

6) Rescue Stirrup Assist
The rescue stirrup (also sometimes called a rescue sling) is simply a big (6-7 foot) loop of rope or webbing.  Named for the stirrup on a saddle, you use it in the same manner – to vault yourself back into the kayak.  It can be used alone or in combination with a paddle float.  We really like rescue stirrups.  They are of great assistance to anyone without a lot of upper body strength or someone with an upper body injury. The stirrup itself takes up very little room and can serve double-duty as a short tow line.  We love gear with multiple uses!

There are several different recoveries you can try using the rescue stirrup.  Probably the easiest is the simplest method.  Simply place the loop around the cockpit coaming.  Face the cockpit, bend your knee and place the stern-facing foot into the loop.  Grab the cockpit coaming on the far side with both hands and make sure your feet are beneath you.  When balanced, step down and straighten your stern leg, pull with your arms and throw the bow leg into the cockpit.  You’ll be facing the stern with your stomach over the seat. Now roll over, disentangle the stirrup from your stern leg and bring the stern leg back into the cockpit.  Note:  If you have a sit-on-top without a cockpit coaming you can still use this assist by running one end of the stirrup through a scupper hole then re-tieing in a loop.  If you have a friend they can help by holding on to the off-side of the cockpit to stabilize the boat.

A variation on the use of rescue stirrup uses it in conjunction with the paddle float,  While it takes time to setup and would be difficult in heavy seas or current, this is one of the easiest self rescues and can be done with a SOT or a Sit-inside kayak.  Loop one end of the stirrup over a paddle throat – between the blade and the drip ring.  Throw the stirrup loop over the kayak and slide that paddle blade under deck lines (non-stretch) on the opposite side of the kayak and behind the cockpit.  Push the kayak away from you a little and retrieve the other end of the loop from underneath.  Pull the loop up on your side of the boat, removing all the slack and wrap it around the paddle shaft several times as close to the boat as possible.  You want to leave about 2 feet of loop on your side hanging down from the paddle shaft at the back corner of the cockpit on your side.  Now attach the paddle float to the blade on your side of the boat.  Holding on to the front of the cockpit with your bow hand and the rear of the cockpit with your stern hand, place your stern foot into the stirrup.  Straighten your stern leg and lift your bow leg into the cockpit.  You will end up on your stomach or hip, facing the stern.  Lift the stern leg into the cockpit turning as you do so.  Disentangle your stern foot from the stirrup.  Get settled and balanced, remove and stow stirrup and paddle float.  Pump out the cockpit and resume paddling.  See video HERE (starting around 2:40)

If you have a SOT you can use the same technique but place the paddle about 2 feet in front of the seat.  When you climb in you will already be facing the right direction and won’t have to flip around.



Rescue is requiring assistance to get yourself back into your kayak or helping another person get back into theirs.  This is potentially an emergency situation.

X Rescue
See video HERE.

T Rescue
See video HERE.


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