The Paddle Float Rescue: Why is Everyone Down on It?

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One of the first self-rescues that many kayakers learn is the paddle float rescue. The paddle float rescue (reentry) uses an inflatable bag, called a paddle float, on the end of a paddle to act as an outrigger that helps stabilize the kayak as the swimmer gets into it. The paddle float itself is simple and is easily stored bungee-corded to the back of a sea kayak’s backband. With practice the technique can be fast and effective even in rough water.

In the Midwest, where I live, it’s becoming increasingly popular to claim that the paddle float rescue is a relic of an older era of sea kayaking and something that we, as instructors, don’t need to teach anymore. See Paddle Float or No and Top Ten Alternate Uses for Paddle Float Contest. While I think the arguments being made against it make some sense, I couldn’t disagree with the idea more. The main arguments that I read are that there are better ways to get into a boat; the popular suggestion is reenter and roll with or without a paddle float and the second main argument that I hear is that beginners can’t use it in rough water, so don’t teach it to beginners. I’ve heard silly secondary ones, such as the British don’t use it and others.

The main argument for it is, the more tools in the shed the better. But, what I think makes the most sense is that it isn’t only just one more way to reenter a the kayak, but it is also a great confidence builder for a beginning kayaker. When a beginner is by herself, the three basic self-rescues options are swimming to shore, the scramble or the paddle float. It’s doubtful that a beginner will have a roll, and it’s unrealistic to believe that the first thing a modern recreational kayaker will learn is the roll (although the roll was taught before other skills traditionally in Greenland). The paddle float rescue is less exhausting than swimming the kayak to shore. It’s easier than the scramble for people who don’t have great balance. I’ve personally seen beginners succeed at reentering their kayaks with a paddle float rescue, but constantly fail at the scramble. For a beginner, the confidence comes from knowing that she can go out by herself on a calm lake or sea, practice edging and other maneuvers without worrying about having to swim a kayak to shore should she capsize. This reason alone is enough of a reason for me to continue to teach the paddle float rescue.

But I think that there are more reasons. As mentioned above, one of the main arguments against is that a beginner couldn’t go out in conditions likely to capsize him and be able to perform a paddle float rescue, therefore we shouldn’t teach it. I think this is basically a bunk argument, because if we apply it to other skills, such as the sweep stroke or bow rudder or roll, we see how silly it is. Of course, we can’t expect a beginner to be able to go out into rough water and have a skill succeed without practicing the skill in rough water.

Practice. Practice. Practice. A beginner can’t expect to practice a paddle float rescue once during a safety and rescue class and then go out into six-foot chop on Lake Superior and expect it to work, just as you wouldn’t expect a beginner to be able to paddle in choppy Lake Superior waves after an ACA Intro to Kayak course and have his forward, reverse and sweep strokes work perfectly. Or have a roll work in the surf after getting it during one pool session. The key at getting better with the paddle float rescue is using it in progressively harder situations in a controlled environment with a skilled paddler around to act as a safety net — just like other kayaking skills. We don’t throw a beginner into surf and expect his stern rudder to work perfectly, and that’s why as instructors we recommend that paddlers hire us to teach them how to use basic skills in rougher water, such as surf. We shouldn’t expect anything different from the paddle float rescue. After it is practiced in progressively rougher water, it becomes worthwhile and effective in larger conditions when needed.

Perhaps, the people against teaching the paddle float are setting silly expectations for beginners instead of telling them that the paddle float rescue probably won’t work for in choppy conditions unless practiced in choppy conditions.

It’s even easy to come up with scenarios where the paddle float rescue might even be useful for advanced kayakers. Here’s one from the top of my head. The kayaker dislocates his shoulder, misses a roll, can’t use his arm for a reentry and roll and needs to get back into his kayak. Using a paddle float and a rescue stirrup, the kayaker could get back into his kayak. After he’s back in his kayak, the paddle float could provide stability until a rescue arrives.

So, to sum up my points (although I may have more to say about this in the future): a) it builds confidence for beginner kayakers, because it makes it easy to get back into the boat in the conditions they should be practicing in, b) practicing the paddle float in rough water makes it effective in rough water, c) don’t set expectations that don’t add up, i.e. that you could use the paddle float rescue in rough water without having practiced it there, d) it’s easy to come up with scenarios where a paddle float rescue would be worthwhile for advanced paddlers, e) it’s another tool in the chest, and f) it’s easier for some beginners than the scramble and less exhausting that swimming the kayak to shore.

How to Do the Paddle Float Rescue

  1. Wet exit the boat and then stuff one leg back into the cockpit to keep in nearby and free up your hands.
  2. Put the paddle float onto the end of your paddle, inflate the bag and secure the paddle float to the paddle.
  3. Flip the kayak rightside up. If you go to the bow, push and scissor kick just before you flip it, you can drain much of the water out of the cockpit. Don’t let go of the boat as you make your way to the bow.
  4. Go back to the cockpit and position yourself behind the cockpit with the paddle between you and the cockpit.
  5. With the hand that’s nearest the cockpit, grab the paddle shaft and the cockpit coaming. Reach across the rear deck with your other hand and grab the perimeter deck line.
  6. Let your legs float to the surface and then lunge up onto the rear deck. If you need extra support, hook the angle closest to the paddle shaft over the shaft to gain leverage.
  7. After you’re on the rear deck, hook the ankle of the foot furthest from the shaft over the shaft.
  8. Slide your leg nearest the cockpit into the cockpit.
  9. Take the hand hold the perimeter deck line a slide it under the leg that’s still on the shaft to grab the shaft.
  10. Swing your other leg into the cockpit.
  11. Stay low and slide into the cockpit until, you’re butt is even with the seat.
  12. Spin around in the direction of the paddle shaft until you’re sitting forward in the cockpit.
  13. Stuff the paddle shaft between your lifevest and the cockpit coaming and lean slightly forward to trap it there. Use the float for stability.
  14. Get your spray skirt on.
  15. Make a gap in the skirt big enough to put your pump into and pump out any water in the cockpit.
  16. On calm water, deflate the bag by opening the valves and pushing the float into the water with your paddle. The pressure from the water will squeeze all the air out. On rougher water, unclip the bag from your paddle, while still using it for support, partially or fully deflate it and put the bag under your bungee cords or paddle to shore with the bag still on one blade and use it for stability when needed.

For the reasons that I mentioned above, I think it’s a worthwhile skill to learn, to teach and to practice. I hope you agree, and whether or not you do, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Note: Learning and teaching the paddle float doesn’t mean that as a kayaker progresses that he won’t or shouldn’t learn the roll. The paddle float isn’t an all-and-nothing-else technique.

Good Paddle Floats

There are lots of great paddle floats on the market. I personally like Seattle Sports Dual Chamber Sea Kayak Safety Paddle Float.

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