Knowing and practicing your rescues is an integral part of safe and enjoyable sea kayaking. When you are confident in your (and your companions’) rescue ability, you can relax and have fun. When conditions deteriorate, you will appreciate the fact that the people you are with have the ability to rescue themselves and others. There are many different rescues and rescue scenarios. How do you cover them all? Prayer and luck help, but preparation and practice are less likely to let you down. I am going to outline the most common situations and how to deal with them on a general basis. As ever, it is best to learn the technicalities of these rescues from a competent instructor. If nothing else, buy a good book, like John Lull’s Sea Kayaking Safety and Rescue (Wilderness Press), so you know where to begin.
Solo Rescues: Look out for number one is your mantra here. Knowing how to rescue yourself is one of the cornerstones of confident paddling. Not getting yourself into situations where you need to rescue yourself is another. However, things do happen. Learn and practice the paddle-float rescue and the scramble rescue. The Eskimo roll is the quickest solo rescue, but you need backup in case you are ripped from your boa, or your roll fails (for any number of fascinating reasons). If you can roll, the re-enter and roll is an option. If you can’t quite roll but have the concept, you could use the paddle-float re-enter and roll.
Assisted Rescues: You come upon a companion or stranger who has exited his boat and is in the water. You empty the capsized boat with a T-rescue and hold the boat while he climbs back in. If the person is injured or unable to climb back in his boat, you can do the sling rescue. If he is unconscious, you can stuff him back in his boat, using a scoop rescue, and then tow him to shore with the help of another paddler, call for help on your radio or cell phone, or tie them in an upright position to your boat and tow them to shore. (You’d better have practiced this last one quite a bit!)
Towing a Swimmer: A paddler has exited and become separated from her boat. You must reunite the two. One option is for her to hang on to the back of your kayak while you tow her to her boat. This works only for short distances, as there is a lot of drag involved. You could also have her climb onto your rear deck while you tow her. This is much quicker, but does require good bracing and balance by the tower. Another option is to tow or push her kayak back to her. This works when they are fairly close together. A short whitewater-style tow belt works well for this. You can quickly hook up to her boat (or an errant paddle) and tow it back to her.
Towing a Kayak: If a paddler is injured, or simply unable to paddle into a headwind or current, you can hook up your towline to his bow and give him an assist. If he cannot maintain balance, another paddler could support him while you tow them both, or he could lean over and hang on to your kayak while you tow him to safety. Make sure your towline is long enough for the conditions. When you have following seas, you don’t want him surfing down on you. Usually 30 to 50 feet is sufficient. You can always shorten it up if necessary. Surf Rescues: Surf-zone rescues usually occur when you swim in behind your kayak. Rescues in the surf are dangerous, with the potential for flying kayaks and rescuers causing more danger than a simple swim to shore.
All these rescues require much practice to be reliable, and even then, sometimes you must improvise because conditions or people behave in unexpected ways. Once you are comfortable with the basics, you are better prepared to handle the unexpected. Hey, the practice is fun!
John Meyer is a co-owner and head sea kayak instructor at Northwest Outdoor Center in Seattle.