Capsize Recovery

Jim Greenhalgh


Paddlers new to the sport or those occasionally renting a boat are focused on all the fun they will have exploring rivers, lakes, or the ocean. They quickly learn a few intuitive paddle strokes to move the boat around and get to where they want to go.

Unless they start out with some education and training, most paddlers never consider how to handle a capsize until they find themselves unexpectedly in the water. When this happens, some will find they can’t reboard without assistance, which has led to fatalities. For this reason, paddlers must learn to recover from a capsize before venturing out onto deep open water.

Most paddlecraft are stable, making turning one over in the water harder than you would think. As paddlers gain more experience, they will be less likely to capsize. Whether you paddle a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard (SUP), you can expect to capsize on occasion, so paddlers must be ready for an occasional dip.

Knowing how to handle and reboard the vessel after a capsize, coupled with regular practice, can make the difference between being involved in an inconvenient swim or a terrifying incident with possibly serious consequences. While it can happen at any time, capsizing a paddlecraft occurs more often in high wind and rough water conditions.

Photo of spray skirt release technique for kayaks with spray skirts.
Spray skirt release: The spray skirt fits tightly around the cockpit coaming and the paddler’s waist to keep water out. During a capsize, the upside-down, underwater paddler will need to perform a wet exit by grasping the grab loop and pushing it forward and up to release it off the coaming.

Get out of the vessel

After a capsize, the paddler must first get out of the vessel. From open canoes, sit-on-top kayaks or SUPs, paddlers simply fall into the water.

Sit-inside kayaks are a different story. Paddlers must learn to do a “wet exit.” In many sit-inside kayaks, paddlers are braced inside the boat between the seat, knee braces, and foot pedals. Many will also be wearing a “spray skirt” or “spray deck,” a fabric device that fits tight around the paddler’s waist and the kayak coaming to keep the water out. After a capsize, sit-inside kayak paddlers find themselves underwater hanging upside down in the boat. To exit, the paddler must grasp a grab loop on the front of the spray skirt, rip it away from the coaming, and bail out underwater.

Hold onto the boat and paddle

During any capsize, always hold onto the boat and paddle. Unlike larger boats, paddlecraft weigh only a fraction of what the occupant(s) weigh and an unoccupied boat will blow away in the wind much faster than a human can swim.

Wear a life jacket

Smart paddlers always wear their life jackets. Sometimes inexperienced paddlers don’t wear their life jackets, believing they can put them on after they fall into the water. During a capsize, they may lose their boat and, with it, their life jacket and other safety gear, leaving them swimming alone in a dangerous situation.

Some paddlers wear leashes to maintain contact with the boat on SUPs or surfskis (sit-on-top racing boats), but few other paddlers use leashes due to decreased maneuverability and the risk of becoming entangled during a rescue situation. Since most paddlers don’t wear leashes, learning to maintain contact with the boat and paddle during a capsize is paramount.

Rescue methods

Once the paddler has control of the boat and paddle, the next step is self- or assisted rescue, which entails draining the water out of the boat, if needed, and reboarding the vessel. For each type of paddlecraft, there are several methods to recover from a capsize, including different methods for solo paddlers (self-rescue) and those paddling with a group (assisted rescue).

Self rescue

Solo paddlers need to maintain solid self-rescue skills if paddling in deep water. With sit-inside kayaks, the ultimate rescue is the kayak roll. However, rolling a kayak is difficult to learn, requires a certain amount of agility and fitness, and must be maintained with regular practice. Most sit-inside kayakers can’t roll the boat. Regardless, you should learn and maintain other self-rescue skills as you can’t guarantee a successful roll during a real capsize.

Many solo paddlers can reboard their vessels by a simple swim-up maneuver that gets them back on top of the boat, sometimes called a “cowboy” rescue. This is easier for paddlers using a SUP or self-draining sit-on-top kayak. Paddlers lacking the ability to swim back aboard the boat and those whose boats are filled with water will have to resort to other methods.

Paddle float rescue

Other ways to reboard a paddlecraft include “paddle float” and “stirrup” rescues. A paddler can carry a special device called a “paddle float.” When in the water, they inflate the device and fasten it to the end of the paddle. Attach the paddle perpendicular across the boat to form an outrigger. The swimmer uses it to climb back aboard the boat. Individuals who lack the upper body strength to climb back aboard the boat can add a “stirrup,” a line or strap fashioned into a stirrup, so they can mount the vessel as one would a horse.

During the rescue operation, you will need to drain boats filled with water after a capsize. There are methods to dewater the boat before re-entering, but for solo paddlers, these methods can be difficult and not very efficient. Paddlers should carry a hand-operated bilge pump to pump out the boat after re-entry; however, boats filled with water are very unstable, and the paddler might capsize again. Much more difficult and time-consuming for a solo paddler, dewatering and re-entering a boat exposes them to far more risk in rough or cold water.


Paddling with a group is much safer, and assisted rescue provides better options for handling a capsize quickly and efficiently while safely getting the paddler back in the boat and underway. Use a “T-rescue” to fully drain boats holding water. Once the water is out of the boat, the rescuer will restrain and stabilize the vessel while the swimmer re-enters the boat using one of several different techniques.

Step-by-step animation of T-Rescue technique for rescuing a capsized paddler.

All-in rescue

You can use several rescue techniques to help weak, injured, incapacitated, or even unconscious swimmers back into the boat. If a paddler becomes injured or incapacitated, the group can put them into a “rafted tow” and tow them to safety. In instances where extreme wind gusts have capsized an entire group of paddlers, boaters can perform an “all-in rescue” to recover from that situation safely.

Step-by-step animation of all-in rescue for a group of capsized paddlers.
All-In Rescue

Smart paddlers always wear their life jackets and are prepared for a capsize. Training and regular practice can make an unexpected capsize just a simple inconvenience and prevent it from spiraling out of control into a dangerous life-threatening situation. Taking the time to get proper education and training, along with regular practice, will assure that operating a paddlecraft continues to be a fun and safe boating experience.

Jim Greenhalgh

Jim Greenhalgh of St. Petersburg Sail & Power Squadron/22 is a senior navigator, vessel examiner and instructor, having taught boating safety and navigation since 1991. He draws on his vast sail and power boating experience as a lifelong boater and avid sea kayaker. Jim leads trips for the Kayak Adventure Group, a sea kayaking club based on Florida’s west coast that he co-founded. He also wrote Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

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