Paddlecraft safety features

Jim Greenhalgh


Most recreational power vessels under 20 feet must meet minimum flotation requirements set forth in the Federal Requirements for Boats. Paddlecraft are exempted from these requirements, but reputable manufacturers incorporate various methods to keep a swamped boat afloat and provide safety aboard the vessel.

Typical paddlecraft safety features help

  • keep water out,
  • maintain a swamped boat’s buoyancy,
  • dewater the boat,
  • keep paddlers in contact with the boat, and
  • assist in reboarding after a capsize.

Many safety features come factory-installed, while others can be added later. Let’s look at different types of paddlecraft and the safety features used aboard them.


Although designed for many different purposes—recreational, whitewater, touring, fishing, racing and even skin diving—most kayaks are constructed with additional buoyancy to prevent sinking as well as other features to provide safety and serve the boat’s intended use. Typical kayak construction materials include polyethylene or other plastics and composites of fiberglass, Kevlar or carbon fiber.

Recreational kayaks

Since they are generally inexpensive and available at big box stores, recreational kayaks are the most popular kayaks. Averaging 10 to 12 feet long and 30 inches wide, they offer a stable platform good for beginners. They come in both sit-inside and sit-on-top models.

While more stable due to a lower center of gravity, sit-inside models often have wide-open cockpits with no bulkheads, allowing the boat to flood completely during capsize and making rescue difficult. With a minimal amount of foam flotation installed to prevent sinking, sit-inside kayaks should be used for nearshore flatwater or slow-moving rivers; they shouldn’t be taken offshore or in rough water.

Constructed with a double hull forming a single waterproof chamber, sit-on-top models allow paddlers to sit in a seat well on top. The seat well usually sits above the waterline, and the boats employ self-draining ports to drain any water entering the open cockpit. With the paddler on top, these boats have a higher center of gravity, but the sealed hull design makes them much safer in rough water.

The cockpit of a sit-on-top surf ski

Surf skis

Surf ski kayaks are popular racing-type sit-on-tops. With a beneath-the-waterline seat well, surf skis incorporate an automatic bailer in the cockpit, which is often used on small open sailboats. As the boat moves through the water, the paddler opens a small valve, and the water flow under the hull sucks water out of the cockpit using the Venturi effect. Most racing-type kayaks don’t have lifelines or other deck rigging. The paddler maintains contact with the boat by employing foot straps on the rudder pedals and wearing a leash so as not to lose the boat during a capsize.

Some of the safety features installed on a sea kayak

Sea kayaks

Longer and more slender than other kayaks, sea or touring kayaks can travel faster and hold a steadier course through the water. Their many safety features make these boats safe in the open ocean and rough water.

Hardshell sea kayaks usually have two sealed bulkheads, one fore and one aft of the cockpit. In the event of a capsize, only the cockpit fills with water while the fore and aft storage areas, with waterproof hatch covers, remain dry and provide buoyancy to keep the boat afloat.

Sea kayaks usually have fixed lifelines around the perimeter, allowing those in the water to hold onto the boat. They also have deck rigging behind the cockpit to attach a paddle to rig a paddle float for reentry.

The sea kayak in the middle photo on page 23 also has a seat cushion that doubles as a paddle float. Paddlers with enclosed kayaks should always carry a hand-operated bilge pump for dewatering the boat.
While not as common, some sea kayaks come with fixed foot- or hand-operated bilge pumps installed with a through-hull drain vent.

Skin-on-frame kayaks

A sea sock installed in the cockpit of a skin-on-frame kayak

Skin-on-frame paddlecraft have been around for centuries in the form of canoes and kayaks. For decades SOF kayaks have been manufactured as folding boats that can be transported easily in a backpack or a small case. Due to their flexibility, they have even been used in military operations.

Light but very strong, SOF kayaks come with various features to assure paddler safety. The SOF pictured below has a Hypalon hull skin with a nylon deck over an aluminum frame with two sponsons inside, one on each side.

The sponsons have an oral inflation air tube to fill the bladder. This tensions the skin over the frame, and the sponsons provide stability and emergency buoyancy.

In the cockpit, the boat on page 23, bottom photo, has a sea sock: a large waterproof bag that looks like a large sock. The paddler sits inside the sock, so that if the boat capsizes only the sock fills with water. Airbags could be added and secured to the frame for additional safety. Capable on the open ocean, a SOF kayak was used for an Atlantic crossing by Dr. Hannes Lindemann in 1956.

This airbag is mounted in the bow of this kayak, which doesn’t have a front bulkhead

Airbags: You can increase safe buoyancy in a sit-inside paddlecraft lacking bulkheads by installing airbags, also called float bags. Available in different shapes and sizes, they are often used in kayaks without bulkheads, skin-on-frame kayaks and whitewater canoes. It’s important that the bags be secured inside the boat using straps or ties. I was once on a trip where an unsecured airbag floated out of a kayak during a capsize, making rescue more difficult and time-consuming. Paddlers must also maintain the airbags regularly, ensuring that they are filled with air and leak-free.


The aft section of an aluminum canoe has Styrofoam blocks behind the bulkhead and underneath the seat to float the canoe if swamped.

Constructed of aluminum, composite or plastic, most canoes are designed to float even when filled with water. Manufacturers accomplish this by adding flotation chambers or foam blocks or installing foam mats layered into composite materials.

To displace water and increase buoyancy, airbags can be secured in the canoe’s fore and aft sections, which is often done with whitewater paddling canoes.

Canoe gunwales usually have a graspable lip, which can be used like the lifelines on sea kayaks. Canoeists should also carry a dewatering device, such as a bailer bucket, scoop or hand-operated bilge pump.

Stand-up paddleboards

Stand-up paddleboards, which have recently become popular, are considered vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard when outside a swim area or surf zone.

Constructed of composite resin coatings over foam or hollow wood, rotomolded or thermoformed plastics, or solid foam, rigid paddleboards are inherently buoyant for safety. They often have deck material for added traction, deck rigging and an anchor for an ankle leash, which is often included with the purchase and important to help paddlers maintain contact with their SUP.

Also popular, inflatable paddleboards, or iSUPs, can be easily stored and transported. Constructed using a drop stitch technology that uses higher pressure air to create a rock-hard surface, iSUPs have a tough PVC skin. However, most iSUPs have only one air chamber, giving them no redundancy in case of a puncture. These paddleboards require more care and maintenance and won’t last as long as rigid models. Paddlers should consider these issues and wear a life jacket during use. A few iSUPs on the market have two or three air chambers and further safety considerations are expected in the future.

This inexpensive sit-inside recreational kayak has no bulkheads and only minimal flotation foam inside. The paddler uses this boat as intended: for flat, protected water where quick rescue is available.

Final thoughts

Although most paddlecraft manufacturers install minimal flotation and safety features, paddlers can increase their craft’s safety by adding aftermarket safety items. Regardless of boat type, paddlers should use a boat for its intended purpose and learn to handle a capsize before venturing into deep water. In the paddling community, we have a saying: “We are all between swims.” So, it’s best to be prepared.

As with any vessel, a paddler should always stay with the boat if swamped or capsized. It provides flotation in addition to a life jacket and makes the paddler more visible while awaiting rescue. Also, the shore is always farther away and a much longer swim than it appears.

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 powerboating 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.

United States Power Squadrons, America's Boating Club logo

The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.

Paddler? Know the rules

Download your free copy of Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft and make the most of every minute you spend on the water.

Download Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft PDF

Leave a Comment