I have read more than once, that unlike kayaks and paddles, paddle floats have not been around for thousands of years, but were developed within my lifetime. In the old days, you had to rely upon good balance, good luck, your buddies, a good cowboy or other jump-back-in techniques, or your roll.
One thing about rescue gear—you hardly ever use it, but when you need it, you expect it to work. The Gaia float is well constructed and durable and has held up well with repeated handling, immersion, sunlight, abrasion and occasional abuse.
The float is a dual chamber, dual valve inflatable device, made from plastic lined/impregnated, sewn and bonded fabric. Valve stems are cemented into sturdy gusseted bases. Valve caps are a sliding type, not requiring a lot of dexterity to operate by cold, stiff, tired, wet hands. The hardest part is sliding the paddle into the slot in the float and securing it with a strap. The temptation is to take a shortcut by not securing the strap. I have found that approach doesn’t always work, in very rough water, or if one of the floats should fail to stay inflated, as happened two weeks ago.
Inflatable floats are inherently less reliable and slower to deploy than non-inflatable floats. Non-inflatable floats are always buoyant, but take up a lot of space and get in the way. Inflatable floats are much more compact, but are a bit more fragile and more difficult to deploy, but they can be kept almost anywhere, even on your person. I sometimes carry two on long crossings. When paddling alone and/or in difficult conditions, you may want to consider keeping it inflated and easily accessible.
Instructor and video maker Wayne Horodowhich recommends carrying it on your front deck, secured to a bungie. I carry mine strapped to the rear deck, just behind the coaming, which is the first place I will go to setup for a reentry. So far, that has worked well. What’s good about Wayne’s method is that it is easier to access the paddle float BEFORE you are in the water, in some cases. Some people carry them in their PFD’s.
Our family has two Gaia floats, in use for three years. Failures: recently, one of the valves fell off after seven consecutive paddle float drills at a recent rescue practice session. Because of its dual chamber design, it still worked, but not as well as with both floats. Gaia immediately sent a repair kit.
Paddle floats can also be used for anchor buoys, outrigger floats (to rest or sleep), and special combination paddle float/float bag devices are offered by Gaia Paddlesports.
For those of you who think you don’t need a paddle float, because you have a bomb-proof roll, great cowboy entry, or simply never capsize, as one highly self confident SoCal part-time instructor maintains-- use it for a bathtub toy. The rest of us will use a Gaia or other equally effective device. In real life, many of us mortals have discovered that our rolls don’t always work, for various reasons, sometimes beyond our control. It can happen to you, too. In fact, our local kayak club hosts don’t permit you to paddle a sea kayak without one, when participating in events.
My wife wouldn't hear of it. Even though she never paddles alone and would almost always be doing an assisted re-entry, she felt that if there was a reason that I used that particular float than she should be using it too.
I have found that it is very easy to work the push-pull valves with my teeth, and tighten the draw cord around my paddle with only one hand. This leaves a hand free to hold the boat or anything else that you might need to hold.
Recently, I started using a Greenland Paddle, and I was concerned that the float would not stay on it. I found that my fears were pointless as long as I wrapped the teather around the shaft and clipped it. The dual chambers give a nice safety margin, especially when you consider that just using one chamber still gives enough stability for me to get my 225 pounds into the boat.
Because the valves are push-pull, deflation is very easy. Just open the valve and stick your paddle partway into the water while keeping the valve out of it. The float quickly deflates by itself. This way there is no funbling around while trying to keep a valve open and you are still in conditions that caused you to capsize.
My float has only been used once in a real situation of 25 knot winds and 10 - 11 foot swells, but has been used in countless practice sessions. It has held up very well and still looks like it is brand new.