Capsize Recovery Theory

[For an in-depth review of the numerous ways of getting back into your kayak after a capsize, check out the 2-disc DVD: Capsize Recoveries & Rescue Proceduresproduced by USK]

I am often asked about differences in techniques when performing the same capsize recovery as someone else. If you were to take ten random sea kayakers and asked them to perform a standard T-Recovery, you will probably see minor to major differences in how they perform the skill. Some of the differences can be any or all of the following:

  • Where the rescuer holds their paddle?
  • When to take your partner’s paddle?
  • How and where to hold the kayak during re-entry?
  • How to drain the water from the kayak?
  • How to break the coaming seal created by the water?
  • Do you use a paddle bridge when stabilizing the kayak?
  • Where does the paddler in the water stay during the draining?
  • How active in the recovery process is the person in the water?
  • Does the rescuer lift the bow or the stern?

The above list is just a few of the differences one can see. Some are minor differences, but some can stall the recovery process if the two paddlers are not working together. Therefore, the way I reply to the question about why there are differences in techniques is, "depends on what is trying to be accomplished."

When the opportunity arises I like to ask paddlers why they perform their recoveries in the manner they just demonstrated. Unfortunately their main reply is, "that is the way I was taught to do it." When I inquire further as to the reasons for their actions, the majority of the paddlers usually didn’t have a reason other than "that is the way I learned it."

When I give my "Capsize Recovery Lecture" at symposia, I begin with setting a foundation for my actions. That foundation is "My Capsize Recovery Theory." I use the word theory, because it is what I am trying to do "in theory." When I have completed the technique, I see if the practical application (my actions) matched my theory. I often joke and call it my "Capsize Recovery Mission Statement." Like any mission statement, it provides the user with a consistent set of goals for deciding what action to take.

If I have a goal to achieve, then my actions should be working toward that goal. If time is not important, then one can do a number of other things in addition to working on a specific goal. You can also have a number of goals trying to be achieved, at the same time, thus the term multi-tasking. When time is an important factor, then staying on task is essential. If someone’s life is on the line, then staying on task is vital.

Since the number one cause of death in sea kayaking is exposure to the elements I thought it would be appropriate to address that concern in my goals when dealing with a capsize. The other concern is being back in my kayak with me and my kayak ready to continue. Therefore my capsize recovery theory is:     A - minimize my exposure to the elements    B - get my kayak and myself sea worthy again.

There are two ways to minimize your exposure to the elements. The best way is to dress for your anticipated immersion time. The second way is to get out of the elements as quickly as possible. Anticipated immersion time is dependent on the conditions and your particular skill level. The faster you can get out of the elements, the less clothing you may need. However, you need to consider changing conditions, fatigue factors and the reliability of your recovery skills.

If I paddle near a shoreline and the conditions for that day are supposed to be mild, I will wear less protective clothing, because I know how quickly I can be out of the water. However, if I am going out in rough conditions, will be away from shore, not have a reliable forecast, I will err on the side of dressing for longer immersion time. If I am dressed properly for immersion, then I have more options, because time is not working against me (read USK articles, "Dressing for Immersion" and "My Immersion Ensemble" for more details).

Which recovery technique to use will be determined by my skill level (the number of techniques I can reliably perform) and the conditions in which I find myself. My goal is to get myself &/or my partner back in the kayak with the kayak and the paddler in a sea-worthy condition (see USK article, "Seaworthy").

The reasons behind the components of the skill(s) you are performing should be clear if you are doing them. If they are not, you can be wasting time or even inhibiting your progress. As an example, if you stabilize you partner’s kayak while your boats are aligned with the bows facing the same direction and you hold the coaming while you rest on your partner’s back deck, you could be blocking their pathway if they re-enter over the back deck. If you take your partner’s paddle too soon, you may have two paddles getting in the way as you drain their kayak. In addition, your partner would not have a paddle to use for a paddle swim if they lost contact with the kayaks. Should your partner be helping you with the recovery when they are in the water or should they be out of the way and let you do all of the work? (See USK article, "Victim or Victim Behavior".) There are so many options available in a recovery that one needs a sound set of goals to help choose which methods to use. The methods should we working towards the ends provided by the goals.

I realized the more techniques I knew and the faster I could perform them, the more options I would have in accomplishing my goal of minimizing exposure to the elements. Having a variety of reliable techniques also gives me more alternatives for getting my kayak sea worthy again. The more prepared I feel the higher my self-confidence, which contributes to my mental sea-worthiness.

I think it is important to have goals (mission statements) so you have a basis for making decisions. This way you can answer the question of "why do you do it the way you do?" Your own "Capsize Recovery Theory" should fit your needs, skill level, equipment, the conditions, and the skills and needs of your partner(s). Once you have your own goals written down, get out and practice your skills and make choices to see if they fit your goals. If not, you can change your goals or alter the choices. Remember, the more reliable skills you have the more options you will have in you bag of tricks.

Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK)writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition, Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.

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