The most efficient solo recovery after a capsize is a roll. However, sooner or later all of us end up having to do a wet exit. If you like to paddle alone or if the others in your group can not assist you then having a reliable way of getting yourself back into your kayak and getting your craft seaworthy is a necessity if you want a long career in sea kayaking.
I believe the most widely taught solo recovery (assuming a wet exit) is the paddle float recovery. Given the instability of trying to climb onto a kayak that contains water in the cockpit (or more of the kayak) one needs a reliable way of stabilizing the kayak during re-entry. Taking a lesson from Polynesian paddling the use of an outrigger is one way of providing support to a watercraft. Having a float at the end of a paddle and using the paddle as the outrigger the unstable kayak now has some stability. (See "floatation devices for capsize recoveries".)
There are many variations of the paddle float recovery depending on the type of float you use, available deck rigging, your size in relation to the kayak and your ability to climb onto the deck of your kayak. I will show a more versatile method of the paddle float recovery and then discuss some of the popular variations and options.
Once you find yourself in the water and you have decided to do a paddle float recovery you need to get your float out from where it is stored (where to store recovery equipment is a topic unto itself).
In order to have hands free operation to perform this skill, one suggestion is to leave your kayak upside down and put one foot into the cockpit while resting back on your PFD (there are other alternatives for hands free operation).
Put the float on the end of your paddle, secure it to the paddle so it doesn't slide off the blade and then inflate the float if it is an inflatable float (a foam float is ready to use once you secure it to the blade). Once inflated flip the kayak upright. Keep in mind the faster your flip your kayak the less water the cockpit will scoop thus reducing pumping time.
Create the outrigger by placing the paddleshaft directly behind the rear cockpit coaming. One hand can hold the coaming and the paddleshaft while the other hand is placed on the back deck while you ready yourself to climb onto the back deck.
In this example the paddler is on the stern side of the paddleshaft because he needs to be able to have room to put his feet into the cockpit first. When ready the kayaker kicks his feet out behind to get them near the surface and in coordination with his arms the paddler kicks and pulls himself across the back deck.
It is imperative the kayaker first get his body over the back deck before they put their foot onto the paddleshaft. Do not climb up on the paddle shaft first. There is an excellent chance of sinking the float and/or breaking the paddleshaft especially if you have a light weight paddle. The kayak is used to support the majority of your weight and the paddle is there to add stability.
Once you are balanced on the back deck and one ankle is hooked over the paddleshaft you are ready to move into the kayak. This method of re-entry with the paddle float keeps the kayaker's center of gravity low to the kayak which is more beneficial in rough conditions.
Get your second foot onto the paddleshaft. Then move the foot closest to the cockpit into the cockpit. After the first foot is in place move the second foot into the cockpit. You will need to have one hand on the paddleshaft when you remove your second foot from the paddleshaft.
As you slide your body into the cockpit rotate up looking toward your support (which is the paddle float). As you do so you will need to switch hands to keep control of the paddleshaft.
During this entire operation you need to keep your balance point toward the float. If you lean away from the float you may capsize and then you will need to begin the re-entry process again.
When you are seated properly in your cockpit quickly move the paddleshaft in front of you so you can use both hands to reattach your skirt and pump but not lose your paddle.
If you tuck the paddleshaft under your belly you can maintain some control and balance while you reattach your skirt. Once the skirt is on the coaming you will need to get the water out of the cockpit.
By making a small opening on the side of the cockpit nearest the paddle float you can place the pump into the cockpit and pump out the water and not allow more water in because the skirt is in place. The forearm closest to the float rests on the paddleshaft and that same hand holds the pump and the edge of the skirt. The other hand does the pumping. Lean to the float and the water will pool on the same side as the pump if you follow this method.
After the water is out of the cockpit getting the air out of the float and the float put away becomes your greatest challenge. This is when you are most vulnerable. Your external support is gone and you are in the conditions that capsized you in the first place.
My best advice is to move quickly while watching the horizon for better balance. A fast way of deflating the float utilizes water pressure. Open the valves and submerge the float. Keep the valves above the water. Once deflated remove the float and put it away where you can get it again if need be.
A main variation to this method is using deck rigging if your kayak is so equipped. The primary advantage to using the rigging is hands free operation. Once the paddle is placed under the rigging you no longer need to hold it in place. When you are finished pumping stay centered in your cockpit as you slide the paddle out from under the rigging. When the paddle is coming out of the rigging you will feel a balance shift. Don't lean out away from the boat as you slide the paddle out. Removing and deflating the float is the same whether you use the rigging or not. Remember, you must maintain your rigging so it will be reliable if you need it.
As mentioned earlier, if you use a foam float there is no inflation time or deflation time. If you have the deck space and/or paddle in cold water areas you may wish to consider a foam paddle float. No inflation time reduces immersion time.
One skill that is equipment dependent and many times strength dependent is an in water drain of your kayak before you do your re-entry. After the float is on the paddle and inflated, you can use the buoyancy of the float while treading water with your legs to help you lift the bow in order to drain water. The paddle is under the armpit with the float close behind you. Once the water is out you can let the kayak flip upright. There are many kayaks that don't respond to this method. Try it with your kayak in a practice session before you need it.
As a side note, always check your rudder cables before you re-enter your kayak when you are alone. It is not uncommon to have a cable foul over the rudder saddle after a capsize. Once in your cockpit it is difficult or next too impossible to undue the cable. I practiced a number of times trying to use my paddle to undue the cable snag and laughed each time I capsized during my attempts. I was in flat water when I tried. Imagine being in rough conditions.
A stirrup can be used with a paddle float but that is reviewed as a separate skill.
Another variation of the solo paddle float recovery is the re-enter and roll with the paddle float. After you are in the cockpit and upright you continue to pump and restow the equipment as mentioned above.
I am often asked "on which side of the paddle shaft should I be when I climb on to the back deck of my kayak?" The answer is dependent upon your size, size of cockpit and if you hold the paddleshaft or use the rigging. Your goal is to be able to slip your feet into the cockpit. If you are too close to the cockpit you won't be able to get your feet in. If you are too far away you will have to slide along more deck than necessary. The general rule of thumb is: start on the stern side of the shaft if you hold the paddleshaft behind the coaming and begin on the bow side if you use the deck rigging. Again, practice with your equipment in calm conditions to see what works best for you.
I pride myself in keeping an open mind when it comes to ideas, opinions, techniques and equipment. In most cases I can do a pro & con list in any category. This is especially true when it comes to equipment. The key to this recovery method is a reliable paddle float and a pump. I have seen and been involved with the changes in paddle float features over the years. If you are going to use an inflatable float consider the features that will give you the most advantage. The are many paddle floats on the market. Some good, some OK and some I would never want to use. Because I am so passionate about safety, recovery & rescue equipment you will hear my recommendations when I find products I really like and that have proven to work for me in real conditions.
For the last few years I have been very pleased with the GAIA "Big Swell" Inflatable paddle float. The easy draw cord attachment, two large chambers, quality of product and one hand push pull inflation valves provides me with a float that is easy and fast to use plus reliable. I give this product the full USK Endorsement. If you cannot find it at your local kayak dealer visit the USK on line Store.
How long should it take to do this recovery? My response is, how well are you dressed for immersion? I like to challenge my students with the following: once you wet exit try to get out of the water onto your back deck in 60 seconds or less using the paddle float recovery method shown above. That includes inflation time. Remember your goal is to minimize your exposure to the elements.
I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the down side of this recovery method. You only have stability to one side during the recovery. You are very vulnerable when the float is deflating, being taken off of the blade and being restowed. Remember, you capsized in these conditions. Can you inflate the float in very cold conditions? Will your lips seal around the valves on a windy and cold day? (A great time to use a foam float) Have you regularly checked the integrity of the float and the air chambers to see if they work before you really need it? Is your paddle shaft strong enough for the recovery? As I mentioned earlier, there are pro's & con's to most aspects of kayaking.
Remember, the more self sufficient you are the more options you will have when conditions get rough. You need at least one solid reliable solo recovery (assuming a wet exit) in your recovery arsenal. Many folks have chosen the paddle float recovery as their primary one. See if it works for you.
Access to your recovery equipment will lead to a future discussion on where and how to stow your recovery equipment. Can you get to it quickly? Can you restow it after use in rough conditions and not capsize? Can you get to it and use it when in your cockpit in rough conditions?
Pictures seen above were taken from the USK Video "Capsize Recoveries & Rescue Procedures" Permission to use this article must be obtained from Wayne Horodowich at the University of Sea Kayaking (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.