The Paddle Float Rescue: Why is Everyone Down on It?

a kayaker doing the paddle float rescue

One of the first self-rescues that many kayakers learn is the paddle float rescue. The paddle float rescue (reentry) uses an inflatable bag, called a paddle float, on the end of a paddle to act as an outrigger that helps stabilize the kayak as the swimmer gets into it. The paddle float itself is simple and is easily stored bungee-corded to the back of a sea kayak’s backband. With practice the technique can be fast and effective even in rough water.

In the Midwest, where I live, it’s becoming increasingly popular to claim that the paddle float rescue is a relic of an older era of sea kayaking and something that we, as instructors, don’t need to teach anymore. See Paddle Float or No and Top Ten Alternate Uses for Paddle Float Contest. While I think the arguments being made against it make some sense, I couldn’t disagree with the idea more. The main arguments that I read are that there are better ways to get into a boat; the popular suggestion is reenter and roll with or without a paddle float and the second main argument that I hear is that beginners can’t use it in rough water, so don’t teach it to beginners. I’ve heard silly secondary ones, such as the British don’t use it and others.

The main argument for it is, the more tools in the shed the better. But, what I think makes the most sense is that it isn’t only just one more way to reenter a the kayak, but it is also a great confidence builder for a beginning kayaker. When a beginner is by herself, the three basic self-rescues options are swimming to shore, the scramble or the paddle float. It’s doubtful that a beginner will have a roll, and it’s unrealistic to believe that the first thing a modern recreational kayaker will learn is the roll (although the roll was taught before other skills traditionally in Greenland). The paddle float rescue is less exhausting than swimming the kayak to shore. It’s easier than the scramble for people who don’t have great balance. I’ve personally seen beginners succeed at reentering their kayaks with a paddle float rescue, but constantly fail at the scramble. For a beginner, the confidence comes from knowing that she can go out by herself on a calm lake or sea, practice edging and other maneuvers without worrying about having to swim a kayak to shore should she capsize. This reason alone is enough of a reason for me to continue to teach the paddle float rescue.

But I think that there are more reasons. As mentioned above, one of the main arguments against is that a beginner couldn’t go out in conditions likely to capsize him and be able to perform a paddle float rescue, therefore we shouldn’t teach it. I think this is basically a bunk argument, because if we apply it to other skills, such as the sweep stroke or bow rudder or roll, we see how silly it is. Of course, we can’t expect a beginner to be able to go out into rough water and have a skill succeed without practicing the skill in rough water.

Practice. Practice. Practice. A beginner can’t expect to practice a paddle float rescue once during a safety and rescue class and then go out into six-foot chop on Lake Superior and expect it to work, just as you wouldn’t expect a beginner to be able to paddle in choppy Lake Superior waves after an ACA Intro to Kayak course and have his forward, reverse and sweep strokes work perfectly. Or have a roll work in the surf after getting it during one pool session. The key at getting better with the paddle float rescue is using it in progressively harder situations in a controlled environment with a skilled paddler around to act as a safety net — just like other kayaking skills. We don’t throw a beginner into surf and expect his stern rudder to work perfectly, and that’s why as instructors we recommend that paddlers hire us to teach them how to use basic skills in rougher water, such as surf. We shouldn’t expect anything different from the paddle float rescue. After it is practiced in progressively rougher water, it becomes worthwhile and effective in larger conditions when needed.

Perhaps, the people against teaching the paddle float are setting silly expectations for beginners instead of telling them that the paddle float rescue probably won’t work for in choppy conditions unless practiced in choppy conditions.

It’s even easy to come up with scenarios where the paddle float rescue might even be useful for advanced kayakers. Here’s one from the top of my head. The kayaker dislocates his shoulder, misses a roll, can’t use his arm for a reentry and roll and needs to get back into his kayak. Using a paddle float and a rescue stirrup, the kayaker could get back into his kayak. After he’s back in his kayak, the paddle float could provide stability until a rescue arrives.

So, to sum up my points (although I may have more to say about this in the future): a) it builds confidence for beginner kayakers, because it makes it easy to get back into the boat in the conditions they should be practicing in, b) practicing the paddle float in rough water makes it effective in rough water, c) don’t set expectations that don’t add up, i.e. that you could use the paddle float rescue in rough water without having practiced it there, d) it’s easy to come up with scenarios where a paddle float rescue would be worthwhile for advanced paddlers, e) it’s another tool in the chest, and f) it’s easier for some beginners than the scramble and less exhausting that swimming the kayak to shore.

How to Do the Paddle Float Rescue

  1. Wet exit the boat and then stuff one leg back into the cockpit to keep in nearby and free up your hands.
  2. Put the paddle float onto the end of your paddle, inflate the bag and secure the paddle float to the paddle.
  3. Flip the kayak rightside up. If you go to the bow, push and scissor kick just before you flip it, you can drain much of the water out of the cockpit. Don’t let go of the boat as you make your way to the bow.
  4. Go back to the cockpit and position yourself behind the cockpit with the paddle between you and the cockpit.
  5. With the hand that’s nearest the cockpit, grab the paddle shaft and the cockpit coaming. Reach across the rear deck with your other hand and grab the perimeter deck line.
  6. Let your legs float to the surface and then lunge up onto the rear deck. If you need extra support, hook the angle closest to the paddle shaft over the shaft to gain leverage.
  7. After you’re on the rear deck, hook the ankle of the foot furthest from the shaft over the shaft.
  8. Slide your leg nearest the cockpit into the cockpit.
  9. Take the hand hold the perimeter deck line a slide it under the leg that’s still on the shaft to grab the shaft.
  10. Swing your other leg into the cockpit.
  11. Stay low and slide into the cockpit until, you’re butt is even with the seat.
  12. Spin around in the direction of the paddle shaft until you’re sitting forward in the cockpit.
  13. Stuff the paddle shaft between your lifevest and the cockpit coaming and lean slightly forward to trap it there. Use the float for stability.
  14. Get your spray skirt on.
  15. Make a gap in the skirt big enough to put your pump into and pump out any water in the cockpit.
  16. On calm water, deflate the bag by opening the valves and pushing the float into the water with your paddle. The pressure from the water will squeeze all the air out. On rougher water, unclip the bag from your paddle, while still using it for support, partially or fully deflate it and put the bag under your bungee cords or paddle to shore with the bag still on one blade and use it for stability when needed.

For the reasons that I mentioned above, I think it’s a worthwhile skill to learn, to teach and to practice. I hope you agree, and whether or not you do, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Note: Learning and teaching the paddle float doesn’t mean that as a kayaker progresses that he won’t or shouldn’t learn the roll. The paddle float isn’t an all-and-nothing-else technique.

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  • Excellent summary and perfect point about filling your toolbox.

    I’ll add that positioning yourself in front of the paddle, even with the cockpit, makes it possible to do a heel-hook paddle float self rescue that is really quick and easy. The Keys are to stick the blade under the far decklines and grab the paddle shaft and the near deckline with one had to secure the paddle in position.

    • I think that the paddle float w/ heel hook deserves its own blog post.

    • I have been teaching sea kayaking from basic to advanced since 1988 and I couldn’t agree with you more! Everything you state in your article is spot on! I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen people capsize in totally calm water. Beginners in a single can lean the wrong way, dig too deep on a back stroke or just want to practice a brace or even a roll on their own and the paddle float works great. When I was first learning to roll a sea kayak I often couldn’t find someone to spot me and the paddle float worked great to get me back in my boat at the end of a session when I was tired instead of swimming my boat to shore. I think those who promote not teaching it are seriously missing the point of supporting beginners in their effort to learn to be better paddlers.

  • In step 2, I would add: “secure the float to the paddle” — I’ve seen several instances where this was forgotten and the float slips off the blade and floats off out of reach.

  • […] photographer, and experienced sea kayak instructor and guide, Bryan Hansel, recently posted this excellent article 0n I agree with him completely, though I do think there are a few variations on the paddle float […]

  • Well crafted.

    I used to carry my paddle float under my knees and it helps to relieve the pressure on the bum and all but eliminates the problem of feet falling asleep.

    I was hoping you can add some thoughts on the last part of the paddle-float self-rescue–the taking of it off the paddle. I’ve seen L4 instructor candidates struggle with that step in meager 1′ waves and re-capsize. Your suggestion to paddle to shore with paddle float on the blade, while fine in favorable conditions, will be unrealistic in many other circumstances. In any case, I think that removal of the paddle float from the blade deserves more than one bullet point on your list of 16. It is tempting to overlook that step and it can be a major liability in the field.

    • I added some thoughts, but if I missed something, let me know what you’d suggest. What did the L4 candidates do that caused them to capsize?

      While not ideal, paddling with a paddle float on can work in rougher conditions. I wouldn’t want to paddle far with it like that, but it does provide extra stability.

      • Thanks for the effort, Bryan. Appreciate your time and consideration.

        Unless one is paddling a stable kayak or has a good sense of balance or a body that is balance-optimized, taking your hands off the paddle in conditions as small as 1-2′ can be challenging. It still is for me after many seasons of ‘butt in boat’ time when I paddle an unloaded Nordkapp HS.

        The instructor candidates in question (myself included) were not doing anything beyond taking off the paddle floats off the ends of their paddles. During the process, the eyes have to be taken off the waves and hands off the paddle. I don’t have any suggestions about that step other than to recommend that everyone who intends to rely on paddle float rescue in rough conditions should practice it in those conditions and pay attention to the final step as much as other steps–probably more.

        I have never tried to paddle with a paddle float on the end of my blade but I’ve seen many beginners who have trouble keeping their boats going straight on flat water. Paddling in wind is hard without a bag on the end of ones blade. I cannot imagine being able to cover any meaningful distance in that arrangement. So I would advise to keep the distance to shore short.

        The hardships of removing the paddle float from the blade at the end of the rescue is an inherent weakness of the method. Individual paddlers should decide if this weakness is prohibitive with respect to its use in rough conditions.

        If paddle-float is a paddler’s only means of self-rescue, they should stay within swimming distance of shore and make sure the wind is not blowing them into open water, IMHO. Practice it in shallow water close to shore, ideally, with competent rescuers standing by.

        Also, be mindful of the opportunity costs associated with practicing paddle-float rescues. What would the recommendations be for practicing paddle-float rescues in the context of other self-rescues? Sequence? Amount of time?

        • I paddle a Romany and an Explorer most of the time, but recently got a Tempest, which are all really stable kayaks. When I was pushing myself with the paddle float reentry was back when I first moved to Lake Superior and felt like I had something to prove, because I wasn’t as good in the water or as experienced as some of the kayakers I was paddling with, and I was paddling a wooden kayak (which made me feel like I had more to prove) that felt a lot like a mix between the Romany and the Explorer. I don’t really feel like I have to prove myself anymore, so I probably wouldn’t practice it in rough conditions now, but at the time, I had heard that the UMD program made all their guides practice the paddle float in six foot waves, so I figured that if UMD was doing it, I should. The place I worked made had us do it in 3-foot surf with current. But I never really thought about taking the paddle float off before as something to work on, because it wasn’t an issue for me in the kayaks I paddle. I’ve never paddled a Nordkapp HS, but I understand that they are tippy.

          When I was first training as a guide (I’ve only been guiding for seven years), my boss told me about an adventure book he had read where the kayakers had to use the paddle float to paddle a long distance. I never got the name of the book. I wish I had. After I heard that, I had to try it and it works, but it wasn’t that fun.

          As far as opportunity costs, I guess that depends on free time, what the kayaker wants out of their experience and their ability to get the roll. A former student of mine, now a L3 instructor, took a long time to get his roll. He took lessons from me and about three other people for a couple of years before he finally got it. He got good at the paddle float rescue and if he hadn’t he might have lost the opportunity to practice the other skills that he was better at. The paddle float rescue isn’t the end-all rescue. It’s just one more tool that works especially well for beginners as a confidence builder. For an advanced paddler, if something happens where she has to fall back on the paddle float rescue, there’s a cost if she hadn’t practiced it.

          In the context of other self-rescues, it’ll vary based on the person. Certainly, aggressive swimming, paddle float and scramble are the first to learn (unless they take the Greenland track and then they’ll probably learn the roll first). I don’t teach the paddle float w/ stirrup reentry during my 1/2 day safety and rescue classes, but it’s a good thing to learn for people that have the basic paddle float reentry down. At some point, rolling and reenter and roll is good to learn, but in reality, I doubt most sea kayakers will ever learn the roll. Putting a timeframe on these things are tricky. I don’t have a good answer other than when the person feels that he is ready. Sooner is better, because the more someone knows, the better.

          • Thanks for sharing, Bryan. Explorer and Nordkapp HS have very different stability profiles but, in the end, it will all depend on the marriage between paddler and boat–for some stability is an issue, for others much less. For the record, the other boat that had trouble with paddle-float was a Silhouette.

  • In Europe we do teach the paddle float rescue to beginners in the European Paddle pass system. I find that it is a very effective rescue and that it does indeed build confidence. Confidence is good for beginners but the paddle float can instill a false sense of security in some beginners. I personally feel that proper instruction in paddle float rescue should stress that a paddle float should not be used as an argument in favor of going out solo in dodgy conditions,

  • Excellent article! As a fellow instructor, I can certainly agree that the paddle float rescue is one of the more reliable re-entry techniques for beginners when used in the conditions that it has been practiced in.

    I’ve also come to appreciate that the paddle float itself is more than “just another tool in the shed”…it can be the kayaker’s version of a Swiss Army knife! It’s unfortunate that so many paddlers fail to appreciate the utility of the paddle float. This includes many beginners who have never heard of one before and so called “advanced” paddlers who feel as though their skills are beyond needing one…

    I’ll posit that folks should consider bringing along two paddle floats when they go out. I always do. Why?? a) I know that I can get back into my kayak with them in the case that all else fails and b) I can use them to help others in my group who may benefit from some extra stability (sea sickness, mechanical injury, ect). c) Choose the scenario and a paddle float could make at least a reasonable contribution to the solution…

    • I’ve had to tow someone with a float on each blade. Worked great. For a while, I carried two while guiding just for that reason.

  • I agree with most of your points, Bryan, especially the notion that the more arrows you have in your quiver, the better.

    We teach the pf rescue in our courses, and practice it in increasingly challenging conditions in subsequent ones. However, here’s the standard I use for assessing any rescue technique:

    1) How likely is it that the paddler will end up back in the water and have to do it again, wasting time and precious energy?

    Applying that standard, the pf rescue sits at the bottom of the self-rescue hierarchy. All that exposed time on the deck increases the chances of recapize, or, as I saw once when practicing pf recoveries in open water practice a rogue growler separating the kayaker and his boat.

    Because of that, I’ve been incorporating the PF reenter and roll into our introductory instruction with some success. Easy, fast, and gets the paddler back into the cockpit while minimizing “exposed” time.

    But, you still need a plan B. And C. And D. And E.

    • I generally agree with you. How about paddle float with a heel hook, as referenced by Jeremy Vore above, which has very little deck time?

      I’m curious about the paddle float reenter and roll that you’ve been teaching. My safety and rescue courses are 3 to 4 hours long and I don’t feel like I can teach the hip snap, paddle orientation, etc… along with all the other reentries and rescues in that time frame. I’d like to add it if I had a faster way of teaching it. How do you fit it in/how are you making it work for beginners/what are you teaching, etc…?

  • […] Click here to read a great article on the paddle float rescue by Bryan Hansel at […]

  • I agree 100% with your support of the paddle float. Never exclude a valuable tool.

  • […] « The Paddle Float Rescue: Why is Everyone Down on It? […]

  • Having a fail safe way to get back in the boat on ones own is essential. I believe the most secure method in rough water is a re-entry roll with paddle float. The boat is most stable upside down when it is submerged with water. I find that this takes less effort and time than a a traditional paddle float rescue where some one has to right the boat and and get in an unstable kayak with rough waves.

  • Excellent post and resource, Bryan. Thanks!
    Bryan S.

  • I think that most people find more efficient rescues and generally don’t use the paddle float rescue so much as they progress. However, a paddle float can be handy, particularly for a leader. A paddle float assisted reenter and roll is a great backup for a tired paddler swimming in rough water – especially solo. A paddle float is great to give to a seasick paddler or anyone who is unable to remain upright and stable in conditions or while being towed. It adds buoyancy in a pinch and could be used to replace a lost hatch cover either with rope or by inserting in the hole and inflating if necessary.

    They’re a little uncool, maybe, but pretty useful

  • The first thing I did when I got my first kayak was take it to the lake and practice the paddle float rescue. The kayak was tippy, and I did end up in the water more than a few times. Since I was often paddling alone it was a necessity for me.

  • […] without cockpit covers. It can also keep gear inside of your boat. For example, I strap by paddle float and pump into the cockpit, but a cockpit cover can ensure that they stay in the cockpit and that […]

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