Can You Get Stuck in a Kayak? (How to Handle a Capsize Safely)


Kayaking is a popular recreational activity for people everywhere, but there are safety concerns just like any other water sport. In kayaking, one of the foremost safety concerns is the possibility of flipping over the kayak and being thrust underwater.

Beginning kayakers often have an excessive fear of being trapped in the kayak underwater due to its confined cockpit. When I first ventured into the realm of kayaking, I shared this fear myself.

It’s unlikely for an individual to get stuck in a kayak in calm water conditions since the cockpit is built to be snug but not restrictive. However, kayakers who paddle in extreme whitewater rapids are at higher risk of being pinned in their kayak by sieves.

If you’re a new paddler, you probably have a flurry of questions flowing through your head right now, like “What’s a cockpit?” or “What’s a sieve?” We’ll discuss these terms and their relation to the likelihood of a paddler getting stuck in a kayak in the sections below. Read until the end to learn exactly how to implement proper self-rescue techniques if your kayak does end up flipping over.

Why Capsized Kayaks Won’t Trap You in Calm Waters

Recreational kayakers mostly paddle in calm conditions, as it isn’t their intention to take on the challenge of whitewater conditions.

In flat water, it’s actually fairly difficult to tip over a kayak on accident. Since no rogue waves are tossing the kayak every which way, even novice paddlers can retain a superior amount of control in calmer waters because of the structural stability of recreational kayaks (source). For this reason, the majority of recreational kayakers won’t ever have to deal with a capsize.

On the off-chance that you do capsize while kayaking in calm waters, there’s an extremely low probability that you’ll get trapped in the kayak.

Kayak Cockpits are Not as Restrictive as You Think 

For one, kayak manufacturers design their products so that paddlers can effortlessly get in and out of the watercraft, even in the event of an emergency.

Kayaks are classified under two broad categories: sit-on-top kayaks and sit-inside kayaks. Both types of kayaks share many structural similarities in that they feature the same basic components, like the deck, the hull, the bow, and the stern.

The primary point of differentiation between these two types of kayaks is that sit-inside kayaks are hemmed in, forming a cockpit. In contrast, sit-on-top kayaks are more open, without any confining structural features.

Since sit-on-top kayaks have no enclosures whatsoever, people do not typically worry about being stuck in this type of kayak. Instead, people are far more afraid of the potentially restrictive complications presented by the cockpit of sit-inside kayaks.

Fortunately, the cockpit of sit-inside kayaks is designed to fit neatly around a paddler’s lower body, but not to the point where it’s restrictive. In fact, certain cockpit seating areas are adjustable to maximize comfort and provide the paddler with some breathing room.

For example, sit-inside kayaks’ back pads and thigh braces are often adjustable to fit the individual paddler’s body size. In addition, you can typically also adjust the foot braces deep within the kayak’s interior. With these adjustable features, people of all shapes and sizes can fit comfortably within the kayak without fear of getting stuck.

The Spray Skirt is Easily Removable, Even When Underwater

Aside from the cockpit, first-time paddlers are also skeptical of the potential danger of wearing a spray skirt (also called a spray deck).

As a quick reference, a spray skirt is a waterproof cover that goes over the cockpit to keep water from pooling in the kayak’s interior. There’s a hole in the spray skirt that fits over the paddler’s waist. This hole allows the paddler to sit comfortably within the kayak when the cover is put on (source).

Even with the luxury of adjustable seating accessories, paddlers still may hold on to the belief that they may get trapped because of the spray skirt. I must admit, at first glance, even I thought that wearing a spray skirt would present some complications in the event of a capsize. Fortunately, this is not the case.

Spray skirts are equipped with a grab loop that sits directly in front of the paddler as they sit in the kayak. This grab loop is often a fluorescent color, so it’s easily identifiable, even when underwater. If you pull on this grab loop, the spray skirt will come off of the cockpit and allow you to free your legs from the kayak.

Before heading out onto the water, be sure that the grab loop is easily visible and sticking outwards. This way, if you do accidentally flip over, you can pull at the grab loop, remove the spray skirt immediately, and avoid any serious complications.

Humans Reflexively Escape the Cockpit as Kayaks Flip Over

Furthermore, people often underestimate the power of the human fight or flight instinct as it relates to being trapped in a kayak. Humans are conditioned to keep their heads above the water at all costs, particularly in seemingly perilous situations.

As soon as a kayak begins to lurch into the water, your primal instincts will take over. You’ll likely be well on your way out of the boat by the time that the kayak is fully capsized. Before you know it, you’ll be floating right next to your upturned kayak because of your life preserver.

This is especially true of calm conditions with little to no disturbances that would otherwise prevent you from getting your head above water.

It goes without saying that these reflexes get better with practice. As the adage goes, practice makes perfect. If you hone in on self-rescue techniques, you’ll know exactly what to do in the event of a capsize. This fundamental knowledge can help you to act quicker and get out of the kayak before it even has a chance to overturn fully.

Although your primal instincts will virtually always be enough to keep you from being trapped in your kayak, the extra vote of confidence and awareness that comes with practice certainly doesn’t hurt.

How Capsized Kayaks Can Entrap Paddlers in Whitewater Conditions

Although being trapped in a capsized kayak may not be a real threat to paddlers in calmer waters, extreme whitewater conditions are a different story.

As discussed earlier in the article, whitewater rapids have the potential to conceal sieves. Put simply, a “sieve” is a narrow section along a waterway where the water flows below rocks that can potentially trap kayakers and force them underwater (source).

If a kayaker gets trapped within a sieve, there is a greater likelihood that they will be too disoriented to escape from the kayak. Plus, the swirling rapids underneath the rock have the potential to pin a kayaker in one locked position.

Needless to say, sieves are one of the foremost dangers to whitewater kayakers. This is why it’s so important that whitewater kayakers travel in groups. Having a safety network present offers whitewater kayakers an extra measure of insurance against river hazards such as sieves.

Luckily, most recreational kayakers do not venture into whitewater conditions in the first place. Since it involves such a high degree of skill to navigate these waterways, the majority of kayakers never reach this level of expertise. If you intend to whitewater kayak one day, be extremely wary of sieves because it is a real danger for paddlers everywhere.

Should You Be Afraid of Being Stuck in a Capsized Kayak? 

All of the preceding information really boils down to this one question. Should you actually be afraid of getting trapped within your kayak?

Just like the answer to most questions, it really depends. The contingent factor in the case of this question is your personal kayaking ambitions.

If you plan on casually kayaking through calmer waters every once in a while, I wouldn’t worry about getting trapped in your kayak. As aforementioned, recreational kayakers don’t flip over in calmer waters to begin with. Even if you manage to capsize, there are no fast-moving rapids or natural obstacles that will keep you confined to the kayak’s interior.

On the other hand, having a fear of being trapped within your kayak is completely reasonable if you’re an adrenaline junkie looking to push your boundaries with the toughest of whitewater conditions. Sieves can be a perilous risk to your life if you don’t take the proper precautions. Before taking this step, make sure to notch an adequate amount of experience under your belt so that you’re fully prepared for these dangers.

Effective Methods of Rescuing Yourself if the Kayak Flips Over

Even though kayaks are specially manufactured to maintain stability and offer maximum control to paddlers, you should still prep for the unexpected, especially if you plan on whitewater kayaking.

The self-rescue techniques described below can come in handy in the event of any kayak capsize. While practicing these techniques, be sure to practice in calm, shallow waters with a partner nearby for assistance. Over the course of these practice sessions, you should also be wearing a PFD. No matter the conditions, it’s always a smart idea to wear a PFD when kayaking.

The Wet-Exit

The first self-rescue technique we’ll discuss involves a wet exit. Put simply, a wet exit describes a situation where the paddler must escape from the cockpit underwater while the kayak is overturned.

To properly execute a wet exit, follow this step-by-step guide.

  1. Take a Deep Breath – You should do this as soon as you feel the kayak beginning to capsize, just before heading beneath the water surface.
  2. Tuck Your Body Forward – This will prevent you from accidentally hitting your head on anything just below the surface of the water.
  3. Pull the Grab Loop Forward, then Backward – Locate the fluorescent grab loop with your hands. Make sure to pull the grab loop forward first to release it from the cockpit. Following this, you can take the spray skirt off of the cockpit.
  4. Tuck Your Knees Close Together – This is done to free the legs from the thigh braces and promote an easier transition out of the cockpit.
  5. Use Your Hands to Push Yourself Out – Once the knees are free from the cockpit, utilize your hands for assistance in escaping the cockpit. You should position your hands on the cockpit just beside your hips for maximum leverage during your push.
  6. Let the PFD Float You to the Surface – To finish, you don’t have to do any work at all. All you have to do is allow yourself to be pulled up by the PFD back to fresh air.

You can review the steps above in the video below:

The Kayak Roll 

The kayak roll is an alternative self-rescue technique to recover from a capsize in seconds. This self-rescue method takes time to learn, but it’s worthwhile for kayakers looking to challenge themselves with whitewater. After all, you may not always be able to control where your kayak goes in whitewater rapids following a wet exit.

The most beginner-friendly kayak roll variation is the c-to-c roll. To properly execute this kayak roll, follow the step-by-step guide below:

  • Position Your Paddle Parallel with the Kayak – When you’re underwater, the first order of business is to position your paddle in the set-up position. The paddle should be aligned parallel with kayak and the face of the front paddle blade should be aligned parallel with the water surface.
  • Lean Your Head Forward and Sideways (Toward the Paddle) – Whichever way you align your paddle, whether it be your left or right side, be sure to lean your head forward and laterally to that specific side. This way, your head is as close to the air as possible, allowing you to breathe in air a fraction of a second quicker than you would otherwise.
  • Swing Your Blade Out to 90 Degrees from Your Kayak – By positioning your paddle blade 90 degrees in relation to the kayak on the water surface, you set yourself up in a more powerful position for the hip snap, which is the next step.
  • Pull the Paddle Blade Downward and Snap Your Hips – These two movements are done simultaneously to flip the kayak back upright. Pulling the paddle blade downward into the water will offer you a base of support during the hip snap. Generating power through your hips by snapping them towards the surface is what “rolls” the kayak back to its normal, upright position.

For a visual representation of what this looks like, click on the video below.

There are other popular variations of kayak rolls, like the sweep roll, for instance. Each popular kayak roll variation will be an effective self-rescue method so long as you implement the proper technique.

To start, however, I recommend that you experiment with the c-to-c kayak roll. This type of kayak roll is broken down into simple, easy-to-follow steps. Other kayak roll variations consolidate multiple steps together into a few fluid movements.

Although this may be faster when done correctly, it’s a lot harder to learn as a paddling novice. In my opinion, it’s better to start with the basics and work your way up from there.

The Bottom Line

If you’re a recreational kayaker that wants to paddle in flat waters, I wouldn’t concern yourself with the possibility of being trapped in your kayak. Only extreme whitewater kayakers that deal with river hazards, such as sieves, should be wary of this danger.

If you’re still afraid of being stuck in your kayak even after reading this article, take the extra time to practice the proper self-rescue techniques explained above. Once you have these kayaking skills in your repertoire, you’ll feel considerably safer and more confident on the water.

Sources: 1 2 3

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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