How to Perform A Whitewater Kayaking Self-Rescue

How to Perform A Whitewater Kayaking Self-Rescue

At one time or another, every kayaker will capsize. This is simply a part of the sport. If you’re well-prepared for it, flipping over is no big deal. But if you’re not prepared, it can potentially be very dangerous.

We cannot stress enough how important it is to have mastered the techniques to release yourself safely from a capsized kayak, especially when out on the water alone. So, in this guide, we’re going to tell you exactly how you can prepare for this inevitable situation and what to do when you’re in it.

Please, before you go whitewater kayaking, be sure you’ve become comfortable learning how to kayak on calm water first. No beginners should hit the rapids before perfecting paddling on still water like rivers or lakes.

Have A Plan Before You Capsize

You never know what can happen when you’re out on the water. The possibility of getting being tossed around in rough whitewater or being flipped over by a large wave is very real.

Undoubtedly the most important thing to do while kayaking is to wear a personal floatation device. Regardless of what type of kayaking you’ll be doing or how good of a swimmer you may be, it’s crucial that every kayaker wear one at all times while out on the water.

Here are a few other things you can do to prepare for the day you capsize.

  • Before going out on the water, while you’re still on the shore, practice attaching the paddle float to the paddle blade so that you know how to do so if and when you capsize. Also, make sure that the spray skirt grab loop is outside of the cockpit and the coaming and in front of you.
  • Before you launch, double check that your paddle float is securely stowed underneath the deck lines in front of the cockpit or in another spot that you can easily access.
  • While on the water, if you feel your boat rolling over, perform a brace stroke to try to prevent the kayak from flipping over.

First Steps After Capsizing

If your last brace stroke didn’t successfully prevent you from capsizing and you’ve now capsized, remain calm and follow these steps to release yourself safely from the kayak.

Step 1: Perform a Wet Exit

Immediately after capsizing, the first thing you’re going to do is perform a wet exit. This is the technique that will detach you from the cockpit while submerged underwater. If possible, try to hold on to your paddle, but don’t stress too much if you lose it, you can retrieve it after you’ve safely detached yourself from the boat.

How to Do a Wet Exit

  1. Lean your body forward as close to the deck as possible. Your body should be in a tucked position.
  2. Once in the tucked position, reach for your spray skirt’s grab loop. This is usually at the front end of the cockpit coaming. If you have trouble finding it, run your hands along the edge of the skirt toward the front of the coaming and locate the base of the grab loop. If you’ve managed to hold on to your paddle, do this with your free hand.
  3. Once you have a hold on your grab loop, pull on it to release the spray skirt.
  4. Then, place your hands on the side of the cockpit coaming near your hips and bring your knees together to disengage them from the thigh braces.
  5. Once the spray skirt is off of the coaming, push yourself out of the cockpit.

Step 2: Reach for and Attach Your Paddle Float

Once you’ve successfully completed a wet exit and have detached yourself from the cockpit, the next step is to attach the paddle float to your paddle. Do so just as you practiced on shore.

Step 3: Flip Over Your Kayak

After you’ve attached your float onto your paddle, the next step is to flip your kayak back over so that you can re-enter the boat.

How to Flip Over Your Kayak

  1. Reach under the cockpit and grab the far edge of its coaming.
  2. Pull that edge towards you while at the same time using your other hand to push the hull up and away from you.
  3. After doing so, the kayak should flip over back to its upright position.

Step 4: Getting Back Into Your Kayak

After you flip your kayak upright, the next step is to re-enter it. This is usually the most difficult part of capsizing.

How to Get Back Into Your Kayak

  1.  Position your body facing the boat on the stern side of the paddle shaft.
  2. With one hand, firmly hold onto the shaft. Place your other hand on the boat.
  3. Kick both legs and pull yourself onto the boat so that your chest is laying across the deck behind the cockpit.  You can use your paddle shaft if you need the extra support.
  4. Pivot your body and bring your legs into the cockpit backwards. Hold on to your paddle while doing to so to maintain stability.
  5. Then, carefully and slowly turn your body around and slide back into the seat.


When kayaking, the better prepared you are for capsizing, the easier it will be to rescue yourself. We understand that the thought of being trapped in your cockpit underwater after capsizing is scary for everyone, regardless of that person’s experience level. But when in a situation like this, you need to try to remain calm. The calmer you are, the easier it will be to safely detach yourself from the boat.

Bryan Anderson
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