I'm always amused by new kayak or canoe paddlers who proudly proclaim they've never
"turned turtle" or capsized their boat. As a boat designer, builder and paddler for more than 50 years I've turned over thousands of times. Some turnovers were planned, most were not. As a long distance explorer and marathon paddler I often paddle in adverse conditions. I make mistakes, have been caught on the water in unexpected squalls, and sometimes just catch the blade of a paddle the wrong way. You will turn over if you paddle long enough and far enough. This is why you need to learn how to capsize.
Rolling a kayak is flashy and impressive, great for demonstrations of paddling (rolling) skill but is of limited use for the average paddler. You generally need deep, calm water with no obstructions. Sure, there are exceptions, but most paddlers will never paddle a boat that can roll. Some kayak purists will get blue in the face, but the truth is only some people can roll some kayaks under some conditions-and that about sums it up. I can roll a couple of my kayaks, but certainly not a marathon boat. If I managed to stay in a marathon boat while upside down I'd knock my head on stumps or rocks or get caught in a stainer and drown. Most general purpose and recreational boats can't be rolled either. So what do we do in boat that can't be rolled?
Capsize and bail. It's that simple. A capsize can be part of the paddling experience, a minor irritant, or a major catastrophe. Bailing simply means how you exit the boat and removing water when necessary. How do you control your capsize experience?
Practice capsizing. As a boat designer and builder I regularly test the limits of small boats. As a marathon paddler I paddle in unusual conditions. As a recreational paddler I paddle for fun. In all cases I turn over. The first thing new paddlers should do is understand the limits of their craft. Practice in protected shallow water, but make sure it's deep enough not to hit your head on the bottom. Lean the boat till it flips. Understand the best way to exit the boat. Learn how it feels to turn over. Embrace the experience. Never be surprised. Even after more than 50 years of paddling I regularly practice turning over.
Some people use a paddle leash to avoid losing the paddle. I don't like the leash wrapping around my arm, leg, or neck. This is purely a personal preference. I rarely loose the paddle anyway. As you practice paddling and turning over you'll learn how to load the boat so accessories don't float away. If I turn over in a marathon race I do nothing more than get to shore, flip the boat to empty water, jump back in and take off. Nothing is loose so nothing floats away and nothing drops out. I load my fishing boats the same way. It's irritating to chase down floating objects. Worse are objects that don't float.
Practice deep water entry while in shallow water. There may be times you're far from shore. In this case you may want to climb back into the boat. Practice until you can do it easily. Learn what you can and can not do. Exceed your limits in practice so you never exceed them in real life.
Personal flotation devices (PFDs) are safety devices. I always have a PFD with me. I wear a PFD in open water, treacherous conditions, at night, and when I'm tired. I don't wear a PFD in races or on smaller, shallower rivers, or close to shore. I practice putting on a PFD while in the boat and after capsizing. I wear a PFD more as I get older. Wearing a PFD is always recommended, but don't assume a PFD is all you need to be safe. The greatest safety device is knowledge and experience. Have fun, be safe.
Gerald is an avid outdoor sportsman who travels by land and water through mountain forests, rocky foothills and shifting sand dunes. In his spare time he designs and builds wood composite kayaks, canoes and paddles. He still competes in selected marathon races and paddles thousands of miles every year.