CAPSIZE and WET EXIT FEAR – how much support should I offer?Veronica Steane.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Author and the Tasmanian Sea Canoe Club.

Avoidance of capsize in a kayak is normal and self protective. For some people, throwing themselves into a capsize, and wet exiting the boat, is a major difficulty. Fear of being trapped, unable to get out of the capsized boat, and unable to reach air, can be a big part of the problem. Fear of capsize and wet exit blocks learning of all subsequent skills that we need to be safe and mutually supportive paddlers. The first thing new paddlers need to learn is how to exit a capsized boat calmly and safely.
On the TSCC Introduction Days that I have been involved in, we practise a dry run of releasing spray decks and pushing out of the boat on the beach, checked by an experienced paddler, before launching. We also demonstrate a dry run of assisted rescue should an unexpected capsize occur. Unless a participant is clearly nervous and needs extra support of a supervised capsize in shallow water prior to a deep water capsize, we assume that everyone will be able to bail out and resurface successfully – and are always relieved when each paddler surfaces safely after their first capsize. We work through everything else we have to cover, and save capsize and rescues till the end of the session, so everyone can stay dry and avoid wind chill on wet clothing. Part of my risk management of the day is to hold it in calm water, sheltered from wind, with a ratio of one experienced to about three unknown paddlers, so we have a good chance of giving assistance quickly. However I have been rethinking this over recent weeks, and facing more squarely to the risk of under water inhalation. I now quiz new members on their capsize and underwater confidence, and if they have any doubts about their ability to wet exit safely and easily, I am offering they come an hour early and we will go through the process in a graded and supported way. They can bring a full change of gear so they start the main Intro session warm and dry again; and confident of safe wet exit.
The wet exit procedure is actually very simple and easy, but you need to know what to do, and it is not intuitive. There is a small risk, but a risk with dreadful consequences, that in the event of an unexpected or fearful capsize, the person can panic and inhale water. They can come to the surface conscious and able to speak, and be dead within a few minutes. Jean has pointed the club to an article in Sea Kayaker Magazine Dec 2004 pp 42-45, titled “The Loss of a Novice”, written by Charles Sutherland. This article analyses the death of a novice paddler, who capsized unintentionally in water of 14.5°C, failed to wet exit. The instructor got him to the surface, he was able to speak at that stage, but with lungs full of water drowned before effective help could be given. He had practised a dry run of wet exit on the beach three hours beforehand. The writer recommended that novice paddlers practise several wet exits under close supervision, without spray skirts, before going on a paddle. He advises new paddlers paddle without spray skirts until they are both confident and competent with their wet exit.
Marine and Safety Tasmania (MAST) have published a booklet “Tassie’s BoatWise Buddy”, also advising of the risk of water inhalation on capsize. It is more likely to happen in waters below 15°C. Our waters vary from 8°C in winter to 20°C in summer.
So the time has come to try a wet exit…You need to think clearly in the situation. It is much simpler than the length of the following “Do It Yourself” description suggests.
A graded fear reduction session can include the following steps, starting off on a beach with a safe gently graded sandy bottom with good visibility through the water. Find a knowledgeable partner to work with; to support, problem solve and learn together.

  • On land, sit in the kayak, and practise the correct bail out movement, which is: place your hands either side of the cockpit beside your hips, push up and forwards, lifting your bottom off the seat, and imagine continuing that forward movement to unthread you legs from inside the boat. Repeat that movement holding the paddle in one hand whilst pushing up.
  • Still on land, fasten the spray deck, practise running your hands around the coaming of the cockpit till they reach the pull tab. Get into the habit of pulling the tab forwards to clear the cockpit rim – some decks are loose enough to release with a pull back towards you, but a tight deck needs this forwards pull to be sure of clearing the rim. Do this with two hands, then your dominant hand, then your non dominant hand. Follow deck release with step 1 to drill the routine. Remember to clear the back edge of your spray deck from the cockpit rim behind you if it tends to hold on there. Repeat with your eyes shut, relying on the rim to guide your hand to the release tab. Repeat keeping hold of your paddle in one hand.

Later on, it is good for everyone to learn how to release the spray deck without using the pull tab, in case it fails one day. The deck is tightest at the ends, and most relaxed on the long sides of the cockpit. Use the palm / heel of your hand to push a fold in the deck, from your lap to the side edge, then grasp that loosened fabric and release it from the side combing. Work the whole deck free from that opening.


  • Dressed in canoeing gear, leaving your boat on land for this step, go for a swim with a companion. Splash your face, duck under the surface, while sitting or standing on the bottom. Stay under and count off seconds in your head – “one and two and three and”… Determine what time limit you have for holding your breath under water. This helps clarify your “time window” in a capsize situation. Often it helps to start off wearing goggles or a mask so you can see what is happening around you, and maybe avoid getting water in your nose initially.
  • Still in safe fully controlled conditions, standing in the water: Have the capsized canoe beside you. Grasp the cockpit on either side; put your head under water and into the seat space. Discover the pocket of air there. Breath there, develop an awareness of the upside down kayak floating, your independence of it, and the buoyant support it offers to a swimmer. Come up to the surface when you need to, holding onto your kayak either by the deck-lines or the cockpit rim.
  • Sit in the kayak, launched on the water, still with standby assistance and feeling in safe controlled conditions. Don’t fasten the spray deck yet. Mentally rehearse the bail out procedure of step 1. Then tip yourself into the water and bail out calmly, knowing your time window. Hands beside hips, pushing away from the seat and forwards, allowing your legs to follow you comfortably. (Skinned or bruised shins are a sign of too fast an exit attempt – slow down, you have plenty of time!) Come to the surface, breath, hold onto your boat by deck-line or cockpit coaming, be aware it supports you, and develop confidence that you are in control, and your kayak is your friend. Again, you may feel better doing this with mask or goggles until confident that you can do it without having to see what you are doing.
    If the capsized person shows signs of panicked thrashing around under water, or of no movement, the helper must immediately retrieve them by reaching over the hull, grabbing the far cockpit combing or deckline, and use their weight to haul the kayak upright.
  • Do this a few more times, introducing time delays before bailing out. Hang upside down for a few counts before exiting in a controlled manner. Repeat, giving yourself a task while hanging in the upside down kayak, that demonstrates you can control your mind in that situation – for example reach your hands up onto the hull, and tap out a rhythm or short tune, before placing your hands beside your hips and pushing away and forwards, bailing out calmly. Other ideas for mind control tasks include: twist around in your seat and tap the boat behind with your left hand, then same to the right; have your helper show a number of fingers under water, and reply showing the same pattern to the helper, before bailing out.
  • Once comfortable with that, fasten your spray deck. Before capsizing, rehearse step 2 till you are fully confident you can release the deck under water. Repeat steps 5 and 6 till confident. Then add the paddle – hold it in one hand while releasing the deck, and while pushing up and out, coming to the surface holding onto kayak and paddle.

Thanks to Peter Dingle especially for much discussion and advice on this topic. Peter is a professional sea kayak instructor, and member of the Victorian Sea Kayak Club. Also thanking Karoline Dingle, and TSCC members Jean Jackson, Allen Lee, Bette Roberts, Terry Sykes, Bill Reynolds, Mike Emery and Greg Simson for input into these ideas.

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