The folly of the paddle float rescue for rough water

This is a great example of why we learn to eskimo roll. It takes about 2 seconds to complete the roll, then you are back up and on your way. This guy unwittingly also makes the case against the paddle float rescue. Even with proper training it can be challenging in textured conditions, if not downright impossible.

This guy is having difficulty with more htan a few details on the rescue.

  • First the paddle does not go ahead of the cockpit it goes behind.
  • He also can’t seem to get the paddle float attached properly.
  • He seems to get up and out of the water no problem. But he also manages to overbalance everytime by not keeping his body low or his weight on the paddle as he corkscrews.

Also note that this guy is in Alaska where I am sure the water is not warm. How quickly did he run out of strength to try? Check the time signature on the video, and you will see that he doesn’t last too long. Still think a paddle float rescue is a reliable rough water rescue skill?…

Frankly I would like to encourage every symposium to collectively agree to not to teach this skill unless they preface it with, This will only work on flat water close to shore.


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  2. If the article is asking whether or not a pfr is a false choice for a beginner, I would suggest that a beginner’s roll is also a false choice until proved otherwise in conditions. We don’t see what happened in the second video until after the kayaker is in the water. He’s wearing a drysuit and paddling a fiberglass kayak — gear that most beginners don’t own — maybe he knows how to roll, and it failed him. And just maybe, he knew he had the roll, so he didn’t bother practicing other solo rescue techniques.

    Paddle float in the surf: I’ve practiced it in surf for my job, but seriously, if you’re in surf, it’s probably much easier to swim the kayak in. It’s a fun exercise though.

    At any rate, I agree that rolling should be taught right away. It should be a primary skill. I don’t think that you’re saying to in exclusion to other techniques, but alongside other solo rescue techniques.

    For this summer: I leave on May 2nd. It’s coming up fast. (I shouldn’t be surfing the Internet. I should be training. :)) I have a resupply scheduled in Manistee on 06/20/09. So, I should be in South Haven a bit before that. I leave Illinois State Park Beach scheduled on 6/10, paddle around Chicago and then head up the east coast of Lake Michigan. The time frame will be in flux until I really know how fast I want to do this trip. I’ll drop you a note on Facebook in case you don’t see this

  3. I may be reading this late, but I am glad I am not the only one who is against paddle float re-entries, I have been on many different certification courses and argued with the instructors about the necessity to be able to use these as a rescue method.

    They do have their uses-

    1.stabilizing an unstable kayaker after an injury. -assisting kayaker on one side, paddle float on the other.

    2. breached segment. – hole in boat, fill paddlefloat, displace water from entering.

    3. added full to both ends of paddle, for AMERICAN GLADIATORS!!!!

  4. I have to vote with Scott on this one.

    I was on the water teaching the paddle float rescue a few years ago at Grand Marais. We had some time left over at the end of the session, so I decided to let people try R&Rs with the float. Every participant who tried the technique managed to get back in the boat with a re-entry and roll. I was amazed. In almost all cases it was easier for participants to R&R than it had been to do a PFR.

    Maybe we should be focusing on a paddle float R&R as an intro self-rescue. It could even be a stepping stone to a roll.

  5. No doubt that rolling should be taught as a primary skill for sea kayaking, but all the videos that you've shown only demonstrate that the people in the video couldn't do a paddle float rescue in the situations that they were in.

    I'm sure I could do a paddle float rescue in the conditions shown in both of the videos. I didn't have sound on for the second, but the conditions seemed pretty tame. Certainly more tame than some of the river mouths with swell and standing waves that I've practiced the paddle float rescue in.

    Skills are about practice, and even though I agree with you that rolling is faster, easier, and requires less energy, if someone practices a paddle float rescue in rough water enough, they'll develop the skill to use it in rough water.

    And skills, despite being practiced, can fail. If a student's roll fails, they should have several options to get back in the boat, because the ability to stay in or get back in the boat while on the water is empowering.

    • Brian:

      Thanks for your response.

      Yes the videos do demonstrate that the individuals could not perform a paddle float rescue in their specific conditions. The article is asking the question, is it a false choice for newer paddlers? The video(s) are merely demonstrating that the rescue is not necessarily a good choice for paddlers as a replacement/substitute for a roll. I feel from the symposiums I have attended and some of the other instruction I have witnessed that it the PFR) is being misrepresented as such. This misrepresentation ends up putting beginners at greater risk.

      I have some plans for shooting some video this spring that may illustrate the point even further. I would like to shoot some videos with friends on a number of subjects, including the paddle float rescue in surf. I think John Fleming volunteered to be my crash test dummy.

      And BTW what's the countdown on the number of days to your trip? Do you know the approximate week this summer you will be passing South Haven and Saugatuck area. I would love to get out to paddle with you from South Haven to Holland if you want some company.

  6. I haven't taught a paddle float rescue (without specifically being requested to) for at least 10 years. When I do teach it, I make very clear the limitations of the technique as well as show them a superior approach.

    The best use of a paddle float is for support during re-enter and roll. I have not yet had a student who was unable to roll with a paddle float assist but I have had many students who were unable to hoist themselves out of the water onto their deck for a paddle float rescue. Now, there are some who would argue that person should just carry a sling so they can step into it and use their leg strength to get onto their deck. More gear always equals more things to go wrong and significantly more time to execute.

    I am perfectly capable of doing a paddle float rescue in particularly nasty conditions but why would I? If there is a faster, more reliable, less prone to failure method, why bother with the unquestionably less effective paddle float rescue?

    I do carry a paddle float with me, but use it for the variety of purposes that Sharon pointed out. Among the most experienced coaches working 'on the sharp end' that I know; the paddle float rescue is dead and has been for quite some time.

    • Scott:

      I agree most of the good coaches I have worked with do not agree with the technique. In fact I remember most of our guest speakers at WMCKA approaching me and asking why we still taught it to beginners. But here we are still discussing it. I would like to make it happen.


    This poor guy was paddling solo to the Isle of Shoals (off NH coast). Water temps are still very low; his body has not been recovered. I'll never paddle solo until I have an effective roll.

  8. Such a divisive issue. We should organize, and we need a label, which has to be positive. I like "pro-rolling", as in "he has a blatant pro-rolling agenda". And we have to caste the other side in negative terms. (We can't call them "pro" anything). They have to be "anti" something. "Anti-rolling", "anti-skills", hmm…..

  9. Perhaps what this really serves to illustrate is that skills and judgment are what will save you, not gear. The kayak is a crazily sea-worthy vessel, but that sea-worthiness comes almost entirely from the paddler's skill.

    A paddle float will work in the middle of the North Sea, and it can fail there, just as a roll may fail there, or in close, calm waters. The key is practice, and judgment. Word?

    The guy in the video above did many things wrong from the outset. He didn't even do the wet exit right. That shows a need for training and practice, and had he those, the paddle float would be handily successful in this scenario, and would that have proved that they also work in rough water offshore? With enough practice, he may not have even needed the float, cowboying it back in, just as I have seen and done in breaking water.

    The need is for instruction, awareness, and a dose of reality. We had a guy in the pool the other night who tried, for the first time in years of paddling happily, a wet exit and paddle float. He was in a 3' deep heated indoor pool, but his physical ability was simply not there to pull himself onto the back deck, period. And he could touch bottom. He got a dose of reality, he thought it'd be easy. Perhaps he'll modify his paddling venues until his skills catch up, maybe not.

    People will choose their paths, and at the most if we can aid them on that journey as we were aided, that is about what we can do. Some will be motivated to roll early, some never. It is easy to look from where we sit and say that so and so needs to learn to roll, because we are on the rolling side of the fence. We know, we've been there. It is something we are fixated on because we know how it has aided us. I think taking the rolling gospel to the masses will require some dipolomacy and meeting them on their terms. Ya gotta serve the appetizers before the main meal, even if you know it's a delicious juicy roast to die for…

    Yes, I am procrastinating from some work today… : )

  10. Thank you, Keith! We've grown increasingly discouraged about the utility of the paddle float reentry, which has long been considered one of the first self-rescues to teach beginners. Truth is, anyone agile enough to accomplish it usually can get into their boat more quickly with a cowboy reentry, and then they don't have that dang paddle float stuck to the end of their paddle.

    Paddle floats have a host of other uses. They can displace water in leaky bulkheads, function as sponsons, take the place of broken back bands, be swung overhead as signaling devices, and be used as toys. Patty Pape has given a talk called "101 Uses for a Paddle Float" at WMCKA each year. So maybe we should reduce it to 100….

  11. Don't know if this further demonstrates my point or not, but have a look!

  12. I took a rescue class last year. For self-rescue the instructor went through an explanation of paddle-float, going cowboy up from the stern, then said if you have a good roll the easiest thing is re-enter the boat upside down then roll it up.

    WHen taking a (some number of stars) certification test the tester noted he hadn't brought a paddlefloat so would likely fail the self-rescue. When the time came it was wavy. He did re-enter and roll and ended up having to rescue the tester who was having trouble with the paddle-float method.

  13. Well, clearly the title of this little film is just an utterly irrelevant sop to a pro-rolling agenda. Just because some random schmoe doesn't know how to do a paddle float rescue doesn't prove a single point about anything – except for the need for competent instruction. This vid has absolutely nothing to do with the potential rough water effectiveness of a paddle float rescue.

    And then to claim, of the paddle float rescue, that "This will only work on flat water close to shore" is similarly ludicrous and self serving. Glaringly, what if the subject were in dead calm water, but miles from shore? Would he be prevented from achieving a paddle float rescue by some supernatural force, or what? If this same schmoe were failing in an attempt to roll, as he likely would, would you then use it as proof to say that rolling will only work in calm water near to shore?

    Rough water will certainly make a paddle float rescue more difficult, and sometimes impossible, but the exact same holds true for rolls. It's all about competent instruction, practice for the conditions, practical experience and personal ability.

    That being said, I agree that more emphasis should be placed on learning to roll among sea kayaker.

    • David,

      Thanks for your response.

      I am not making any money or taking any endorsements from anyone. So I am a bit confused about your statements direct at me being self-serving. All I get from any of my paddling experiences is just that, experience. Being ludicrous. Well I can take that on the chin. I don't know you personally, and if you did know me, you would be well within your rights to make that claim.

      I think my point, which this post, and several others I have made recently may help to illustrate is that there are quite a number of false assumptions and half-baked ideas in sea kayaking about how and what we teach to new paddlers.

      Not having met you at any of the symposiums I have been to I don't know if you coach or do not. But many of the symposiums where I instruct, (Wawa excluded) seem to feel that a paddle float rescue is a replacement for an eskimo roll. We are required to teach it in classes. And it has been ingrained into the curriculum to the point that it seems to me a few of us have to start calling BS! It is not entirely the paddle float rescue I take issue with. It is the belief that we are giving them something to work with as a viable rescue option that really is not.

      Whether this is a pro-rolling agenda or not is a moot point. Yes it is a pro-rolling agenda. And this is where you and I clearly agree. It is an issue of competent instruction.

      I feel that offering a student a paddle float rescue for anything other than flat water close to shore is bad instruction, bad coaching, and somewhat fraudulent.

      The video I think illustrates both points, bad/no instruction and the false assumption that it is a good choice for rough water.


  14. Maybe we should infiltrate symposiums from the ground up, teaching paddle-float rescues in bumpy water – it wouldn't take much weather to do the trick. It might help to convert potential "rolling skeptics". :^)

    I remember somebody first explaining how to do a paddle-float rescue. It looked like a great idea at the time. I thought I would try it out for the first time, alone, on Lake MI in small waves. I was a little shocked that (1) it sucked so badly and (2) how easy it was to f*ck up my paddle shaft trying to get back in. (I had to lean on it pretty hard to avoid getting tipped over by the waves.) I finally got back in after several attempts, much colder, and super-motivated to learn how to roll. All in all, it was probably a very good experience to have!

  15. Megan, thanks for the comment.

    While this technique may sometimes work in rough water, I think the success or failure of this particular technique ends up cloaking the bigger issue. Developing a reliable roll.

    In the minds of some students, they may begin to see a paddle float rescue as a viable option for a rough water experience and may consequently take risks that perhaps they wouldn’t have normally.

    Even with a reliable roll, the roll shouldn’t impede your risk calculations. Your roll may fail in cold rough water and you may have to rely on others, or god forbid, a paddle float…

  16. We have practiced paddle float rescues out in the big waves at the mouth of the river for that very reason. What is the point in practicing on flat water if you are going to use it in rough conditions? I have to say that it worked fine. I got a bit sea sick though. Key thing is one point of contact on paddle float at all times and take a minute to secure float onto paddle- once it's off- it's gone.