Performing rescues with a skin-on-frame kayak
by Helen Wilson
photos by Bryant Burkhardt
Performing a rescue in any type of kayak can be challenging, and a skin-on-frame kayak can present additional complications. These kayaks consist of a series of wooden ribs that make up the frame and a nylon or canvas skin that wraps around the frame. Skin-on-frame kayaks do not have bulkheads and, as is the case with many Greenland kayaks, can be very low volume.
Most modern sea kayaks have bulkheads that create enclosed pockets of air to provide flotation in the event of a flooded cockpit. The bulkhead behind the cockpit also serves as a wall to make it easy to pour water out of the kayak during assisted rescues.
Skin-on-frame kayaks lack bulkheads, so in the event of a wet exit, the kayak floods from the bow to the stern. It is for this reason that standard rescues, such as the T-Rescue, cannot be performed. Special techniques are needed to empty the kayak and flotation needs to be added to compensate for the lack of bulkheads. Without flotation, the kayak will sink when you put your weight on it.
A challenge that can arise is that manufactured float bags are often the wrong size or shape for homemade skin-on-frame kayaks. Although manufactured float bags, or even paddle floats, can be used, they certainly aren’t ideal. (For making custom float bags, see “Float Bags,” SK, June ‘02.)
If you use float bags, make sure that they are pushed deep into the frame of the kayak before inflating. The inflation tubes can be run under the ribs to keep them out of the way and to hold the bags in place. In warm weather, the bags will expand, so it is best to release some air when not in use. Before launching, inflate the bags so that they are tight in the bow and stern. If inflated properly, they will grip to the ribs and seal securely between the hull and deck.
Another option is to pack pool noodles into the bow and stern of the kayak. If shaped and packed tightly enough, the pool noodles will stay in place and provide adequate flotation to keep the kayak afloat.
Here we will look at both assisted and unassisted skin-on-frame rescues, when they work and when they don’t.
There are a couple of options for self-rescues in a skin-on-frame kayak. The first is a paddle-float reentry and the second is a reenter and roll. Although these self-rescues are similar to how they are performed in a kayak with bulkheads, there are some differences.
After capsizing and exiting the kayak, prepare for a paddle-float reentry by keeping the kayak upside down to prevent additional water from flooding into the cockpit. It is important to remain in contact with the kayak, and a good way to do so is to leave a leg hooked in the cockpit while you float on your back. Place a paddle float on one end of the paddle and inflate it tight enough to stay in place. Then place a second paddle float on the other end of the paddle and inflate that as well. (Self-rescues in skin-on-frame kayaks are easier with two paddle floats because entering a low-volume kayak with a small cockpit requires more balance than with the longer cockpits typically found on manufactured kayaks. The person entering will need to inch into the kayak from a sitting position on the back deck with both legs straight and entering at the same time.)
Place the paddle perpendicular to the kayak behind the cockpit coaming. Kick your legs and slither belly-down onto the back deck. Keep the paddle in place and inch forward until you are directly behind your paddle. Sit up, keeping one leg in the water on each side of the kayak for stability, and move the paddle so that it is behind you. Grip it on both sides so that your hands are placed slightly wider than the back deck. Using the stability provided by the paddle floats, work your way into the kayak by placing your feet in the cockpit and scooting forward until you can drop into the seat.
Once in the kayak, put the paddle close to your waist and lean slightly forward to hold it in place. This will give you support while you pump the water out of the kayak. In rough water, or with a very low-volume kayak, you may need to seal the spray skirt first to prevent water from splashing into the cockpit. Lean on the paddle while you get the skirt secured on the aft end of the coaming. To finish getting the skirt on, keep leaning forward or rest your arms on the paddle. To pump, you can peel back a side of the spray skirt or slip the pump down the spray skirt’s body tube.
When the kayak is clear of water and your spray skirt is secured, carefully deflate the paddle floats and put them away, or attach them to a deck line and put them away once stable.
A second option for a self-rescue is a reenter and roll with or without a paddle float. After capsizing, keep the kayak upside down with one leg hooked in the cockpit to prevent it from drifting away. If using a paddle float, float on your back, inflate it and put it on one end of the paddle. Hold the paddle parallel to the side of the kayak with the paddle float bow-side. Grab the cockpit coaming on both sides with the paddle trapped under your arm. Inch your way into the upside-down kayak as much as you can while your face is on the surface. The kayak may float on its side while you are doing this; however, the more upside down it remains, the less water will enter.
Once you have gone as far as possible with your face on the surface, take a deep breath and commit, pulling your lower body into the kayak until you are in an upside-down seated position. Hold the paddle with your palms facing up, parallel to the side of the kayak. Sweep the paddle out to the side in a wide arc, applying upward pressure to the recovery side knee. Keep your head floppy with your chin in the air and slide onto the back deck. Once stable, sit upright, place the paddle in front of your waist and perpendicular to the kayak. Lean forward to hold the paddle in place with your waist and lean very slightly toward the paddle float for additional stability. The paddle float provides a stable outrigger while you pump the water out of the kayak as long as you keep your weight on the paddle. If water is splashing into the kayak, seal the spray skirt first and peel back a corner to pump, or pump down the spray skirt’s body tube. Once the kayak is empty, put the paddle float inside or under a deck line, and seal the spray skirt.
When performing an assisted rescue in a skin-on-frame kayak, both the rescuer and the person in the water (the rescuee) play an active and important role. To begin, the rescuer moves the kayaks so that they are parallel to one another. Meanwhile, the rescuee carefully moves to the open side of the rescuer’s kayak, making sure to keep contact with one of the kayaks and their paddle the entire time.
The rescuer places the rescuee’s kayak on its side with the cockpit facing toward him and begins to pour the water out. As the kayak becomes lighter, the rescuer hooks his arm into the cockpit and begins a slow curl. This can be a slow process, and the rescuee leans over the rescuer’s kayak to assist in keeping the unoccupied kayak level to prevent water from flowing into the bow or stern. Once the kayak is relatively empty, the rescuee moves to the front of the rescuer’s kayak. A stable position for the rescuee is to float on her back with her legs and arms wrapped around the bow of the rescuer’s kayak. While in this position, the rescuer moves the empty kayak across his cockpit so that the kayaks are in an X configuration, as in the venerable T-X rescue. The kayak is turned upside down and rocked back and forth to remove any excess water.
Once empty, the rescuer turns the kayak the right way up, keeping the kayaks in the X position and places the rescuee’s cockpit slightly forward of his own cockpit. The kayaks are very stable in this position, as the empty kayak acts as a huge outrigger. Instead of sliding the emptied kayak back in the water, as was done in the T-X rescue, the kayak remains on the rescuer’s deck. The rescuee climbs the bow of the rescuer’s kayak. It is most stable to do this with one leg on each side of the kayak with the legs in the water. The rescuee slithers forward on her stomach until she is close to the empty cockpit and able to sit up on the rescuer’s foredeck. The rescuer takes the rescuee’s paddle, allowing the rescuee more dexterity to move her feet behind her and to get on her knees on the rescuer’s front deck and then onto the back deck of her kayak. She can then enter the kayak, seal in and take back her paddle before the rescuer gently pushes her bow-first into the water.
A word of caution
After taking pictures for this article of both assisted and unassisted rescues in flat water, we decided to perform the same rescues in more dynamic conditions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), wind that day in Trinidad, California, was predicted at 10 knots, with wind waves of four to six feet and a west swell of four feet at six seconds. We paddled to the back of Trinidad Head to a popular play spot called “Smack Wall,” located about a mile from the beach. This spot is known for its blowhole and reflected waves, and we hoped that these waves would create some chop for the rescues.
Michael Morris and I, with Bryant Burkhardt taking pictures, performed an assisted rescue and were happy to discover that it worked, and worked well. We both agreed that the same rescue could successfully be performed in much larger conditions, since we faced no immediate challenges. What we discovered later, though, was that the antler deck fittings attached to the deck lines on the front of Michael’s kayak had put three one- to two-inch rips in the bottom of my kayak as it was dragged across his deck.
Not knowing about the rips in the kayak, I attempted a self-rescue in the same dynamic conditions and it soon became apparent that I was not going to be able to get the water out of the kayak. The cockpit had gone underwater, so no amount of pumping would help because if I pulled back the edge of my spray skirt a bit to put a pump in, water would pour in around the pump. The kayak had fully inflated airbags in both the bow and stern, so it wasn’t going to sink, although I would not be able to empty it alone. I wet exited so that we could empty the kayak and Michael came in for an assisted rescue. Bryant noticed the holes in the bottom of the kayak when Michael pulled it across his deck. We performed an assisted rescue to get me back aboard, knowing that the holes in the hull would soon swamp my kayak again. It only took seconds before it was once again barely afloat.
The beach was a mile away, and we tossed around ideas about how to handle the situation. Michael could raft up with me and Bryant could tow both of us to the harbor. Once there, Michael could possibly patch the holes with duct tape. Instead I opted to paddle the swamped kayak to shore. During the one-mile paddle I had to throw in several strong braces, and if I slowed down the kayak would lose stability and fall over. Considering the circumstances, travel speed for that mile was surprisingly quick. At one point I tried holding on to the back of Michael’s kayak for a contact tow, but keeping the bow of the flooded kayak lined up with the bow of his kayak required core strength that I didn’t have, so I opted to just keep paddling. We made it to shore safely and decided to head out the following day with a different skin-on-frame kayak to try the self-rescues again.
The next day had little to no wind, the swell had increased to 10 to 12 feet at 11 seconds and the wind waves had diminished to less than a foot. We went to the same place, the “Smack Wall,” and I capsized and prepared to get myself back in the kayak. As I climbed onto the back deck using the same method that had worked well in flat water, I watched as the waves filled the cockpit and it gradually sank under the surface. I realized that, once again, I would not be able to empty it myself.
I also attempted a reenter and roll with a paddle float and was successful, but the same problem presented itself, the cockpit was flooded and had submerged below the surface. Michael and I performed an assisted rescue, being careful not to scrape the bottom of my kayak on his deck fittings.
For me, the sinking kayak was a scary realization. In conditions where waves are entering the cockpit, I am not able to remove the water from the kayak to perform a full self-rescue. The good news, though, is that with adequate flotation provided by airbags, a skin-on-frame kayak can be paddled fully flooded but with severe limitations.
The lesson, I think, is that it is important to remember that things can go wrong in any type of kayak and with any type of gear. It is important to practice rescues in all types of kayaks to see what works and what doesn’t and to have a dependable roll. Airbags in a skin-on-frame are very important, because even though my kayak flooded, I was still able to paddle it. Without the airbags, the kayak would have been lost to the bottom of the ocean. Airbags should be checked before every paddle to make sure that they have sufficient air. It is of course safer to paddle with others, and without a strong roll and good bracing skills, it is probably best to not take a skin-on-frame kayak out alone.
Helen Wilson is a professional sea kayaker who lives in Arcata, CA. She instructs and performs rolling demonstrations and presentations worldwide. Helen competed in the 2008 and 2010 Greenland National Kayaking Championships, and she and her husband Mark Tozer returned to Greenland in 2012 to guide an expedition on the east coast. She has a DVD, Simplifying the Roll with Helen Wilson. Helen is also a certified yoga instructor, specializing in Vinyasa Flow. She and Mark have a second DVD coming out in May called Yoga for Outdoor People. For more information, visit www.greenlandorbust.org. For photo sequences of the rolls described in this article, you can subscribe or order the February 2013 back issue.