Twice last summer, my sweetheart, Marilyn, and I found ourselves out paddling our sea kayaks in conditions that were less than optimum. High winds and tall, steep, closely spaced waves made paddling interesting.
Both times, we were in kayaks we knew well, we were wearing top-quality PFDs, and we had trained, experienced guides with us. So, we were never in any real danger. But, we could easily have found ourselves in the water and needing to somehow get back into our boats.
There are a number of different ways to deal with a flipped kayak. Ideal is rolling it back upright, but that's not possible in every boat, and not all of us have the skill to do it at all, let alone every time. So it's best to have a back-up plan, and the equipment and skills you need to get a flipped kayak upright and yourself into it. These skills are not that difficult to master -- but it's wise to practice beforehand in a place where you aren't in trouble if you fail.
The best way to learn self-rescue and re-entry techniques is to take a class, preferably with an instructor certified by the American Canoe Association (americancanoe.org). Its clinic listings are broken down by date, not location, so you can't easily find one near you. Instead, your best bet is to contact your nearest kayak shop. Chances are, it either offers or knows of rescue and re-entry courses nearby.
There are dozens kayak rescue and re-entry videos on the Web, some great, some pretty awful. A couple of the better ones I've found are youtube.com/watch?v=N9qtEJOCqOw and youtube.com/watch?v=e98E3FgSxfM. And, if you want to see why you need to practice: youtube.com/watch?v=ewQdgZ2tg-Y.
If you spend some time watching these and other videos, you begin to get a sense of what you need to know to proceed if you find yourself unexpectedly in the water.
You'll also see why it's absolutely imperative to have your PFD on at all the times when you are paddling in a kayak. Watch these re-entries and imagine you have to first get your PFD out of the boat (if it didn't float away when you tipped) and get it on.
If you can't find a clinic where and when you want it, you can still make your paddle adventures safer by first watching the videos, then learning and practicing on your own. I'd strongly recommend doing this with a "buddy" and pick some place with shallow, calm water, and no wind to start.
There are two real upsides to practicing self-rescue and re-entry. One is, of course, that you are setting yourself up to be safer while paddling, so you can paddle more and have more fun. The second is, on a hot summer day, practicing kayaking skills is a great excuse to get yourself out on and into the water, so you stay cool and, again, have more fun. Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
The first thing you'll need to practice is a "wet exit," getting yourself out of the boat when it's upside-down. This is simple in most recreational kayaks, but more difficult in kayaks with smaller cockpits or when you are wearing a spray skirt. Make sure you have someone standing right next to you to help the first time. Here's a video that shows the progression youtube.com/watch?v= kvX0e1 HaHSk, and one that shows in more detail what to do underwater: youtube.com/ watch?v=DalK4uBOTRo.
What you'll need
Besides your kayak, paddle and PFD, you are going to need a paddle float and a pump (to remove the water from your boat once you are back in). Those are the basics and should be snapped into your deck rigging where you can reach them easily every time you paddle. The videos show you how to use them.
If your upper body isn't strong enough to haul yourself back into your kayak, you are also going to want a rescue sling, which is simply a loop made of 13-feet (a length that works for most kayaks) of floating rope or webbing. This makes a "stirrup" so your leg strength can help get you back into your boat.
One of the things you'll find out the first time you tip your boat over is how well it floats when it's full of water. Some of today's "dime store" kayaks are simply empty tubs that barely float at all -- you can't pump them out if the cockpit stays submerged with the boat upright and you in it. For those, you need float bags which inflate to provide air space that floats the boat higher in the water when it capsizes. Without float bags, these boats are extremely dangerous. Best to find out before you are in real trouble.
When you and your friend are out practicing solo re-entries, you can also practice assisted rescues. Again, there are many great videos on the Web. Here's one I like: youtube.com/watch?v=tYieR0PX9nA.