Can a Kayak Sink? Kayak Safety Guide

A watertight vessel is important when boating, and your kayak seems plenty watertight to you. As you paddle through the water, navigating either alone or with a partner, you spot another kayak on the water that’s capsized. Could that kayak sink?

Kayaks can sink as they fill with water, usually from a leak. If you’re in a sit-on-top kayak, the chances of it sinking are lower than a sit-in kayak but are never zero. The best way to prevent a kayak from sinking is to use a spray skirt.

If you’re curious about the logistics of a kayak sinking, this is the article for you. Ahead, we’ll explain how a kayak can sink, what you should do if yours begins to go underwater, and how to prevent sinking. We’ve also got a lot of great kayaking safety tips to share. You won’t want to miss it! 

Do Kayaks Sink? How?

If an unsinkable boat existed, everyone would use it. Despite how some boats are marketed, any boat can sink. Certain boat styles are a lot less likely to fill with water than others, such as pontoon boats (and, to some extent, kayaks) but they can sink, nevertheless.

How does this happen? There are many scenarios in which sinking can occur, so let’s go over them now.

Boat Tipping

A kayak should always remain flat and level on the water, but if you’re still getting the hang of using your paddles or this is your first time tandem kayaking, you could possibly tip one end of the kayak up into the air. 

At that angle, the other end of the kayak is undoubtedly in the water or very close to entering the water. When that happens, water will rush in and fill that half of the boat. Even if you right the angle of your kayak from that point, the water is still in there.

Water adds weight to your boat, which will increase its chances of sinking. 

Severe Inclement Water

You’re not supposed to go boating in bad weather. Sometimes though, the forecast calls for a sunny and clear day and you’re greeted by a sudden and unexpected storm.

If you find yourself in a scenario where you and your fellow kayakers are being pelted with heavy rains and you don’t immediately try to get to shore, then the rain could theoretically fill the cockpit of the boat. You’d probably begin sinking shortly thereafter. 


We talked before about how you could accidentally tilt your boat into the water. Besides that, if you’re not paddling properly, you could be splashing water into your kayak each time your blade enters the water. 

If you’re kayaking for long enough, the cockpit can become full. 

Choppy Waters

Ocean kayaking and whitewater kayaking are very attractive activities to thrill-seekers. One of the inherent risks of these activities is that a sudden wave can crash into your boat and fill it with water. The force of a wave could also possibly suck a kayak under too. 

Boat Leak

If your kayak is old and you haven’t stored it properly, then plastic or fiberglass components could begin to wear away. Any small openings, gaps, or tears in the boat material allow for water to enter. The larger the opening, the more profound the leak. Your boat could soon be underwater. 

What About Sit-on-Top Kayaks? Can They Sink?

Sit-in kayaks, given their design, are obviously far likelier to fill with water, but what about sit-on-top kayaks? Are they exempt from sinking? 

This style of kayak sinks less frequently, and it’s not just because the boat lacks a deep cockpit. Sit-on-top kayaks have scupper holes throughout. If the holes fill with water, they become self-bailing and can release the water.

Well, if the scupper holes are working properly, that is. If you banged your boat up against a dock or pointy rocks, then the scupper holes could be rendered inoperable. At that point, your sit-on-top kayak will begin filling with water.

However, most sit-on-top kayaks have sealed hulls that prevent water from getting in. You would have to have damaged both the scupper holes and the hull for enough water to get in a sit-on-top kayak that it would sink.

Please don’t mistake this and think that a sit-on-top kayak can accumulate no water at all. Water can absolutely splash onto the surface and into the boat. If your kayak is swamped, then it has so much water on it that it’s sitting lower in the lake, but it’s not at risk of sinking. Even still, being swamped is scary!

What Should You Do If a Kayak Fills with Water?

Yours is a sit-in kayak, and about 15 minutes ago, you had only thought you were sinking. Now, 20 minutes later, you’re sure of it. Oh, darn. What are you supposed to do in this situation?

Don’t Panic

Listen, it’s natural to panic at the thought of your kayak sinking. No one is blaming you for that. However, even though you might feel nervous and anxious, you don’t want to freak out. You’ll just end doing something that could cause the water leak to become worse. Plus, you’re needlessly expending energy.

Instead, take a deep breath and assess the situation. If you have a life jacket on, you should be at no risk of drowning even if your kayak fills with water to the top. You might lose your boat, and while that would be unfortunate, it’s not the end of the world. 

Plug up the Opening

If possible, you want to next determine why your kayak is leaking. If you’re not riding in choppy waters and your paddling is impeccable, then you more than likely have a leak in your kayak. By finding the source of the leak and plugging it up, you can at least prevent any more water from coming in.

We want to stress that this isn’t always possible. If the leak is on the underside of the boat, for example, you can’t see it from where you’re sitting in the kayak. 

Remove the Water

Your kayak isn’t leaking anymore (for now, at least), but the cockpit is still full of water. You’re drenched, and so is your stuff, which is no good. 

You need to get rid of the water before it can damage your cargo more than it already has. If you don’t have a bucket on board, then the best way to drain your boat is to paddle to an area where you can safely swim and then tip the boat.

Bring Your Kayak Back to Shore

If you couldn’t address the source of the leak, then even after you empty your kayak, it will fill right back up with water. It will take some time for the water to overflow from the top of the cockpit, but it will happen.

It’s for that reason that we don’t recommend resuming your day of kayaking after your boat fills up as if it didn’t happen. You need to get back to shore so you can take a closer look at your boat, including the underside that you couldn’t see when the kayak was in the water. 

How to Prevent Your Kayak from Sinking

Phew! That was quite an ordeal, and not one you want to experience again anytime soon.

Now is a great time to talk about the importance of spray skirts. A spray skirt or kayak skirt is a cover for the cockpit that’s made of water-repelling materials such as neoprene or nylon. 

Part of the skirt is wearable while the rest makes an airtight and mostly watertight seal over your kayak. We wrote a very informative guide to spray skirts here that you should certainly check out if you missed it. We even recommended a few of our favorite spray skirts!

Kayaking Safety Tips

To wrap up, we want to share a collection of kayaking safety tips. You should always carry these tips in the back of your mind, especially if you’re new to kayaking! 

Always Wear a Life Jacket

Personal floatation devices (PFDs) or life jackets are mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Life vests are organized by five types, Type I through Type V. Only Types I, II, and III are usable by kayakers. 

A Type I life jacket can rotate the wearer face-up if their face is in the water. That’s because these life jackets are intended for severe situations in which rescue isn’t going to be immediate. A Type I life vest is the safest, but it’s also the bulkiest and the least comfortable. 

Type II life jackets are lighter since they’re to be worn when you know you’ll be rescued quickly. You can still be flipped face-up in a Type II. 

In a similar vein are Type III life vests, which are also recommended for a speedy rescue. These are the most comfortable life jacket class, but the vest will not turn you face-up. You’d have to do so manually or flip an unconscious person over.  

Once you select the type of life jacket you want, you must ensure it fits. A life jacket should be worn firmly on the body but not prohibit you from raising and lowering your arms and otherwise moving your upper half. 

Bring a Bucket

A bucket is always a good idea to have on your kayak, especially if yours is a sit-on versus a sit-on-top kayak. You don’t have to tote a plastic bucket but try a collapsible one. It will take up less room on your kayak but still always be within reach. 

Check the Weather 

We already talked earlier about the harrowing risks you can face when kayaking in inclement weather. Strong winds can tip your boat over and pelting rains can fill the kayak with water. 

It’s one thing to be caught in a surprise storm and another to fail to check the weather. Use the app on your phone to track the weather several days before your trip, then the night before, and finally, the day of. 

Don’t Go Above Your Pay Grade

When kayaking with friends, it’s natural to want to impress your buddies with your skills even if you’ve only ever gone kayaking once or twice. Rather than try to be a hero, stick within your skill level. That means kayaking on a lake instead of an ocean.

Checking your ego is worth it if it’s for the sake of your welfare! 

Wear Sun Protection

Have you ever gotten badly sunburned after a day of splashing around the pool or in the ocean? That’s due to how the water reflects the sunlight. Even if you’re not facing the sun, you can still be exposed to it, and thus, your skin will burn.

The sun is always behind the clouds, so on cloudy days of kayaking as well, you need skin protection. Put on sunblock on any exposed areas of skin. Wear a hat so the top of your head doesn’t burn. When choosing fabrics, favor UV-resistant ones so the sun can’t get through your clothes and burn you that way.

Final Thoughts 

Kayaks can sink, and although it doesn’t happen frequently, it’s always within the realm of possibility. That’s true of sit-in and sit-on-top kayaks alike even if the former sinks a lot more often than the latter. 

We hope the information in this guide helps you be safer when kayaking! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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