Kayak Capsizing – What You Need to Know

You’ve heard about it happening to a couple of your kayaking buddies and you’re weary of it occurring on your kayak as well. We’re talking, of course, about capsizing. Should you capsize in your kayak, what should you do? 

Most kayaks are designed so that when you capsize, gravity allows you to fall right out of the cockpit. You should then flip your boat over and assess your health as well as that of any passengers before making it back to dry land.

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about kayak capsizing. Although tipping over in a kayak is not as serious as it is in a bigger boat, capsizing in a kayak can still be deadly. That’s why you’re not going to want to miss the useful information ahead! 

What Does It Mean to Capsize in a Kayak?

You love that you can kayak in all sorts of bodies of water, but today, the ocean is a lot choppier than usual. 

You jockey for position and struggle to keep yourself feeling secure on the water. A few times, you feel like your kayak is being forced towards the left or the right. Then a large wave curls up, builds in height, and tumbles forward. 

When your kayak tips to either side due or even upside down to the force of a wave, that’s capsizing. Boating resource Safe Skipper cites data from England’s Southampton University that states this: if a wave is roughly the same size as 55 percent of a boat’s total length, capsizing will likely occur.

If we’re talking about a large, sturdy 1,200-foot ship, the wave that knocked the boat over would have to be quite gargantuan. That’s why you don’t hear of large vessels capsizing as often. 

Kayaks though are about 10 feet long on average. It would not take a very large wave to be 55 percent of the kayak’s length. Your boat would be tossed this way and that by the wave.  

Before you know it, you’re capsized. 

What Can Cause You to Capsize in a Kayak?

The factors that can make your kayak capsize are not all that different from those that capsize boats of other sizes and styles. Take heed of the following factors, as being able to prevent them from occurring in your kayak can help you stay upright in the water. 

Rough Waters

As we touched on above, it only takes a wave that’s 55 percent of your kayak’s length for you to be at risk of capsizing. Since kayaks are such small boats, rougher waters pose a significant danger. If you must go kayaking in the ocean, you don’t want to be stuck out in the water at high tide, as the waves can overwhelm your boat! 

Heel Angle

To be an efficient kayaker, you’ve got to get to know your heel angle. This boating practice will apply when commandeering other types of vessels as well.

In boating–sailboats especially–there’s a term known as heeling. To heel means your sailboat is starting to lean towards the water due to the force of the wind. After heeling, once the wind gust has passed, the sailboat can usually right itself. This simply means the boat is upright with less risk of tipping.

When your kayak is in its regular upright position, its force of buoyancy and its force of gravity oppose one another. Gravity is a downward force while buoyancy is an upward force. When the two forces (although opposites) are in alignment, that helps maintain your kayak’s uprightness. 

As your kayak begins heeling, now the center of buoyancy moves outward. What happens is that the center of buoyancy creates upwards force. This is okay for the moment, but if the heel angle becomes more severe, capsizing occurs. 

In sailboats, there’s a term known as the angle of vanishing stability. The higher your boat’s angle of vanishing stability, the easier it is to prevent inversion and right yourself immediately. 

Inclement Weather

Kayaking–or doing any boating, really–in inclement weather is a perilous proposition. Pelting rains will decrease your visibility, strong winds will move your kayak about on its own, and the harsher currents pose a risk as well.

Poor Weight Distribution 

The last factor that can increase your risk of capsizing in a kayak is weight distribution.

Some kayaks feature open cockpits so you can bring a day’s worth of gear with you. As you stow away your cargo, double-check that it’s not all grouped together towards one end of the kayak versus another. 

The weight distribution of your fellow passengers is important as well. Everyone should sit in their own spot and not try to crowd too close together. If they don’t, they’ll force all the weight to one side of the boat, possibly tipping that side of the kayak into the water. 

Can Capsizing in a Kayak Be Deadly? 

Everyone has probably heard heartbreaking tales of a ship or another large boat capsizing. In those instances, yes, being thrown from a boat can be deadly. What about when you capsize in a kayak though? Is your life at risk?

Usually, it isn’t, but in these types of situations, you can never say never. 

When your kayak tips upside down, you should be spilled from the cockpit you were sitting in. This reduces the risk of what would be the worst-case scenario: you being tipped over, your head underwater, with no means of escape.

Could you get tangled or stuck on something in the cockpit on your way out, preventing you from exiting the kayak entirely? It’s not outside of the realm of possibility, especially depending on the design of the kayak, what you’re wearing, and whether you stored anything in your cockpit. 

Let’s say you’re able to exit the cockpit and enter the water. The kayak might be stuck on top of you. Depending on how cold the water temperature is as well as whether you’re shocked or injured from falling, you might not have the strength to push the kayak off your head. 

Even if you could remove the kayak easily enough (they don’t tend to weigh all that much, after all), once you’re spilled into the drink, you’re now looking at a whole new potential set of risks. 

What if you can’t swim? Maybe you can swim, but what if the strong ocean current is making it difficult? What if your kayaking buddy can’t swim and you can’t sustain their weight and yours? What if the temperature of the water is so cold that your body goes numb, rendering you unable to swim?

In any of the above situations, drowning can occur, especially if someone doesn’t rescue you immediately. (Which, depending on where your kayak capsized, may or may not be able to happen.) 

We’ve seen some boating resources out there that paint a picture of capsizing in your kayak as no big deal. In some instances, it isn’t, but in many more, capsizing can be deadly. That’s why we always advise you to wear a life jacket before kayaking, even if you’re riding in waters you’re quite familiar with. You can never be too careful! 

What Should You Do After Capsizing in a Kayak?

Although you did your best to avoid it, you ended up capsizing in your kayak. Here are five things you should do immediately after tipping into the water to save your own life and that of your fellow passengers. 

Don’t Panic

Yes, capsizing is very scary, especially if this is the first time it’s happening to you. The more freaked out you feel though, the more energy you can expend screaming and flailing. Conserve your energy by remaining calm, as you’re going to need as much energy as you can get. 

Assess the Condition of Your Passengers 

You pull your head up above the water, taking a big, gasping breath of air. If you were kayaking alone, then you only have to worry about checking on yourself. However, for those kayakers who always bring a friend or partner with them, you must ascertain their condition as well. 

Ask your kayaking buddy if they’re okay. If they’re able to verbally respond to you, then they’re more than likely alright. However, if they’re unconscious or very weak, you’re going to have to get your kayak upright completely on your own. 

We recommend swimming over to your unconscious kayaking partner and ensuring they’re face-up above the water. If they’re wearing a personal flotation device such as a life vest, then many types of vests will prevent the wearer from floating face-down. Even still, it doesn’t hurt to confirm they’re upright. It can save their life!

Right Your Kayak

In some instances, your kayak might right itself once it’s emptied of the excess weight. More than likely though, you’ll have to position it upright manually. 

You should be on the side of the boat towards the middle where you were sitting before capsizing. On the opposite end, grasp the kayak with one hand. When you’re ready, grab the boat with your second hand. Since the kayak is floating (and so are you in your life jacket), you’re not at risk of sinking.

Holding the upside-down kayak with both hands, pull the boat towards your body. Once the kayak is close to you, lift your knees in the water and push them up. The kayak should raise from the water and flip over.

Time is of the essence when righting your kayak. Water can seep into the various compartments of the kayak as well as the hull when your boat is upside down for too long. 

Reenter Your Boat 

Now that your kayak is righted, next comes what’s arguably the hardest part. You have to reenter your kayak. 

How you’ll go about this varies based on whether yours is a sit-in or sit-on kayak. A sit-in kayak is mostly enclosed and often features a spray skirt around the base of the kayak to prevent you from getting wet. A sit-on kayak has a more open design.

Starting with a sit-in kayak, to reenter it, move towards the boat’s rear. Grab the kayak using both your hands. You can begin with one hand at a time if that’s easier. When you’re holding onto the kayak, push yourself upward so you’re on the kayak. You’ll likely have to kick your legs quite a bit to get up there.

You should be atop the sit-in kayak, but you’re laying on it rather than sitting in it. Sit up, position yourself on the kayak as you normally would, and get to your spot in the cockpit. Tell your kayaking partner to do the same if they’re able. You must hold onto the kayak so you don’t tip over from their effort of getting back on the boat. 

Now let’s talk about how to reenter a sit-on kayak. Move towards the middle of the boat, pulling yourself up and kicking until you’re up there. Take a moment, sit up, and twist yourself into position in the cockpit seat.

Having a paddle float will make reentering your kayak easier whether yours is a sit-on or sit-in kayak. A paddle float is an inflatable cushion that goes on your paddle blade. Your paddle will float thanks to the paddle float so you can use the paddle as an instrument to help you up on the kayak.  

Drain the Water

Unless you flipped your kayak over in seconds, then it’s going to have some water in it. You should always bring a kayak sponge and a small bilge pump in case you capsize. First, you’d use the bilge pump to suck up water. Then you’d absorb whatever water is left with the kayak sponge. 

From there, you should be good to ride back to shore, but only when you feel ready. 

Tips to Prevent Capsizing in a Kayak

Capsizing doesn’t have to be part of your kayaking adventures. The following tips will prevent that harrowing experience from occurring. 

Check the Weather Before You Go

To reiterate what we talked about earlier, inclement weather creates conditions that are unconducive for boating. The waves are taller and rougher, the winds are higher, and you can’t see well when the skies are dark and rain is pouring.

Your kayaking plans should always be tentative. We recommend checking the weather at the start of the week of your trip, then a few days ahead. About two days before you want to go kayaking, start looking at hourly forecasts and radars.

The morning of your ride, ascertain that the weather hasn’t changed. If the forecast is updated and the weather is giving you pause, don’t go. 

Kayak During Low Tide Only 

Ocean kayaking is truly a thrilling experience, but there’s a difference between thrilling and dangerous. If you’re riding your kayak during high tide, your boat can easily be lifted and tossed aside. Plan your kayaking trip for low tide when the waves are exciting but nonviolent. 

Approach Waves Properly 

Speaking of ocean kayaking, you must know the correct way to approach waves. Rather than ride across a wave with your kayak angled to the side, you want to move towards the wave head-on. This might seem counterintuitive, but it can keep your kayak upright. 

Watch Your Weight Distribution 

Yes, we have to talk once more about weight distribution. From the amount of gear you bring to where on your kayak you stow it and even how your passengers sit, you must remind everyone to keep the weight balanced at all times.  

Final Thoughts

Capsizing in a kayak can happen rather easily due to the curtailed length and low weight of these vessels. Since capsizing can always be deadly, you must balance the weight on your kayak and avoid boating in inclement weather. Stay safe out there!

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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