Kayak Self Rescue

You shouldn’t paddle on the Lower Mississippi unless you are capable of the self-rescue technique.  You shouldn’t invite others to join you unless you can perform accepted kayak rescue techniques such as the kayak self rescue or the kayak T-rescue, and you should be able to teach it to everyone in your group.  Don’t make decisions that you will regret the rest of your life.  The Mississippi doesn’t play around.

On the small river self-rescue is not required because you can easily swim to shore, swim your vessel to shore, and it’s easy to bail out on shore.  The Mississippi River is an entirely different body of water with extreme conditions on the largest of scales.  Paddling on the Mississippi is best compared to paddling in San Francisco Bay, or the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, or the Inside Passage of Alaska.  Think and be prepared for big boats, big water, big waves, big hydraulics, changing weather, wind, and cold water conditions (Fall, Winter, Spring).

On the Mississippi River you might have more than a mile to reach shore.  That’s a long swim most people are not prepared for even in the best of conditions.  A one-mile swim might require more than an hour to reach shore.  Can you get there before the towboat gets you?  Towboats might be steaming towards you, and the water might be cold.  Unless they are purposely looking for you (after you have radioed them VHF-13) they probably won’t even see you.  From the distance you look like driftwood to a tow pilot. You might have additional complications such as waves, whirlpools and boils.  Anything that doesn’t float will immediately sink in deep water never to be seen again.  Let it go and take care of the most important thing — your survival and the survival of others in your group.

Anyone can learn kayak self rescue technique with a little attention and time.  Most people can learn it in a one-hour workshop.  Self-rescue technique is taught and practiced by Outward Bound, the Red Cross, National Outdoor Leadership School, and regional outfitters such as Quapaw Canoe Company.  Contact any of the above for instruction.  Links listed below.

Capsize is the worst-case scenario for a Mississippi River paddler.  Capsize puts you in danger of cold water, towboats, buoys, and loss of gear.  This is one of the risks all paddlers must accept when they get on the water.  When you drive you are in danger of auto wreck.  And so you wear seat belts.  On the water you in risk of capsize and so you wear your life jacket, tie down valuable gear, and you learn self-rescue technique.

List of priorities: in case of capsize 1) hold onto your paddle, 2) make sure you are okay, 3) make sure everyone else is okay, 4) perform self-rescue, 5) paddle to shore and re-group, 6) continue journey after you and everyone else has dried out and warmed up.

Kayak Rescue Methods include: A) solo rescue, B) T-rescue, and C) parallel rescue.  The below is written for paddlers in sea kayaks made for long distance travel.  All methods require practice.  Its best to conduct at least one practice in open water conditions.  Before setting out on the Mississippi learn at least one of the below methods so well you can perform it smoothly without trouble.  Check elsewhere for best methods if you are paddling a creek boat or surf boat or something shorter.

ESKIMO ROLL (1 kayak)

If you can Eskimo Roll — great.  All of your years of practice will now come in very handy and maybe save you from loss of gear or worse.  Do it quickly and efficiently.  You don’t have to show off because no one is looking.  If you can’t Eskimo Roll or you are carrying a lot of gear on deck and can’t overcome the extra inertia, keep reading below.

SOLO RESCUE (1 kayak)

In preparation for kayak self-rescue you will need to strap down three essential pieces of equipment on deck and keep them there throughout your kayak journeys: 1) a paddle float, 2) a siphon pump, and 3) an extra paddle.   All three should be strapped down for easy removal under the bunge cords which criss-cross your decks.  Do not secure these items underneath in kayak storage.

After you have ejected from your kayak and come to the surface for air do a quick self-assessment and make sure you are okay.  If you are carrying a VHF Marine Radio notify any vessels in the area of your situation using channel 13.  Otherwise they may or may not be able to see you and stay out of your way.  (Note: carry submersible radios only.  Shake water out of the microphone speaker before using.)   As always hold onto you paddle.  If you have somehow let loose of it during capsize, grab your extra paddle and initiate self-rescue.

All sea kayaks or expedition kayaks are built for self-rescue.  There is a rectangle of heavy-duty bunge cords built onto the deck of the kayak behind the cockpit.  (If you are uncertain about the kayak anatomy check with kayak maker or salesperson.)  The self-rescue rectangle is made to hold onto one of your paddle blades.  If you haven’t already, roll your kayak upright in the river.  There will be some buoyancy due to air pockets at either end and your storage areas.  Hopefully storage areas were securely closed before capsize.

Shove the paddle into the rescue rectangle so that the blade is held firmly under both sets of bunge cords, port & starboard.  Holding onto your kayak so you don’t become separated from it locate the first piece of essential equipment, the paddle float.  Insert over paddle and inflate.  Your kayak will immediately feel a more stable as result of the perpendicular support provided by the paddle float.  Now locate your siphon pump and start bailing as fast as you can.  As you remove water the kayak will rise out of the water and regain flotation.  This might take five minutes, fifteen minutes or half hour, and maybe longer in windy conditions with waves.  It all depends on how efficient you are and how big your cockpit is.  Once you have removed enough water that your kayak is stabilized you can slide back into the kayak using the paddle as a “pole” for balance and support.  Pull your chest over the center of the kayak until you find the center of balance.  Now slide your legs over and into the cockpit, and then roll yourself over into the seating position.  Sounds simple?  It is, but it requires practice.  If you’ve practiced this beforehand it will come easily.  If you have never practiced this technique you will have a lot of trouble learning it now in this stressful situation.  Note: in windy conditions never let go of your kayak!

Retrieve any important gear.  Complete bailing.  Retrieve all gear.  Continue journey.  If you have been in cold water and are shivering or feeling “weird” go immediately to shore and build a fire, drink some hot liquids, get in a sleeping bag with hot water bottles, or whatever it takes to warm up.  Do not continue paddling on the river if you are cold.  It will only get worse.

T-RESCUE (2 kayaks)

If you are paddling down the river in a flotilla with other kayaks and one capsizes you can use the very effective T-Rescue method.  As always, conduct a quick self-assessment first make sure you are okay and not injured in any way.  Check on everyone else.  Is everyone present and accounted for?  If you are in the water this will be more difficult, but if you are dry in the upright kayak it is critical that you first make sure no immediate medical or psychological attention is needed.  If the water is cold your rescue needs to be quick and effective.  If either of the rollover paddlers are in shock or in danger of hypothermia it is of course imperative to get them out of the water and back into their kayaks as soon as possible.  If necessary have them slide their chests out of the water and onto the rear deck of your kayak — which will provide some psychological comfort, as well as get their core bodies out of the cold water.  If there are 2 paddlers in the water, have them hold onto your kayak on either side for balance while you perform the T-rescue.  Remember their impaired state will make rescue more difficult, so you will have to make choices and make them quick. If tows are in the area notify them of your situation via VHF marine radio channel 13.

The T-Rescue works like this: Instruct wet paddlers to hold onto the sides of your kayak, ideally one on each side port & starboard for stability.  Collect paddles from flipped kayak and secure.  If you are not already wearing your spray skirt, pull it on.  You shouldn’t conduct the T-rescue without a spray skirt.  You might swamp your kayak without spray skirt on.  Pull your kayak perpendicularly into the nose of the upset kayak.  Leave the kayak upside down so the water drains as you pull it out.  Pull the nose of the kayak up and over your kayak across the front deck in front of you as you sit in the cockpit.  As you lift water will drain out of the kayak.  Keep pulling upset kayak over dry kayak until it rests balanced on your midships.  Now grab belly of the upset kayak and rotate it upright.  Tie one end of the kayak to yours.  Slide it off your midships back into the river.  Assist wet kayakers with paddle floats.  Insert paddle float over the end of and inflate.   Jam paddle under bunges behind cockpit as described in solo rescue.  You can help stabilize their kayak as they climb back in and then gather any gear that was lost during capsize.


If you are in a flotilla of three or more kayaks you can execute the parallel rescue.  This has some advantages on windy days when it might be difficult to hold onto kayak during the T-rescue, and maybe are having trouble with waves.  As above, first make sure that everyone is okay and not injured in any way.  Does anyone need any immediate medical or psychological attention?  If tows are in the area notify them of your situation via VHF marine radio channel 13.

Collect paddles from flipped kayak and secure.  Arrange dry kayaks on either side and parallel to upset kayak.  Leave the kayak upside down so the water drains as you pull it out.  All dry paddlers can lift together and kayak should easily rise out of the river, as you lift water will drain out of the kayak.  Now rotate it upright.  Tie one end of the kayak to yours.  Slide it off your midships back into the river.    Now you can assist wet paddlers back into their kayak and then gather any gear that was lost during capsize.

If there is heavy gear tied into kayak, or you are unable to lift wet kayak out of the water for any reason, you can always rotate it full of water between rescue kayaks and everyone bail.  It won’t take long to empty the kayak with 2 people bailing together.  You will be glad that you tied all bailers to seats or thwarts and that they hadn’t floated off during capsize.


Dry paddlers should assist helping wet paddlers back into rescued kayak.  Hold onto side of kayak on opposite side of wet re-entry for balance.  In extreme situations where the paddler can’t seem to get back into rescued kayak, pull kayaks parallel to each other and have paddler hold onto both kayaks and then get one leg into each kayak and then pivot into rescued kayak.  (If you have performed the parallel rescue you are already in position to do this.)  After parallel rescue all dry paddlers can balance kayak while wet paddlers re-enter rescued kayak.  Retrieve gear.  Complete bailing.  Go to shore and re-group.


After any rescue its almost always best to go to shore and recollect yourselves.  Dry yourselves out, dry any important gear, and let the shock of the accident pass.  It might be a good idea to go ahead and make camp and call it a day.  In cold weather conditions it will probably be critical you do so with a fire, hot drinks or soups, and careful attention to paddlers who were in the water.  Choose a safe place out of the wind.  Unless they are in wetsuits or drysuits, have capsized paddlers immediately change out of their wet clothing.  If it is raining of course put up a shelter first, build a fire and then change into dry clothing.  One sign of hypothermia is the inability to make rational decisions about your well being, or the well-being of others, so be forceful if necessary.  Your friends will appreciate it later and you can laugh about it as a good adventure — in which everyone came home in good condition.  The best way to rewarm a victim of hypothermia is to remove all clothing and put them in a sleeping bag (or 2 sleeping bags) with a warm person who has also removed all clothing.


1) Why can’t I just swim my kayak to the shore and then bail it out?

During downstream journeys on the Mississippi River you are almost never near enough to shore to easily swim and upright a capsized kayak.  Almost always you will have to cross the eddy line, or the drift line along shore where giant boils are billowing upwards followed by whirlpools of all sizes.  Pulling a swamped kayak across these water lines is very, very difficult.  Attempting a swim instead of performing self-rescue might result in disaster.

2) Can I perform T-Rescue or Parallel Rescue with canoes?

Yes, you can use canoes to perform the T-Rescue or Parallel Rescue.  Be very careful of course not to cause further capsizes during rescue.

3) Is it possible to use a Stand-Up-Paddleboard for rescue?

Stand-Up-Paddleboards (SUPs) make excellent platforms for canoe or kayak rescue.  In fact they might become your vessel of preference if you have any in your flotilla.  Wet paddlers can easily grab and hold onto SUPs.  If they are cold or in shock they can more easily get out of the water, even if it just means getting their chests out of the water.  Also, its much easier to pull an upset kayak up and over the belly of a SUP than it is up and over the gunwales of a canoe.  Lastly, in windy conditions SUPs are more seaworthy than canoes or kayak because you can’t sink them nor capsize them (note: the SUP won’t flip over unless you hit a giant crashing wave or are broadsided by a buoy).

4) Where can I learn more about kayak rescue?

There are excellent instructional videos and courses available about kayak rescue.  Do an online search and make your choice.

5) I’ve read this topic and read available literature.  Am I ready for the big river?

No, you must practice kayak rescue.  You can’t just read about and consider yourself capable of kayak rescue.  Its one of those things you’ve got to do to understand completely.  The saying “practice makes perfect” definitely applies here.  After practicing and perfecting it in a calm water environment like a swim pool or a pond, go to the river and practice it on a windy day.  Frequent Mississippi River paddlers should continue to practice and refine their rescue skills every year with refresher practices or workshops.  One of the best ways to internalize your skills is to teach them to others.