Reflections from the Cockpit
"Combat Ready Knife"
May 2004

For many years I have pondered the best location for my knife when sea kayaking. Being a male that grew up playing soldier (like most young boys) I freely admit having a knife on the outside of my PFD looks cool. I feel like I am ready to go into combat with that knife right there and ready to use at a moment’s notice. However, in all of my 20 years of kayaking I have only needed to use my knife two times when sea kayaking. Each of those times DID NOT need the knife in combat position.

Let me say right up front that I am not disputing the need for a cutting tool. I am questioning the location and want to discuss observations about the knife being kept exposed on the outside of PFD's, especially on the chest area.

The first question that comes to mind is "how did the knife end up there in the first place?" I will share with you the history of the knife location, as I understand it. Many years ago PFD's did not have any pockets or tabs for adding accessories. River rafting guides would carry knives for very good reasons. They needed that knife to be readily accessible so they could cut through rafts, webbing and rope to free a trapped client. The most convenient storage location was the shoulder portion of the PFD. A knife could strap on easily and it was always available in an emergency. PFD manufacturer’s seeing the knives strapped onto the shoulder area realized that a chest tab for a knife strap would be a nice accessory feature for a PFD.

My first PFD did not have any knife tabs. I did see other kayakers with the knife on their shoulder so I couldn't wait to strap on my small dive knife from my Scuba gear. My big dive knife was as large as a bowie knife and I knew it wouldn’t fit on my shoulder but I wish I could have sported the big knife just to be cool. I do remember asking some other river kayakers what was the reason for the knife. I got a lot of answers but most of them did not make sense. Even with my best knife I couldn't cut through a strainer on the river or cut through the deck of a plastic whitewater kayak which were common answers.

Soon most PFD's came with a tab on the chest area. When anyone would ask what the tab was for the immediate answer was to hold your knife. I am a big believer of being prepared. I love gadgets. Knives are cool. However, I am even more concerned about function. As a sea kayak instructor I have seen countless problems with the knife on the outside of PFD's. When paddlers are doing capsize recoveries I have seen the knife get caught on deck rigging, inhibit climbing on the back deck, pop off and disappear into King Neptune’s lost & found and see the sheath poke unsuspecting paddlers. Given these challenges I have to ask the obvious question. "Is a knife really needed on the outside of your PFD when sea kayaking?"

I have not heard of any stories from my paddling friends & students of when the knife had to be combat accessible. I have heard many stories in how knives have been used but the knife could have been in a pocket in the PFD rather than being exposed with the possibility of snagging rigging when climbing on the kayak. If you have a personal story to share, where your knife had to be in combat position while sea kayaking, please e-mail it to me. I will post it on the USK site as a counter argument to the thoughts I am sharing here. The best use I have witnessed to date for a chest mounted knife is hooking ones spray skirt loop over it when walking around. I personally use a carabiner attached to a chest mounted D-ring for holding my skirt loop. I will admit that when I used to surf my kayak in heavy populated surf areas I rarely had many arguments. Being 6'7", wearing a black helmet, black wet suit, black paddle jacket, black PFD with a knife on the outside makes most people think of Special Forces.

I now keep a folding knife in my PFD pocket. There is a shock cord loop at the end of my knife, which I can slip on with one hand. The knife can also be opened and closed with one hand. The blade is a serrated one for sawing purposes. I can easily get to my knife, re-stow it. The shock cord loop allows me to let go of the knife if I needed both hands and not lose the knife.

I stopped carrying my knife in combat position when I had it pop off for the umpteenth time while demonstrating a recovery. I thought about need vs. function vs. challenges and it became obvious to me the knife belongs in my PFD pocket when sea kayaking.

If your knife gets in the way then you may wish to consider moving it to a new location. Think about how you really use your knife and decide the best overall location when sea kayaking. As always, do what works best for you. You should also have a good reason for what you do.


Wayne Horodowich


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