Reflections from the Cockpit "Proper Floatation"
July 2002

To float or not to float, that is the question? Many of the sea kayaks sold in this day and age have bulkheads which provide automatic floatation in the fore and aft compartments. The majority of the kayakers that I know have only practiced their recovery skills on kayaks that had reliable bulkheads. However, it was not too long ago when the majority of kayaks did not have bulkheads.

I remember when I purchased the first fleet of kayaks for UCSB and bulkheads were an option. Working with a limited budget we could only afford two with bulkheads and six without. We did get large float bags for floatation. After watching the average kayak student struggling through capsize recoveries with the kayaks, without bulkheads, we immediately ordered six sets of bulkheads (heck with the budget) and I remember getting light headed from sniffing the sealant as I squeezed my upper body into these kayaks and installed the bulkheads (my friends say this is a good explanation for me being the way I am.) Also keep in mind I am six foot seven inches tall with wide shoulders. At one point I thought I was stuck in the kayak and contemplated spending the night there.

Once all of the fleet had bulkheads the recovery sessions were a lot easier. However, I often wonder if I did an injustice to my students by making it too easy. They were learning when a lot of kayaks didn't have bulkheads. Even though I had them practice TX recoveries anyone who has done a real life TX knows it is nothing like doing it for real if you practice on a kayak with bulkheads.

Over fifteen years later, many believe most of the sea kayaks sold today have bulkheads so the chance of coming across one is not common or is it? With kayakers wanting to paddle in remote locations or just want to paddle where ever they travel, folding kayaks are becoming very popular. Folding kayaks don't have bulkheads. They depend on float bags and sea socks.

I wouldn't assume the hard shell kayaks all have bulkheads either. Take a good look in the kayaks at the next demo day or symposium. There are such a range a kayak models that bulkheads are not a given. Some of the shorter sea kayaks only have a rear bulkhead. Many of the entry level kayaks and those for kids do not come with front bulkheads. These kayaks need large float bags to maintain buoyancy and keep the compartment from completely flooding.

My purpose for discussing this is for you to think and plan ahead. Don't assume that everyone in your paddling group has bulkheads or floatation. If I am going out for a paddle with others I personally stick my head into every kayak when it is on the beach to see what type of floatation they have. If the kayak looks in disrepair I speak with the owner to find out about the integrity of the bulkhead seals, hatch covers and the kayak. I also check all grab loops because my tow rope is only as strong as the grab loop.

If I am in charge of the tour I can dictate what the equipment requirements in order to join the tour. I have, on more than one occasion, denied paddlers because they did not have adequate equipment. If you are not in charge then you have to decide at what level of risk you are willing put yourself by paddling with others who may not be prepared depending on the paddling location and conditions. Does your skill level match the level of risk? Can you perform the worst case scenario recovery?

Here is my list of questions to you:
Are you prepared for improper floatation?
Do you look for floatation in other's kayaks?
Do you check your floatation regularly? (See equipment maintenance)
Can you empty a almost completely flooded kayak? (Sea Cleopatra's Needle & Curl Recovery)
Do you have a back up for your bulkheads? (i.e. float bags in the hatches)
Do you have the proper equipment to deal with the nightmare capsize recovery?
Can you deal with a paddler if their kayak sinks? (See swimmer assists)

Even though you may have your floatation worked out, you are still at the mercy of the collective in which you paddle. I think it is important to discuss these ideas with your paddling partners and come to a consensus of acceptable levels of readiness for you, the group and the equipment used. If you and the group are not ready for the worst case then get out and practice in controlled conditions before the real thing happens.

When it comes to adequate floatation, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound (when it comes to the weight of water, it's a lot of pounds) of cure.


Wayne Horodowich


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