Reflections from the Cockpit March 2008
"Spray Skirts "

We still have more videos to produce so I have been in script mode for the last few weeks.  While writing about the sea worthiness of sea kayaks I thought a lot about spray skirts, because they make the sea kayak one of the most sea worthy crafts on the water.  It really is quite amazing when you think about it.  You are in a boat and the boat flips over, but your boat is still water tight.  Your spray skirt is keeping the water out of your cockpit so the kayak is still sea worthy.  Of course, I cannot say the same for the paddler when he or she is upside down.  Yet if the paddler can get upright, by rolling or with outside assistance, the kayak is ready to continue.

The main purpose of the spray skirt is to keep the water out of your cockpit regardless if the water washes over your cockpit or if you capsize.  This is a simple but key point to remember throughout this article. When I speak with my English friends they use the term spray deck instead of spray skirt.

The spray skirt concept is not new to modern day sea kayaking.  Early native paddlers developed the concept of the spray skirt.  I just read an article in my recent Sea Kayaker magazine entitled, “Did Aleuts Roll?” by Jeff Dickrell.  Here is a quote from the article made by Mary Winchell from Unalaska regarding the clothing worn by the Aleuts, “And they had Skin boats, a hole in the center, some had three holes and they’d put on the kamleikas (waterproof jackets) and fasten them around and make them good and tight and sit down in the hole and there was a drawstring they’d pull around them and they were waterproof.  I have seen them turn clear over two or three times in the water and wouldn’t get any moisture on their clothes.”  The Aleut version of the spray skirt was an extension of their parka.  They knew the value of keeping the water out of the cockpit.

Modern materials allow us to have a spray skirt that is separate from the rest of our clothing. Elastic materials usually provide a good seal around the cockpit coaming. However, if you want your skirt to work efficiently you need to keep the water from entering through the top of the tunnel.  That can be done by wearing your skirt tunnel under other layers of clothing such as your paddle jackets.  Some dry suits have a special flap of material that will go over the tunnel to help reduce the water intrusion through the top of the tunnel.

 Since it is hard to keep a good idea down, early fashions are still being used today with modern materials.  Greenland paddlers frequently use neoprene tuiliks (spray skirt Greenland style jacket combo) so they can keep their bodies dry and keep the water out of their cockpits.  The only exposed skin is on the hands and face.

Kayaking was a way of life and a means of survival for the native paddlers.  They used kayaks for hunting and transportation.  The natives of the north lived in severe conditions. Wet exiting usually meant death. Therefore, I am sure their cockpit protection was securely fastened, as the quote from the article indicated.  In modern times most paddlers don’t depend on kayaking as a means of survival.  Since paddling is a sport we are not as committed to the same skill development as the native paddlers.  We also have other options due to modern immersion clothing. In addition, not everyone paddles in artic waters. Poor bracing and non-existent rolling skills do not automatically mean death.  If you are dressed for immersion, a wet exit and a recovery is no big deal for the average paddler of today.  Our spray skirts have grab loops so we can easily remove the skirt and perform wet exits.

As for choosing your spray skirt, it depends on what you are looking for from your skirt.  Do you want a loose elastic or tight? Do you want a light nylon deck that sags when water is on it or a taught neoprene deck that allows water to run off rather than pool?  Do you want a loose adjustable tunnel or a tight neoprene on that fits to your body?  How much force do you want your spray deck to withstand before it implodes from outside forces as in a wave breaking on your deck?  If you are performing a lot of recoveries (as a guide or instructor) do you want a reinforced deck to counteract the constant abrasion of the deck material when dragging other kayaks across your coaming?  Now you can even find skirts with pockets on the deck portion of the skirt to store different objects.  I question the wisdom of the pockets, because I notice that some paddlers like stuffing pockets full.  A full pocket on a spray skirt can interfere with climbing back on to your kayak when performing a recovery.  I have even seen spray skirts with zippers down the middle and openings for hand pumps.  Again, you choose a skirt that meets your needs, but remember the primary purpose of the spray skirt is to keep water out of your cockpit.

Everyone has pet peeves.  One of mine is when I see a paddler wearing their spray skirt over their paddle jacket and over their PFD on rainy days.  I mostly see this on guided tours.  The reasoning I heard from the guides was relating to always keeping PFD’s on and allowing the skirt to come off without removing the PFD.  I have problems with that concept. It also allows a slow leak into the cockpit, not to mention getting the paddler wet and potentially cold.

I think spray skirts also provide other nice advantages.  Having a skirt covering the genital area allows for some privacy when one uses pee-bottles and/or FUDS (female urinary device).  I have often answered a nature call in a parking lot standing by the side of my van and no one seeing what I was doing, because the pee bottle was under the skirt.  I have often used my spray deck as a place to spread out my lunch and other assorted goodies.  I have used my spray skirt as a cockpit cover to keep the cockpit dry and bug free when I was out of my kayak during lunch and while camping. I hate getting into my kayak and feel bugs crawling up my legs when I am out on the water.

Just because you are wearing a spray skirt, it doesn’t mean you have to have it attached to the coaming all the time you are in your kayak.  When I would do sprint workouts along the Santa Barbara coast I would attach my skirt to get out through the surf.  When I was passed the breakers I detached the skirt and rolled it up so I wouldn’t over heat during the workout.  I would still wear it, because if conditions changed I could easily attach it.  The skirt also provided sun protection for my legs on very sunny days.

As an instructor I would tell my seasick students to use the skirt as a target if they did have to vomit. I prefer they stay upright than leaning over the side and capsizing while losing their breakfast.  See USK article, “The Seasick Paddler.”  Spray skirts can be easily rinsed off.  Another observation when teaching is students wearing the tunnel to high, usually as a result tight tunnel suspenders.  If the tunnel is too high the skirt can detach from the coaming if you lean to far forward, back or to the side.  Paddlers don’t find this out until they lean too far.  This often occurs when you lean over to help your partner in a recovery and then the water starts flooding your cockpit, because you are edged and the skirt popped off.

I will admit there are times the spray skirt gets in the way.  During recoveries is the primary example. The grab loop can get snagged, the skirt gets twisted, and the skirt gets stuck under ones legs just to name a few.  Unfortunately these small inconveniences come with the advantage of being able to make your kayak watertight.  As you practice your skills you learn your own little tricks for dealing with your skirt.

You should learn to attach and detach your spray skirt quickly and efficiently. Attaching the skirt quickly is very important when launching from a beach with surf.  If you are forced to do so, it is also important to be fast when the skirt has to be removed on a rough day when waves are washing over the deck.  Quickly reattaching a skirt after an unexpected pop-off is also important.  Removing the skirt needs to be automatic in the event of a capsize. Learning how to release the skirt from the coaming and still maintain contact with your paddle is a learned skill. Another peeve of mine is telling someone to grab the grab loop and pull the skirt.  In some cases a tight skirt and a sharp coaming will not release when pulled.  You are actually pulling the skirt into the coaming.  The release language should be, “grab the loop, push forward and lift.”  If you do like your skirt tight on the coaming, you better be sure you can release it if you are injured.  Practice with either hand.

Another skill to master is holding your pump and spray skirt so your skirt stays attached to your coaming and still allow your pump to reach the water in your cockpit.  In addition, your other hand will be pumping while you hold all of this together.  At first it is like rubbing your tummy and patting your head.

Who would think there was this much to say about spray skirts?  I am sure you can add more to this reflection with your own experiences. You can see why some people like sit-on-top boats.  I feel the SOT paddlers lose the unique chance to become one with their spray skirts.  As a side note, my spray skirt also allows me to live up to the bumper sticker that says, “Real men wear skirts.”  I also wear a kilt for those who are interested. Visit

In closing we need to appreciate that the spray skirt makes the kayak into an incredible sea going craft.  Without the spray skirt a kayak is nothing more than a canoe with a small opening. The early paddlers depended upon a spray skirt system for survival.  We have the option of using it for convenience and sometimes survival.


Wayne Horodowich


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