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How to Rescue a Pinned Kayak

By Jamie Orfald-Clarke, Boreal River Rescue instructor

Imagine this: while running a 4 foot ledge, you miss your boof stroke, and the bow of your kayak drops straight down, getting wedged in a crack at the bottom of the drop. Your boat stops dead, folding you onto the bow deck, submerged under the curtain of water. What now?

Self rescue from a pinned kayak

Kayaks can get pinned vertically or horizontally. In either case, if the consequences of a swim are manageable, consider getting out of your boat immediately. The pinned boat could flatten under the pressure of the water, trapping you inside. If you are able to climb onto a rock, or stand safely in shallow water, it may be helpful to stay near your boat. From there you can attempt to free the boat yourself or with help, and are in a good position to anchor a rope to the boat if needed.

Rescuing a pinned kayaker

A kayaker in a pinned boat may be unable to self-rescue. Considering upstream spotting and downstream safety, first determine if the kayaker is able to breathe (has an airway). Even if they are fully submerged, their head may make an air pocket in the vertical curtain of water.

Kayaker has an airway

If the kayaker can breathe, act first to stabilize the boat, so rescue attempts don’t cause them to lose their airway. Depending on the nature of the pin, assist the kayaker in exiting the boat, or unpin the kayak with them in it.

Kayaker has no airway

If the kayaker cannot breath, extricate them immediately. Similar to a no airway foot or body entrapment, the most effective technique is for rescuers to make direct physical contact. When this is possible and within an acceptable level of risk for the rescue team, it should always be the primary option.

A variety of techniques can be used to establish direct contact. If possible, the easiest and fastest is to swim, paddle, or wade to the kayaker. If none of those options work, one or multiple lines attached to a quick release harness on a rescuer can be used to pull the rescuer into position. Even more equipment and resource intensive would be a controlled maneuvering of a boat on tether (ideally a raft) allowing rescuers to access and work in hard to reach spots.

Rescue vs. body recovery

If the subject has been submerged with no airway for more than one hour, switch ‘modes’ from rescue to body recovery: prioritize other subjects, and minimize risk to rescuers.

If direct contact isn’t possible

If it’s impossible to make direct contact with the kayaker, or it involves unacceptable risks, consider these options:

  • Throw the kayaker a line that they can clip on to themselves
  • Use a two-bank stabilization line under the kayaker’s torso to lift their body in to a position where they have an airway, and may be able to self rescue
  • Use a stabilization line with a cinch line to attempt to extricate an unconscious subject
  • Use a stabilization line to hold the boat in place
  • Use a reaching and clipping device to get a line on the kayaker or a grab loop on their boat.
  • If attempts at direct contact are almost successful, the rescuer could attempt to clip a rope and carabiner on to the subject or boat – this would allow momentary direct contact to establish a line to the subject

Rescuing the kayak

If the kayak is still pinned once the paddler has exited, in most cases directly lifting, pushing, and pulling on the kayak will be effective. If this is not successful, or not within an acceptable level of risk, the same rope systems can be employed as with a raft or canoe. Use at least a 2 point anchor to attach a hauling line to a kayak. Try pulling from a few different angles and with multiple pullers before setting up a mechanical advantage system.