May 23, 2010

Trail & Error: Count on kayaks tipping, learn skills to stay safe


(Continued from page 1)

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Outdoor writer Shannon Bryan gets a kayak lesson from Theresa Ouellette of Coastal Maine Kayak on the water at Highland Lake in Falmouth.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Outdoor writer Shannon Bryan, on right, gets kayak instructions from Theresa Ouellette of Coastal Maine Kayak and fellow guide Ernie Forgione on the water at Highland Lake in Falmouth.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer


Coastal Maine Kayak in Kennebunk offers kayak tours, sales, rental and instruction, including safety & rescue clinics, rolling instruction and private lessons. Rescue clinics cost $99 for a three-hour course. For more details or prices go to or call 967-6065.

For a listing of registered kayak guides in Maine go to

And just when I thought I could handle no more gear, that every piece of me was amply covered and waterproofed, along came the spray skirt.

The appropriately named piece of nylon or neoprene fits snugly around a kayaker's waist -- the "hem" stretching over the lip of the cockpit to prevent water from entering the kayak. It also makes a kayak the only place where you can yell, "Whoops, my skirt came off," without causing much of a stir, as I found out later.

Finally we made our way to the water, which brings us back to my out-of-boat situation.

With the kayak still upside down, my feet blindly searched for the underwater cockpit. While floating on my back and positioned as if I were in a recliner, I tucked my legs inside as a way to stay connected to the kayak but keep my hands free.

Willet handed me the float -- an important piece of self-rescue equipment though it looked like a deflated camping pillow.

Typically the float would be stowed in an accessible place on your boat. I inflated the float by blowing into the nozzle on each of the two chambers, then slid it onto one end of the paddle.

Taking my feet from the cockpit, I rolled the boat upright again, Willet talking me through where to grab, which direction to move, how to manage the paddle and the boat at the same time.

I set the floatless end of the paddle on the kayak's top, just behind the cockpit, using it like a buoyant kayak kickstand.

Making sure to keep my weight leaning toward the float paddle, I hefted my body onto the kayak like a seal beaching itself on a rock.

One leg swung out, seeking support from the paddle. The other followed suit, until I was completely out of the water, propped by a thin paddle bridge. Willet instructed me to start turning myself, still on my belly, bringing my feet into the cockpit. The entire time, I kept my body weight leaning toward the paddle float. Were I to lean the other way, on the brace-less side, my trusty kayak might've seen fit to toss me overboard again.

Soon I'd positioned myself on top of the kayak, a climber clutching a shifty sideways tree. Carefully I scooted down, my legs moving into the cockpit cavity until it was safe to turn over and slide in.

I resituated the seatback, which had collapsed when I slid in, and found the foot braces. And after a quick check to assure myself that I was, in fact, restored to my proper place, upright and above water, I exhaled for what may have been the first time since I went into the water.

My first wet exit and paddle float rescue had been a success. Of course, I had the luxury of calm waters and the guidance of four registered guides -- not exactly real-life conditions.

But the hope is, once practiced, those self-rescue skills honed in a nearby lake or indoor pool will be at the ready when a real-life situation calls for them.

Willet, Brinser, Arienti and Forgione practice weekly in warmer months -- as guides they're responsible for keeping the rest of us yokels safe.

Of course, we yokels can help keep safe by learning a few skills of our own -- even if it sometimes means tossing ourselves out of a perfectly good kayak.

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 822-4056 or at:


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