The importance of wearing a buoyancy aid when kayaking

The importance of wearing a buoyancy aid when kayaking

As the head instructor of a popular water sports company in North Devon, I spend a lot of time in and around the water, and often wonder what the experience level is of some of the other people we see out and about in their kayak.

We run kayak sessions led by qualified instructors mainly in the sea, and all of our clients wear a full range of personal protective equipment including an approved buoyancy aid.

Over 1.2M people took part in this activity in 2012 and over 276,000 UK households now own a canoe or kayak. Over the years we have seen some amazing sights whilst at sea but nothing surprises us more than when we see people venturing out into the big blue yonder with no safety equipment, no floatation device and wearing just a t-shirt and shorts. As they paddle on past, they stare at us wearing all our safety kit and smile, wave and carry on without a thought for the what ifs. The what if it all goes wrong and I end up in the water, will I be able to get myself to safety?

Every time you go for a paddle there is always the possibility that you could end up in the water, and every season we have not only had to assist in getting our own group members back into their kayaks but we have also had to summon the assistance of other boats and the RNLI to help other kayakers that we have seen get into difficulty. Capsizing your craft and ending up in the water is an everyday occurrence and while fatalities are rare, they demonstrate the need for constant water based vigilance. When things do go wrong, especially in cold water, they can go from bad to worse very quickly.

Kayaking safety and temperature of the water

The lack of awareness of sea conditions, insufficient safety equipment and limited, if any rescue training will all combine to turn a beautiful day out on the water to a potentially life threatening experience. According to Dr Patrick Buck PhD REMT (The Chilling truth about cold water immersion), “humans require a stable core body temperature (CBT) of around 37°C to operate efficiently. Even very small CBT deviations from this can have a profound effect on how we feel, perform and think. As a consequence the body must constantly invoke physiological responses to offset any external temperature influence. Primarily this is achieved by either the body generating heat (shivering and increased metabolism) or by minimising heat loss through such mechanisms as vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels) or even perhaps by just putting on another layer of clothing.”

Dr Patrick Buck goes on to state that “on land the body usually has little difficulty in achieving a stable CBT. However, if a person falls into cold water the challenge becomes much more significant. While the body will deploy every mechanism at its disposal to try and maintain its CBT at 37°C, it can only do it for so long. Over time, as the body runs out of energy, the CBT will start to drop. The more it does so, the more critical the situation.” “In sub 10°C water, the typical winter and spring sea and inland water temperatures in many parts of the World, cold incapacitation can start to cause problems in around 10 minutes. Over the next 20 – 30 minutes it will get progressively worse usually rendering the casualty incapable of carrying out even simple tasks, like firing a flare or operating a portable VHF radio. It will also seriously impact on a person’s swimming ability and if they were not wearing a buoyancy aid when they entered the water they will drown.”

Without proper training and the continuous practice of self rescue, it is very easy to end up in the water, and the longer it takes you to get back into your kayak, the colder you get. As this happens, the less your muscles want to work as the blood rushes to your vital organs to maintain the core temperature, and the harder it becomes to get back into your kayak, making the situation worse. Water will zap your body temperature 25 times faster than air of the same temperature and so even on a warm summer’s day, you don’t want to be in the water for too long.

How a buoyancy aid helps in kayaking

An approved buoyancy aid when kayaking will help you if you end up in the water in a number of ways.

  1. 1. It will keep you afloat which will not only make the ability to self rescue easier but it will make life much more pleasant if you are going to be in the water for a long period whilst you wait for assistance.
  2. 2. As most Buoyancy Aids are made from foam, they have insulating properties that will slow down the rate at which you lose core temperature and so will keep you warmer and give you more time to rescue yourself or others.
  3. 3. If you were to injure your arm or another limb, the Buoyancy Aid will keep you above the water and make it possible to swim to safety if required.
  4. 4. A good kayaking Buoyancy Aid will have at least 1 pocket and so if you have been separated from your kayak and have been able to keep a VHF radio, mobile phone or even a small flare pack in your pocket, you will still have the ability to call for help.
  5. 5. If you end up in the surf, the Buoyancy Aid (as well as a helmet) will offer a degree of protection against impact from your kayak, submerged objects and rocks.
  6. 6. If you are being rescued, having a Buoyancy Aid on makes it much easier as your rescuer will have strong straps to hold on to which will assist in getting you back in your kayak.

Conclusion on wearing a buoyancy aid while kayaking

To conclude, wearing a CE approved and properly fitted buoyancy aid is vital when going out kayaking, whether you are venturing out on an open sea crossing or a gentle paddle down the local canal. We at H2Outdoor would never consider going on the water without one and they end up feeling like a safety belt in the car, where you automatically put it on and it tends to feel very wrong if you don’t have it. There are a number of places that you can purchase a Buoyancy Aid and you can pay as little as £30 for a brand new one but seek advice if you need it and better still, take some lessons from a Qualified Instructor who will show you the equipment you should have, and will be able to offer lessons in the basics of rescuing yourself and others.


or more information on staying safe in you kayak, check out this RNLI Safety Leaflet or this short video made on behalf of the RNLI