Capsize your Kayak

Casey AllenHumboldt Currents

  Flipping your kayak upside down while fishing offshore is not a good thing. Especially if you did not plan for it. That was one of many mistakes that led to my capsizing in Trinidad Bay.  First, I did not believe I would ever end up in the water. That belief allowed me to take shortcuts, like no lanyards on the rods. I have been out a number of times without mishap and, in hindsight, was over confident.

I was fishing with visiting kayak angler, Kenny Martinez, whose home water is Morro Bay. The seas off Humboldt County were a bit choppy so we planned to fish in the protected waters of Trinidad Bay. Kenny launched ahead of me and was paddling away when I sat my kayak in knee deep water only to be immediately flipped by the one-foot shore break I did not see coming. I actually did see it but did not see it as a threat. I was slammed into the sand with the kayak on top of me. I gained my feet, spit out some gritty saltwater, and glanced around to see any witnesses. Seeing none, I started gathering all the stuff that fell off the kayak. I was wearing stocking feet waders to keep the spray off and an inflatable personal floatation device (PFD). My upper body was soaked and I lost my glasses.

Kenny noticed my upside-down kayak and I waved him off, yelling that I would catch up. I righted my kayak and pulled it up the beach. Miraculously, I found all my stuff. Even my glasses washed ashore. I changed into a spare sweat shirt and rearranged my accessories into the kayak’s built in compartments.  This time I sat the kayak with much more care and was soon paddling away from the beach.

We had been fishing for a couple of hours and Kenny put a nice black rockfish in the fish box on his kayak. I was seeing fish on my fish finder but could not get a bite.  I decided to change rods, pre-rigged with another bait. I reached behind me to remove the new rod from the holder in my milk crate. As I turned back I felt a sinking feeling. In slow motion, the kayak rolled to the left. I had time to say, “No! Son of a b…..” bubble, bubble, bubble. There was no stopping it. Naturally, I let go of both rods. My legs were tangled in my paddle lanyard.  I thought about pulling the handle to inflate my PFD, but with sudden clarity, I realized I could not climb back on my kayak without taking off the inflated PFD. I was not cold or in immediate danger so I saved deploying my PFD.

I twisted around two full turns to free my legs from the paddle lanyard. Before climbing back on, I had to figure out how to flip the kayak back up-right. I tried grabbing a hold here and there to pull the boat over but could not get it to the tipping point. Kenny arrived to help and I warned him off in fear of capsizing him too. He could always tow me to a rock where I could gain purchase with my feet to right the kayak. After a few more minutes of trying, I found the right spot and pulled the kayak over rather easily.

Then, I realized I could not climb on because of some accessories in the way. A rod holder on one side and a fish finder on the other. I had to disassemble them and stow them out of the way before I could climb on. I tried climbing up the stern but the boat slipped away too easily.  I grabbed a hold in the middle by my seat and started kicking and pulling myself aboard.

Wearing chest waders in the water is not a big deal until you want out. While in the water, the pressure equalizes and you can move easily. But while climbing out, waders full of water get really heavy. I was able to kick and pull just enough to get my belly across the kayak seat. From there I carefully rolled my water laden legs on top of the kayak with my butt in the seat.  Kenny was ready with his knife to cut my waders and relieve the water pressure but I managed to make it, in the manner of a fat harbor seal.

After a few deep breaths, more from relief than exertion, I left Kenny fishing for my rods with his jig and paddled to the beach. Again, I was blessed with no witnesses. I struggled to the beach where I dropped my waders releasing a good twenty gallons of saltwater. I stood there draining  and wondering what I did wrong.  It is funny how your mind works better during adverse situations. Then I noticed the seat. It adjusts in two positions, high and low. It was in the high position, maybe six inches above the low position. That raised my center of gravity and made the boat much more tippy. What a fool. How could I have missed that? I thought I knew better.

The water did not feel cold and I never felt I was in danger. I was in the water around 15 minutes and Kenny said I was remarkedly calm while figuring out how to get out of the water. I really felt dumb and embarrassed as I realized all the things I did wrong and could have prevented with a little fore thought and effort.

The big lesson for me concerns attitude and over confidence. From now on, I will plan to capsize and end up in the water. Besides, as an abalone diver, I like being in the water. Other lessons include:

  • invest in a paddling suit or wear a wet suit.
  • purchase a PFD designed for use with kayaks.
  • redesign the deck layout to minimize accessories in the way of re-entry.
  • add lanyards to rods and other non-buoyant equipment.
  • take more time to plan each trip.
  • practice flipping your kayak at a lagoon or other protected water. This will help you learn where the tipping point is and how to right a capsized kayak. A short strap with a loop in the end would make righting a capsized boat easy and a foot in the same loop will aid re-entry.

Since telling this story I have learned that many kayak anglers have flipped their boats. Kenny Martinez recently flipped his when his flippers hit bottom, turning the boat sideways, and a wave dumped him. Another buddy and his partner both flipped their kayaks off Cape Mendocino in a rough chop.  So it is a common occurrence and no big deal if you are prepared for it.

I would suggest visiting the Nor Cal Kayak Anglers website and discussion board ( or their Facebook page for a lot of good information and help. Hiring a kayak fishing guide, like our own HASA board member Eric Stockwell, will help all kayak anglers improve their skills. Kayak fishing is a fun, challenging, yet affordable experience that allows access to waters not available to larger boats. It is totally safe when properly outfitted and with basic instruction and experience. Again, plan on getting wet.