Cold Water Safety – Golden Rule No. 5: Imagine the Worst That Can Happen and Plan for It

by Nancy Soares on August 26, 2013

by Moulton Avery

Editor’s note: Moulton Avery is founder and director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety.  He started out paddling canoes in the early 70’s and transitioned to sea kayaking in 1984. His pioneering article Cold Shock appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of Sea Kayaker.

“Risk assessment is a key safety element of every sea kayaking endeavor.”
– Eric Soares

In the long list of things that can go wrong, one of the worst calamities that can befall a paddler, particularly a cold water paddler, is to lose his or her boat. This can happen because it blows away, it sinks, or the paddler is unable to reenter it.

More than twenty years ago, on a cold, windy day in February, I found myself – much to my surprise and dismay – swimming my guts out in near-freezing water and large, confused seas in the tide race at Cape Henlopen, Delaware. My beloved sea kayak was nowhere in sight, and unless things got better really fast, I was shortly going to wind up out in the Atlantic Ocean on Hen and Chickens Shoal, which I figured to be an even worse place for a swim on that particular day. It was, as the saying goes, a real “learning experience”.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so let’s backtrack a bit…

Roughly nine out of ten sea kayaking fatalities result from capsizing in cold water without the protection of a wetsuit or drysuit. At the National Center for Cold Water Safety, we promote Five Golden Rules that enable any paddler to build a strong cold water safety net.  This post examines Rule No. 5: Imagine the Worst That Can Happen and Plan for It.

When something bad happens out on the water and you’re unprepared to deal with it, you’re in trouble – sometimes big trouble.  That’s why it’s a really good idea to make a practice of thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong, and making sure you have those bases covered before you go out.

Knowledge and Experience

The safety hurdle faced by many paddlers is that they don’t have enough knowledge or experience to imagine the all the things that can, and often do, go wrong – even on modest outings.  This places them at a huge disadvantage when trying to plan for the unexpected. So what can these folks do to improve their odds?  For starters, they can learn from the bad experiences suffered by other paddlers, and thereby avoid making the same mistakes – or at least be better prepared for them.

The Value of Second-Hand Knowledge

A lot of people believe there’s no way you can learn to kayak, rock climb, backpack, scuba dive, fly a plane, ride a horse, a bicycle, motorcycle or whatever just by reading about it – that the only way to really learn about that kind of stuff is by actually doing it. That’s true enough, but only up to a point – and it’s a very important point, because as it turns out, there’s a LOT of stuff that you really don’t want to learn about the hard way – by direct personal experience. Some sea kayaking examples:

  • Getting totally creamed when you decide to paddle out that little inlet or river mouth “just to check things out”.
  • Getting swept into a tide race or blown offshore into much rougher water even though the TV weather report you watched in the morning said nothing about dangerous tidal currents or small craft advisories.
  • Watching in horror as your kayak does a “Cleopatra’s Needle” or sinks like a stone because it has no floatation. Ditto watching your kayak blow away. (More on that later.)
  • Capsizing 200 yards from shore in 50F water and finding out that the guy who tried to warn you about the danger of cold water really did know what he was talking about.
  • Getting really and truly lost when fog rolls in and your trusty GPS runs out of juice, breaks, malfunctions, can’t get a signal – whatever – and now it’s getting dark and cold and you don’t have a map and compass and even if you did, you wouldn’t know how to use them.
  • Floating around in the dark, shivering and watching the lights of  boats and helicopters searching for you but having no way to signal them because you have neither flares, a waterproof flashlight, cell phone, VHF radio, or emergency strobe light.
  • Breaking or dislocating a finger, or cutting it to the bone.
  • Getting to the take-out and realizing that Mary is missing – she capsized 2 miles back but nobody knew it because your group didn’t have a designated sweep.
  • Being unable to function because your hands are completely numb – even though your drysuit is keeping the rest of your body toasty warm.

The mistake that led to my 45+ minute February swim in near-freezing water at the mouth of Delaware Bay was basically a failure of imagination. I totally failed to anticipate having the kayak knocked out of my very firm grasp and blown away while I was doing a reenter and roll that I’d nailed hundreds of times before.

During that long, drysuit-assisted swim, I developed a visceral appreciation for the value of a boat tether and belatedly installed one shortly thereafter – as did a lot of our fellow paddlers when they heard about the incident.  Ever since then, I’ve been a proponent of using boat and paddle tethers.

“Tethered to my trusty old 1984 Nordkapp HM with a short, stout line of marine-grade elastic shock cord.”

Tethered to my trusty old 1984 Nordkapp HM with a short, stout line of marine-grade elastic shock cord.

Many sea kayakers today use paddle leashes, and most carry spare paddles, but it’s worth pointing out that nobody carries a spare boat. Most board surfers consider tethers to be standard equipment, and it appears that most surfski paddlers do as well.  For some inexplicable reason, however, sea kayakers rarely use them, although losing a sea kayak can be every bit as hazardous as losing a ski.  Many cite a fear of entanglement – an understandable concern, but one that should really be a non-issue. For the record, you can’t get entangled in a yard-long tether.

My tether has a working length of 25 inches (<1 meter), and as the picture shows, it clips into a stainless steel ring that runs on a line across my foredeck.  It doesn’t impede a wet exit from my smaller ocean cockpit or interfere in any way with a smooth reenter and roll.

I unclip if I’m reentering my boat via an assisted rescue, and also unclip when launching or landing in surf, but otherwise I remain tethered – particularly in rough conditions, tide races, or when surfing offshore bars.

After getting back into sea kayaking in 2010, I was surprised to find that commercial tethers were quite long, and appeared flimsy compared to what I use.  The forces trying to separate paddler from boat can be huge at times, and under the wrong circumstances, a broken tether can have a fatal outcome.

On our National Center for Cold Water Safety website, each Golden Rule is followed by a description and analysis of one or more often fatal accidents.  The case that follows Rule No. 5 involves a very experienced paddler who died when the tether to his surf ski broke in very windy, rough-water conditions. You can read it at

Food for Thought – What will you do if…

  • Incapacitated by cold.
  • Blown out to sea by high wind.
  • Paddle breaks, drifts away, or is lost in rough water.
  • Tether breaks and boat blows away.
  • Waves dump water into cockpit and boat fills with water.
  • Capsize and can’t get back in boat.
  • Cell phone and/or VHF radio lost when boat blows away.
  • Hit a rock and smash hole in boat.
  • Dislocate shoulder.
  • Caught in thunderstorm.
  • Night falls – can’t see anything.
  • Paddle float blows away.
  • Become seasick or exhausted and can no longer paddle.
  • Lose the cover to the rear hatch.
  • Lose prescription glasses– can’t see.

If at all possible critical elements should have a backup – even if the backup is to make a repair. Is all of this overkill? Maybe, but you don’t often hear about “overly prepared” sea kayakers getting into trouble.

Checklists Are Your Friend

It’s easy to forget stuff – at home, in your car, and at the take-out. Consider having a checklist for each situation.

  • Leaving Home – a list of all the things you want to have with you at the put-in.
  • Launching – a list of all the things you want with you on the paddle.
  • Returning Home – a list of stuff that you don’t want to forget at the take-out.

I’ve never regretted being too vigilant, or safety conscious, or infatuated with checklists and meticulous planning, or cautious about my choice of paddling partners, but almost every single time I’ve made the mistake of being sloppy, lazy, or complacent about those things, it’s come back, in one way or another, to bite me on the rump.

Full Disclosure: I’ve forgotten all sorts of stuff, on various occasions, because I got sloppy with my checklists. Among other things, I’ve left my VHF radio, tow rope, and swim trunks at home, forgotten to pack lunch, left my compass or headlamp in the car, and forgotten to bring my wallet, a towel, a comb, and sunscreen. I also lost a very nice paddle because I left it on a boat ramp at the take-out and on one truly memorable occasion, was fortunate that someone miraculously had a spare PFD…


Educate Yourself
One of the best ways to expand your horizon of knowledge is by reading about bad stuff that happened to other people and reading safety articles written by paddlers with a lot of real-world experience.

National Center for Cold Water Safety at – Five Golden Rules and 19 case studies with lessons learned that drive the points home.

Deep Survival by Lawrence Gonzales is an excellent book that answers the question often asked after accidents: “What the hell were they thinking?”

www.tsunamirangers.comThe Tsunami Rangers website itself contains a wealth of information related to safety and preparation, including the following posts:

For additional articles on this website, click the Sea Kayaking Dangers category.

Sea Kayaker magazine is an excellent resource. Most issues have safety articles, and the magazine has also made 15+ years of back issues available online to the paddling community.  See their website’s Articles and Resources tabs.  The PDF section links to an excellent article by Doug Lloyd that appeared in the February 2000 issue: Staying ConnectedThe Case for Tethers.

Deep Trouble by Matt Broze and George Gronseth contains 22 stories and lessons learned that appeared in Sea Kayaker magazine. The stories are riveting, but the book’s cold water safety information is pretty thin.

Share Your Thoughts! Please share your comments about this post or any experiences you’ve had in which better preparation or equipment would have made a difference.  What articles, resources or gear have you found particularly helpful?  What’s your take on the issue of boat tethers?


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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Soares August 26, 2013 at 7:05 am

Thanks, Moulton, for another excellent article, well-researched and well-thought out. One of Eric’s favorite quotes was from Bismarck: “Fools learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others.” Second-hand knowledge as you rightly point out is invaluable.

On the topic of overkill: as one of the guys said at my recent KITW event, “You can’t have enough overkill.” I like your idea of checklists. I once learned to fly airplanes, and one of the most important thing about flying is that checklist. Your safety depends on it.

Scouting. People are always in such a rush to get on the water. I used to feel that too. Eric explained it to me as a form of nervousness. His advice was to calm down and look to see what’s actually out there. For example, we noticed that conditions look more benign from the bluffs than they do from the beach. There can be a big difference in how things appear depending on where you’re standing. It’s significant that the first 3 articles you mention on this site regarding preparedness involve scouting before you even get on the water. “Look before you leap!”

On a more humorous note, I remember the story Eric told me about the time he and some of the Rangers went kayaking. They remembered everything except the paddles. End result: they went for a nice hike. Eric would have balked at the idea of checklists, he just wasn’t that kind of guy, but a checklist would have prevented that error and afterwards he was scrupulous about locating the paddles before departure to the put-in.

Thanks again for your contributions to this site!


Moulton Avery August 31, 2013 at 11:17 am

Excellent point about the ubiquitous rush to get on the water, Nancy; I see it all the time. As so often was the case, Eric was right on the money when he described it as a form of nervousness. I like to think of it as “noisy mind”, a condition that drowns out the contemplative voice and makes it very hard, if not impossible, to think clearly and effectively scout the conditions.


Steven King August 26, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Thank you Moulton for a very well articulated and excellent post on a core topic for all Sea Kayakers. In fact several of us experienced some very high winds on a return from a sweet abalone diving spot on the Sonoma county coast a few weekends ago. We provided assistance to the paddlers that were having trouble with the 30 knot winds. As I read your post I could not help think about the safety net of a paddling with a small pod, tribe or group of people who can assist each other in the event of the many problems you described. That is one of the greatest joys of paddling with my fellow Tsunami Rangers, that tribal support system. True as Eric always said, “you are on your own and dont depend on the idea that someone will come save you if you get into trouble, be prepared mentally, physically and gear wise to save yourself”. In fact Rangers would, can and do take care of each other when necessary but there are times when even that can be quite a challenge. One rule of thumb in open ocean is avoid paddling alone if possible, there can be great joys in solo voyaging but the margin of error is more slim if big problems are encountered.

Thanks for keeping us all thinking how to be as smart as possible about each adventure on the water.



Nancy Soares August 27, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Hey Steve, good to hear from you! Melinda emailed me the story – she said that when Scott started towing her the jerk popped her out of the boat. I was watching Kayaking Ocean Rock Gardens yesterday, preparing for my trip to Ft. Bragg this weekend, and I noticed John Lull talking about having a bungie attached to the tow rope. I’m sure that’s to minimize the shock when the line goes taut. I’m checking my tow rope to be sure I have a bungie. Speaking of being prepared…


Moulton Avery August 31, 2013 at 11:05 am

Thank you for your nice comments and for sharing that experience, Steve. I completely agree with your thoughts on paddling with a good group. When paddling solo, particularly on cold water, the margin for error is often razor-thin, something that only becomes glaringly obvious when things start going wrong.

Hamilton Wood, a competent paddler died in February 2009 while undertaking a 6 mile solo ocean crossing off the Maine / New Hampshire coast. The water temperature was 37F, and when he capsized on the return leg of his trip, his roll failed, and he was unable to reenter using a paddle float. See Rule 3, Case 2 on our site:

A more recent example is Robert Weitzel, a 57 year old paddler who died last June on Lake Superior during a solo circumnavigation attempt. Water temperature was 42F, and when he capsized in rough conditions, he was unable to roll or self-rescue. Although he triggered his PLB and the Canadian Coast Guard found him within 2 hours, it was too late.

It’s worth noting that in both cases the paddlers became separated from their boats. Wood’s kayak was found by the Coast Guard with his paddle float outrigger still in place, but his body didn’t turn up until 2 months later when it washed ashore on one of the islands.


Tony Moore September 2, 2013 at 11:21 am

Great article, Moulton, as always. Checklists are something I have been using for decades, before I even took up kayaking. While spearfishing or SCUBA diving, a large white polypro bucket became my checklist…I wrote down everything needed using a Sharpie on the side of the bucket…two lists, one for spearfishing, the other for SCUBA. Without this, I’d be forgetting things all the time, as I tend to be absent-minded. Now that I kayak as well, my vehicle has become my kayak “shed”…everything I may need for any paddle is in there. I add certain items for winter paddling, and remove them when the season changes. This assures that if I make a long trip, I’ll only have to go to the car, and not back to the house, for what I need. Of course, I still have to go over a list before I launch to assure I have everything from the car that I will need. Even with this, however, stuff still happens, and I have to modify and add to my list. Just a couple of days ago, I was out in a particularly twitchy kayak. I hit a rough patch with wind and chop, and as soon as my hands got wet, the paddle became very slippery (which I HATE!!!)…it was really hairy out there! I managed to pull into a sandy beach, and using sand, “washed” the paddle and my hands. But this could have happened in an area without an available sandy beach, so from now on, I’ll take some surfer’s wax along on my kayak trips, which I apply to the paddle shaft for a very secure grip.


Moulton Avery September 2, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Wow, Tony! Thanks for commenting. Never heard of surfer’s wax; I’ll have to check it out. I’m working on that car thing; it’s a really great idea. As you probably noticed from the article, I have a real problem with forgetting stuff. Sometimes it just amazes me how something can go missing … for months! For-Ever! Is the wayward item in the car? No. In my bedroom? No. On the front deck? No again! OK, so maybe it’s in the kitchen – where I leave stuff as I’m busy scooting out the door. No. How about the basement? No, no, no. OK, that’s it, I give up.
Hey! Wait a second – now I get – it’s you bloody gnomes again, isn’t it; how much do I have to pay you little bastards this time? Silence.


Tony Moore September 3, 2013 at 10:32 am

If I didn’t use things like lists, I’d be forgetting everything all the time. I’m 62, but it isn’t age-related…I was absent-minded even as a kid. Once, in forth grade, I went to school, sat down in class, and thought everything was fine…until the teacher came up to me and said “What are you doing here? You graduated from this school last year!” I had mistakenly gone to my classroom from the previous year, but even worse, my forth grade class was in a different school, several blocks away! And even worse than this, it was already several weeks into the school year! My elementary school teachers always said I day-dreamed, but that was putting it mildly. Maybe that’s a reason I like rock gardening so much…you CAN’T day dream!
So as a result, I have learned to make lists, and do other things, to just survive day by day in the world. For example, if I have something that I have to take to work the next day, I’ll either put it in the car the night before, or wrap my car key around it. With strategies like this, I actually seldom forget things.
The surfer’s wax (which board surfers use so they don’t slip off their boards) I’ve been using for a few years now. Most kayakers seem to like a paddle shaft they can slide their hands along, but I prefer a solid, even sticky grip…just my personal preference. That particular day I mentioned in my last posting, the paddle shaft was way too slippery, I believe because I used some of that antibacterial gel soap before leaving from work (I work at a hospital). The soap does dry, but if your hands get wet, there are agents in those soaps that will make your hands slippery. I was out kayak surfing this morning, and I took the wax along…now it is an item on my “list”.


EB July 2, 2017 at 9:49 pm

Thank you for this whole endeavor. I’ve gone on half a dozen kayaking tours, only one in the tropics so the rest were dangerous (as I am only now discovering). I actually haven’t taken my own kayaks out much at all since we bought them because I was vaguely afraid of cold water but not sure what to do to be safe. So thank you so much. I’m feeling kind of appalled at those reputable, guide-book-listed tour companies that never once suggested we needed wet suits. Props to the white water rafting company that one time that DID make us all wear suits.


Moulton Avery July 4, 2017 at 4:32 pm

Hi EB- Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m glad that you found the information useful. It’s interesting that a lot of whitewater rafting companies insist on their clients wearing wetsuits, whereas (for some strange reason that I cannot begin to comprehend), it’s very unusual for guided kayak trips. Guided kayak tours that fail to do so are irresponsibly risking the lives of their clients and also teaching them an unsafe practice.
Moulton Avery


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