This was a ‘botched’ self-recovery scramble in a way not normally seen.

I did this on purpose to illustrate a couple of points.

Before I get to those points – a bit of background is necessary. I work with a range of students from the absolute beginner to the intermediate paddler. A common issue in that skill range is the challenge in getting back into the kayak using the scramble recovery method.

The answer I get most often when asking a student what their challenge has been – ‘not enough upper body strength’. 

Without question, some is required for scrambles, but it’s as much, if not more, leg strength….not upper body. 

But failing to scramble effectively could be the fault of your kayak….

Point 1: Technique matters

You can see my forearms flat on the rear deck and my feet kicking on the surface before I ‘launch’. These are big, powerful scissor kicks and I don’t stop kicking until I am over the deck. Power comes from the large leg muscles vs smaller upper body ones

It’s leg drive – those strong, powerful kicks that launch us. Pushing down on our forearms as we kick hard (and keep kicking) allows us to use our weight to help displace the kayak. We don’t climb or pull ourselves onto the kayak. The goal is to float, not muscle our way over it.

More upper body strength helps, and some is required, but I students who scramble successfully, yet tell me they can’t do push ups. 

Technique matters.

Formal instruction will help

YouTube videos are good. They can help you learn the technique, I still recommend working with an instructor. After watching student attempts, I can see what is and isn’t working. I can provide insight on what to try – or do – differently. It’s often slight variations in the technique that make all the difference. No video can provide that level of feedback and advice.

Point 2: Deck height matters 

Even with good technique, the scramble can be challenging. 

A big impediment to successful scrambles is the rear deck height of your kayak. The higher the deck sits over the water, the more lift – power  and strength – you’ll need to get on it.  

The Petrel Play has a rear deck height of 6 ¾ inches. Even with a bulky PFD, that’s not a lot of height I need to clear to get on (or over) the rear deck. Adding even a couple of inches to that height will make it harder to scramble over for beginners and those with less strength – it’s a challenge for me to get over the high rear deck of some expedition boats!

I have had a number of students struggle to scramble onto their deck, but having them use another kayak with a lower deck….they succeed and usually the first or second time. 

Deck height matters.

Beyond the deck height

The kayak’s width and even hull design can create challenges. The wider the beam, the more distance you need to clear to find that balance point before you can re-enter. Yes, you can start further down the stern at a narrower point, but that increases the distance you’ll need to travel to reach the cockpit. That increases the failure chance, especially in bigger sea states.

Starting further back, on a higher rockered hull, you trade the benefits of the narrower width for the increased height and sloped shape (not to mention swinging your leg over the peaked stern). 

Expedition boats (and other high volume – HV – models) combine the higher deck height with decreased stability as they sit higher on the water when empty – the way they are often used. (Packed for a trip, they will sit lower in the water and become more stable.) 

Narrower kayaks make it easier to get over the rear deck, but narrower often means ‘tippier’ so staying on the rear deck can affect the success of the scramble.

The kayak matters

My point here is that your inability to scramble/self-recover – whether it’s getting on the rear deck or staying on it – may be the result of what you are paddling, not a lack of skill.

As your skills improve and strength increases, you may find you can scramble onto kayaks you couldn’t as a beginner, but when starting out, before you give up and say, “I can’t do it,” try another kayak.

The kayak matters

Struggling with your scramble?

Try a different kayak. if you find that you succeed with a different kayak, awesome! You know you’ve got it! Just remember, you don’t need to go out and replace yours. Keep practicing – every chance you get. Dial in the technique. You’ll get there. 

And if you don’t, get some formal instruction. (I offer a range of classes covering everything from getting the right gear to the advanced skills needed to safely, confidently, and comfortably explore Puget Sound and beyond.)

In the meantime, you’ve learned a limitation and know assisted rescue will be the way to go. You’ll have the knowledge available of what to consider when you are ready to get another one or increase your fleet – and that day will come.

Focus on assisted rescues and go out with a buddy!

Extenuating circumstances

I want to add that the paddler’s physical size and weight, conditioning, and other physical limitations (old injuries, lack of flexibility) have a significant impact on the ability to self-recover with a scramble. I don’t want to gloss over that. 

Not everyone will be able to scramble, and there is nothing wrong with not having that self-recovery option. There are alternatives. The paddle float rescue and assisted rescues are excellent options.

2 replies
  1. N J brown
    N J brown says:

    Thank you for this perspective! Ive “failed” self rescuing via “cowboy scramble”— ice tried until utterly bruised!
    Im a 5’5” 118lb 72 yr old female; however, With decent upper body strength.I feel pretty good and successful
    about “heel hook” with know after helper and “ paddle float”
    I felt like an utter failure cowboy scrambling, but there are other ways to save oneself.

    • Robert Nissenbaum
      Robert Nissenbaum says:

      I know quite a few paddlers who struggle with this rescue, and it gets harder in bigger sea states. The fact that you know your limits with it is less failure and more success. That you can immediately go with what works when needed saves time. Just knowing that is a win!


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