The Lost Hatch Cover – An Unscripted and Very Real Scenario

It was the second day of our BC Open Water Coastal Kayak Trip Leader course. The day’s plan was to continue our skills development in advanced conditions while working on leadership components critical to taking others in those environments. 

Shortly after launch, there was an unscripted ‘incident’ to test us.

The hatch cover

We all carry a paddle float and bilge pump. They’re essential safety items. But they come with a challenge – where to keep them? 

The ideal location is a secure spot inside the cockpit – somewhere easily accessed without creating an entrapment risk or impeding getting back into the kayak. It can take a bit of customization to figure that out. So, the default tends to be having them on the front deck, secured under the shock cord. That’s exactly where the pump was on one of the kayaks in our group. Unfortunately….where it was placed created a new risk.

One of our instructors noticed the pump’s handle was partially inside the spray skirt’s grab loop. In the event of a capsize and wet exit, there was a risk the pump’s location could impact removing the spray skirt.

With enough of us having pumps, a decision was made to store the pump in question in the rear hatch. It wouldn’t be needed.

Another in our group rafted up, popped the rear hatch cover off and let go to stow the pump…..

The cover promptly sank.

Paddle prepared

Trip leaders need to account for a variety of scenarios, from the ‘likely to happen’ variety to the completely unexpected. I carry a wilderness first aid kit, my BAM (wilderness survival) kit, and a boat repair kit. Almost everyone in our group carries similar gear. We need to be able to fix people and boats. The more open the water, the rougher the conditions, the further from rescue or support, and the bigger the potential risks – the more we carry.

The first priority was securing the hatch. We didn’t need to add practicing Cleopatra’s Needle as part of the day’s curriculum.

A quick on-water ‘repair’ was done using a small plastic trash bag and a length of shock cord to hold it to the rim. It would prevent water splashing in, but a capsize or breaking wave would be a problem. For now, it would have to do. 

Leadership note – The call NOT to land immediately and perform a more permanent repair was made. Landing now would risk worsening conditions where we were. With a manageable route and an accessible beach ahead, the least risky option was to continue.

After paddling out against the roughly 3 knot current to work our way around the breakers (and up and over the 6-8 ft swells), we turned inland traversing a stretch of rough water before landing on the southernmost tip of the Damon Point Natural Area.

Once on the beach, as part of our training, one group was tasked with a debrief of the trip. The rest of us set to work on a solution for the hatch cover.

A more secure solution

The big challenge – it had to be bomb-proof. We were out for the weekend. There is no chance of getting a replacement hatch cover. Our afternoon would have us intentionally capsizing in rough water to practice rescues. The next morning it would be back into the surf. Any repair had to withstand those conditions. 

In creating a solution, there were two concerns – keep water out and minimize the space water could occupy/buoyancy in the event that water did get inside.

The plan

We’d used several paddle floats to take up space inside the hatch. They’d be pushed into the hatch, inflated, and wedged in as tightly as possible to displace water that could potentially enter while adding buoyancy. The hatch opening would be sealed using tape, then the plastic bag and shock cord over and around the rim would be reused. This would provide structural support to prevent the bag from imploding and a waterproof outer layer. 

We had everything needed between the group, with a few of us having everything in our own kits. 

With the plan in hand, our lead instructor reached into his personal repair kit and handed us an NRS float bag and an emergency hatch cover allowing us to reduce how many paddle floats we needed and to skip the plastic bag. (Note to self – I have things that need to be added to my kit.)

The final solution:

  • One paddle float inflated and placed up against the rear bulkhead
  • The float bag stuffed into the hatch and inflated 
  • A laminated chart added to protect the float bag (though not entirely necessary.
  • The hatch opening sealed with Crystal Clear Gorilla Tape
  • We used the Reed emergency hatch cover to seal everything
Robert Nissenbaum holding an NRS paddle float with a sea kayak on the beach

We did have a bit of fun with it. Noticing the chart was ‘usable’ the way it was positioned, a grease pencil was used to mark where the hatch sunk and where we performed the repair!

Lessons learned

  1. Hatch covers should not be removed while on the water. Beyond the risk of losing one altogether, they can be hard to seal when putting them back on the rim. It’s an unnecessary risk to take, even in flat water.Yes, the concept of a day hatch is to provide the paddler with easy access to items that could be needed on the water while in the cockpit. That still doesn’t make it good practice. I carry whatever I could need on the water in my PFD.

    The exception to the rule is the Whisky hatch on the front deck.

  2. Hatch covers need to be tethered. One, it allows safe access to your day hatch. Two, even if they will not be opened on the water, hatches are accessed during the day. We’ll often land just off the water’s edge or have the tide come up while on a beach. The water level may not be enough to move a kayak, but it could carry off a hatch cover or submerge one.On one of our H20 legs, a buddy pulled a small frying pan from his hatch and set it down as he unloaded the rest of the items. At dinner he couldn’t find the pan. It was found just below the water’s surface in the morning. The tide came in just enough to cover it. Had that been his hatch cover……

    Hatch covers can be tethered inside from the bottom of the cover to a point inside the hatch or from a tab on the outside of the cover to a deck fitting or the perimeter line.

    And most importantly….

  3. Have a spare hatch cover. Or at least a way to make one. I don’t have one. I likely will not order one. I do have tape and plastic bags and shock cord. While a true emergency cover is the best solution, it’s more to carry. I prefer items that have multiple uses. Less gear for more solutions. Plus, while clearly a real scenario (as are blown hatch covers when getting pummeled in surf or rough water), it’s not common. If you spend a good deal of time where the risk of losing a cover is greater, then expand your kit to meet your needs.

As a leader, it’s the ability to manage problems and find solutions that is invaluable – and It’s the hardest to teach. 

A final note since it may be a nagging question for some: 

Why did the individual helping stow the pump let go of the hatch cover?

In their defense, they didn’t know the cover wasn’t tethered. Most are. It simply happened. There is no blame placed on the water – only solutions found.

6 replies
  1. Dnitra Ayers
    Dnitra Ayers says:

    This was an excellent post! You really came up with an awesome solution to a precarious situation.
    I am extremely impressed by your abilities once again Robert!

    • Robert Nissenbaum
      Robert Nissenbaum says:

      Thank you, Dnitra. This was a bit of a group effort, so not just my solution. Each of us had a part in deciding how to best secure the hatch – including the paddler who’s boat lost it. Being prepared and resourceful makes it easy – or at least easier – to manage and find solutions.

  2. Terri
    Terri says:

    I am very interested in technology and can fix a lot of things that go wrong. My husband has absolutely no understanding of any of this stuff. Reading about your adventure, mishap and pivot reminds me of times with some technology has gone wrong and I’ve fixed it.

    I think every mistake teaches us something. I suspect you guys are experienced enough where you don’t make many mistakes, but I’m sure none of you will ever venture out without a tether on your hatch covers 👌. So glad everybody was safe and still smiling 😊

    • Robert Nissenbaum
      Robert Nissenbaum says:

      Terri, we have learned not to rely on technology – use it as a tool, but have the ability to operate without it. This is a big thing with navigation.

      I agree that each mistake improves our skill set. We still make plenty of them and we’re always learning. And yes, safe and smiling – even joking about it now!


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