Two pieces of standard safety gear carried by most sea kayakers are the pump and paddlefloat. As many people don’t give these items a lot of thought before purchasing, I’d like to discuss some considerations in choosing a pump and a paddle float.
There isn’t a lot of difference between most of the bilge pumps currently on the market. Most have some sort of flotation collar so that the pump will not sink if dropped overboard, even when full of water. The main difference seems to be size, and the ease of pumping the handle. There is probably a slight difference in the volume of water that each pump is able to move with each stroke, but I am personally more concerned with ease of pumping since the differences in volume are fairly small. I also like to have a small eyelet somewhere on my pump so that I can tether the pump to my kayak to keep from losing it if I drop it.
Generally, I do not have a strong bias toward any one pump, however, I would strongly recommend that you do not waste your money on the Seattle Sports Paddlers Bilge pump, the reason being that it becomes very difficult to use in a very short time. I bought 6 of them last season to use in my instructional classes. I’ve had to replace all six of them because it is almost impossible to push the pump handle in or pull it out. I have been unable to determine any reason for the tendency of the pump handles to freeze up. While the blue and yellow Seattle Sports pump is inexpensively priced, if you have to replace it after one year or it doesn’t work in an emergency, in my mind that is a very expensive pump. So far, I have had good success with the new Harmony High Volume Sea Kayak pumps and the Aqua-Bound Bilge Master pumps although I have heard of some people having problems with the plastic handle coming off the stainless steel rod on the Aqua-Bound pumps.
When purchasing a paddle float, your first decision will be whether to get an inflatable style or a foam float. I’ve had a couple of students who bought North Water foam floats based on the compelling argument that the foam float is faster to deploy since it does not require you to blow it up. That is true. Unfortunately, what was not explained was that the foam floats have significantly less buoyancy than the inflatable versions. This may not be as much of a concern for smaller paddlers and for those who can do scramble (cowboy) solo re-entries with their kayaks. But for the average beginner or heavier paddler, that lack of buoyancy can make a big difference when it comes to their success in performing a solo paddle float re-entry. The extra time that it will take you to blow up an inflatable paddle float may still get you out of the water faster than a foam float if you are successful on your first attempt compared to several failed attempts with the foam float.
The foam floats are also more difficult to carry. They do not fit inside the cockpit of most sea kayaks, and they are bulky to carry strapped on deck. the newer North Water Sea Tec foam paddle float is a little easier to strap on deck, but still takes up a lot of deck space and may interfere with layback rolls depending on where you carry it. The inflatable paddle floats do have the potential to develop leaks or to have the valves break which would potentially render them useless. For that reason, you should look for dual chambered inflatable paddle floats. If one of the chambers should fail to hold air, there is usually still enough buoyancy in the remaining chamber to complete a solo re-entry. The inflatable floats are much more compact to carry whether inside the cockpit or under the bungees on your deck. While I do not like the Seattle Sports pump, I highly recommend the Seattle Sports dual chambered paddle float. It has a tremendous amount of buoyancy making paddle float re-entries easier for all beginners, and especially heavier paddlers.
I own both styles of paddle floats. I use my foam float in the winter when air temperatures are below freezing to prevent the possibility of having the air valves in my paddle float freeze up rendering the float unusable. However, I always carry my inflatable float with me. I have it partially inflated and strapped inside my cockpit just forward of my seat. It provides support for the back of my thighs and reduces the amount of time that it takes me to complete the inflation whenever I use a paddle float for re-entry. Some people have questioned the wisdom of using a piece of safety gear in this way. Others have raised the concern that the float might get in my way when exiting or entering my kayak in an emergency. I do not dismiss these concerns. However, I have carried my paddle float this way for almost 20 years with no problems. As an instructor, I have literally done hundreds of wet exits and re-entries and my paddle float has never caused a problem. I might also counter that I am more likely to notice a leak in my paddle float before I need it in an emergency since I would likely see that it wasn’t holding air when resting my legs against it. No matter how you carry your paddle float, or what style you carry, you should always check your safety gear regularly.
Pumps and paddle floats may be relatively inexpensive pieces of gear when compared with kayaks, paddles, sprayskirts, life jackets, flares, VHF radios, and practically everything else a sea kayaker carries, but as safety gear that may one day save your life or someone else’s, they do warrant some thought and consideration when it comes time to purchase. What brands and styles have you purchased? Were you happy with your purchase? Have you tried using your pump and/or paddle float recently? Is it working the way it should? I’d like to hear from you.