It seems that it is currently fashionable among some sea kayak instructors to bash the standard paddle float solo re-entry as a useless skill. I am not of that camp, but even if you are, I urge you not to throw out your paddle float just yet. There are numerous ways that a paddle float can be beneficial to a sea kayaker.
1. If you need to tow an incapacitated paddler but don’t have a third person to raft up with the paddler for stability, put a paddle float on each blade of the incapacitated paddler’s paddle and he/she can use it to prevent a capsize as he/she is being towed.
2. If your roll just failed and you have had to do a wet exit, you can put a paddle float on your paddle and do a re-entry and roll. This is a much better solo rescue skill than the standard paddle float re-entry, but is not easily taught to most novice paddlers who have not been at least introduced to the roll. You are just about guaranteed to get back upright, and the paddle float will be on your paddle adding stability as you pump out all the extra water in your cockpit.
3. Many instructors who eschew the paddle float re-entry will instead advocate the scramble re-entry. I would argue that someone who can’t do a paddle float re-entry is not likely to be successful at a scramble, but I digress. If you have struggled to successfully complete a scramble re-entry, consider putting a paddle float on your paddle blade before you attempt to remount your kayak. The paddle float can be used to give you some support as needed, especially as you attempt to get your feet and legs into the cockpit and drop your butt into the seat (the part of the scramble that many paddlers struggle with).
4. Inflatable paddle floats may be useful as an air splint to help stabilize a fracture of the hand, wrist, foot, or ankle if you are wilderness camping and don’t have ready access to medical assistance for several hours or days.
5. I paddled for almost 20 years with a semi-inflated paddle float secured in the boat just forward of the seat under my thighs for comfort. Supporting the back of the thighs in a kayak seat helps to prevent lower back pain which is why many kayak manufacturers have added an adjustable thigh support feature to their seats. Having the paddle float partially inflated also made my paddle float re-entries much quicker as I didn’t have to spend as much time blowing up the float.
6. A paddle float can be used as a pillow for a nap after lunch or to get you through an uncomfortable and unexpected emergency overnight campout while awaiting better weather conditions or outside help.
7. Instructors like Helen Wilson advocate the use of paddle floats for learning how to roll a sea kayak.
8. When doing a re-entry of a tandem sea kayak with no other kayaks for assistance, the first person to re-enter the kayak (generally the stern paddler) can use a paddle float on his/her paddle to help stabilize the kayak while the second person re-enters the front cockpit. This is also a situation in which a good sculling brace can be done for stability by the paddler in the rear cockpit, but unfortunately not everyone has a really solid sculling brace and using the paddle float for support would be less tiring than the sculling brace if it takes the front paddler longer than expected to re-enter. If the front paddler needed extra assistance in re-entering, you might even be able to attach the paddle with the float under the deck rigging to give stability leaving the rear paddler’s hands free to help pull the front paddler aboard. (This would require some pre-planning to make sure your decklines and bungees will accommodate this set-up.)
9. In the event that a leak in a hatch threatens the buoyancy of a sea kayak, paddle floats could be inserted into the open hatch and inflated take up space and act as emergency float bags.
10. In the event that a smaller round hatch cover is lost or destroyed, an inflated paddle float could be jammed into the rim of the hatch opening to block the opening and prevent water from getting in.
11. If the waves have picked up significantly and a less experienced paddler is on the water and needs to get to shore, a set of “sponsons” could be created by putting an inflated paddle float on each end of a spare paddle. The paddle can be jammed through the deck rigging and secured with duct tape or zip ties on the back deck to create a set of “training wheels”. As long as the paddler stays upright, the floats would mostly be off the water. In the event that the paddler starts to tip, the float on that side would come in contact with the water and would hopefully slow the capsize enough that the paddler could regain his/her stability. (I plan to try this one for the fun of it when the water gets a little warmer around here this spring.)
These are just some ways that I have come up with to use a paddle float. With some creativity and ingenuity, I suspect that there are probably several other ways that this gear could be used. Inflatable paddle floats are relatively inexpensive and take up very little room in a sea kayak. I see no reason not to carry at least one.
Be safe on the water!