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Essential Gear: The Bilge Pump and Paddle Float

Alan Bergman – Peanut butter and jelly isn’t the only iconic couple out there.  Many kayakers think of a bilge pump and paddle float as another inseparable twosome.  In fact, if you watch paddlers loading up their kayaks with gear prior to launching, chances are probably good that these two pieces of gear are put on board almost simultaneously.

Let’s take a look at why both the bilge pump and paddle float qualify as essential kayaking safety gear.


Most bilge pumps for kayaks are hand-operated mechanisms that make it easy to remove excess, unwanted water from the boat.  Whether paddling on a lake, river, bay or ocean, water can make its way into the kayak cockpit, creating a situation which can be anywhere from uncomfortable to downright dangerous.

Hand-operated bilge pumps can remove that water from the kayak or canoe at a rate of 8 gallons per minute.

Bilge pumps are usually manufactured in brightly-colored plastic and are made to float.  They tend to be up to 2 feet in length, and only weigh 1-2 pounds.  A simple up-and-down pumping of the handle, with the pump’s “mouth” aimed over the kayak side, will quickly and easily return the water to whence it came.

The most important takeaway here is to stow the pump in a place on the boat that is readily accessible while on the water.  Experienced kayakers will place the pump under the deck bungee cords closest to the seat, or on the kayak floor, alongside or behind the seat.


The other part of the peanut butter and jelly team is the paddle float.  The purpose of the paddle float is to assist with capsize recovery, easing and facilitating the kayaker’s ability to re-enter the boat. Basically, the paddle float is used as a brace or an outrigger.

There are two versions of paddle floats available; and, of course, two widely differing opinions over which is better.

One type is inflatable, which after placing the vinyl sleeve over the blade and blowing up its one or two chambers, sort of resembles a floating cushion.  The other type is simply a foam block, which is also placed over the paddle blade.  The primary advantage of the inflatable float is that it takes up less room on or in the kayak, while foam-block fans applaud the fact that it doesn’t require the time and effort to inflate.

Once the paddle float is attached to one of the paddle blades, the other blade is placed under the boat’s rear rigging.  The paddle is now perpendicular to the kayak.  The kayaker scrambles up, placing himself belly-down over the paddle, using it for support.  He then gently rotates, pushing one leg into the cockpit, and then the other, while always keeping his body as low as possible.  With practice, a kayaker can be back in the boat quickly, ready to reach for the bilge pump and complete the self rescue.  Check out on-line videos of the technique for a clear demonstration.  Search “Paddle float kayak rescue”