You should carry a paddle float to back up your other rescue techniques. The paddle float works as a temporary outrigger. This self-rescue comes in a few variations. It's important to remember that they all require control and balance, and are tricky under the best conditions. The paddle float self-rescue requires lots of practice.
When you capsize and wet exit, the first thing to do is right the kayak. Then, climb onto the boat stomach down, just behind the cockpit. This will get you out of the water (to keep you warmer) and prevent the boat from drifting away from you. Kick with your feet to help stabilize the boat if needed. Blow up the paddle float about half way then put the paddle float on the end of your paddle and finish inflating it. Your paddle float should have a short strap or line to attach it to the paddle shaft.
Extend the float end of your paddle perpendicular to the side of your boat on which your legs are dangling. The paddle shaft should be just behind the cockpit. The hand closest to the bow should be holding onto both the cockpit and paddle, as when entering the boat from land. The hand closest to the stern should be holding the paddle shaft, near your hip. Put the leg that is closest to the stern onto the paddle shaft. This will help to support your body and keep the paddle at ninety degrees from the boat. Use your body and hands to hang onto the paddle. The boat will be stable as long as you keep your weight on the float side of your kayak. Keeping your weight on the paddle shaft, move your other leg into the cockpit. All the while, make sure you have a good grip on your paddle and boat. Keep that paddle perpendicular to the boat. Now, with the forward leg well inside the cockpit, shift some of your weight onto the boat and bring your other leg into the cockpit. Keep leaning on the paddle shaft, to get support from the float. Slide forward in the boat (toward your feet) until your stomach is over the seat. The next move is tricky! Keeping your weight on the paddle shaft, twist your body around facing the paddle float until you are seated in the kayak. Remember, keep your hands on the paddle shaft and let the paddle float work as a stabilizing outrigger. If you let go, you'll take another swim!
The paddle float self-rescue works well in calm to moderate conditions, but it will not work in rough conditions. Rough conditions make it much more difficult to get into the boat, and then once you are in, it will be very difficult to maintain stability while pumping out the boat. Most rigid boats become less stable when full of water.
"If you fix the paddle to the back deck you will find that the Paddle Float Self Rescue will be far easier to do in rough water (just about anything short of breaking surf) because you don't have to try to keep the paddle out at 90 degrees while entering and about all you have to worry about while pumping is to keep leaning some towards the paddle float side of the kayak.
Some paddlers do as Matt says, but our problem with this technique is that once you are back into the kayak, it can be difficult to get the paddle undone. A few kayaks are designed to attach the paddle on the rear deck for a self rescue. As always practice in the conditions you paddle. Your first time needing a self rescue should not be the first time you have done it in those conditions. Matt's tip is another good tool to have in your rescue tool box.
Re-entry and Roll
It's a good idea to learn to re-enter and roll with a paddle float. Here's how. After a wet exit, hold onto your boat by hooking your arm through the deck lines or by putting your leg into the cockpit. Inflate the paddle float about half way, slip it onto your paddle and then blow it up the rest of the way. Your paddle float should have a strap or line to attach it to the paddle shaft. When you are ready to re-enter your kayak, hold your paddle in the hand that is holding the near side of the cockpit. Slide your body into the boat until you are in the seat. You can try putting your feet into the cockpit first and then flipping under, or flipping under first and somersaulting in upside down. If you try the somersault, set up facing the stern of the boat. When you go under, push yourself down firmly remember you are wearing a PFD! Be warned, this will be confusing the first few times you try it.
At this point, you and your boat are upside down. Get good contact with the boat with your feet, knees and back. With the paddle float, do a sweep stroke so that the paddle is at a ninety-degree angle from the boat. Use the paddle for support (like an Eskimo paddle rescue) and snap your hips to get the kayak under yourself. This will right the kayak and get you into paddling position. The re-enter and roll is a very useful self-rescue, but takes more skill (and therefore needs more practice) than a regular paddle float rescue.
If you have a roll and still somehow find yourself out of the boat, then you can reenter and roll without the paddle float. With practice, this is a very quick recovery.
This self-rescue looks like a trick, but it's fast and can be effective even in rough water once you've mastered it. More than most recoveries, the Cowboy rescue requires good balance, good bracing skills, and a flexible body. At the bow of the kayak, support yourself with a scissor kick and lift/flip the kayak, righting it and emptying out most of the water. Now, work your way toward the rear deck, kick your legs on the surface and haul yourself up, pulling the deck under your midsection so that your weight is evenly divided on both sides of the boat. With your paddle in your hands for bracing as needed, swing your leg over the stern so that both legs are dangling in the water and you are facing the bow. Slowly advance toward the cockpit, using your dangling legs for stability and bracing as needed. Don't let your spray skirt get caught under you as you go. Come forward until your butt is over the cockpit and drop into the seat with legs still dangling. Lean and brace (scull) to one side while you bring the leg on the brace side into the cockpit and get it firmly placed on the foot peg. That leg maneuver is where you need the flexibility (and where many fail). With the first leg in place, follow with the second. With (lots of) practice, this self-rescue can be done in less than a minute!
What if you can't get that leg inside the cockpit? This recovery is still useful in tight places where others can't easily get to you. Simply plunk that butt into the cockpit and paddle out of danger with legs dangling. A better self rescue, or an assisted one, can be completed in calmer waters.