Can a Kayak Sink? Even If It Fills With Water?

Can a Kayak Sink?

It takes a lot to sink a kayak, but it can happen. Kayaks are designed to carry paddlers and gear, floating on top of the water. Modern kayaks are designed to continue to float even filled with water. But despite all the precautions, there are still things that can sink your kayak, especially if it fills with water.

Can a kayak sink? Yes, a kayak can sink. If you load more weight in it than a kayak is rated to carry it can sink. Overloading a kayak makes it easier for water to get in and fill it to the point of sinking. Sit-in kayaks are more likely to sink than sit-on kayaks because of their open hull design.

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A Sinking Kayak is a Bad Day

It will take a lot of water filling up your kayak or some serious damage to the hull, but a kayak can sink. And even if it doesn’t… Even if your kayak just fills with water and slips below the surface, you may be unable to get the water out and paddle to shore.

That said, most kayaks won’t sink without damage to the hull, overloading or improper use.

But you can prevent your kayak from sinking by following some key kayak safety tips.

First, let’s look at a few reasons your kayak might sink.

Will a Kayak Sink if It’s Filled With Water?

Modern kayaks are designed to prevent sinking even when filled with water. But a kayak will sink below the surface if it’s filled with water. Water in your kayak will add a lot of weight and decrease the buoyancy of your kayak. This makes it much more likely that your kayak can sink.

And even if your kayak simply gets submerged but doesn’t sink all the way to the bottom, it will still be difficult to paddle it to safety. And, depending on the weather, your risk of hypothermia increases once your body is submerged in cold water.

If your kayak does fill with water, you have to get that water out as quickly as you can.

Carry a Bilge Pump

A good way to prevent your kayak from filling up with water is to carry a bilge pump when you paddle. A bilge pump is a water removal device that all kayakers, especially sit-inside kayak paddlers, should carry.

The way a kayak bilge pump works is you put the pump inside of your kayak where the water is filling up. Then you put the nozzle or hose out and over the side of your kayak and start pumping the handle. Water is sucked out of your kayak and pumped up and out through the bilge pump nozzle or hose end of the bilge pump.

Water simply goes back into the lake, river or ocean.

Without a bilge pump, it will be very difficult to get water out of your kayak. So, you’ll want your bilge pump easily accessible.

Strap a bilge pump to the deck of your kayak within easy reach and it will be handy should you ever need it.

But what if my kayak flips?

Will a Kayak Sink if it Flips?

A kayak can sink if it flips over in open water. If your kayak flips over and a significant amount of water enters the hull, there’s a chance it will sink.

Capsizing is a bigger issue for sit-in kayaks because they have an open hull at the cockpit where water can pour in.

Sit-on top kayaks are much harder to sink if they flip over. A sit-on-top kayak is like a one piece pontoon and some people call them unsinkable.

Sit-on kayaks don’t have a big open hull that can fill with water. Most of the water that gets on a sit-on-top kayak will pour off when you flip it back over.

So, sit-in kayaks are much more likely to sink if they flip over than sit-on-top kayaks are.

But both sit-in and sit-on have some built-in safety features that make sinking much more unlikely than you might think. Sit-in kayaks usually have closed float chambers at each end or styrofoam or other flotation material inside the bow and stern of the kayak. This helps improve buoyancy and prevent sinking.

But here’s a scary thought…

Can a Shark Sink a Kayak?

Though there have been no documented reports of a shark actually sinking a kayak, it’s still something to consider before you head out kayaking on the ocean.

There have been shark attacks on kayaks where sharks have bitten large holes and gashes in the sides and bottoms of kayaks and the kayaks filled with water, but the kayaks didn’t sink. And if an enclosed sit-on kayak got bitten by a shark, water could get into the kayak and cause it to fill with water. And that would increase the possibility that it might sink.

If a shark does bite your kayak, the best thing to do is to stay in your kayak and try to paddle it to shore as quickly as possible.

Can Sit In Kayaks Sink?

My first kayak was a sit-inside kayak. Except for a drain plug on top of its deck, I didn’t see a way for any water that got in it to drain out.

Sit in kayaks are tough to sink, but not unsinkable. Sitting inside a sit-in kayak, your center of gravity is lower which helps prevent tipping and capsizing. And most sit-in sea kayaks have cockpit skirts that cover the cockpit hole, preventing water from filling the inside of your kayak, even if you tip sideways or roll over.

However most beginning kayakers don’t use cockpit skirts with their recreational sit-inside kayaks. So, if they roll sideways or capsize, they’re going to fill with water.

Depending how much water gets inside before you can turn your kayak back upright, it may sink.

Additional Flotation

Another danger of sit-in recreational kayaks is that the less expensive ones come with foam inserts in the open spaces under the bow and stern. This is to help them float in case they get filled with water. I know on my own kayaks those styrofoam inserts get pulled out or lost quickly.

Once those flotation inserts are gone, a recreational sit-in kayak can sink pretty easily.

Kayak Flotation Bladders

To avoid that, you should get kayak float bladders or bag inserts to put in the bow and stern of your kayak. This will at the very least prevent your kayak from sinking if it gets filled with water. And it may just give you enough time to get rescued should you need it.

Once again, float bags will only help a little, especially if you overload your kayak and exceed its carrying capacity.

But what about sit-on-top kayaks?

Can Sit On Top Kayaks Sink?

Sit-on-top kayaks, vs sit-in kayaks, are almost unsinkable. They have a one-piece molded hull and most have an open tank used for storage and carrying all the gear you may need on a kayaking adventure. This one-piece, open hull design makes sit-on-top kayaks difficult to sink.

If your sit-on-top kayak does not have any major damage to the hull, such as holes or cracks, there’s little to no chance of it sinking.

Will a Kayak Sink Without Scupper Plugs?

A Sit-on-top kayak is like a big pontoon boat on top of the water. They usually come with scupper holes in them.

Kayak scupper holes are a self-bailing feature of sit-on-top kayaks. Scupper holes on a kayak allow water to pass in and out of the kayak without letting it sink. As you add more weight or remov it from the kayak, the scupper holes let water flow in and out of the kayak.

Also, if too much water splashes over the side of a sit-on-top kayak, it will drain out the scupper holes.

Kayak scupper plugs fill scupper holes and stop them from self-bailing. If you plug the scupper holes on your kayak, water won’t get in through them. But any water splashed into your kayak will stay there .

Scupper plugs are more about the comfort of the kayaker than a worry of your kayak sinking without them. Because scupper plugs fill holes on the kayak, preventing water from beneath your kayak to bubble up into your cockpit area so you stay dry.

In the heat of the summer, kayaking without scupper plugs is a great way to let water in to beat the heat. The water can cool you down as you’re enjoying a day out on the river, lake, or ocean. But in the winter you’ll most likely use them to keep the water out, stay dry, and be warmer on your kayak.

How Do I Prevent My Kayak From Sinking?

How do I keep my kayak from sinking? To prevent your kayak from sinking don’t overload it. Keep water out of the hull and carry a bilge pump with you to remove any water that does get inside your kayak. Be safe when you’re on the water and avoid water and situations where your kayak might flip over and fill with water.

Here are some other suggestions to help prevent your kayak from sinking.

Choose the Right Kayak

Choose the right kayak for the type of paddling you’re going to do.

Sit-on-top Kayaks

Beginners should start paddling in the summer with a sit-on kayak. The consequences of flipping a sit-on kayak in the summer are far less. Then learn balance, stability and paddling techniques to stop yourself from falling out of or flipping your kayak.

Sit-in Kayaks

Sit-in recreational kayaks are more prone to filling with water because most beginning paddlers don’t put a cockpit skirt on them to close up the large open hull area. They can fill with water if you flip them or a wave comes over your side.

Sea/Touring Kayaks

Ocean, touring or sea kayaks are faster and more maneuverable, but they’re less stable than wider recreational kayaks. Put in some time paddling and improve your kayaking skills, techniques and paddling before you upgrade to these types of kayaks.

Bring a Bilge Pump

When I go out on the water, I always keep my bilge device with me along with bringing my scupper plugs just in case (they’re easy to put in and take out).

Add Flotation Bladders

I mentioned above that many sit-in recreational kayaks have open hulls and lack bow and stern flotation chambers. Pick up some kayak bladders to provide extra flotation in the front and rear of your recreational sit-in kayak.

In a pinch you can stuff the open area in your kayak’s bow and stern with pool noodles for added flotation.

Get a Spray Skirt

I mentioned the lack of cockpit covers. These covers are also called spray skirts. If you’re going to kayak in a sit-in kayak in anything but nice summer weather, you should get one for your kayak.

But be warned, attaching yourself to a sit-in kayak with a spray skirt has some inherent risks.

Learn the Eskimo Roll

If you kayak in a sit-in kayak, especially with a skirt, you should learn a technique called an Eskimo roll. It’s basically a paddle technique that helps you get yourself back upright should your kayak flip upside down.

The reason you need to learn this is simple. If you are in a sit-in kayak with a spray skirt, it will be very hard to get out of if you flip upside down. As in, you could drown trying to get out of your cockpit. So this paddle technique helps you right yourself and your kayak if you capsize.

The last thing I want to worry about when kayaking is sinking my kayak and needing to get rescued, so make sure you’re always prepared and have the equipment to handle the situation of taking on water into your kayak.

Some Kayak Safety Tips

You can reduce some of the risks of a kayak that fills with water and starts sinking by following a few simple kayak safety rules..

Don’t Panic

It’s going to be hard, but the first rule is to try and remain calm and clear headed. Fear breeds poor decision making and poor decision making causes small problems to turn into big problems.

Wear a Life Vest

It can’t be overstated that the single best thing you can do to prevent bad things from happening should your kayak fill with water or start to sink … is to have a life vest ON. The strongest swimmers will have trouble trying to get into a submerged kayak or “swim” that kayak to shore without a life vest on.

And in the unlikely event that you have to abandon a sinking kayak, you’re going to be happy you wore your life vest.

Paddle at Your Skill Level

Don’t go paddling in weather or water that you aren’t experienced or comfortable with. Check weather reports before you go kayaking.

Dress for the Water Temperature

There’s a worn out kayaking saying, “Dress for the water not the weather.” But it’s true nonetheless. If you take a swim because your kayak flips over or if your kayak fills with water, it doesn’t matter how warm the air is.

If the water’s cold, you’ll need warm clothing, a wetsuit or other means of insulating yourself so you don’t get hypothermia from prolonged exposure to the cold water.

Don’t Paddle Alone

If your kayak does happen to fill with water and/or start to sink, it will be invaluable to have a paddle buddy along for the trip. A paddle buddy can help you get water out of your kayak and help you flip your kayak back over and get back into it.

Worse case, you might need a tow back to shore and a paddle buddy will be there for that.


Though it’s possible for your kayak to flip over, fill with water, or sink from any number of reasons or events, it’s rare and highly unlikely to happen. Especially if you take some simple precautions and get experience in safer waters closer to shore.

If your kayak does fill with water or start to sink, don’t panic. Flip your kayak back over, bail or bilge the water and paddle back to shore.

In the meantime, enjoy yourself, but bring a buddy, be prepared and don’t take unnecessary risks when kayaking.


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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