Thanks to all who commented on the first post and to everyone who put some thought into the question as well as those of you who will try it for yourselves on the liquid surface next time you paddle. I took the questions straight to the lab—Naperville North High School kayak pool session on Sunday. Thanks to Janee Matesson of Kayak Morris for help in comparing the techniques. The two boats we worked with were a kevlar Valley Avocet and a plastic P&H Capella 160—both on the short end of the sea kayak spectrum and not loaded.
In the context of the pool—really really flat water, warm water and no wind—the very first thing that we noticed was that lifting the capsized boat out of the water was not really any harder from the upside-down position as I expected.
I need to qualify this statement a bit. The cockpit forms a vacuum seal with the water when the cockpit points downwards. To heave the bow of one boat onto the cockpit of the other we had to twist it sideways by about 30 degrees—minor technical adjustment.
We did try the 'scooping' technique where the rescuer submerges one side of the cockpit and hooks the bow of the capsized kayak with the cockpit rim and then pulls the boat out of the water by edging own boat away from it. It requires some gusto but technically it is not difficult at all. 'Scoop' eliminated virtually all effort out of lifting—all you need to do is support yourself against the hull of another boat much like you do against the deck of an uprighted kayak.
So there really is not much additional effort required to get the upside-down boat onto the rescuer's cockpit. This observation, combined with the need to flip the boat two extra times in the upright variety leads me to conclude that upside-down t-rescue is physically easier, not harder. I have absolutely no experience teaching the upside-down technique; however, when teaching the upright variety, one of the common sticking points is re-flipping the kayak upside-down once it is on the cockpit. Especially weaker people with shorter hands often struggle to reach around the bow to grab the keel for leverage. The weight of the kayak on your lap is not trivial.
When both methods are done right, the time savings of not uprighting and then re-flipping the kayak are small. First of all, uprighting does not cost any time as it should be done by the person in the water before rescue arrives. Secondly, with practice, re-flipping is a matter of seconds and is not worth considering when evaluating the pros and cons of the two techniques.
My next concern about working with upside-down kayak was the ability to use it for rescuer support as well as obtaining positive grip in order to manipulate it from parallel to perpendicular and back to parallel. I only tried rescuing the plastic Capella but both the support for leaning against it and the grip on the well-defined keel were unexpectedly solid. With outboard hand on the keel and inboard hand under the bow of the capsized kayak I felt very solid—no danger of capsizing onto the upturned kayak.
Rescuer flipping in the opposite direction, albeit less prevalent, is a real concern. It is unlikely you will be able to hold on to the hull of the boat you're rescuing if you capsize backwards. The hand under the bow is rather useless, it will probably instinctively let go in an attempt to seek support on the opposite side, or will simply be pried away by the rising gunwale of your own kayak. In other words, I would not count on it to save you.
So, overall, the verdict from the lab is slightly in favor of leaving the boat upside down. Surprisingly, it was not for the reasons of speed as expected. Gains in speed are negligible. We found a lot to like about the simplicity of the t-rescue and little to dislike about it. It is physically easier to do and non-meaningfully faster to top it off. It eliminates two flips from the process: one relatively easy (initial uprighting) and the second one which can challenge some paddlers in the beginning. The capsized boat was not the slippery elusive eel I expected it to be.
In the absence of volunteers to do t-rescues on the open icy water, at the moment, the comparison of the two techniques in rougher conditions will have to be postponed. I have some strong thoughts on how that will go but it'll the next post.