-- Last Updated: Apr-03-13 1:32 PM EST --
Skirts are NOT optional IMO. It is a matter of safety. If you do get caught in surprise conditions, a properly fitting skirt can limit how much water dumps into the cockpit, an especially large consideration in boats with longer cockpits. Water sloshing around in a kayak makes it much much more unstable, plenty to capsize most newbies.
That said, you should only have skirts that come off without much effort in a capsize - eg not stretchy ones like neoprene - unless and until you have practiced wet exits and releasing the skirt.
All of this is much easier in a heated pool than in spring water of course.
As to equipment, what you may not be understanding from some of the posts is that the equipment is only as good as your ability to use it - and getting wet is the only way to solve that. It is NOT as easy to execute many of these rescues as it looks, no matter how good your equipment, because success requires things like ability to balance over the top of your boat, or commit your weight to the other person's boat, that only time and practice can give you.
I can name people we have taken out to ponds who were able to scramble over the top of their boat and into the cockpit without a problem within half an hour of learning the paddle float rescue - often small light women like your wife. I can name others, of moderate fitness, who were still unable to get back into their boat unassisted after three or four sessions of trying. Out of strength, flexibility and balance, they only had two out of 3. The one they were lacking kept putting them back in the water.
Add a partner to stabilize their boat and it would not have been a fatal issue. So you guys have a solution while your unassisted rescues are coming up to snuff.
Canoe Pack Liner
Shirts / Tops
Canoe / Kayak Anchors
Touring Kayak Paddles
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