I wrote this article several months ago after yet another tragedy on the water. At that time some of the membership was calling for action while others were noting that safety is a personal responsibility. While safety is ultimately everyone’s responsibility (I have an obligation to warn you about something that I know to be unsafe) at the end of the day the responsibility for your own safety is yours each and every time you go onto the water. In some cases you may also be in charge of the safety of others such as minors or the inexperienced in your canoe. You are advised to be well aware of all the potential hazards and dangers that you may face on any outing.
This article is not meant to be the last word on canoe safety, nor is it meant to be the end all of safety documents. It is meant to be like an appetizer to get you hungry to do more research about how to be safe on the water. There is purposely no mention of types of canoes or brand names of equipment. Some models of canoe are indeed unsafe for some situations. Some pseudo safety equipment is useless in an emergency. It is for the reader to research canoe safety further and this article will hopefully cover some of the questions to ask and some of the things to look up.
When researching, learn to distinguish between fact and opinion and ask for evidence. No two sources will always say the same thing. What works for a fit person will not always work for an unfit person. What works for a person in their 30’s will not always work for a person in their 60’s. Learn to put into practice your safety strategy and do not be fooled into thinking that what works for you will work for everyone. More importantly, do not be fooled into thinking what works for someone else will work for you.
Accidents are inevitable, but most are preventable or avoidable.
Canoe Safety, Hazards and Strategies
Every person that goes on a canoe trip should have a government approved lifejacket, PFD, or BA. Not only does this assist in keeping a swimmer afloat it also helps to retain core body heat in colder conditions. When running rapids a flotation vest of some type is very important as aerated water will not support a swimmer as well as non-flowing water in a lake or pond. A fast flowing current can also make swimming more difficult without a flotation vest.
Bright colors are recommended for flotation vests as it is easier for potential rescuers to see them at a distance. A quality flotation vest will typically have a zipper and 1-3 plastic buckle closures. In an emergency, zippers can break as can buckles, but usually both will not fail at the same time. Buckles can become caught on a canoe gunwale when a swimmer attempts re-entry as can external pockets for cameras and GPS devices so consider this when purchasing your flotation vest. If you believe that you will be re-entering your canoe from the water frequently consider purchasing a side zipper PFD with a single buckle at the very bottom.
Flotation vest for young children often have one or two straps that runs between the legs and a drag strap behind the neck. This helps to keep the vest from slipping off the child when jumping into the water and helps as an assist for an adult to pull a child back into a boat. With this type of flotation vest your child is at risk of being entangled in water debris, trees or rocks so consider this when purchasing a vest for your child. They are designed primarily with power and sailing vessels in mind, not paddling in wild and semi wild areas or flowing water. A flotation vest for your child should be at least as good as your own and as well researched before purchasing.
Flotation for infants and very small children are often designed with a cradle for the head in the form of a float pad attached to the back of the neck. This will in almost all cases roll the child to his or her back with the face out of the water. As with your own personal flotation vest, the vest for your child must fit properly to work. To check the fit, put the vest on the child and lift up at the shoulders. If the vest will rise up past the chin it is too large and could come off the child in an emergency. A well fitted flotation vest will move very little and will conform to the person wearing it very well.
Personal Flotation for pets has become more and more popular and is worth noting in this section. Some pets swim better than others. Breeds such as Labradors are born to swim where as a Jack Russell Terrier may need some assistance. Purchase the flotation vest for your pet based on weight and breeds recommended by the manufacturer. The main reason for larger more powerful breeds to wear flotation is to provide protection from the cold as they will be non-active sitting in the canoe and exposed to the elements. Remember that pets are at a higher risk of entanglement when wearing a pet flotation device than when they are not so keep this in mind on wild and semi wild rivers with possible hazards.
Whistle or signaling device
Every canoe should have a quality whistle or signal device such as an air horn. Ideally there should be a whistle attached to each flotation vest via a short lanyard. While air horns may reach 120dB (decibels) they are bulky and are better used on power and sailing boats. Marine, safety and sport whistles are much smaller, easily carried and are capable of between 90-120dB. The signal is used to get attention of others nearby in the event you witness or are involved in an emergency on the water. Three blasts of your whistle is universally known as the signal for an emergency. White-water paddlers use whistle blasts as communication as well which are more specialized.
Signal light or torch
When paddling at night a signal light is very important as other larger boats cannot always see you. Many paddlers wear a head torch to facilitate this but a simple waterproof flashlight will be enough to signal your presence to an oncoming craft. The light can also be used to help rescuers pinpoint your location on a dark body of water in an emergency.
A bailing device in a canoe can be indispensable in raining conditions and when traveling any distance on a river or the sea. On a trip where the hull of the canoe is accidentally punctured, bailing every few minutes may be necessary. This bailer can be made from a cut down bleach bottle or can be specifically purchased. Commercially available pumps are also available to remove water from a canoe. A large hand sponge such as those used to wash cars is also excellent for removing the last drops of water from the canoe. Removing water from the canoe can be critically important in very cold conditions.
Throw line or tow line
Primarily used by white-water paddlers to offer aid to companions who may have capsized, a 50 foot 15 meter floating rope is rarely used by lake water or sea paddlers. The rescue rope is often coiled into a throw bag to make it more easily portable and less likely to entangle anyone or anything. Ropes in flowing water will always pose a danger so it is best to keep them stowed safely unless needed. This rope can also be used for lining and tracking the canoe while walking on the bank in some conditions.
Flotation blocks or bags
While not personal safety equipment added flotation chambers make it possible to take canoes through higher grade rapids than would normally be possible. Less water is able to enter the canoe and some water will actually be shed as a front flotation bag will effectively extend the deck of the canoe allowing the paddlers to power through water obstacles that would swamp a normal canoe. Flotation bags are lighter than foam blocks but less robust. Flotation bags have other self-rescue applications such as may be encountered in specialized sailing and long sea crossings.
Canoeing Experience; Where are you? Where do you aspire to be?
Less experienced canoeists at any level are better advised to go paddling with a more experienced person as often as possible and to learn to paddle in the bow seat as well as the stern. Solo canoeing is far easier to grasp with a good understanding of how the canoe works from both positions. The amount of canoeing you do as well as the places you paddle will determine how experienced you become. Taking courses is a great way to meet people to paddle with who will take you to new locations and share their knowledge. There are many kinds of canoeing and most skills are transferable to other forms of paddling however a good understanding of the flat water fundamentals will always be your paddling foundation.
Perhaps the most dangerous type of paddling is when the casual canoeist who goes out infrequently and has minimal experience leaves the shores for a trip. The cottage canoeist that plies the canals, quiet lakes and ponds during the warm summer months will often be caught off guard when conditions turn adverse or when paddling with someone that they have never been with before. While the dangers associated with canals and ponds are few, when the casual paddler goes out onto a glassy calm lake they frequently do not have the skills to get back to shore when the wind picks up and blows them deeper into the lake. When the casual canoeist takes a new friend on a trip and they stand up in the canoe for the first time, this inexperience can be deadly. For this reason, even casual canoeist should take a flat water course at the very least and always have a flotation vest.
Flat water canoeing
The flat water paddler has progressed to a level of confidence where the sudden changes in weather and wave action are not as threatening. This paddler has total control over the canoe and can easily paddle a figure eight between two floats and knows how to move in all directions and stop without effort. With more experience and perhaps a flat water canoe course this canoeist is more likely to be able to react to sudden movements of passengers and maintain control of the canoe. With some outdoor experience the flat water canoeist is better able to anticipate changes in weather conditions and is generally more aware. Paddlers with average or better flat water skills almost never come to harm except in the most serious of conditions.
Moving water canoeing
River canoeing is less demanding overall as the current moves you forward but more demanding of your skills and knowledge. Obstacles need to be avoided and this too can be physically demanding at the highest levels. The moving water canoeist takes all the skills and experience of the flat water paddler and expands on them to travel down rivers. Also a skill known as reading the river is developed where a canoeist can tell what rocks and obstacles lay on the bottom of the river simply by looking at water action on the surface. Moving water can be more dangerous and courses on moving water skills are advisable. Changing and unexpected conditions can claim the lives of even the most experienced canoeists but this is very rare.
The canoe tripper takes the skills of the flat water canoeist, the moving water canoeist, or both and combines this with the skills of the backpacker or camper and paddles from place to place setting up camp every night. Weekend trips are the norm but two week trips or more are also common at the elite end of the spectrum. Some epic trips ranging across continents taking months have been undertaken in canoes. At this level mistakes are costly so every day decisions are considered as very serious and very serious decisions will always be considered at great length. Due to their caution experienced trippers almost never come to harm on the water and are more likely to fall afoul of injury, illness or very extreme hazards.
Sea paddlers take skills like those of moving water paddlers in order to read the sea and know where waves are most likely to break and so overturn a canoe. They also take skills used by flat water paddlers such as reading the sky to anticipate changing weather. To this they add the ability to read the tide and know if they are being pushed to land or away from it. With this and the fundamental paddling skills trips on the coastal areas are undertaken in fair conditions or better. Other challenges to coastal canoeing may be larger power craft and sea going vessels as well as an inability to go back to land due to rocks, cliffs and breaking waves. Most serious coastal paddlers carry specialized navigation, communication, and signaling equipment not required by other paddlers.
There are many possible hazards on every canoe trip. Fundamental canoeing skills developed over time or through a certified course are the best way to learn to minimize the risks encountered when canoeing. Developing good judgment and learning to assess hazards and risks is the key to many happy years of paddling your canoe on the lakes, rivers and waterways of the natural world.
Both in moving water and lake water rocks can be a hazard. Unseen rocks when struck are more of a nuisance on lakes forcing you to push back off of them however in moving water striking a rock can cause a loss of control of the canoe causing it to spin broadside into the current. This can lead to capsize and possible pinning of the canoe on a rock further down river if control is not regained immediately. Rocks can also trap swimmers in rare circumstances where fast currents are involved and can also cause head injuries and broken bones.
Weirs and Dams
Even the smallest weir can be a serious hazard. A hydraulic undertow usually exists at the bottom of all weirs and with higher water flow rates even the strongest swimmer can have serious difficulty escaping it. Add to this eroded weirs often contain exposed and sharp pieces of reinforcing steel rebar that can puncture and cut. Canoeists encountering weirs also frequently take on water at the bottom of weirs leading to instability and possible capsize right at the most dangerous part of the weir. Larger dams and weirs increase the risk with the largest almost certainly being fatal.
Water born debris either man made or natural can cause hazards to canoeists. Log jams are the most common form and often must be portaged. In low water conditions experienced canoeists can often slide their canoe over top of them similar to beaver dams but in high flow conditions portaging around is the only safe action. Submerged and barely protruding logs are similar to rocks and the dangers associated with them.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing on a river is the unexpected appearance of a sweeper or strainer. Trees attached to the bank and fallen part way across or completely across the river. In high current conditions these can take the lives of even the most experienced canoeist if they are caught unaware. Many people are trapped in sweepers, the current pushing them into the tree and down their flotation vest pushing them up. Canoes become entangled in branches and capsize to become pinned and their paddlers trapped. More than anything this is the most important hazard to be avoided by either landing immediately or going to the far side of the river if it is possible.
Adverse weather such as wind can exhaust a canoeist completely in a relatively short time. Rain or snow squalls can bring on hypothermia to the unprepared. Lightning can kill a paddler instantly. There are quality outdoor clothing makers that market specifically to canoeists who need protection from the elements but judging wind, weather and lightning is a matter of experience. Wind can cause a capsize after total exhaustion sets in or blow a canoe into a large body of water. Experienced canoeists will not chance fighting the wind if caught out beyond their limits and will land as quickly as possible or change their destination and travel with the wind. Fog, rain and snow can usually be ignored with proper clothing unless it becomes extreme prompting experienced paddlers to end the day early.
Cold water is perhaps the number one natural killer of recreational water users. When immersed in cold water a victim experiences difficulty breathing which can lead to inhaling water for the first minute. Next; within 10 minutes the victim begins to lose control of their muscles as the blood is no longer circulated into the extremities. At this point, without flotation the victim drowns. Self rescue is only possible within this short ten minute window and then only with excellent physical fitness. With some sort of flotation, but remaining in the water, within an hour the victim falls unconscious and cardiac arrest followed by death is probable.
Mistakes will always be the number one hazard on the water. Errors in judgment, miss reading natural clues and conditions and being oblivious to the hazards will inevitably claim lives. Errors involving complacency where a canoeist has encountered the same obstacle or hazard repeatedly so they believe they are familiar with it can be costly when the conditions change or the water levels rise. Not understanding how to control the canoe or how to properly fit a flotation vest can be very dangerous in some circumstances. In the end the deciding factor when encountering almost all hazards will be the paddlers themselves. With good information and experience the hazards are avoided but without it tragedies are a certainty.
Developing a personal risk assessment strategy
The key to successfully avoiding hazards and negotiating obstacles will be to come up with a strategy that works for you. Before this can work you need to be aware of your skills, strengths and limitations as these will be the variables in your formula for survival and success. The greater your skill and experience the more challenging obstacles and hazards you can negotiate safely. The more times you employ your personal strategy successfully the more knowledge and experience you gain.
Plan Scout Prepare
This is a simple circular strategy that you can employ on every canoe trip. It works equally well on a trip with known or unknown hazards. When travelling a particular lake or river for the first time you can develop a plan based on your knowledge and experience. As you encounter hazards you stop and scout them from shore or from the canoe if it is very minor. If it is serious after scouting you assess the likelihood that you can overcome the hazard based on your knowledge and experience. If you reason that you cannot negotiate the hazard then you make a new plan and start again.
Your trip plan should have contingencies for every possibility that you can think of and for every kind of hazard you can expect to encounter and even some that are very unlikely to see. You will need to come up with a new plan of action each time an unexpected hazard is spotted. There are a list of questions that you need to ask yourself for each hazard.
Do I clearly understand what this hazard is and the risks associated with it?
Am I physically and mentally prepared to negotiate this hazard?
What could go wrong?
Is there a risk to myself or others?
What can change that would create a new risk?
Do I have the right type of canoe, paddles, and safety gear to negotiate this hazard?
For example; In the case of a simple rapid with no real rocks to miss and a deep water series of waves created by a drop in the river that terminate in a lake or wide section of the river with little to no current the risk is minimal in warm conditions. An inexperienced person may decide it is worth the risk to attempt the rapid after watching others go through successfully. In cold conditions or more rapids further down stream that person would probably decide to portage.
Stopping to scout a hazard can in many cases be done from the canoe. Simply stopping to assess the weather or take a good look around. Other times it will be done from dry land like in the case of paddling an unknown river and approaching a corner where the sound of rushing water is heard. Each time a new hazard is spotted that was unknown or was in your initial plan you stop to scout it to see what the conditions are and if they have changed since the last time it was visited.
How bad could this be?
How likely is it to go bad?
Do I need a new Plan?
In the example above the new canoeist scouted the minor rapid and decided that a capsize was possible but all his friends were waiting for him at the bottom in a pretty safe section of river. Judging by his risk assessment he decided to try the rapid. If he makes it then his experience has increased as well as his skill. If he goes swimming that is a valuable experience as well and he knows he needs to work on that skill. His friends pull his canoe to shore and he swims to shore where he gets some feed back on what went wrong. In cold conditions our canoeist decides to portage the rapid as the risks are higher.
As you prepare to challenge an obstacle or avoid a hazard all the questions you have asked so far will help you answer a few final questions. In some cases you will find yourself making preparations and then changing your mind in favour of a new idea. This is not a bad thing. The more time you spend thinking about a hazard the better the chance that you will pick up on minor details that you may have missed.
What can I do to control the risk and will that control measure also have risks? i.e. entangled in ropes while lining a canoe and slipping into the rapid.
Who can I call upon for help?
Is there anything I am forgetting?
With all the questions answered you now know if you wish to proceed past the hazard and by what means. A simple hazard such as a lone rock can usually be scouted on the fly from the canoe. A rapid must often be scouted from shore before finally preparing to run it. In the example above the canoeist decided that the risk was controlled by his skill level and that his friends were there to help if it was needed. When the conditions were cold however he came up with a new plan to portage. He would ask all the same questions to himself concerning the portage. If there was a portage trail then it is pretty straight forward. With no portage trail he may decide to line the canoe with a rope. All of the choices have different risks associated with them. Any time a serious risk is identified then the canoeist would make a new plan for that risk.
This strategy is not the sort of thing that you need to bring a book along with you and fill in a form assigning probabilities to each variable to determine odds of success. It is done in your head, often on the fly, or by carefully studying a hazard from shore. With knowledge and experience the process becomes second nature and eventually subconscious. You will be doing things on instinct and will almost always be correct. With time you will know what just does not look right and things that are subtly out of the ordinary will shine out to you. The basic rule if there is if something does not look right or feel right it probably isn’t. That is your cue to plan scout prepare
The sad thing is that many people will not use a system like this and will be joyfully oblivious to what does not look right and what does not feel right. They will make mistakes and fail to recognize hazards and the consequences of their mistakes range in severity from hurt pride to injuries and fatalities.
What no safety rules?
No; there are no hard and fast rules that if followed will work 100% effectively to keep you safe. The fact that canoeing takes place all over the world in a variety of conditions with a variety of safety equipment and across a wide variety of skill levels means that what works for one person will not work for another in another time and place and in a different set of conditions. There is little point is an expert saying things like; eddy out to river left when it is not understood by the vast number of persons researching safety. There is no point in espousing the virtues of specialist safety gear to persons that cannot afford it or have little use for it or knowledge of how to use it effectively.
The purpose of this article is not to be a comprehensive source for all the safety information available in the world nor is it the intention of the author for this to be considered an educational or safety training document. This article is intended for new paddlers to be a brief overview of some basic must have items such as a flotation vest followed by a description of some of the most basic forms of canoeing that people engage in and a guide to help the new paddler to learn to think safe. Learning to think safe is the one thing that can above all others contribute to people acting safely on the water and to making good decisions about hazards, obstacles and adverse conditions. A proper attitude of personal responsibility combined with skill and experience either learned over time or through a certified course is the key to many happy adventures.
To the Reader
If you have read this far it is safe to assume that you have an interest in personal safety and the safety of others. Remember, safety is everyone’s responsibility. Now that you have read a quick overview of some of the gear to own and some of the most common hazards out there (and this was not a comprehensive list) along with a simple strategy to assess those hazards, you may have many questions and may want to do further research on the topic. The Song of the Paddle forum is a good start where you can read the opinions of a wide variety people from all experience levels. It is a place where you can ask questions both general and specific and begin to acquire web links and book titles for a more complete story on this topic. The membership can also point you to videos and certified courses and instructors. If you have read this far, hopefully you will continue to research, to learn and to grow as a paddler.
Safe and happy paddling.