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How to do a Canoe-Over-Canoe Rescue

Rescue and help your friend back into their boat without hurting your back

With good technique and a little practice, regardless of size or strength, most people can perform a canoe over canoe rescue and help an unfortunate paddler back into their boat. The following rescue technique is almost always preferable to dragging a boat full of water to shore. Performing a canoe-over-canoe rescue is not rocket science, but after doing several hundred of them, one develops some tricks (see HOT TIPS below) that make the process smooth and easy.

All Photos by Allyson Saunders

How to Canoe-Over-Canoe Rescue

Step 1

As a ‘rescuer’, your first priority is to ensure the people who have flipped their boat (the ‘swimmers’) are uninjured and relatively safe. They should be wearing PFDs and floating in the water, hanging onto their canoe. Take a moment to gather up paddles and any loose gear and put them in your boat.

Step 2

Next you need to get the boat into a good position and the people out of the way. Have the swimmer(s) make their way to one end of the flipped boat while you make your way to the opposite end.

HOT TIP #1 – Breaking the seal

If the canoe is upside down in the water with no gunwales exposed, there will be a pocket of sealed air underneath the boat. This causes suction and it can be very difficult to “break the seal” and lift the boat out of the water. Struggling to lift the boat, when it is suctioned to the surface, is how most would-be rescuers get injured or end up in the water. Before you go to the end of the flipped boat to perform the rescue, use the following technique to easily break the seal.

Line your canoe up, parallel with the flipped boat, and position yourself at the center of the flipped boat. Get stable in your boat (on your knees), reach down into the water, grab the gunwale and pull up as if you are trying to roll the boat upright. When the gunwale reaches the surface of the water, you will hear the satisfying swoosh of the air rushing under the boat to signal that you successfully broke the seal. The boat will rise and may roll upright. Now make your way to the end of the flipped boat opposite the ‘swimmers’.

Step 3

Once you are at the opposite end of the flipped canoe from the swimmers, orient your boat perpendicular to the flipped canoe. Position yourself so that you can reach the tip of the boat with your hands. If you are not already, position yourself in your canoe so that you have, at least, the width of the flipped boat worth of canoe in front of you.

Step 4

Have the swimmer(s) push down on one end of the flipped boat while you lift the other out of the water and lay it on the gunwale of your canoe. Pull the flipped canoe, with its gunwales on the gunwales of your canoe, over your canoe until it is balanced (ideally with both ends out of the water). Then flip the rescued canoe upright and slide it back into the water (careful not to hit the swimmers).

Getting the swimmers back in the boat is often the most difficult part. If going to shore is an option that may be easiest. However, using the following technique, most people can get back in from the water without having Olympic class gymnastics skills or major upper body strength.

HOT TIP #2 - Getting back in the canoe

1. Bring your canoe parallel, alongside the empty canoe. Get stable in your boat (on your knees). Tilt the empty boat up so that one gunwale is just a couple inches above the surface of the water (you can rest the bottom of the empty boat on your gunwale).

2. Have the swimmer go to the opposite side of the empty boat directly opposite you (where the gunwale of the empty boat is closest to the water). Have the swimmer orient their body perpendicular to the empty boat, laying face down on the surface of the water, with their hands shoulder width apart holding onto the gunwale of the empty boat.

3. Have the swimmer pull (and kick) themselves up and forward into the empty boat while you apply downward pressure to the opposite side, keeping the gunwale near the water for easy entry, but not allowing it to dip below the surface.

4. Once the swimmer is in the boat up to their waist (their center of gravity is past the gunwale), push down hard on the gunwale to level the boat. Encourage the swimmer to fall into the bottom of the boat and pull their legs in behind them.

5. Stabilize the boat for your friend while they get back into their seat and pass them their paddle.

Step 5

Give your friend a paddle high-five and celebrate. You did it.

You may not nail it the first time, or every time. But with a little practice, you can be a canoe rescue hero.

          Inspired by wanderlust and a passion for rivers, Adrian's paddling addiction has taken him across the globe. After pursuing his degree in Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Management, Adrian eventually settled in Palmer Rapids, Ontario. Here, he has worked for over a decade as the Director Of Operations at The Boundless School.

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