Running Dry in Waves & Rapids

You are canoeing a rapid in a loaded, open canoe. At the end of the run, you pause to bail; your friends continue on - their canoe is perfectly dry. What gives?

A light, well-distributed load and proper paddling procedures are the key to running dry. A spray cover helps too but it won't make up for poor judgment or lack of skill.


If your canoe is over-loaded and/or out out-of-trim the battle is lost. Nine inches is the minimum freeboard for rough water. Keep the load away from the ends (pack as close to center as possible), and trim dead level! There are very few exceptions to these rules!


  • Running into the Wind: A short canoe that fits between the waves will run drier than a long canoe that doesn't. Solution: "Shorten" the length of your canoe by quartering into oncoming waves at an angle that you and your partner can comfortably hold. Start with a shallow 10-20 degrees, increase to 30 if you can. Beyond that you risk broaching and a capsize. Use just enough paddle power to stay on course and make headway. Do not drive the canoe so powerfully forward that it takes on water.

    Caution: Quartering may be the driest way to run oncoming waves, but it isn't the safest. Why? Because it takes an experienced team to hold the proper angle in a running sea. One mistake, and the canoe may broach and capsize. Inexperienced paddlers are best advised to forget quartering, and instead head directly into the wind. If the canoe begins to take water over the bow, simply reduce forward power or lighten the bow-that is, move gear towards the stern or relocate the bow paddler behind the front seat.

  • A tail wind: Classic canoeing texts recommend that you use a sea anchor or catamaran two canoes (tie them together) to keep out splash. The sea anchor is always a disaster! Paired canoes work only if you have hard-decked craft and rigid aluminum poles like those pioneered by the late Verlen Kruger.

    Instead, point your open canoe down-wind and keep paddling! The stern person may need to keep a tight rudder to prevent broaching while the bow person powers ahead. You must keep paddling or the canoe will broach and swamp! Trim dead level. A slightly weighted tail (1-2 inches) is better only if the waves aren't so large that they threaten to swamp the stern.


When big rapids loom ahead, backpaddle to slow the canoe and allow it to rise with the waves! Most power comes from the bow; the stern will alternately backpaddle and rudder to hold the course. Exception: If the bow drops into a hole, paddle like mad to escape the hole! 

I often turn the canoe about 30 degrees to the waves and let the boat drift downstream at current speed. Rationale:

  1. The angle shortens the canoe's waterline and allows it to fit more easily between the waves (it runs drier);
  2. The usually more experienced stern paddler can better see obstacles and make corrections.
  3. The canoe is correctly set-up for a backferry-an essential maneuver that can save the day if you paddle a loaded tripping canoe or a long canoe that turns reluctantly.


If you are covered and are in control of your boat, you can run huge rapids that would swamp an open canoe. A cover keeps out splash that comes in at the waist and it cuts wind by about half, so you make better time. But a cover can also lure you into running rapids that you wouldn't consider in an open canoe. For this reason, wise paddlers view spray covers as "insurance against error" and not a license to run big drops!

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