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Safety Tricks for Canoeing Big Water

by Cliff Jacobson

Even the best paddlers goof up occasionally, which is why they take small stuff so seriously. When things go wrong, these safety tricks can often save the day:

1. Snug up your PFD before you venture into big water. 

Good canoeists always check the fit of their PFD's before they venture into harms way. You should too! Make a fetish of snugging up the straps and waist cords on your life vest so the vest will stay put if you capsize in heavy water. If you upset far from shore, you'll have your hands full getting everyone and everything ashore. Difficulties will compound if your PFD bobbles up over your head and interferes with vision and swimming.

2. Loose lines and a rough sea don't mix. 

You're in for trouble if you capsize in rough water and a rope streams out and winds around an arm or leg. Bow and stern lines should be carefully coiled and secured under tight loops of shock-cord strung through holes in the decks of the canoe-or stuffed into Velcroed pockets on fabric spray covers. If you have to tow a capsized canoe full of wet packs ashore, you'll want a rope that plays out instantly with a single pull, not one that's wound around a canoe thwart and knotted.

Important: Always stuff your coiled lines under the shock-cords from the same direction-either inward, towards the paddlers, or outward, away from them. Everyone in your crew should follow suit. This way, if you have to grab a rope quickly, it will feed out without snagging. Pull it the wrong way and you'll have a nasty snag, which could be serious.

3. Put a saddle in your canoe. 

Most people can ride a horse better if they have a saddle. Knee pads and/or foot braces are like "canoe saddles"-- they properly position you in the hull and keep you planted when your bronco leaps and turns in waves. High seated whitewater and tripping canoes are best outfitted with thick, closed-cell foam knee pads which are glued to the floor. You may also benefit by installing thigh straps and toe blocks. Low seated (the seats are too low for kneeling) fast touring canoes are better equipped with aluminum or wooden foot braces which lock your lower body into the canoe. Both systems work.

Tip: The seats on fast, skinny cruising canoes are usually set too low for safe kneeling (feet can get trapped beneath the seat in a capsize) in rough water. What to do? Sit, of course-but in the "locked legs" position. Here's how: Place your feet together (touching) in front of you, then spread your knees wide against the gunnels. Slowly slide your feet back towards your body until your knees lock tightly against the side-walls of the canoe. You are now locked in tightly-so tightly that if you vigoriously lean left or right the canoe will follow. The stability of this position is remarkable.

4. Use a slightly longer paddle than normal. 

You need a fairly long paddle to reach the water when your canoe tops out on big waves. A paddle that's two or three inches longer than that to which you are accustomed, may improve control in big waves.

5. Buy a bent-shaft paddle. 

Bent paddles are far better for making time on open water than straight paddles. They are also more relaxing to use when pushing hard into a head wind. Bent paddles emphasize a downward push of the shoulders while straight blades encourage levering with the arms. The result is that bent paddle users have fewer physical problems (tingling sensation in the fingers, tennis elbow, etc.) than do those who use straight blades. Fourteen degree bent-paddles were popular a decade ago. Now, the trend is to 12 degree bends which allow you to sit straighter in the canoe. Your bent paddle should be about two inches shorter than your favorite straight paddle.

6. Keep an eye on your map and compass. 

There's no time to fumble for directions when you're paddling big waves. Your map and compass should be in plain view--tied, taped or secured under a loop of shock cord on a thwart or deck of your canoe.

7. A thwart-mounted GPS can save time and miles of unplanned paddling! 

A GPS provides important travel parameters, like speed, distance to your next point, compass heading and your exact position (generally, within 15 yards). Canoeing in wind is hard work; if you miss an important turn, you will paddle back to it--which, under some conditions, may be very difficult. If you can push a button, you can run a GPS. If you can run a GPS you can follow any course.

I mount my GPS on a thwart next to my map and compass set it to read decimal based UTM (Universal Trans Mercator) coordinates, which are faster and easier to interpolate than degrees, minutes and seconds of Latitude/Longitude. I visually plot the numbers on my map as the GPS ticks them off. It's simply a matter of mentally dividing each grid square into 10 equal parts. For example, a GPS reading that ends in 05 tells me I'm in the middle of a particular grid square. A reading of 09 says I'm nearly to the end of it, and so on. If you want a basic background in navigation, read my primer, Basic Illustrated: Map & Compass. Then, work through Michael Ferguson's outstanding text, "GPS, Land Navigation." It is the best book available on GPS navigation. The value of the UTM set-up is that you don't need special map roamers, markings or grid overlays to plot your position on a map that's folded and secured to a canoe thwart. Your GPS points the way to your objective and tells when you'll arrive.

Respect big water but don't fear it. A well-paddled canoe is incredibly seaworthy if you use some safety tricks.


Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing. www.cliffcanoe.com

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