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Starting Out

In the Balance—Getting into (and Out of) Your Canoe

By Tamia Nelson
Your Canoe is Waiting!

A canoe isn't an aircraft carrier. It's not even a cruise ship. It is, in fact, a rather "tippy" craft—as anyone who spends a day watching the traffic at a busy put-in will soon learn. A surprising number of canoeists go swimming before they get under way.

You say it's never happened to you? Well, don't start feeling smug just yet. You'll swim sooner or later. It just takes one careless step, a sudden lurch, or an unthinking change of position from sitting to standing, and…Splash!…you're in the drink. It's happened to most of us, often when we least expected it.

Still, it's not inevitable. Follow two simple rules, and you'll never go for an unplanned swim. Never, that is, until you meet a big wave (or a rock) with your number on it.

What are these two rules?

First, stay centered. This sounds like something from a martial arts handbook, I suppose, but it's good advice for canoeists, too. When entering or leaving a canoe, keep your weight as close to the centerline as possible. When getting in, put your foot down right over the keel, and bring the second foot beside it. When getting out, keep your trailing foot centered until your other foot is securely planted on the beach, dock, or bottom. And if you stand under way—no, this isn't always a foolish thing to do!—keep your belly-button right over your boat's centerline. All the time.

This is especially important in pack canoes and other light, lean craft. Larger boats are more forgiving. I've stood up and paced back and forth in my big freighter on more than one occasion. But not too many canoes are this stable! Big boat or small, you can't go wrong if you stay centered. Better safe than sorry.

OK. It's important to stay centered. What else?

Keep your weight low. It's easy to see why this is a good thing. The lower your butt, the better your ballast. Stand up, and even a big, stable boat starts to feel a little squirrelly. Kneel, or sit on the bottom, however, and even the smallest, skinniest, tippiest canoe firms right up.

So, when entering or leaving any canoe, keep your weight down. Plant one foot on the keel. Next, reach across the boat with the corresponding hand. Grab both gunwales, one in one hand, one in the other. (This forces you to bend over.) Now swing the other foot in. Settle down in your seat, or drop down into a kneel. How do you feel? Totally bombproof, right? You are.

Of course, experienced paddlers often ignore one or both of these rules. Most of the time they get away with it, too. Knowing when you can break the rules is one of the hallmarks of the expert. It's a funny thing, though. If you spend a day watching paddlers at a put-in, as I suggested earlier, you'll probably notice what I've noticed. It's not always the novices who go for a swim right off the dock. More often than you might think, it's the old hands.

That's not too surprising. Not even experts can ignore the laws of physics, after all. So, whether you're entering your canoe or leaving it, whether you're at the dock or under way—unless there's a very good reason not to do so, stay centered and keep low. You'll be glad you did. 'Nuff said.

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