Is it really this simple? No. In addition to packing air, you'll need to
Get a Grip
All the float bags in the world won't keep you afloat if the bags themselves don't stay
put. They're float bags, after all. If they're not tied down or otherwise
secured the first wave to come over the gunwale or cockpit coaming will float them
away. Canoes are especially vulnerable. It's just not enough to wedge bags under a deck or
thwart. Nor can you rely on the corner grommets that some manufacturers provide. Truth to
tell, such fittings are best ignored. Grommets tear out easily, often tearing the float bag
into the bargain. Lashing does a better job. Crisscross nylon cord over your bags, then tie
the ends off to D-rings located on or near the gunwales. Longitudinal webbing straps
secured to floor anchors also work well. You'll find "tie-down" kits in most outfitter's
catalogs, right alongside the float bags.
If you've mastered the bowline, tautline
hitch, and round turn with
two half hitches, however, and if you're the do-it-yourself type, you don't need to buy
a kit. You'll manage just fine with materials from your local hardware store. The anchors
are the biggest problem. Owners of "tin tanks," fiberglass boats, and wood-canvas canoes
will have an easy time of it. Others will have to proceed more carefully. Before you attach
screw fittings to extruded vinyl gunwales, for example, check to see that they have a metal
reinforcing rail. Not all plastic gunwales do, and if yours don't, you'll need to add
backing plates to keep your anchors from pulling out.
Whatever tie-down method you decide on, it's a good idea to make sure that no fittings
will chafe your hands as you paddle. You should also give some serious thought to the
danger of entanglement. All lashings present some risk. That's one reason why no prudent boater
ventures out on the water without a good knife.
Kayakers needn't worry quite so much about their float bags floating away, of course.
The lids on their boats keep properly-inflated bags in place in all but the most extreme
conditions. You're not satisfied with that? Neither am I. Longitudinal webbing straps add
an extra measure of security.
And speaking of proper inflation, don't ignore temperature shifts. When you go into the
garage at zero-dark-thirty to get ready for a day on the water, it's likely to be chillier
than it will be at noon, and air expands when heated. Check your float bags from time to
time throughout the run, letting air out or topping up if necessary. You've got it right if
the bags feel firm. Rock hard is too hard. You should be able to make the surface "dimple"
with light finger pressure.
What do you do if a bag is losing air? First, make sure the valves are closed. Then
start hunting for punctures or tears. You should always bring a patch kit with you. (The
instant "glueless" patches used by cyclists will stop most pinhole leaks, though you'll
have to dry the surface before applying the patch.) If your destination lies at a different
altitude than your garage, you should keep that in mind, too. Reduce pressure if necessary
as you go higher; add air when you descend.
OK. Extra flotation is a good thing. But what if your budget is tight? Commercial float
bags aren't exactly cheap. Don't give up the ship, though. You can still
Inner tubes were once the cash-strapped canoeist's flotation of last resort. But big
inner tubes aren't as easy to find as they used to be. You may want to look closer to home,
instead. A rucksack or other
pack filled with milk jugs is a pretty good substitute for a float bag. You don't have
enough packs? Then use old pillow cases or heavy-duty plastic trash bags. Not enough milk
jugs? The plastic liners from boxed plonk also make good flotation modules, though they'll
need to be inflated first. This can be a bit tricky, but it's not really too much trouble.
There's a bonus, too. How many float bags come filled with something you'd want to drink,
after all? And we've only just touched on the possibilities. Any watertight plastic
container is potential flotation. Even the soap-bar-sized, air-filled bladders that some
shippers use to protect delicate merchandise will work. They're certainly strong enough. I
just tried one to see if it would support my weight without breaking. It did.
In any case, whether you fill your packs with milk jugs, wine bladders, packaging
material, or ping-pong balls, you'll still need to lash them in place. Apart from the fact
that any flotation that floats away is no good to you or your boat, you'll want to make
certain that your recycled plastics don't add to the world's burden of floating trash. Sea turtles and other
marine animals often mistake plastic for food, with deadly consequences.
You'll also want to keep your float bags out of the landfill as long as possible,
especially if you've paid good money for them. It only takes a little
Tender Loving Care
Sunlight kills plastic, so protect your bags from the sun whenever possible. And guard
against overinflation. (There's no need to let all the air out between trips, however.)
It's also a good idea to inspect the bags carefully several times during the season
pay especial attention to seams and areas subject to chafe and to clean them before
putting them away. Mild detergent works fine. Dry the bags thoroughly, then store them flat
or loosely rolled. Don't fold them unless you have to. If your bags spend the winter in an
outbuilding, it's best to keep them in mouse-proof containers. Do you live north of the
Mason-Dixon line? No problem. Even when winter temperatures dip down to -40, I've seen no
evidence of cold cracking during storage. I always allow bags to warm up before
unrolling or inflating them, though.
That takes care of looking after your bags between trips (and between seasons). But what
about all those times when you'll be
Flotation is one thing. Gear is another. And never the twain shall meet, right? Wrong.
The catalogs are full of packs and gear bags advertised as "waterproof." Luckily, many of
them really are. (A quick dunk in the pond will tell you if you've made a good choice.)
These bags work fine as flotation. Yes, your gear weighs more than air, but unless you're
hauling gold dust, it weighs a lot less than water. One of my 3.5-cubic-foot waterproof
packs that's about 6,000 cubic inches, or around 100 liters would weigh over
200 pounds if filled with water. Stuffed with gear it usually weighs only half as much. The
difference between the two weights is a measure of the buoyancy of the loaded pack when
The upshot? You can freely substitute waterproof gear bags for float bags. You still
have to lash them down, though. And if you want your boat to rise to the waves, it's a good
idea to keep your heaviest gear out of the ends. But that's just common sense, isn't it?
Canoeists can simply mix and match float bags and waterproof packs to meet their needs.
Kayakers have a slightly harder time, but they can make room for gear bags by
partially-deflating their end floats. Or they can go the whole hog, substituting
"storage-flotation" bags for their regular float bags. Many of these stow-float bags depend
on zip fasteners, however, and sand and zippers don't
mix. A little care goes a long way here.
High and dry. That's something no boater wants to be. Until he's shipped a big wave over
the bow, that is, or capsized in a turbulent river. Then "high and dry" starts sounding
mighty good indeed. Extra flotation makes all the difference. Don't leave home without it.
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