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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Bottoms Up? No Way!

Keeping Your Head Above Water —
A Guide for Canoeists

By Tamia Nelson

July 12, 2005

A towering wave breaks upstream at the bottom of a chute. You and your partner plan to sneak by on the shoulder of the break, avoiding the tumbling crest. Piece of cake, right? But life ain't always kind. The current gives your stern an unexpectedly hard shove, and before you know it, you're drifting broadside into the maelstrom. Seconds later, you're through — and you're still upright. A small miracle? Yes. But there's more to come. Your faithful canoe is now a yellow submarine, filled to the gunwales with water, as sluggish and unresponsive as a sleeping dog on a hot August afternoon. It's going to be a wet ride through the chop to the pool beyond. If you make it, that is. And for a while it looks like you will. Then the bow kisses a big rock hiding just beneath the surface. The canoe begins a slow roll, and your rescue brace comes a beat too late. It's swim time.


Sound familiar? I'll bet it does. Chances are pretty good that something like this has already happened to you. If it hasn't, be patient. If you keep paddling long enough, it will. It doesn't matter if you never run a whitewater river. All it takes is an ill-considered lunge to snatch a dropped hat, a sudden gust of wind, a rogue wave, or a fighting fish. Even Rover can dump you in the drink without so much as a moment's warning. It can happen anywhere — a riffle in a trout stream, on a broad meandering river, or near a lee shore on a big lake. And it can happen at any time. While punching through the surf zone, drifting across a beaver pond, or halfway into a ten-mile open-water crossing. It can even happen during a lazy Sunday afternoon circuit of Golden Pond.

Still, wherever and whenever you paddle, you can always improve your odds of staying upright. The old saying is true: an ounce of…

Prevention is Better…

Than a pound of cure. And preventing capsizes starts right at the water's edge. Some summer weekend, spend a couple of hours at a busy put-in. You'll see more people dump — or come close to dumping — than you will in most Class IV drops at the peak of the spring runoff. There's an art to launching a canoe, particularly when there's a lot of air between the last of the dry land and the surface of the water. High docks and rock outcrops are always good for a sudden swim. The remedy? Lower the canoe to the water first and get in afterward. (Yes, people occasionally try to do it the other way round. Once.) Then, when you climb aboard, move slowly and deliberately. Stay centered, too, and keep your weight low. Standing in a canoe that's floating on the water — to change places or play a big fish, say, or to load gear — is something you'll want to practice in advance. You could probably hold a barn dance in a beamy freighter, but many pack canoes and solo boats require grasshopper nerves (and bulldog reflexes).

There's an art to loading a canoe, as well. Rule Number One? Don't overload. At best, catalog capacities are rough guidelines. At worst, they're hopeful fictions. After all, the catalog copywriter won't be in the boat with you when green water starts slopping over the gunwales. So watch your freeboard, and be guided by conditions. If you anticipate big waves, lighten your load before you launch. A couple of extra inches of freeboard can make a noticeable difference in troubled waters. But don't go…well…don't go overboard. There's also the Paradox of Freeboard to consider. Too little and you're a submarine. Too much and you're a sailboat. The upshot? You'll need to find the Golden Mean for your canoe, and there's no better way than by experimenting — but only when the penalty for making a mistake is no worse than an unexpected swim. Whether your load is light or heavy, however, always stow the weightiest items of gear low in the bilge, and keep them out of the ends of the boat. You want your canoe to lift to each wave and ride over it, not punch through. And don't pile even the lightest gear too high. Every pack that sticks up above the gunwales just gives the wind that much more to work with.

At least properly lashed packs won't move. The same can't be said for dogs and kids. Of course, you should never tie a child (or a dog) into a canoe. (I've seen both done.) But you can't leave them free to roam at will, either. The answer? Discipline. A dog that won't obey commands to stay put should be left at home, as should a child who can't (or won't) stay in her seat. Luckily, once a child is old enough to go afloat — I've seen infants in canoes, but it's not something I'd encourage on any but the most tranquil bodies of water — she's old enough to work her passage. So give her a child-sized paddle of her own. She probably won't contribute much to your speed, but the task will still help to keep her glued to her seat.

One more thing. Both children and dogs need to wear properly sized PFDs. Always. This goes without saying, doesn't it?

Once you're under way, watch out for rocks, stumps (a common hazard to navigation on drowned rivers), and waterlogged tree trunks. All of these have dumped unsuspecting boaters at one time or another. Capsizes can happen at beaver dams and lunch stops, too, as well as at day's end. Taking-out demands the same care as putting-in — in fact, it demands more. You're probably tired now, it's getting late, and you've got a long trip home ahead of you. It won't be improved by wet clothes.


So far, so good. But passive measures intended to prevent trouble have their limits. No canoeist, however vigilant, can anticipate every threat, or spot every rock in the river. Wind and wave can upset any boater's plans, not to mention her canoe. This is when you need an active defense. Luckily, there's one tailored to any situation. You just have to…

Brace Up!

And you don't need any special gear. You only need your paddle. It's your ticket out of trouble, and the secret's in the twist of your wrist. Both low and high braces should be familiar even to novice boaters, though a surprising number of paddlers never employ them where they'd be most helpful. The low brace is performed with the back of the blade. It lies somewhere on the spectrum between a slap and a reverse sweep, and it has a strong family resemblance to the pry. By contrast, the high brace works the face of blade.* It's a close cousin to the draw. In each case, you'll find yourself leaning on the water, relying on the fact that this indisputably slippery stuff is also heavy and incompressible. A low brace can keep you from rolling over toward your paddling side. A high brace lifts your offside gunwale to meet an advancing wave or surging current. It can stop an offside roll before it reaches the point of no return, as well. Both high and low braces make it possible for you to hang your weight over the gunwale. In effect, a well-timed brace allows you to violate the Stay-Centered principle — without throwing yourself in the water or capsizing your canoe.

Useful? You bet. But before a brace can help you it has to be part of your regular repertoire. And you can't learn to paddle from any book or article. They can whet your appetite, to be sure, but the real work doesn't begin till you get out on the water. Ideally, you'll launch your paddling career under the watchful eye of a competent mentor, though if you're prepared to swim now and again, you and a buddy can learn on your own — starting out in a farm pond or sheltered bay, then moving on to a gentle stream when you're ready. The so-called English gate can make your practice drills almost fun, in fact. But no matter how much fun they are, they're also serious business. Don't forget to wear your PFDs and dress for the water temperature. A helmet is a good idea when practicing in the shallows, too, even in a canoe. Rocks are harder than the hardest head.

Of course, no brace can save you from an unplanned swim if your paddle's waving about in the air. Need a quick way to identify a novice? That's easy. An experienced paddler keeps her blade in the water. When waves toss her around, she plies a brace to good effect. She's in control. The novice boater, on the other hand, drops her paddle and grabs the gunwales at the first lurch. (A scream is optional here.) Sure, it feels good to hang on to your boat in a surging, heaving world. But not everything that feels good is good for you. Whatever comfort you get from grabbing the gunwales is almost certain to be short-lived. You've got to have your paddle in the water if you want it to work for you. And without a working blade, your boat's just another piece of driftwood. This is not good. Take it from me. You don't always want to go with the flow.


Unfortunately, there are times when even a perfectly executed brace isn't enough to keep all the water out of your boat. Unless you're already upside down, though, you've still got…

A Fighting Chance

Taking on water can be no more than a minor nuisance. Or it can be a major problem. The difference? It depends on two things: how much water comes aboard and what you do about it. First things first. Water's heavy. A gallon weighs more than eight pounds. And a single wave can easily dump ten gallons or more in your boat in a second or two. Shovel it out ASAP. Each paddler should always have a bailer within easy reach. Use it. Then again, you may need your hands for other things. Like bracing and paddling, for instance. A strong brace can help to keep a half-swamped boat upright. Obviously, if things have reached this point, a solo boater's in serious trouble. A tandem crew can sometimes save the day, however. One partner — usually, but not necessarily, the sternman — keeps paddling. The other partner bails whenever his paddle can be spared. Both partners will have a lot to do, but the one with her paddle in the water has the hardest job of all. Water's a fluid, right? It flows to the low point in the boat. So a slight lean soon becomes a roll. Then it's swim time for sure.

The solution? Don't give up without a fight. Work your brace. Keep you boat right side up. Bail. Look for an eddy to park in while you empty the canoe and put things in order. But beware: Doing an eddy turn with a boatload of water isn't easy. It's best to ferry into the eddy if you can. Adequate flotation makes this — and just about everything else we've talked about — much easier, of course. A cubic foot of air weighs a whole lot less than a cubic foot of water.

Let's revisit the scene that introduced this article. What happens if, despite your best efforts, you simply can't keep your boat upright? In a rapid river, your job then is to hang on to your paddle, keep your feet up (and your head upstream of your feet), and work your way out of the main current. On open water, hang on to both your boat and your paddle — except when you're in the surf zone, that is. If you're anyplace where waves are breaking hard, put as much distance between yourself and your boat as possible, as quickly as you can. Wherever you are when you go over, however, your and your companions' rescue and recovery skills will be tested to the fullest. But that's a topic for another time.

All canoes will turn bottoms up given half a chance. It's your job to keep them sitting pretty. Use common sense when getting in and out of your boat. Distribute your gear carefully. Keep the kids in their seats and the dog under control. Practice bracing till you could get a drink right out of the lake — if it were safe to do so! — and still snap your boat upright again, leaving no more water in the bilge than the drops that fell from your chin. Then relax. The hard work's over. You've mastered the art of keeping your head above water.

* Like water itself, the words "back" and "face" are slippery items. This is what I mean by them here: The face of the blade is the part that does the work during a normal forward power stroke. The back of the blade does the biz when you backpaddle. 'Nuff said, I hope.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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