Canoe Safety in Moving Water

I decided to write a little about canoe safety.  We went on a very fun Family Splash Trip, on the Potomac River below Harper’s Ferry, which I will write about soon.  Our friend Mark (who is a kayaker) brought a friend and borrowed our guest canoe.  Even Mark, who has been kayaking for 15 years, needed some tips on canoe safety.

American Whitewater has an excellent Safety Code.  It is all inclusive, but I will highlight a few very basic things you need to know before canoeing on moving water.

Always Wear a Proper Fitting Lifevest (PFD – Personal Floatation Device)

In case it is not clear, each person in your canoe or kayak, should have a proper fitting life vest (PFD) and should be wearing it.  It is a law in Maryland.  Boat floatation cushions are not proper PFD’s. This website has pictures of different life vests.  Normally you wear Type III life vest when canoeing.

For children, you buy life vests by weight, not age.  An infant life vest is for 0 – 30 lbs.  It has extra floatation behind the neck, and has a strap that goes between the crotch.  The name, infant is a misnomer.  My child wore and infant life vest until age 3.5 due to his weight.

Children’s Life Vest – 30-50 lbs – the next size for children is for the weights listed.  This type does not have extra floatation behind the neck, but it does have a strap that straps under the crotch. This strap is to make sure the child does not fall out of the PFD.

Children’s Life Vest 50-90 lbs – this is the next size up.  It is similar to the smaller life vest, made bigger, but this life vest does not have a strap that goes between the crotch.

Adult Sizes, XS, S, M, L, XL – well you get the idea.  Once the child has reached 90 lbs, they fit into an adult life vest.

Type II Life Vest – This type of life vest is also known as a horse collar life vest.  They are better than nothing and are quite good at keeping your head above the water, but they are not comfortable and people often take them off instead of wearing them while canoeing.  I linked to a youth Type II vest, it is for 50-90 lbs.  They make a type II life vest for 30-50 lbs, but those are horrible and your child is not going to be well protected with it.  There is no crotch strap and likely your toddler or young child could easily come out of that life vest.  I have an adult horse collar life vest in my possession because for one thing the adult ones are one size fits all, so if the person doesn’t fit any of my other life vests, he can fit that one.

When you Come out of your Boat in Moving Water

American Whitewater definition of Class I rapids (moving water):
Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy.

If you fall out of your boat or your boat falls over, the first thing to do is lay on you back and face downstream. Use your feet to keep you away from any rocks.  Of course you try to hold on to your equipment (boat and paddle), but if that puts you in danger, let it go.  Children should be told to lie on their backs and face downstream.  Your child should be at least comfortable in water, if not a competent swimmer.  I’m assuming parents are competent swimmers too.

Do not stand up in moving water if it is over your knees.  Doing so could cause foot entrapment, you can read more about foot entrapment here.

 Make Sure the Painters are Stowed

IMG_6394Painters are the ropes on either end of the canoe.  American Whitewater says they should be between 8-10 feet and 1/4 inch or bigger rope.  Ours are long enough to use as end ropes when tying them to the car about 15 feet.  You don’t want that rope getting tangled in your feet or body if you and your boat go over.  In our canoes, we have put bungee cords to contain the painters.  We coil up the painters and stow them under the bungee cords.  If your canoe does not have a way to keep the painters out of the way, coil them up on a short leash.

 Proper Storage of Gear

Dry Bags for Storage

Dry Bags for Storage

You might be wondering how proper storage of the stuff you want to take with you in your canoe is a safety issue, but it is.  This is where my friend Mark needed a little pointer.  He took the painter (15 foot long rope attached to one end of the canoe) and tied the other end to a gallon water jug.   This is really unsafe, because if he and the boat went over, that long rope attached to essentially an anchor could easily get caught around his body or legs keeping him under the water.

Dry bag around canoe thwart

Dry bag around canoe thwart

So what is the solution to keeping your stuff in the canoe?  Buy a dry bag or two and put the stuff you want to keep dry in the dry bag.  Attach the dry bag to the thwart.  You roll up this type of dry bag and clip it around the thwart.

Other ways to attach stuff:  Install a tight line between two thwarts (at the gunwale) and hang carabiners off of it. Or install a patch on the bottom or the side of the canoe to hang stuff off of.

Tight line attached between thwarts.

Tight line attached between thwarts.

Picture of water bottle attached to d-ring

Water bottle attached to d-ring with carabiner

The reason to attach your stuff to the canoe is because you still want the stuff if the boat goes over. But you could just skip attaching your stuff to the canoe and let it fall out.  If it floats you can probably retrieve it later.  If it sinks, well bye-bye.

Many people bring a cooler with them and don’t attach it.  We do that on flat water, but decided to skip the cooler for class I rapids.  The safe way of attaching stuff in your canoe is to attach it with as short of rope as possible or a carabiner attached to a d-ring.   You don’t want to have long ropes with stuff hanging off it getting tangled up with the passengers if the boat goes over.

OK, so those are four basic safety rules with paddling in moving water, I will reiterate:

  1. Get and wear a proper fitting life vest for each person
  2. If you come out of a boat in moving water, float on your back, feet downstream
  3. Stow the painters (end lines) of your canoe
  4. Proper storage of your stuff in the canoe

There are lots  more safety measures to employ, like not paddling alone, learning to self rescue, learning how to use rescue equipment, learning to read water properly, learning to paddle well.  The best way to learn this is to join a local canoe club.  There are several around.  I am a member of the Canoe Cruises Association of Washington, DC and I have been a member of the Monocacy Canoe Club too, when I paddled more frequently.



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1 Response to Canoe Safety in Moving Water

  1. Pingback: Potomac River, south of Harper’s Ferry, WV | Family Canoeing Around Washington, DC

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