Safety Tips for Canoeing Beginners

photo of man and woman on kayak paddlings

Canoeing is great fun and great exercise. A standard canoe is from 14 to 18 feet long, and experienced canoeists are fully capable of handling one on their own. Beginners, though, should start out with a partner, preferably experienced! On the other hand, don’t try to cram more than three adults into a standard canoe – not only will things be cramped, the canoe’s seaworthiness will be affected.

Safety First!

Canoes are actually pretty stable, but they’ll still capsize easier than a rowboat or larger craft. There’s no alternative: if you’re going to be in a canoe, you must wear a US Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD)!

Stick to calm water – lakes or ponds. Some rivers also have calm stretches that are good places for beginning canoeists, but be careful the current doesn’t carry you to rapids. Try to avoid congested areas: canoes don’t interact well with the wakes thrown by powered watercraft. Also try to avoid windy days – getting blown around the water is not only frustrating, it’s tremendously fatiguing, because so much energy is spent fighting the wind. Finally, check the weather – if there’s the possibility of a sudden thundershower, you don’t want to be on the lake in a canoe!

Some enterprises may offer whitewater canoeing trips for canoeing beginners. These can be great fun because the rapids involved are mild, and beginners are often paired with more experienced paddlers.

Should You Bring any Special Gear or Supplies?

There’s no need for much gear on an afternoon paddle, and keep in mind that anything you bring may get wet. Waterproof containers are recommended, especially for things like cell phones. (All things considered, bringing a cell phone aboard a canoe makes sense, especially for beginners, who may tire a long way from camp.) Don’t forget sunblock and a good hat – there’s very little shade on a lake!

If Your Canoe Capsizes

Canoes generally capsize for one of three reasons:

  • Loss of control in rough water – when navigating through rapids, a canoe is moving very fast. If it hits an obstacle like a rock or a log, there’s a good chance the canoe will tip over, dumping its contents.
  • The wake from powered watercraft like jet-skis and motorboats.
  • Horseplay – getting rammed by another canoe or boat falls into this category – this seems like great fun to some, but it’s really pretty foolish, especially for beginners. Not only does this sort of horseplay endanger all the people involved, it can also damage the canoes.

Wind and current can quickly separate you from your canoe, so if yours capsizes, locate it, get to it, and hang on. Once you get to it, don’t leave it! Canoes will float even when filled with water. If you cannot easily grasp the canoe and hang on, go underneath and hold on to the thwarts (seats) – there’s a big air pocket so you can breathe. Use the canoe as a large flotation device.

Once you and the rest of your party are gathered by your canoe, you must get the water out. If you can stand up easily, this is a fairly simple process – turn the canoe upside-down, lift it completely out of the water, turn it right-side up and return it to the water.

If you’re in water over your head, you have a number of choices:

  • The “Catalina flip” is a maneuver which involves two partners, and works best when they’ve practiced it. Tread water strongly with your heads inside the upside-down canoe, grasping the gunwales, and flip the canoe right-side up.
  • Other canoes or boats in the vicinity can easily help out by turning the canoe upside-down, drawing it over their craft, righting it and returning it to the water.
  • Swim to shore, towing the canoe, and right it once you get to water where you can comfortably stand.
  • If the shore is a long distance and you cannot do the Catalina flip, you can right the canoe and paddle it. Even full of water, you’ll be able paddle to shore in calm water. The flotation chambers in the canoe will keep the canoe afloat.

Conclusion

Canoeing is a wonderful way to move quietly across the water, observing and enjoying nature without scaring it away with a loud motor. You’ll exercise your body and your senses as you glide along, interacting with nature instead of scaring it off. Like all watersports, though, it can be hazardous, and a few moments spent attending to safety considerations can avoid a lifetime of heartbreak.

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