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Chapter 7

Small Boats

The most common safety problem with paddleboats like canoes and rowboats is capsizing. If you keep sitting the whole time you're in the boat, your chances of tipping over are greatly reduced. If you do have to change seats in the boat, keep low and always have three points of contact with the boat: either two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot.


According to Critical Judgment: Understanding and Preventing Canoe and Kayak Fatalities (American Canoe Association, 2003), the following statistics show the main dangers:

  • 75% of all fatalities involving canoes and kayaks were associated with canoeing.
  • 83% of all canoeing-related fatality victims were not wearing a PFD at the time of the accident.
  • Moving around the boat and shifting weight played a major role in roughly half of all canoeing accidents.
  • Approximately half the people killed while canoeing or kayaking were fishing at the time of the accident.
  • At least 25% of victims in fatal canoeing accidents had consumed alcohol immediately prior to the accident.

To be sure you don't become an unfortunate statistic, follow these rules when you canoe or kayak:

  1. Wear a properly fitted PFD.
  2. Don't drink alcohol or use drugs that impair your judgment or behavior.
  3. Be prepared to enter the water, and know how to swim. If you are in a current, float on your back with your feet downstream.
  4. Stay low if you need to move about in a canoe or kayak, and keep three points of contact with the boat: either two hands and one foot or both feet and one hand.
  5. Load the boat properly. Keep the weight centered both from side to side and bow to stern. Generally, the lower and closer the load is to the centerline of the boat, the more stable the boat will be, assuming there is adequate freeboard. Stay within the limits of the capacity rating on the capacity plate, if one is present, and stay off the gunwales.
  6. Tie the boat to the dock or pull it up on shore, if possible, before you get into the boat.
  7. Keep your shoulders inside the gunwales of the boat. When retrieving something from the water, reach with your paddle, or guide the boat close to the object so you can grab the item from the water without leaning your shoulders over the gunwale.
  8. Never paddle alone. There is safety in numbers.
  9. Avoid extreme conditions, including weather, distance from the shore, water conditions, current caused by flood waters, or fast current beyond your skill level.
  10. Take hands-on training. Paddling instruction will teach you balance, use of stabilizing strokes, safe exit and entry on the water, and rescue and recovery skills. Don't become complacent with safety procedures and take unnecessary risks.

If you do fall into the water unexpectedly, follow these tips:

  1. Tighten your PFD. They often become loose during activity.
  2. Float on the upstream side of your canoe or kayak to avoid being caught or crushed between the canoe/kayak and any objects it runs into.
  3. Do not try to stand or walk in water that has a fast current. If your foot gets caught on something below the surface of the water, you can get trapped and the current could pull you under.
  4. Float on your back with your feet pointed downstream. They will act as the buffer between you and whatever you might hit.
  5. Paddle with your arms to avoid running into any objects in the water. Don't fight the current.
  6. Do whatever you can to get out of the water before hypothermia sets in.

Powerboating Safety Notes

Participants in paddle sports need to be especially watchful within their surroundings, especially when operating near powerboats. A powerboat wake can easily swamp a paddle-driven boat, leaving the paddler in the water. Power boaters should be especially aware while operating near paddlers, other small boat operators, and swimmers. Powerboat operators are fully responsible for their wake and any damage caused.

Chapter 7

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