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Canadian Canoe Routes

Capsize and Recover
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Author:  John Marshall [ June 13th, 2009, 2:32 pm ]
Post subject:  Capsize and Recover

As I have gradually been gaining skills and running harder rapids, I am bothered by the fact that I don't feel that my skills and experience with handling a capsized boat match my paddling skills. I have had very few capsizes and all but one were in an easy situation to recover from. I paddle a boat with ample flotation bags, painters stowed under bungees on the deck plates, a lifejacket with crotch straps, whistle, serrated knife, and I have a throw bag. I have heard the old advice of keep your feet up and pointed downstream, work your way to the upstream end of the boat etc. In spite of all this, I feel quite unprepared for an extended swim, or capsize in a Class III.

Today, I dumped the boat over in a swimming area for grins. I easily turned it right side up, flutter kicked and seal mounted over the stern, got back in the seat and paddled off. The situation was not what I would find in real life. The water wasn't cold, there was no current, and no waves.

Do I have it correct that the first step should be to turn the boat right side up, and stow the paddle? It seems to me that a right side up boat, is much easier to cling to than an upside down one, and much easier to tow. Is it realistic to do what I did in calm water with no assitance as a solo paddler in waves? Wouldn't it be easier as a tandem team or with the assistance of another boat? What has been the real life experience? I certainly don't expect someone waiting with a throw bag whenever I capsize.

Author:  yarnellboat [ June 13th, 2009, 10:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

Hi John,

If you can climb back into your solo canoe on your own, you're way ahead of the game! Although, it is probably too sketchy with current & rocks. In fact, I've never seen that happen on a river.

Having somebody with a throw rope is the ideal option. I like that one!

Also, having a group with proficient canoe-over-canoe rescues is good, but that gets trickier in class III water. Other boats can also try to help by bumping or towing, but it's usually not that much help really.

So, in harder water, the most realistic rescue is self rescue...

Rolling. And if you never get a reliable roll, you'll at develop a real low brace.

Swimming. Right your boat (at least I agree it's easier to tow), and get yourself somewhere safe, hopefully an eddy on shore. Some people may stow their paddles, others can use it well to aid swimming. Some people may swim with their boat directly, others may have it on a long painter. Don't put your feet down.

That's it really - either you rescue yourself or your group helps you. And the more challenging the water, the less likely your partners will be able to help you quickly & easily. So, you better be comfortable swimming you & your gear in whatever water you paddle.

Worse case and when necessary, you abandon your boat & paddle and swim yourself to safety. But everybody's day on the river seems better if swimmers can manage their gear too.

When you're paddling harder water, these are important skills. I respect people with good self-rescue skills as much as I respect talented paddlers. There are some people I'm nervous about paddling with not because of their paddling skills, because of their relatively weak skills once they're out of their boat.

Sounds like you might want to try some rolling/bracing practice. It's not fool proof, but it may be the next step to help solve the questions you're posing.


Author:  pknoerr [ June 14th, 2009, 7:44 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

I'd agree with Pat. Rolling is the best idea, but is really only realistic in a playboat for mere mortals (Yeah, I know Paul Mason and Mark Scriver can roll Prospectors). So unless your paddling a playboat, it involves a swim, and then a self rescue, assistance from others, or a combination of the two.

There are lots of canoeing books, and opinions on what to do. In my historical swims, rarely have things worked out such that there is an exact group of efforts that I could follow textbook style. For me like you, upsets only happen on the rare occasion, so it's not like I expect it and have time to think about it. I find that I usually have a paddle in my hands, and rarely have I swam in the circumstance that I have a huge amount of loose stuff in the boat to set up a yard sale along the river for two miles. Some times I've been able to grab the boat, sometimes I'm nowhere close and somone else needs to pick it up, or I have to walk down the shore to get it. I don't think I've ever rolled a boat to aid pulling it from the river, but I'd agree with Pat, it sounds alot easier. On most of the self rescues I've dealt with, I think I've just grabbed the boat and pulled it towards an eddy or so it will catch on the rocks along the shore.

I too think you're better off with rescue than you think. I think you might benefit by swimming a few rapids without the boat (ie: purposely swim the rapids that you paddle). I've done this as part of canoeing classes, and to a degree it helps to allay some of the fear of swimming. In a little respect for not-swimming, does wonders for developing a strong brace, and even working on rolls, but you also need to have atleast experienced a few swims to push that uncertainty from your mind.

Most canoeists have never had instruction in river rescue, and unfortunately that's not that good. I know I should take another class myself. But, if you are feeling uneasy about the skills you have, then maybe you should consider a rescue class to up your confidence.


Author:  John Marshall [ June 14th, 2009, 9:22 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

Pat and Paul,
It is good to recieve a reply from two of the more experienced paddlers on CCR. No doubt the ultimate solution is rolling, but that implies a boat set up with pedestal and thigh straps. I don't have such a boat and its not in the cards for me to get one at this time.

Being comfortable swimming is definitely a smart thing, but I have trouble deciding where is a safe place to swim. I have deliberately swam some Class II. I would like to take a swiftwater rescue course, but the ones I have seen advertised cost $400 and they are not taught be canoe paddlers.

Throw Ropes- I think a lot of us have been using them like talismans. I attempted to do two rescues with a throw rope last summer, and failed both times. One was a bad throw, the other time, the guy caught the rope, but the pull was more than I could withstand.

It seems to me, that if I can climb back in a boat on flat water unassisted, in bouncy water I shold be able to get back in with someone hanging on to my guwale and steadying the boat??
Obviously it would not be attempted while still going down a rapids.

What about the additional steadiness of two paddlers getting back in a tandem, one on each side?

Pat- you are familiar with the Wenatchee River. What scares me is the thought of capsizing in the Class II water below Dryden Dam, and swimming under the bridge and through Class III Gorilla Falls. A raft wrapped on those bridge pillars about fifteen years ago and drowned two people. Bridge pillars scare the hell out of me.

You are right practicing a good brace is important, but sooner or later you are going to miss one stroke, lose a moment of concentration, and over you go. One has to be prepared to swim.

Author:  ezwater [ June 14th, 2009, 9:33 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

Some ww paddlers who are "dumpers" rather than "rollers" will scan down the rapid before running and almost automatically store information about where the boat might be gotten to shore and dumped. This obviously works better for narrower rivers. If a river rapid is very wide and without good dumping options, that may be a reason to either break it into segments by using eddies that allow bailing, or to consider lining or portaging.

Author:  pknoerr [ June 14th, 2009, 10:00 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

John, Outside of full on playboating, I don't mess with rolls either. My tripping boat isn't outfit with a pedestal or thigh straps either.

I personally don't see a throwbag as anything remotely as sacred as you suggest, though we carry one in each boat. I see throwable lines as useful in a pretty narrow set of circumstances. The first problem is that the line is only 50 feet long. So even setting up on rapids is moderately silly on many rivers. We did a safety clinic on a local river at the location of a former mill dam, and I played rescuee, and a throwbag wouldn't even reach the main current in the channel on that side of the river from shore. There was 150 feet of river in the middle that couldn't have been reached from either shore!!! I look at other tripping rivers and think how ridiculous it is to think that a 50 foot thowbag will help much in rescuing on a 400 foot wide river. Throwbag rescue from another boat is possible, but usually I prefer to paddle the 5O feet to the paddler and drag them hanging on my stern of my canoe.

We've done either canoe over canoe or just re-entry rescues, and if you can seal mount the stern of a canoe you can surely re-enter either a solo or tandem. Usually, the limitation is upper body strength for re entry, and having a paddler in a second canoe stablizin the swamped canoe surely helps. As for tandems, both paddlers re-enter at the same time, so timing is pretty critical, but usually the issue is upper body strength.

Beyond, the above options is getting yourself out of the river and picking up the pieces downstream. Not usually what you want, but it's all that's left. That's where the comfort factor when swimming the rivers you paddle comes in. I agree $400 is alot of money, but swimming rapids isn't any different in a canoe than a kayak, exccept that you'll be trying to drag more boat out of the river. Maybe you can talk a few of your canoe buddies into a little rescue day at a reasonably safe spot on the river?


Author:  John Marshall [ June 14th, 2009, 1:14 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

Sounds like the throw rope rescue is something that works well only in certain situations. I find the whole topic of rescue in rivers to be very poorly covered in canoeing literature. One book assumes that you will always paddle in a group, and your friends will easily throw a rope to you and reel you in. I don't think it is that easy, and I think that while paddling in a group offers more options for rescue, the biggest thing is still, what you can do for yourself.

Author:  Peter K. [ June 15th, 2009, 7:14 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

Just a few comments on throw bags:
* no, they are not just for playboating. They are a tripping tool as well;
* yes, you have to determine if you are going to set up safety before you run a set and place your bag(s) in an appropriate place to recover a swimmer;
* yes, when you recover a swimmer a lot of tension comes on the line. You need to belay the rope (and maybe have someone to belay the belayer). You need to sure of footing and know where you will pendulum swimmers into shore;
* yes, throw lines are only 70' long. That's about the maximum distance you can throw one;
* no, you can't use them for all situations. You may need a safety boat in some situations;
* there is indeed a pretty big literature on river rescue (although much of it says the same thing). I would recommend [i]Swiftwater Rescue[/i] by Slim Ray and [i]Whitewater Safety and Rescue[/i] by Franco Ferrero. I am sure there are plenty of others.

Author:  John Marshall [ June 15th, 2009, 7:45 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

Peter K
I have the Slim Ray book. Yes, it has lot of information about how to un-pin boats etc. What is missing in canoeing literature is much about self rescue on the fly. I wish I had the luxury of setting up a rescue plan at the bottom of a drop as you suggest. The reality is that I am running rivers with rapids that go on for a very long ways, and with only one or two boats.

Author:  Dan. [ June 15th, 2009, 7:59 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

I am a big fan of clipping a bag or two to the grab loop of the boat. If I swim grab the line swim to shore and then pendulum the boat.

It has its own set of dangers for sure. this works the best on the flats between rapids. I probably wouldn't try this in the middle of a hairy CIII or IV. 70' of rope connecting me to a swamped boat.... yeah not a fan.

Author:  ayates [ June 15th, 2009, 8:37 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

Someone mentioned the cost of a swift water rescue course at $400. Paddler Co-Op, in Palmers Rapids, Ontario, offers such a course for $175. I've taken it, and found it very educational. I didn't know how much I didn't know. Highly recommended course. I won't do whitewater trips with my Scouts unless I have at least two adults on the trip with this training.

No connection to Paddler Co-op other than a very satisfied customer.

I happen to have a private instance of this course being run in Palmers Rapids on the weekend of June 27-28. Being taught by the instructor I had, a level 2 Swift Water rescue instructor. We happen to have a few spots available on the course for a reduced rate. Contact me offline if anyone is interested.


Author:  John Marshall [ June 15th, 2009, 9:42 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

Sounds great only Palmer Rapids is several thousand miles away.

Author:  yarnellboat [ June 15th, 2009, 12:13 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover


If you can climb back into your boat alone in flatwater, and you're with other canoes on these rapids, I'd say your best bet is canoe-assisted recovery.

You could do a full canoe-over-canoe to empty the water if it's not too busy a rapid (I think you'd be surprised where some succesful canoe-over-canoes can be done). or you you can do what what you mentioned - just have another canoe support your swamped boat and clamber back in (ideally on the upstream side and without exposing your feet to the bottom).

Sure, you're then paddling a swamped canoe, but same with rolling. That sounds like the most effective way to get you out of the river.

You can climb back into a boat straight-on, or if you don't have the arm strength for that, you can get between the canoes, limbs on each boat and "roll" yourself into your canoe. This seems easier for people without the arm strength and has the advantage of not dangling your feet. But if you do have arm strength, the straight-in is probably faster.

Bottom line - rolling, throw ropes, canoe-over-canoe, climbing back into a supported swamped canoe... they all have one thing in common: you need to practice them, and the paddlers in your group need to have a mutual understanding of what's expected for rescue - what you're going to do and what they're going to do.

Anyway, if I were you, sounds like I'd #1 initiate a self-rescu and start swimming me & my gear to safety right away, and #2 if a rescue boat arrives alongside for support, climb back in. Whichever succeeds first.


Author:  Peter K. [ June 15th, 2009, 12:14 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

If you are running long sets that you aren't prepared to swim and can't safety you are exceeding my comfort zone.

Author:  John Marshall [ June 15th, 2009, 12:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Capsize and Recover

I guess I need to get my fellow paddlers together and organize some drills. The challenge is how to make it realistic, and relevant without being dangerous. Doing a canoe over canoe on a mill pond in August is very differant from doing a canoe over canoe in a fast moving river in April.

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