The Accidental Swim

The 'accidental swim' is something that may not happen often, but certainly can happen to any canoeist. We all anticipate at least the risk of a tip in large waves or when negotiating whitewater, but there are other times that this can happen unexpectedly.

In many, many years of canoe trips, I have only been for an accidental swim once - when Debbie and I ran head on into a submerged rock in the middle of a small class II rapid and were literally "ejected" from the canoe by the impact.  This was an understandable one, and I've never felt too embarrassed by the event.  

On the other hand, I can recall being out for a short morning paddle with my friend Alan on a local river. We were cruising along on flat water in perfect weather, and suddenly found our canoe 'open side down', and ourselves swimming. 

We were somewhat stunned at finding ourselves in this predicament. It wasn't a really big deal - the water was warm, we were wearing PFD's and we were close to shore. It was, however a bit puzzling as to why we had tipped in the first place. In typical canoeist fashion, we promptly blamed each other for the dump. In reality, it was probably the mischievous spirits that dwell under all bodies of water, occasionally grabbing a canoe gunwale and giving it a tug to ensure that paddlers retain some sense of humility.

Traditional wisdom gives us the old-standing rule "Always stay with the boat, and don't try swimming for shore. In most cases, this rule is a sound one, for the following reasons:

  • Distance to the shoreline can be deceptive. Dry land is often farther away than it appears
  • We sometimes overestimate our swimming abilities, especially if we are fully clothed and wearing shoes.
  • Moderately cold water can reduce our ability to swim even moderate distances.
  • Once we strike out from the canoe, we've lost contact with it. Once we reach shore, where do we go from there?
  • In many cases, help is close at hand - either from others in our paddling group or from other boaters in the area.

It is important to remember that this rule is not a hard-and-fast one. While it is a sensible guideline most of the time, there are exceptions. A good example is in very cold water. Hanging on to a canoe with your torso submerged means that your body will lose heat very quickly, and you might lose the ability to hang on to your boat. If this is the case, you may be better off leaving the canoe behind and striking out for the shore as quickly as possible. Notice that I say, "you may be better off" You will have to make a judgment call based on the particular situation. If you are floating in cold water and no rescue is not imminent, heading for shore may be your best option.

On the other hand, you will have to make that quick call as to which is the lesser of the risks. There is no clear answer that applies to every case.

Another consideration is wind and what that wind is doing to the canoe. In a brisk wind, a canoe will take off at a surprisingly good clip, especially if it rights itself after the dump. Chasing after the canoe may not be a good idea. On a windy day, you may find yourself falling further and further behind the canoe and getting further and further out into the lake.

While we have already covered the issue of PFD use in another section on this site, it is worth noting again that in some situations, the wearing of a PFD may mean the difference between being in an inconvenient situation and a dangerous one. The standard, conservative rule is to always wear a PFD. By sticking to this rule, you well certainly avoid most problems. If you are going to occasionally paddle while not wearing a PFD, it is worth considering the following:

  • Are there people around who could quickly bail you out of the water if you require help?
  • Are you certain that these people have the necessary skills to rescue you?
  • Are the weather conditions such that a rescuer could pull you out of the water without endangering him or herself?
  • How far are you from the shoreline?
  • What are the water and weather conditions? Is there a strong wind? Large waves? Strong current?

 Canoe-Over-Canoe Rescue

The oft-discussed canoe-over-canoe rescue is not always as useful as it appears. While it sounds good in principle, it isn't an easy rescue to effect if the water is rough, the current is strong or there are rapids in the area. Unfortunately, those are the exact situations in which you're most likely to be faced with the prospect pulling some paddlers out of the drink.

Even in flat water conditions, the easiest approach is often to first have another canoe rescue the unfortunate swimmers by having them hold onto the bow and stern of the rescue boat and get towed back to the shore. Once the paddlers are safe, the rescuers can then haul the upended canoe back to the shore where the entire group can bail out the boat, dry the gear and poke fun at the skill level of the soggy paddlers that dumped.

If the dump takes place a long distance from shore, and the water conditions are suitable, it may be possible to put things back to normal by doing a canoe-over-canoe rescue. This is done as follows:

  • The swimming paddlers swim over and hold onto the bow and stern of the rescue boat to preserve their strength. They do not swim up and grab the gunwales at the centre of the rescue boat and in doing so, send the crew of the rescue boat into the water.
  • One of the people in the rescue boat moves to the centre of their canoe, grabs one end of the upended boat and lifts it up onto their gunwale. It will probably be necessary to rotate the swamped canoe a bit to break the 'seal' with the surface of the water, otherwise you will be trying to lift the several hundred pounds of water held into the boat by an airlock.
  • The canoe is then pulled (upside-down) over the gunwales of the rescue canoe until it is fully out of the water, and completely drained.
  • After this, it's a simple matter of turning the boat over and sliding it back into the water. It is pulled parallel to the rescue boat and the gunwales of the canoes are 'locked' together to make it easier for the dumpees to climb back in.

Of course, this can be complicated by the fact that there may be significant amount of gear either tied into the dumped canoe, or floating around it. We simply have to remember that people come first, and gear comes second. We worry about rescuing people and getting them back into their boat before we think about the packs and paddles.

Self Rescue

When I was a kid at YMCA summer camp, there was much ado made about being able to self-rescue. One of the exercises we worked on continually was to dump the canoe in deep water, slosh and bail most of the water out, and then climb back in. I became reasonably proficient at doing just that. However, I am now in middle age - my arm strength has decreased, and my circumference has increased. What I formerly did with some grace and agility now evokes visions of a walrus pulling itself onto an ice floe. Nonetheless, I could still pull myself up over the bow or the stern of a canoe and get back in if the situation called for such an action.

This is a skill that is worth practicing. A warm day at the cottage (or camp, if you're from Northern Ontario) is a perfect opportunity to develop this skill. Climbing over the gunwale at the mid-section of the canoe is a sure-fire way to tip it again. The trick involves getting back in over the end of the canoe - at the bow or the stern. A quick hoist accompanied by some vigorous kicking will generally get you waist high and allow you to roll your way in. It's not something that can be easily described in writing, but it can be done. Better to learn the skill in a controlled environment that when you really need it.

A dump in the rapids ...

If you end up taking a swim in whitewater or fast water, here's what you should do:

Stay clear of the canoe.  If you've ever seen a canoe pinned to the rocks by a fast-moving current you'll understand why.  You wouldn't want to be pinned between a swamped canoe and a rock.

Don't try to swim against the current.  No matter how good your swimming skills, you won't make any progress against the current.  Relax and go with the flow.

Float down on your back, with your feet leading the way.  Better to hit a rock with your feet than your head.  Keep your butt up, too - your feet are a lot tougher than your tailbone.
If possible, hang on to your paddle - you're going to need it later