Pinned Canoes

You may go a lifetime without ever having to deal with this problem, but if and when it finally does happen, it's never a fun one to deal with.  A pinned canoe at minimum is a major inconvenience, and at worst may mean the end of a trip.

People who haven't spent much time paddling (or wading) in fast water often have little appreciation for the power that this water can exert. The current in a whitewater or fast-water section of river can exert a surprising amount of force. I have waded sections of rivers where a depth of water to my knees made walking almost impossible.

A canoe can get pinned while lining, tracking or running fast water. It tends to happen so quickly that there is some disbelief that the event has taken place. The canoe rotates sideways, the upstream gunwale goes under the water, and the canoe is suddenly wrapped around a rock and pinned into location.

This presents two problems.

The first is the damage caused by the folding. This is when the value of Royalex becomes clear. A Royalex boat will fold, but after rescue, it can most likely be 'unfolded', salvaged and repaired. Folded fiberglass or Kevlar boats will most likely snap in half and there's only so much that a roll of duct tape can do. Mind you, I was involved in the salvage of a fiberglass canoe that folded to the point where the extruded aluminum gunwales were snapped right through, and we still managed to get the boat into useable (but not pretty) condition.

The second problem you will have to face is the fact that the canoe will be pinned to the rocks by the strong current. The force of moving water can exert a load of well over a ton on the canoe. This, coupled with the fact that the boat will likely be in a less-than-convenient location for access to perform the rescue, can make salvage a difficult (or sometimes impossible) task.

As a side note, those of us who have had experience with this 'pinning force' have a clear understanding of the reasons for staying upstream of the canoe after a dump in a rapid. The prospect of being pinned between a rock and a swamped canoe in the middle of a rapid is a sobering one.

Extracting a pinned canoe is not an exact science. Each situation and location is unique, and there is no 'standard practice' that is guaranteed to work in all cases.

The first thing to realize is that there is little likelihood that a boat will be freed by simply pulling and tugging. Unless you paddle with a burlier group than I do, none of your group members can counteract that one-ton of force holding the canoe against the rocks by yanking on a gunwale. Our only hope in this situation is a simple principle of physics - that of mechanical advantage.

Mechanical advantage is the principle that allows us to lift large weights using pulleys, to lift up our car with a jack, or to roll heavy objects using levers.

If we are paddling a remote river where there is a significant possibility that we may have to free a pinned canoe, a small block and tackle (or two) and enough rope to effect the rescue should be standard equipment.

Failing that, there are still ways of gaining sufficient mechanical advantage to help free a pinned canoe.

Power-Cinch Rigging One way is the use of a 'power-cinch' type of rigging. This rope arrangement basically does the same thing as a pulley, but without actually using a pulley. The principle of the rigging is the same as that used in a 'trucker's hitch', which many of us already use to tie down our canoe to the roof racks on our cars. The power-cinch will sometimes yield enough mechanical advantage to make the difference. A simple diagram of the rigging is below. The system can be rigged using loops tied into the ropes, or by tying carabiners to the rope to serve as the 'loops.' Mind you, every situation is unique, and you may have to be creative in the application of this method.

Levers If the canoe is directly accessible, it may be possible to cut a pole and use it to lever the canoe from the rocks where it is pinned. The longer the pole, the more leverage force available.

Capstan Arrangement. If you are lucky enough to have a convenient anchorage close at hand, it may be possible to rig up a 'capstan' type arrangement to increase the tension force on the rope. A capstan works something like a rotating winch. Picture the arrangement used to lift a bucket up from a wishing-well, but turned on its side. You may be able to jury-rig some type of arrangement to some trees on the shoreline. It's a little difficult to explain, but the diagram below will give some idea of the arrangement needed.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Take a couple of minutes to recover from the accident, settle down and actually think about the situation. Canoe rescue can be challenging and potentially dangerous, and you don't want to add to the problems you already have. Make sure paddlers are safe, then recover gear, and only then, think about a possible method for extracting the canoe from the river. Sometimes 15 minutes of careful thought will save several hours of frustrating, backbreaking labour.
  • Make sure rope you bring is up to the task. There is little point in rigging a system that will put 500 lb. of tension on 1/4" nylon rope. The rope you should use as painters (and in your emergency / rescue kit) should be strong enough to withstand a substantial load.
  • Watch for snapping ropes. Any time you apply a significant mechanical advantage to a rigging system, you run the risk of snapping the rope. Any time you break a rope under considerable tension, you run the risk of it snapping back like a horsewhip and putting out your eye or removing important parts of your anatomy.
  • Don't attach a rope to the seat, deck or thwart of your canoe, exert a pull of several hundred pounds, and expect the canoe to pop free. The almost-guaranteed result is that you will simply yank out the seat or thwart you tied off to, and still be faced with a pinned canoe. Tie off in a large loop around the entire hull.
  • It may be useful to use a combination of techniques. For example, some members could use power-cinch rigging while other members of the group use a pole to apply leverage to the hull of the canoe.
  • Be patient. Sometimes a moderate change in water levels may be enough to allow a hopelessly pinned canoe to be popped free. If a heavy rain has caused high water levels, even half a day can make a difference in the volume of water in a river system.