Single Canoe Self-Recovery

Canoe safety traditions have it that if you go flatwater canoeing, either you go with other canoes so you can do the canoe-over-canoe recovery, or you stay within swimming distance of shore.  Of course, we all know violations of these guidelines are typical.  Sometimes lone canoes suffer fatal accidents as a result, but even multiple canoes can get into trouble.  One outcome of this is that the non-canoeing public likely regards canoeing as an inherently unsafe recreation.

So it would seem valuable to investigate deep water, unassisted canoe recovery.  Deep water meaning being out of reach of shore, and unassisted meaning the presence of only a tandem canoe, perhaps even a solo canoe.

Canoe literature pays scant attention to spraydecks, and has nothing to say (that I've seen) about recovering a spraydecked canoe in deep water.  I guess people assume the canoe will be accompanied and will be de-spraydecked and emptied in preparation for a canoe-over-canoe recovery.  My opinion is that spraydecks should be regarded as typical canoe equipment, not something reserved for expeditions and whitewater.

What little advice there is about using a canoe spraydeck completely fails to recognize that capsizing and recovering a spraydecked canoe is completely different from an open canoe.  The situation in fact has more in common with capsizing a kayak.  The key factor is that a spraydeck will prevent most water from invading a capsized and righted canoe.

This, in turn, has two unfamiliar results. The first is that the capsized canoe will be difficult to right.  The second is that the righted canoe is relatively empty of water and so is viable for immediate continued travel -- as long as the crew can get back in.

I have to point out that the scope of our experiments included only one model of canoe, a total of three people, and a modified NorthWater spraydeck.  The cord lacing on the spraydeck has been replaced with thick shock cord, which attaches to nylon hooks bolted to the sides of the canoe.  I shouldn't speculate about how the methods described below would work with other arrangements, but our spraydeck attaches and detaches in seconds.

The Capsize

Now, it's plain that sufficiently rough seas can prevent any recovery.  We have tried to find a usable recovery method, not so that we can blithely go out in storms or open ocean, but to recover from isolated circumstances.  Such as a capsize resulting from a rogue wave, boat wake, crew error, or a wave dropping one end of the canoe on a submerged rock. We will rely on other means to avoid extended threatening situations, such as watching the weather.

It seems canoeists agree on the observation that spontaneous, totally unexpected capsizes on flat water just don't happen.  But since we can't control everything, it's important to be prepared anyway.

I have only capsized in pools.  Even that is disorienting for a few moments.  While it's important to brace and know how to brace to prevent an incipient capsize, things change when you know you're going over.  Keep a hand on the gunnel as it rises past you.  You can use that hand to keep the canoe from bonking you on the head as it goes over, and it's important to be holding onto the canoe immediately after the capsize.

Take some time to collect your wits and relax and recover from the cold shock.  Even in cold water, as Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht   points out at this link, you have time to gather yourself without using up the time needed to sort things out.  Take a minute to calm down, check on the others, and agree on a course of action.  Even in freezing water, you have at least 10 minutes before you're too numb to get out of the water, and at least an hour before you die.  On the other hand, panicking because you're in a big rush to get out of the water NOW, can sabotage your recovery before it even gets started.

I've read this elsewhere, and will repeat it here: don't worry about flotsam drifting away.  You can retrieve that stuff later, or do without it.  But try to keep hold of your paddle, and stow it in the canoe as soon as it's upright.

It cannot be overemphasized that these techniques should be practiced to the point of being drills.  Being in a life-threatening situation is no time to experiment or try to teach someone else what you're proposing to do about it.  While running these scenarios through my mind the last couple of years, I was certain some things would work that turned out to be completely useless, or very difficult.  Some things were easier than expected, while other things were simply not foreseen.

Righting the Canoe

Again, this is completely different from righting an open canoe.  The good thing is that there will be little water in the canoe.  While practicing this, we could do 3 to 4 capsize/righting cycles before needing to empty the canoe.  The bad thing is that the upside-down canoe has to roll and lift its weight up over the bulging side of the canoe.

We tried several ways of doing this.  The first way is for the crew to go to the ends of the canoe, and twist on them to flip the canoe.

Last time we practiced this, I was unable to right the canoe this way by myself.  I know someone who has done this by himself in waves, and perhaps the waves help.  My wife and I were just barely able to do it.  This time, with a friend, it was almost easy.  I don't know if that was because of improved technique, or a stronger partner, but we were able to do it easily enough that I would be willing to bet my life on it.

The second way is a little harder to describe.  We positioned ourselves so that we could each reach under the canoe and grasp the opposite gunnel.  At the same time we lifted on the adjacent gunnel, we pulled the far gunnel towards us.  Presto, the canoe rolled upright.  I was surprised at how easily we did this, but I'm wary that a loaded canoe might not come over as easily.

The third way was the easiest.  For each of these stages of the recovery, I wanted to find a method that one person could accomplish.  Partly so that they would be usable by solo paddlers, and partly so that a recovery would still work in bad conditions or if your partner was unable to help.

While cogitating about our first evening's attempts, I got the idea that a strap tied to a thwart, and draped across the bottom of the inverted canoe could be used to right the canoe.  I mentioned this to a friend who has been a river raft guide, and is a CRCA instructor.  He immediately said: "Yes, absolutely, it will work."  He added that this is how river rafts are righted.

So I made up a strap and tried it in the pool.  The canoe righted so easily it wasn't funny.  Actually, it was funny.  It took seconds, and worked whether I started with my feet against the side of the canoe, or just pulled on the strap.  The latter was a failed attempt to get on top of the inverted canoe by using the strap.  The canoe righted before I came anywhere near getting on top of it.  It worked whether the strap was tied to the center yoke, or one of the mid-point thwarts.

I used tubular climbing webbing for the strap.  It needs to be only about 4 feet long.  Doubled, with simple knots gives both loops and the knots to aid as your hands get stiff.  I found it very easy to grip.  We will keep it attached to a thwart and bundled up under the side of the spraydeck.

There was a method of righting the canoe that utterly failed.  I inserted a double paddle between the spraydeck and both gunnels, and attempted to use it as a lever.  No way could I get enough leverage on it to do anything.  Maybe it would work with two people, but since the other methods worked so well, there's no sense pursuing it.


Ok, the canoe is upright, and there's less than an inch of water in it.  Now for the tricky part.

The first thing we tried was for one swimmer to hold a gunnel, and the other person climb in.  This worked surprisingly well, but the other person did it much more easily than I did.  He is a lot stronger than I am, but was wearing a wetsuit rather than a pfd.  Last time, my wife was unable to do this.  So this ability will vary considerably from person to person.  If the gunnel submerged, the spraydeck kept water out of the canoe.

Next it was time for the second person to climb in.  We were able to do this by having the person already in the canoe lean far to the opposite side of the person reentering.  Once, our timing was off and we rolled on over.  I suspect a loaded canoe would be less skittish. This seemed simple enough that I wondered why I had thought it couldn't be done.

Exactly how you reenter is an issue.  It's best to reenter at the center, where the canoe has the most stability from width.  But it's also too far to reach the far gunnel.  An important disadvantage of the spraydeck is that it covers the thwarts you could otherwise grab to haul yourself across the boat.  It might be worth attaching webbing handgrips across the width of the spraydeck.

Another important thing to point out is that you should be horizontal in the water before initiating reentry.  This means you have less of your body to lift, and will not be trying to somehow haul your folded body over the gunnel.

There are several ways to get horizontal.  Obviously one way is to kick your legs to the surface behind you.  Being on the windward side of a boat being blown downwind will help this.  Another way is to hook a leg into the cockpit, and shift your weight onto the canoe until you can reach the far gunnel.  There's another way, but I'll get to that soon.

I've had a lot to say in the past about using a paddlefloat, and we always carry one on deep water trips, alone or not.  Ours is made of two Mohawk paddles that clip together like a big kayak paddle.  We have clip-on T-grips to convert them to spare regular paddles, and a kayak paddlefloat that goes on one blade.

Last time we tried this, we found it hardly worked because the assembly was not securely attached to the canoe.  I rigged up some straps, but still found the arrangement came apart too easily.  Better was having the paddle inserted between the spraydeck and the gunnel on both sides of the canoe, but it still wasn't good enough.  I think an additional paddle pocket on the spraydeck is needed, plus some sort of strap for the handle.

Our first paddlefloat was a cheap kayak paddle with a stuff sack containing a chunk of styrofoam attached to one end.  Now we have the Mohawk, and a real NorthWater paddlefloat.  In one way, the homemade version was better.  The stuffsack would fill out with water, and the resulting weight would help keep the canoe from capsizing to the side away from the float.  The latest paddlefloats have a water pocket for this purpose.

I was able to reenter the unoccupied canoe unassisted using the paddlefloat, but it was more difficult than with someone holding the other side of the canoe.  It was not hard to sink the float.  I suspect it just needs more practice, but it can be done.

I tried attaching a webbing stirrup to the shaft of the paddlefloat, but this mostly succeeded in dislodging the paddle.  Attaching the stirrup to a thwart was far more stable and made a "vertical" reentry easier, but not much.  Initiating reentry from a horizontal position works better, and there's no use for a stirrup then.

Reentering the canoe with the paddlefloat, and someone else already in it counterbalancing me, was better.  Then I discovered that if I hooked an ankle over the shaft of the paddlefloat, it was even easier to get back in the canoe.  The paddlefloat meant that in an emergency, we would be that much more stable to regain our positions, bail, etc.

Where you get back in the canoe is something to consider.  With an empty but spraydecked canoe, it might be best to open a center hatch (if so equipped), and get in there because you're using the width of the canoe.  But once there, you probably still need to get to your seat.  Probably this is best for the first person, to keep the canoe trimmed better.  The second person can reboard at their seat.  For a loaded canoe, a center boarder will end up atop the baggage, raising the center of gravity.  As mentioned before, we suspect reentry would be easier with a load due to the canoe having more inertia and riding lower.

We didn't test reentering over an end of the canoe.

Upside Down Paddling

Since the capsized, decked canoe has so much initial stability, it would seem logical it could be used to advantage.  A friend extricated himself from a capsize in ocean surf by mounting the inverted canoe and paddling it to safety.  Well, I don't know how he did it.  I could not get on top of the capsized canoe.  The other fellow succeeded, but it immediately rolled him off.  Verdict: not a reliable technique.


I have speculated that movements such as reentering a canoe work better if your pfd is propery positioned on your trunk.  My pfd is a reasonably decent one, but despite not being overweight and having plenty of time to fuss with it, I was unable to keep it from riding far up on my chest during this practice.  Unless one has the priviledge of a waist size somewhat smaller than one's chest, I don't see what's to keep a pfd without a crotch strap from riding up, no matter how tight it is.  You're asking something to slide the wrong way on a cone.  On the other hand, pear-shaped bodies should float better and stay warmer in the water.


Chota boots have been promoted by many, including myself, as the cat's ass canoe/kayak boots.  One thing not mentioned about them so far, is how they perform in a capsize.  For some of the testing, I donned my knee-high, neoprene Chota mukluks. 

Your first dunking with them is an eye-opener.  Being neoprene, they float.  But there's another consideration.  The well-designed top strap and seal means there is air trapped inside.  The skinnier your lower leg, the more air.  This is a pretty significant amount of flotation, and when you enter the water, your feet zoom to the surface.  Depending on what you want to do, this can be a curse or a blessing.  I'd hate to be in this situation without a pfd to float the upper body.

For instance, to reenter the canoe, you want to be facing down, with your body horizontal.  But the favoured resting position for someone wearing a pfd and "inflated" Chotas, is on your back with your feet at the surface in front of you.  It is difficult to change to the desired position.  This effect can interfere with swimming, and the easiest way to deal with it would seem to be to let your legs float out behind you and paddle with your hands.

Fortunately, as you struggle to get your feet where you want them, they will go deep enough that water pressure will force the air out of the boots.  That leaves you with the flotation only of the neoprene, which is enough to be helpful but not a nuisance.  Some water will get into them, but not a whole lot, and you don't notice it until you leave the water.  I got about a cupful in each of mine over a half hour of submersion.

One thing we didn't test was removing the boots while in the water.

Lastly on the Chotas: entrapment.  Our canoe has very low seats.  I tried kneeling, which requires the boots be under the seat.  They were so jammed under there that I was not willing to even test a capsize in the safety of a swimming pool.  I know that in the past I've claimed this is a theoretical problem only, with no known fatalities resulting from it, but after this test I won't be poo-pooing that concern any more.

In Conclusion

I'm aware that these methods involve more "gizmos", and in emergencies you don't want to be fussing around with stuff.  But the techniques do work, and I believe that sorting them out greatly expands the safety envelope.

Then there's politics.  I'm free to experiment and advocate such things because I have little vested interest in the canoe scene's status quo.  Some will simply ignore these ideas.  Some will just respond that novices shouldn't use spraydecks, stay out of danger, and not go out alone.

Some will claim that adoption of the methods will cause beginners to venture to their demise due to misplaced faith in the promise of safety from the ideas.  I don't buy that.  While that is one consequence of any safety advance, like pfd's, the advantages to the sensible far outweigh the lure to the dumb.  What I would like to see is for highly respected canoeists try out these methods, hopefully agree on their value, and endorse them within the sport.

Embracing such methods would not only make canoeing more appealing to gear junkies, but could help advance an image of canoeing being inherently safe.  I'm afraid it sounds grandiose, but I do believe these methods could save lives and widen the appeal of canoeing.

So all in all, we were quite pleased with the session, which we crammed into one hour.  It took place at UBC's awesome more-than-Olympic standard pool, where, due to peculiar circumstances, we had the vast pool to ourselves with no spectators or staff.  We will do another session some time, just to refine the moves, and my wife needs to learn them.  We're also not sure yet whether the more agile person should be the first or second to reboard the canoe.

Steve Grant