Canoeing Tips: So You’re in a Canoe that’s Flipping Over. Now What?

Capsizing a canoe while on a whitewater trip is a perfectly natural and common occurrence. In fact, many canoeists count capsizing as among the most memorable and ultimately fun experiences on a particular trip.* For the novice paddler though, flipping a fully loaded 2 person canoe over can be frightening. Fortunately, with just a couple of simple steps, dumping can be both safe and educational.

Most capsizing happens in relatively calm water, when the division of labor between the paddler in the bow and the one in the stern can be unclear, and when the mind is more prone to wander. The thought process in the moments leading up to a flip usually goes something like this:

“Wow, the way the sunlight is dappling through those trees is breathtaking. My goodness, the natural beauty of these surroundings just puts me right at ease. Hey, what kind of bird is– [completely unprintable string of expletives].”

There’s a pregnant half-second between when you gain the certainty that your boat is going to flip and when your face actually hits the water. In that sliver of time you, the paddler, have to do three things.

1. Assess your own safety – Take a last look at the river ahead. Figure out which bank to head to, if there are any dangerous rocks looming, and if there’s a craft directly behind you.

2. (if your safety is relatively assured) Secure your paddle – An upside down canoe is pretty easy to find and, if you haven’t completely failed in your knot tying, your gear should be still be in the boat and undamaged. A single paddle, however, can disappear into a river with alarming ease.  Recovering your boat but running out of paddles has the effect of turning the river into the world’s largest and least safe log flume ride.

3. Assign blame – Perhaps most important of all. Even you fail at steps 1 and 2, you’re still likely to survive, but if you don’t get ahead of the crisis-management by the time of the evening’s campfire, you’ll wish you hadn’t. While you and your boatmate may be a well-oiled machine on the water, after a capsize, all bets are off.

If you are in the stern (back), start thinking of things to say to the group like, “Gosh that rock came on us out of nowhere. Ed didn’t have a chance. I really blame myself. If only I’d been in the front of the boat…” or

“I mean, I know it’s the person in the front’s responsibility to watch out for submerged branches like that, but that one was really tricky…”

Next time: Partner communication!

  • Only people who have flipped think this. But, people who make it through a whole whitewater trip without capsizing even once are also the kind of people who are always going on about the “undertones of nutmeg” in the camp’s coffee, never shut up about the merits of a Denis Kucinich/Ron Paul candidacy, have an ineffable insufferability, and are not to be trusted.
Canoeing Tips: So You’re in a Canoe that’s Flipping Over. Now What?