Canoe Safety

SAFETY - the right gear will make your canoeing safer and more enjoyable -

Safety in canoeing is all about recognizing hazards, and being prepared for them when encountered. Some of those hazards are environmental, and they can be prepared for by use of the right equipment, and a little caution. The philosophy of canoeists should be self rescue. Being prepared means having as a minimum, a water proof container with a first aid kit (and knowing how to use it), water bottle, a warm jacket, a roll of duct tape for repairs, a knife, a rescue throw rope, a map, a compass.

PFD or Personal Flotation Device, commonly called a life jacket which it is not. You need one that fits, and you need to wear it.


Shoes. Why are shoes so important, and what's wrong with sandals? Rivers are waste disposal sites for all household rubbish, so the river has in all likelihood spread out junk in it ranging from broken glass to rusty car bodies. Equally likely are sharp rocks, sharp sticks, razor sharp broken freshwater mussel shells, and various pieces of barbed wire.

If you have to jump overboard in the middle of a rapid, or walk through mangrove mud, or walk for a kilometre through the bush, sandals or thongs are not going to be good enough. Wear lace up trainers or wetsuit boots.

Hazards. The above list of things in the water is not final. Include things like old steel fence posts (star pickets) just under the water. Dam sites are notorious for sawn off tree stumps, which also may be just under the water. Likewise rolls of barbed wire. Water lillies are lethal. Do not ever try to swim through, over, or under even a three metre thick swathe of them. They WILL wrap around your legs and drown you. Some lakes have razorgrass growing in them (Moreton Island) that will slice you if you try to wade or swim through it.

Snakes swim in rivers, and will try to board your watercraft. Take care in long grass on the riverbank.
Lightning. The alumimium paddle in your hand becomes a lightning rod in a storm, so move off the water if a storm approaches.
Minimize your exposure to the sun by use of a sunscreen, long sleeved shirt and long pants of a quick drying synthetic material, hat, sunglasses. Secure your sunnies with a cord. Canoeing gloves can be a real asset when whitewater kayaking in rocky rapids. Never wear jeans canoeing. You cannot swim in them, and if they get wet they will chafe.
Your canoe when tipped over and filled with water may weight half a ton. If you get caught between it and a hard place, and the boat is moving with a swift current you will get badly crushed. If you hold on to the boat do so on the upstream end. Your fingers may be trapped by a rope loop on the canoe bow or stern. If it is your boat, fit a short lenght of garden hose over the rope to make a stiff loop. This will lessen the danger of a finger trap.
The weight of the hull of a canoe pushed by a current is more than a person can move. The term for being forcibly held by the water, in your canoe, against a log, rock or bridge support is pinning. If you are also underwater, and have your legs trapped by the plastic canoe hull bending, the condition is terminal.
If you must go under a low bridge lean forward. If you find yourself swimming in a rapid, float on your back, with your feet downstream, and frog kick. This stops your head hitting rocks, and also should prevent foot pinning where your foot is jammed under a rock and the current pushes you downstream, so you cannot get it out.
One of the most common dangers are STRAINERS. Like the tea strainer, a river will pour through the branches of a tree. You and your canoe will be held and pinned. Strainers must be avoided. Where they are hard to avoid, for example on the outside of a corner in the river, where the current will sweep you into it, or where they cover the width of the river, the only answer is a portage or carry. Get out of the boat (wearing your PFD and trainers) and walk the shallows holding the boat, or take everything out and carry it. A rope may help you LEAD the canoe by letting it wash through while you control it from the bank.
Remember to hold onto your paddle if you end up swimming. On a windy day a canoe will blow away from you faster than you can swim after it, so try to hold onto it too.
Sea kayaks need a list of safety equipment if they are more than four nautical miles offshore. The list includes V-sheet, flares, EPIRB, map, compass, and VHF radio. Glowsticks and a torch are essential items to keep close to the cockpit.
Learn about the dangers of being too hot, and too cold, how to recognize the symptons, and how to prepare for and counter them.

Learn about the International grading system for rivers, and how to paddle or bypass white water rapids.
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