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Canoe rescue: Do you have a plan? Here’s ours and to hoping we never have to use it

Recently in a review of our son’s Baltic Life Jacket, I talked about the need for EVERYONE to wear buoyancy aids, and for children especially to wear life jackets when canoeing. I promised in that review that I would describe our canoe rescue plan, in case we do find ourselves in the situation of a capsize. Here it is:

Firstly our main objective is to not capsize in the first place! Normally good planning including picking appropriate weather and a good venue such as calm rivers or lakes means that capsizing is highly unlikely. To date, we haven’t accidently capsized our canoe – long may it continue!

We do however have a very clear plan, which we go over just in case, for the one time it all goes wrong… The plan splits into five parts: before we get on the water, the immediate capsize, getting to shore, once on land and carrying on.

Before you go on the water: Make sure you and your canoe are properly equipped. You need buoyancy aids / life jackets as well as buoyancy in your canoe. We have fixed foam blocks at each end of the canoe, but airbags are just as good. Having buoyancy means self rescue is a whole lot easier. It really is money well spent. You also need spare dry cloths in drybags or a barrel and food/cooker/anything else you choose.

The immediate capsize: When a capsize happens remaining calm is vital. After checking everyone is ok, the plan is for me to grab our son and attach his lifejacket grab loop to my buoyancy aid using a cowtail. This means that our son cannot be separated from me. At the same time Stacey would grab a paddle. We would both hold onto the boat throughout so we can’t be separated.

Getting to shore: Obviously it’s easier flipping a canoe upright, if you’re in water you can safely stand up in. The plan would be to simply stand, flip the canoe upright and get to shore. If however we are in deep water, some distance from shore then self-rescuing is important. The key part is being able to flip the boat back upright so it is relatively empty of water. The technique for this is called the Capistrano flip. You can do this with just one person flipping the boat, or both depending on how loaded the boat is. Basically this involves rapidly lifting the upturned boat out of the water and throwing it back upright. There are a number of good videos on youtube showing the Capistrano flip. Once the canoe is upright, if there is still water in it, a good old bailer is great, or you can use a rocking technique to slosh water out like shown here. Finally get back in from opposite sides to keep the canoe upright and get to shore.

Once on land: Once we reach land, the plan would be to split efforts again. We keep dry cloths (and plenty of layers) in a dry bag or barrel and so getting our son into dry cloths would be priority one. Getting us dry is next. Finally lots of cuddles to calm and warm our son, running around to get our bodies warm again, food and having a small firebox with us, which we can light for warmth would help.

Carrying on: Assessing why we capsized, what the current conditions and our moods are and the plan to get back to our car is the final step. This would either be canoeing or might be walking back depending on what is safest for the situation.

Capsizing in to cold water is never great fun. I have years of experience in white water canoeing and my wife has some experience of canoe surfing so we’re used to the experience of being suddenly thrown out of boats or tipped upside down. If or when it does happen it’s pretty much a given to freak our son out. Knowing your own limitations, what you’re comfortable in, the conditions of the day etc and having a well-rehearsed plan at least means that you can react quickly and stay safe while dealing with the situation. As I’ve said, we’ve never had to use our rescue plan and hope we never have to! But if, (and it’s a big if) it does happen, we’ll be able to take action to keep us all safe.

Have you thought about your canoe rescue plan? What would you do?


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