Boating Safety

How to survive if you capsize your canoe or kayak.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

There are some in our ranks who use canoes and kayaks for everything from goose hunting on winding rivers to coastal halibut fishing. It can be risky business, and enthusiasts need to know not only how to fish from the boat (and shoot, where legal), but also how to handle the paddled crafts and how to stay alive when things go awry-like getting upside down. When a spill happens, surviving the incident involves mastery of both equipment and technique.

The most important item of equipment is a personal flotation device (PFD). If you're to have any chance of saving yourself and your boat, you must be able to stay afloat and relax on the surface. Specialized PFDs made specifically for canoeing and kayaking provide greater comfort and arm freedom than traditional boating life vests. The other vital gear is your clothing. If you hit cold water, you need to be wearing something that will preserve your body temperature, ward off cold shock and allow you to work out the rescue.

In a capsize situation, it is generally best to stay with the boat. In calm conditions, even a flooded boat will float, and hanging onto it will help you stay on the surface. The boat also has all your supplies, so don't abandon it unless you absolutely need to. If the boat is caught in a fast current, and staying with it means you'll be swept into danger, let go and swim for the nearest solid ground. Otherwise, stay with the boat. This is especially important if you're offshore and search efforts by aircraft and other boats are underway. Rescuers can spot a capsized canoe or kayak from a distance far more easily than they can a person floating alone.

When a canoe rolls over and fills with water, you need to drag it ashore, or at least into shallow water, so you can stand up and empty it. It's extremely difficult to do the job in the middle of deep water. Kayaks, on the other hand, are made for self-rescue. Some are covered by a deck, waterproof hatches and a spray cover that surrounds the kayaker. Other kayaks are a "sit-upon" type, like a surfboard with a molded seat. After capsizing either type you have a good chance of righting the boat and getting back aboard.

Using a canoe or kayak is like scuba diving in one respect-you should always have a buddy along for safety. With a second vessel alongside, you can extend the paddles across both boats to create the ultimate in stability-a catamaran. Or, if you're too weak to climb back aboard, your partner can tow you ashore and begin treatment for hypothermia or any injuries.

Back in the Saddle
If you get upside down in a kayak, forget the Eskimo roll and use this technique.

1. Get yourself out of the kayak, turn it upright and then stabilize the boat by using your oar with a paddle float stuck on one end. Secure the other end of the paddle beneath a set of straps on the deck so the paddle sticks out perpendicular to the direction of the kayak, forming a low-tech outrigger for lateral stability. Once this is accomplished, it's a fairly easy maneuver to crawl back aboard.

2. Come alongside amidships on the same side as the improvised outrigger. With your hands on the midsection of the kayak, kick hard and do a "struggle up" maneuver to boost the upper half of your body into a facedown position on the kayak. From there, it's just a matter of crawling and hauling yourself back on top of the boat.

3. Sit up and straddle the kayak just behind the cockpit. Then carefully bring your legs into the cockpit and lower yourself into the seat.

4. Once you're situated in the kayak, head for the nearest land to take inventory and assess your situation.

You probably won't be able to do this correctly on the first try, so practice it under safe conditions before you use the kayak for hunting or fishing.