Canoe & Kayak Safety


    (From a U. S. Coast Guard media release - August 2002) CANOEIST AND KAYAKERS: Those Who Really Need To Wear A Life Jacket: 104 Reported Deaths In 2000 And 93 Were Drowning Victims… Why does the Coast Guard care, and why is it necessary to encourage theses enthusiast to wear lifejackets? It is not that Canoeist, kayakers, anglers, and hunters are of a greater concern to the Coast Guard and the States than power or sailboats. No, it’s more of concern for the stability of the vessels, the environmental conditions they are attracted to and many times the lack of other boaters or people being in the isolated areas where they boat. Getting the message to these marine and sport enthusiast has been and is difficult, yet they are in a category that needs to hear it the most.


    Year round many canoeist, kayakers, hunters and anglers venture into waters that are isolated or where the scenery or their thrill carries its own set of dangers. Canoeists, as do many kayakers, like to venture on secluded lakes and ponds or secluded sections of rivers, tributaries, and streams and even back bays or inlets. There are not many boaters or others in these secluded areas and many times such areas are unmarked, are hard to find and take time to reach. Wearing a lifejacket may buy the time that saves a life or lives.


    Kayakers are not only found using isolated waters, they love and seek white/rapid waters and now even are seen off shore, in bays, and harbors where congestion and their low profile or visibility threatens their safety. Accidents on these waters produce impact and trauma injuries and wearing a lifejacket may well be the only opportunity for surviving. Too often accidents on these waters incapacitate an individual or render them unconscious. A lifejacket keeps them from sinking below the surface. Very seldom, can rescuers reach someone in time once they have sunk below the surface.

    Some Accident Statistics


    • In 1996, there were 43 canoe/kayak fatalities. In 2002, there were 78 deaths.


    • Among canoes and kayaks, 75% of fatalities are classified as "capsizes" by the Coast Guard.


    • Canoes account for about three-quarters of all paddling fatalities.


    • Statistically, capsize fatalities appear to be as likely on calm water as on choppy or rough water.


    • Occupant movement and weight shifts within a canoe played a significant role in nearly 50% of all canoe accidents.


    • According to CG statistics, PFD's were not being worn in 83% of canoe fatalities, and the average "no pfd" fatalities during the 5 year period for both canoes and kayaks was 74%.


    • Alcohol was cited as a cause in 23% of canoe fatalities, and in 3% of kayak fatalities.

    Registration, Titling, and User Fees

    In 2000, twenty eight states in the U. S. had requirements that non-powered vessels be numbered, and 24 states required registration. Sixteen states required titling of non-powered vessels, and seven required payment of a user fee. If you're not sure of the registration laws in your state, you should find out.


    Tips For Safer Canoeing and Kayaking


    WEAR A LIFEJACKET...Most canoe spills take place in shallow water and swift current. There is a good probability that a dumped canoeist could hit his head on a rock or his boat. It is nearly impossible to swim in rapids, or through downed trees. A life jacket is essential, not only for flotation, but for hypothermia protection. And by the way, after most drownings from canoes or kayaks, life jackets are seen floating nearby...empty. You have to WEAR them!


    FILE A FLOAT PLAN...If you're on a canoe or kayaking trip, somebody ought to know if you get into trouble, and the only way that can happen is if you tell a friend in advance of your trip . Give that person the names of all passengers or companions, the place you'll be starting and ending your trip, when you plan to arrive at your destination and any waypoints in between. You should also include phone numbers of law enforcement agencies along the way, with instructions on when and who to contact if you are overdue.


    BE HONEST...It's important to know the limitations of your abilities. Be honest with yourself and your companions. Your life and the lives of those in your party may depend on how everyone understands each other's capabilities. If you overstate your abilities, eventually someone is going to be counting on help that you won't be able to give them, so if you're a novice, admit it. If you're a pro, admit that, too. The novices in the group will feel better knowing you're along on the trip.


    KNOW THE WATER...Don't attempt rivers or rapids beyond your ability. Progress gradually from one skill level to the next. Unfamiliar waters are no place to test your limits, or try to impress anybody. Each stream or river presents unique challenges, and dangers. Even well-seasoned veterans need to become familiar with the body of water before embarking on a journey.


    KNOW THE WATER STAGE...After heavy rains, streams, rivers, and creeks rise and sweep lots of debris from the shoreline. Debris can become a trap or hindrance in water incidents. Debris can be found in three levels: on the surface, suspended in the water and on the bottom. It's important to remember that just about any material or object may be in any, or all, of the three types of debris in water. Suspended and bottom debris is usually invisible to you, and therefore are especially dangerous.


    GO IN A GROUP...Boating alone is not recommended. Even though recreational canoeists often canoe with a single canoe and one partner, or even solo, it is recommended you canoe with at least three people or two craft. The less the skill of the paddler, and the less that is known about the stream, the more important this rule becomes.


    FOOTWEAR...Don't forget shoes. Tennis shoes are best for canoeing and should be worn at all times. Bare feet have no place in canoeing...the terrain of the land and the bottoms of streams can be hazardous.


    CARRY PROPER EQUIPMENT...Carry a spare paddle in the boat. Equip your craft with bow and stern lines. An extra safety throwing line (at least 50 feet in length) can be very valuable. But be careful how you stow these lines. If the canoe spills, feet can become entangled in loose lines, and this can lead to serious trouble. There should be nothing around which will attach someone to a swamped canoe. Loose lines can be deadly.

    (There may also be state equipment requirements for canoes and kayaks where you live, so be sure and check your local equipment regulations.)


    LOADING YOUR BOAT...Distribute the weight evenly. Look for ways to save space and to leave excess weight behind.


    BALANCE YOUR BOAT...Make sure your boat's load is balanced, side to side and front to back. Don't overload the boat, and if your are carrying cargo, make sure it's secured so it doesn't shift around.


    DON'T CROWD YOUR BUDDY...In rapids and restricted passages, keep a safe distance behind other boats. Don't crowd, and back paddle if necessary. The lead boat should pull up and wait after passing a difficult area. If someone encounters trouble, be willing to stop and offer your assistance. At put-in and take-out points, be courteous and take turns.


    STAY OUT OF FLOOD WATERS...Growing up on the Mississippi, I remember the temptation to get out the canoe and paddle around the streets running swift with flood waters. But flood waters can exert several tons of force on a canoe pinned against a tree or bridge pier or the side of a building. A canoe can be pinned under a log jam or downed tree, trapping its paddlers. So stay out of flood waters. And if you happen to be canoeing or camping and heavy rain forces you to leave - don't try to cross waterways with heavy drainage. We don't want to read about you in the morning news.


    STAY OUT OF COLD WATER...You don't have to worry about hypothermia if you're boating in water over 98.6 degrees. If you fall into water less than that temperature, your body will begin immediately to cool in the direction of the water temperature. If your bod temp gets down to about 85 degrees, you're pretty much done for. Cold water causes death in nearly half of the drowning cases reported. If you do fall into cold water, follow these steps:


    • Tighten your clothes and try to cover your head.

    • Act quickly before losing use of your hands.

    • If possible, right a capsized boat or climb atop it.

    • Don't swim unless it's to reach a nearby boat. Swimming saps heat and cuts survival time in half.

    • Stay as still as possible. Movement robs you of heat.

    • Assume a position in the water which minimizes heat loss.

    • If you're in the water with one or more persons, huddle together closely.

    • If you're a rescuer, don't apply heat to arms or legs, or give massages or hot baths. The best way to warm a victim is with body-to-body contact and a tight blanket.


    HANDLING HOT WEATHER...Hot weather can be as dangerous as cold water. Water and aluminum canoes cause considerable reflection on sunny days which may lead to serious sunburn, heat exhaustion or sunstroke. Everyone enjoys getting out in the sun, but canoeing in a swimsuit or bikini can be dangerous. Canoeists need to wear or carry a shirt, blouse or jacket. Hats or other head coverings help prevent heat exhaustion or sunstroke. Know the symptoms and first aid procedures for these serious conditions.


    OVERBOARD IN CURRENT...In rivers with a current, stay upstream of the boat to avoid being pinned. Don't float with your body on the down river side of the canoe. Staying upstream allows you to avoid being pinned against obstructions. Even a light current flow can cause you to be pinned between an immovable object and your canoe. Stay away from strainers (trees and parts of trees or posts which are submerged and subject to strong currents), and sweepers (low-hanging branches which touch the water in a current). If you are swept by the flow against an obstruction, lean your body toward the obstruction instead of pushing away. Pushing invites the flow to come in and over the side more quickly.


    IF YOU DUNK...Be ready for an occasional dunking when you canoe. Don't panic. In calm waters, angle your way up to shore instead of paddling straight. Stay behind the boat, and hold onto it for flotation. Always wear your life jacket.


    IF YOU CAPSIZE...If your boat capsizes, don't panic. Your canoe can be flipped back over. Over-turned canoes float. First, assure that all passengers are safe before attempting to retrieve equipment. Stay with your canoe unless you judge that doing so will be dangerous. If you can stay with the canoe you can guide it into quiet water. Stay at the upstream end of the canoe so that if the canoe becomes pinned, you don't. If possible hold on to your'll need it later. Don't try to swim in rapids. Float in your life jacket on your back, with your feet downstream. If the water is cold, get ashore quickly.


    IF YOUR BUDDY CAPSIZES...If someone else's canoe has dumped offer your assistance. If it comes down to a rescue,'s the people first, then the equipment. If it's cold, get them ashore, dry them and warm them immediately. It may not occur to them that they're uncomfortable because of confusion. Above all, keep calm and encourage the "dunkees" to do likewise.



  • Standing up or moving about in a canoe greatly increase the chance of capsize.

  • Maintain three points of contact while moving around.

  • Load the boat properly.

  • Keep your shoulders inside the gunwales of the boat.

  • Take hands-on training.

  • Wear a PFD.

  • Don't drink alcohol immediately preceding or during a paddling trip.

  • Understand your limitation and that of the vessel.

  • Plan ahead.

  • Know how to swim.

  • Never paddle alone.