Safety Code of American Whitewater
While paddling on the Housatonic River one day, my husband, Paul, saw a young boy starting to drag a canoe into the water. The kid wasn't wearing a life vest.
"Whatcha doin'?" Paul asked him as he paddled over to the boy, trying not to sound alarmed.
"I've been watching you," the kid said. "That looks like fun. I want to do it, too!"
"I don't think that's a good idea right now," Paul responded. "Do you have one of these?" he asked, pointing to his PFD.
"No. Do I need one?"
"Yes, you do," Paul said. "I wouldn't be out here without mine."
Paul's PFD, or personal flotation device, may have saved the boy's life that day.
"PFD non-use is the single most prevalent risk factor among canoe fatalities," notes the American Canoe Association's analysis of canoe and kayak fatalities between 1996 and 2002. When the ACA reviewed descriptions of accidents involving multiple occupants in a canoe or kayak when a capsize occurred, it found that "... those who were wearing a PFD survived and those who were not wearing a PFD perished."
An experienced paddler who once raced in the national white-water championships, Paul always wears his PFD on a white-water river, even on an easy Class I stretch of water. So do I. So do all the experienced paddlers we know. You simply can't swim against a strong current. Plus, a PFD will keep you afloat if you hit your head on a rock and lost consciousness. (To prevent that, we also wear helmets.)
Suppose you don't plan to paddle white water, only lakes or brown-water streams. It's still a good idea to wear a PFD -- one that fits you and is zipped or snapped closed. The ACA report notes that "capsize fatalities appear to be as likely to be found on calm water as on choppy, rough or very rough water."
In some circumstances, wearing a PFD is required by law:
Other paddling safety tips:
- Take lessons to learn how to control your craft. Besides being safer, you'll have more fun and less fatigue when you paddle. You should also know basic rescue techniques.
- Wear non-skid footwear to protect your feet and avoid slipping on rocks as you get in or out of your boat.
- Expect to get wet, and dress appropriately. A rule of thumb is that if the air and water temperatures combined add up to less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you should wear a wetsuit or drysuit.
- Use the right type of boat. For example, a canoe or kayak designed for lakes will "track" (go straight) well but will not turn easily -- which is what a white-water boat must be able to do. Any river with a lot of twists and turns will be easier to paddle with a maneuverable boat. Also be aware that "high-performance" canoes and kayaks can be quite tippy and require the use of expert skills. So-called "recreational" boats usually are more appropriate for less-experienced boaters.
- Kneel instead of sitting when canoeing in rapids or on a choppy lake. That will keep your center of gravity low and help stabilize the boat.
- On a river, steer clear of downed trees or branches. Branches in the water are called "strainers" because they allow water but not solid objects (such as your body) to pass through them. If necessary, take your boat off the river and put it back in downstream of the obstacle.
- Paddle near the inside bend of a river to avoid the pushier current and possible strainers on the outside bend.
- Never try to paddle over a low-head dam. The recirculating water (called a "hole" or "hydraulic") on the downstream side of the dam could suck you in and trap you. Low-head dams are very dangerous; carry around them.
- If you capsize in rapids, push the boat away from and downstream of you. Float on your back, feet first, and use your arms (and the paddle if you still have it) to maneuver yourself toward the riverbank. Don't try to stand up until the water is less than a foot or so deep, to avoid foot entrapment and being knocked down by the fast current.
- Paddle in a group of at least two boats, preferably three.
For more information:
American Whitewater - http://www.americanwhitewater.org/
American Canoe Association - http://www.americancanoe.org
Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's "Manually Propelled Vessel Safety Rules" - http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?A=2686&Q=322304
Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's canoe and kayak safety brochure - http://www.ct.gov/dep/lib/dep/boating/canoe_and_kayak_brochure.pdf
U.S. Coast Guard's PFD requirements - http://www.uscgboating.org/SAFETY/fedreqs/equ_pfd.htm
Diane Friend Edwards is a writer living in Harwinton, CT. A canoeist for more than 30 years, she was the co-owner of a canoe trip/instruction business.