Chapter 6: Enjoying Water Sports With Your Boat
Paddlesports—Canoes, Kayaks, and Rafts
Paddling down a river or across a lake or bay can be an enjoyable and safe activity. But, according to statistics, paddlers in small crafts such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts are more than twice as likely to drown as individuals operating other types of vessels.
This higher rate of fatalities can be attributed to two factors. First, paddlers don't consider themselves "boaters" and fail to follow the same safe practices as other small vessel operators. Second, many paddlers don't have the skills or knowledge they need to operate their small, unstable craft safely. They may be unaware of hazards unique to paddlesports, such as fast currents and low-head dams, or don't follow proper safety procedures when encountering them.
A paddler prepares for safety by doing the following.
- Always wear a life jacket (PFD), and know how to swim in a river current.
- Never paddle alone. Bring along at least one other boater. When canoeing, two canoes with two canoeists each are recommended. Three crafts with two paddlers each are even better. If unfamiliar with the waterway, paddle with someone who is knowledgeable about it.
- Never overload the craft. Tie down gear, and distribute weight evenly.
- Maintain a low center of gravity and three points of contact. Keep your weight balanced over the center of the craft.
- Standing up or moving around in a small craft can cause it to capsize—a leading cause of fatalities among paddlers.
- Leaning a shoulder over the edge of the craft also can destabilize it enough to capsize it.
- Stay alert at all times; and be aware of your surroundings, including nearby powerboats. Be prepared to react when dangerous situations arise.
- Practice reboarding your craft in the water with the help of a companion.
- Dress properly for the weather and type of boating.
- Check your craft for leaks.
- Map a general route and timetable when embarking on a long trip. Arrange for your vehicles to be shuttled to the takeout point.
- Know the weather conditions before you head out. While paddling, watch the weather and stay close to shore. Head for shore if the waves increase.
A paddle trip downriver can include these river hazards.
- Low-head dams: These structures are difficult to see and can trap paddlers. Consult a map of the river before your trip, and know where dams are located. Always carry your craft around them.
- Rapids: When approaching rapids, go ashore well upstream and check them out before continuing. If you see dangerous conditions, carry your craft around them.
- Strainers: These river obstructions allow water to flow through but block vessels and could throw you overboard and damage or trap your craft. Strainers may include overhanging branches, logjams, or flooded islands. Strainers are also notorious for causing death by drowning.
If you capsize, follow these guidelines.
- Float on the upstream– In the direction that is against the current side of your craft. You can be crushed on the downstream side if you run into an obstruction.
- Do not attempt to stand or walk in swift-moving water. The current could pull you under if your foot becomes trapped between submerged rocks.
- Float on your back with your feet and arms extended. Float with your feet pointed downstream to act as a buffer against rocks. Don't fight the current. Use the current to backstroke your way to shore.
- If the water is cold, take all necessary precautions to avoid hypothermia.
Understanding River Characteristics
- Rivers are constantly changing. It's up to you to be familiar with these changes.
- In a river without obstructions, the slowest moving water is near the bottom and the fastest is near the surface.
- Eddies are created behind an obstruction as water fills in the void created by the obstruction. The current behind an eddy is actually moving upstream. Skilled paddlers use eddies as a place to stop and rest.
- Hydraulics occur as water flows over an obstruction and a slight depression forms behind it. Downstream water attempts to fill this void, creating an upstream flow toward the obstruction. A low-head dam is a perfect and deadly example of a hydraulic. Avoid hydraulics altogether.