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Boating Basics


Paddlers (those who boat in small crafts such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts) should follow the same safe practices as any other small vessel operator.

When paddling, you should:

  • Know how to paddle or swim in strong currents, and be an experienced swimmer.
  • Wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times, and consider wearing a helmet.
  • Dress in layers under your PFD.
  • Be prepared for cold water by wearing a wetsuit or drysuit. Don’t underestimate cold water’s ability to rob you of your strength.
  • Never paddle alone. Paddle with someone who is familiar with the waterway.
  • Never overload the craft. Tie down gear, and distribute weight evenly.
  • Don’t stand up or move around in a small craft as that can make it unstable.
  • Carry a first-aid kit.
  • 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.
  • Be aware of any dangers ahead. When approaching rapids, go ashore well upstream and check them out before continuing. Steer clear of drop-offs and dams. Carry your craft around low-head dams.
  • Stay away from strainers. Strainers are river obstructions that 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.

If you capsize, follow these guidelines.

  • Float on the upstream side of the 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 paddling on a lake, watch the weather and stay close to shore. Head for shore if the waves increase.

Canoe and kayak fatalities have grown significantly over the past 10 years in Massachusetts. Since both canoes and kayaks can capsize quite easily, make sure that you know the water temperature and outfit yourself accordingly. Water temperatures can be deceiving and dangerously cold even on days when the air temperature is comfortable.

When using a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) beyond the limits of swimming, bathing, or surfing areas, users are required by law to have a Type I, II, or III personal floatation device (PFD) aboard.

All persons on board a canoe or kayak from September 15 to May 15 must wear a USCG–approved wearable Type I, II, or III PFD at all times.

Always where your life jacket when paddling in small crafts, such as canoes, kayaks
Never go paddling by yourself and always wear a life jacket.