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Dry It! You'll Like It!
The Indispensable Bailer and Sponge

By Tamia Nelson

July 29, 2003

Paddling is wet work. As wisecracking kayakers never tire of observing, a canoe is a boat with a big hole in the top. And there's no doubt about it: that hole can let in a lot of water, even without the help of breaking waves. A gentle rain is often enough.

But kayaks ship water, too. No spray skirt is absolutely watertight, and hatches are notoriously leak-prone. So are rudder cables. Water also comes aboard every time you enter your boat. It drips off your paddle shaft, too, forming a nice puddle on your spray skirt. When you remove the skirt on hot days, it soaks your crotch, instead. Drip-rings help, but they're not perfect. Little by little, the water trickles in. Before long, you're paddling in a puddle.

A properly-fitted spray skirt helps prevent catastrophic flooding, of course, and spray skirts are must-have accessories for any kayaker venturing into whitewater — or anywhere else that big waves are likely. Still, water will find its way into a boat even on Golden Pond. At best, it's a nuisance. On long trips, however, a damp seat can lead to an uncomfortable rash, or even boils. One of the ironies of paddling is that canoeists, with their open boats and high seats, are often dryer than their companions in kayaks, snuggly buttoned down in their (almost) watertight shells. When waves start to break over the gunwales, though, canoeists begin frantic bailing. Then it's the kayakers' turn to gloat.

The canoeists have good reason to be frantic. Whenever water comes aboard any boat it immediately begins to slop about, doing what water does naturally — flowing downhill. Every paddler who's nursed a half-swamped canoe through a rapids knows what happens next. Not only is water very heavy, but it's … well … fluid. Lean just a little bit to one side, and all the water in the boat immediately flows toward the lower bilge. The result? That "little" lean steepens in an instant. Then, unless you're lightning quick with a righting brace, it's swim time for sure. This is bad enough in a rapid. It's a disaster in the making in the middle of a big lake.

Prevention is almost always better (and easier) than cure. Canoeists and kayakers both agree: it's best to keep the water outside the boat, where it belongs. But water will get in. What then? The answer lies in having the proper tools, and keeping them ready to hand. First among these is the bailer. There's no better way to shift large quantities of water quickly. In a pinch, a cooking pot will do the job. Even a felt hat is better than nothing. But you can do much better than either of these, and it won't cost you a penny. Good bailers are free.

Here's how to make one. It couldn't be much simpler. Take any clean one-gallon plastic jug with a molded-in handle. Then screw the cap firmly in place. (A strip of duct tape will ensure that it stays put.) Next, slice off the bottom of the jug with a sharp knife. Alternatively, you can remove the cap-end of the jug, making a diagonal opening opposite the handle. The capacity of the bailer will be a bit less, but you may find that it has a better scooping action. Experiment to see which style you like best. Now add a short lanyard or clip to keep your bailer in the boat. (Don't make the lanyard longer than a foot or two, though, and don't use super-strong line. You don't want to risk entanglement in the event of a capsize.)

That's all there is to it. Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a custom bailer. And while you're at it, why not make a second? In a tandem boat, it's good for each paddler to have one within easy reach. Common sense, you think? Perhaps. But common sense can be a very scarce commodity. A recently-published primer for paddling parents has a photo of an "all purpose tandem canoe preparing to set out on whitewater." Something's missing, though. Where's the bailer? Good question. There's not even one to be seen. Not much common sense in this, is there?

Making a Bailer

A Home-Made Bailer

Is that all? Nearly. While almost any one-gallon plastic jug will do in a pinch, milk jugs lead the field. Their square cross-section conforms well to the contours of most boats' bilges, and their sides have just the right amount of give. The plastic will fatigue in time, however. At the first sign of a crack anywhere, chuck the bailer in the trash and make a new one. Better yet, replace your bailers every season, before they crack.

Bailers aren't just for canoes, of course. They also work pretty well in large tandem kayaks, particularly skin-on-frame craft like Kleppers and Folbots. But kayakers whose boats have smaller cockpits will find that a bailer is impossibly awkward to manipulate. Whitewater paddlers can always head for the riverbank and dump their boats out, but on open water kayakers need to bail on the move. Here's where the bilge pump comes into its own. The most commonly seen pumps look like large bicycle tire pumps. They work, but since they require that you pull your spray skirt to one side and use both hands, they're not much help in a storm. Unfortunately, that's just when you're most likely to need them. The solution? A foot-operated or deck-mounted pump. The deck-mounted pumps require that you stop paddling, but at least you can leave your spray skirt in place. The foot pumps permit you to pump while you paddle. (There are battery-operated pumps, too. "Look, Ma, no hands! And no feet, either." Who could ask for more? Just be sure the batteries are fresh.)

Once you've got most of the water out with your bailer or bilge pump, it's time for mopping-up operations. This calls for a sponge. You'll need something a good deal larger than the sponge you use to scour the kitchen sink, though. I steer clear of "natural" sponges. They work well, but I'd rather see them in the sea than on a store shelf. I do fine with the synthetic sponges I can buy at the local HyperMart. The big, brick-shaped sponges sold for washing cars are about the right size. They're cheap, thirsty, and hard-wearing. (Even the best sponges break down in time, however. Count on replacing yours at the start of every season.) Better buy a spare, too. Sponges float, and they've been known to jump ship and sail away just when they're needed most.


Your bailer (or bilge pump) and sponge will see you through most wet days, but if you paddle regularly, the time will come when, despite your best efforts, your boat will sink beneath the waves. What then? Again, prevention comes first. Flotation is a must on all boats in all waters. While most canoes and kayaks will float when swamped, even without supplementary flotation, they usually float very low in the water. And some boats — test yours, if you're not sure — won't float at all. In any case, air is lighter than water, and a boat filled with float bags is a lot easier to empty than a boat filled with water.

How do you get the water out? On most rivers, waterlogged canoeists and any kayakers whose rolls have let them down are best advised to head for shore. There they can recover both their boats and their composure. Once in calm, shallow water, it's comparatively easy to empty a canoe or kayak. Don't try to lift a swamped boat directly out of the water, however. It's hard on the boat, and even harder on your body. Instead, let the water support the boat while you roll it up on edge, letting as much water drain out as possible in the process. Once that's done, small kayaks can often be turned all the way over, lifted free of the water, and shaken out. Canoes and big kayaks will have to be bailed first, though, particularly when they're loaded with gear. Count each gallon as you empty it overboard. You'll be surprised how much water your boat can hold. (Each gallon weighs more than eight pounds, too. Add it up. Now you know why you don't want to lift a swamped boat!) Then, when you've bailed out almost all of the water, remove any packs, turn the boat over, and shake it out with the help of your partner. If that's not practical, just continue bailing.

Lastly, mop up any remaining puddles of water with your sponge, square away your gear, and head back out.

But what if you capsize well away from shore on open water, in a storm, with no safe harbor in sight? Good luck. If you have skilled companions, and if the sea isn't running too high, you may be able to empty and re-enter your boat. If not — if you're traveling alone, if the other members of your party aren't expert boaters, or if the waves are just too big — your paddling days may be over. The moral of the story? If you're planning to go in harm's way, you and your companions should practice rough-water rescue and re-entry before you need it. Don't cheat. Load your boats with gear, and choose a time when conditions are as bad as you ever expect them to be. It won't be easy, and it won't be fun. Have a seaworthy rescue vessel standing by. And don't be surprised if you and your boats both take a beating. In open water, even a "near gale" (a brisk wind that would be little more than a nuisance to someone walking on shore) can make communication between boaters difficult, and assisted rescues will be fraught with dangers. If the wind picks up even a little bit, it's Rescue Impossible and every paddler for herself. That's not the most comforting of thoughts, is it?


Happily, few paddling excursions end in battles for survival. One thing's for sure, though: getting wet is part of any canoeing or kayaking trip, and notwithstanding what Mae West had to say on another subject, too much of a good thing isn't always wonderful. So when the rising damp gets you down, don't suffer in silence. Reach for your bailer and sponge instead. Dry it! You'll like it better!

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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