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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Prefloat Check

Making It from Bold to Old

By Tamia Nelson

April 20, 2004

Pilots tend to be a cautious bunch. Sure, they take risks. They have no choice. The earth's ocean of air isn't a forgiving environment, and gravity isn't on their side. But good pilots always place their bets so the odds are with them. And no matter how skilled they are, they know they're only as good as their planes. Every pilot performs a preflight check of his aircraft before taking off.

Paddlers can learn something from this. No, we don't defy gravity by taking to the air — at least most of us don't — but we depend on our craft to carry us safely across the water. That's why it's important for us to do our own kind of preflight check before launching. Call it a…

PreFLOAT Check

When do you need one? Anytime you put your boat in the water. EVERY time you put your boat in the water. It doesn't matter whether it's the first day of a Big Trip or an afternoon on Golden Pond. In fact, it's a good idea to do two prefloat checks on day trips: one when you load your car and a second when you load your boat. Why? Easy. Nearly every paddler knows folks who arrived at the put-in without their paddles or PFDs (and sometimes without their boats). Lunch gets left behind, too, and people sometimes forget that you can't always drink the water. Moreover, paddlers have been known to leave the rucksack or deck bag with their Ten Essentials back on the storage shelf in the garage. Your map and compass won't do you much good there, will they?

And what if you're going out for a weekend — or a week? Or even longer? Just do a prefloat check every morning after you strike camp. Repeat it after each portage, too. And while you're at it, eyeball your companions' boats and gear from time to time. You may not all be in the same boat, but after you leave the put-in behind, you might as well be.

A hint: If you live in the high latitudes, do a pre-season check while the days are still short and the rivers still frozen. This gives you plenty of time to correct any problems before the long-awaited spring of the waters.

Simple? Yes. But not so simple as it seems. You'd better…

Make a List

Then check it. Twice. If, like me, you're an inveterate list-maker, you'll look forward to this. If not, you'll probably see it as a chore. But do it anyway. Once you've run through your prefloat check a few dozen times, you may be tempted to discard your list and rely on your memory. My advice? Don't. No one's memory is perfect, and whether you're hurrying to load your boat at a crowded put-in or a lonely wilderness portage, it's easy to leave something behind.

Of course, the best list is one you make yourself. Need some help getting started? Read on.


Begin at the beginning, with…

Your Boat

After turning my boat over and inspecting the hull, I set the craft upright and work round it in a clockwise direction, starting at the bow. Canoes and kayaks require slightly different approaches, and no two boats are identical. That doesn't really matter, however. The important thing is to be sure that your boat is sound and everything is in its place.

  1. The Hull

    • Are there any gouges, cracks, or dents, or is there other evidence of impact damage?

    • (Aluminum canoes only) Any missing rivets?

    • (Kayaks only) Is the skeg (if fitted) secure and undamaged?

  2. The Bow

    • Any impact damage to the stem? Grunch pad or skid plate (if any) OK?

    • Is the bow deck secure?

    • Is the grab loop or T-grip in good condition?

    • Is the painter or tow line in good shape, properly knotted, and stowed safely?

  3. Starboard (Right) Side

    • Is the gunwale or side seam intact? Are all D-rings and other fittings in place and secure?

  4. The Stern

    • Any impact damage? Skid plate or grunch pad unscathed?

    • Is the stern deck secure?

    • Is the grab loop or T-grip in good condition?

    • Is the painter or tow line in good shape?

    • (Kayaks only) Are the rudder and retracting mechanism in working order?

  5. Port (Left) Side

    • Repeat Starboard Side checks (above)

  6. (Kayaks and Closed Canoes Only) The Deck

    • Is the deck rigging taut and sound?

    • Is the deck compass operational?

    • Deck bag clipped in?

    • Is/are the cockpit coaming(s) smooth and undamaged?

    • Is all deck gear properly stowed?

    • Is your spare paddle in place?

    • Are all watertight hatches secure?

  7. (Kayaks and Closed Canoes Only) Below Decks

    • Any evidence of structural damage to hull, braces, or seat(s)?

    • Are all float bags properly inflated and secured?

    • Are all bulkheads (if any) intact? All watertight hatches (if any) closed?

    • Are foot braces secure and properly adjusted? Are rudder controls (if fitted) working?

    • Is all below-deck gear secure?

    • Is the fixed bilge pump (if installed) operating properly?

  8. (Open Canoes) In the Belly of the Beast

    • Any signs of structural damage to hull, thwarts, or seat(s)?

    • Are all D-rings and other fittings in place and securely fastened?

    • Are the float bags inflated and lashed down?

    • Are knee pads and thigh/foot braces (if any) secure?

    • Is/are seat(s) or saddle(s) undamaged?

    • Are bailers and other gear properly stowed?

    • Is/are your spare paddle(s) in place?


Everything shipshape? Great! That takes care of your boat. Now it's time to check…

Your Gear

  1. Paddles. Is there any evidence of damage to blades, shafts, or grips? Do you have at least one spare paddle in each boat (one for each paddler on long or difficult trips)?

  2. PFDs. Does everyone have one? Does it fit, and is it in good condition? Don't leave the shore without it. And bring at least one spare on long trips.

  3. Knife. Is it sharp, safe, and accessible?

  4. Maps (or charts and tide tables/tidal current tables, where needed). Are they protected from water and safe in a gale? Is there at least one spare set in your party?

  5. Rucksack, day pack, or deck bag. Is it tied down so it won't float away in the event of a capsize? Check the contents, too. You should always have a flashlight and other signal gear, a matchsafe or waterproof lighter, a spare compass, a first-aid kit, a repair kit, spare sunglasses (and eyeglasses, if you need them), extra food, one or more water bottles, water-purification tablets, extra clothing, and rain gear.

  6. Optical and electronic gear. Are cameras, GPS receivers, cell phones, radios, binoculars, and any other vulnerable items all stored in ammo cans or other waterproof containers, and are these all lashed to the boat?

  7. Helmet. A must-have item for kayakers in surf or whitewater, helmets make sense for canoeists, too. How much is your head worth?

A pilot always checks her engines before take-off. Paddlers should, too. So, before leaving the put-in, ask yourself…

How am I Feeling?

  1. Are you alert and well-rested?

  2. Is the trip within your abilities?

  3. Are all systems Go? If not — if you're tired, scared, sick, or just in a foul mood — do yourself and your companions a favor. Stay on shore. Come back another day, when you're feeling better. The whole point is to enjoy yourself, after all. And you won't enjoy yourself if you're under the weather.

  4. Have you eaten? Your engine can't run without fuel.

  5. Have you answered Nature's call? The middle of a long Class IV drop is no place to discover that you gotta go.

  6. Did you tell someone you trust what your itinerary is and when to expect you back? In other words, have you filed a "float-plan"? You should.


That's it. If everything checks out, you'll almost certainly have a great time on the water. Then, at trip's end, it's not a bad idea to do a…

POSTfloat Check

Run through your checklist again, and look over each item of gear as you unpack. You'll have plenty of time to do any necessary repairs before your next trip. It's a lot easier to patch a deep gouge in the hull, whip a frayed line, or stitch up a torn pack when you don't have to keep one eye on the clock.

Pilots have a saying: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. The same thing probably holds true for paddlers, and for anyone else who goes into harm's way, whether for business or pleasure. That's why it's important to know your limits, weigh all risks carefully, and paddle with companions who are at least as experienced as you are. But skill, strength, and stamina aren't the only elements in the survival equation. Your boat and gear have to be in good shape, too. So make sure the odds are always in your favor. Perform a prefloat check each and every time you launch.

Happy landings!

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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