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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Bail Out, Shake Out, or Flip?

Self-Rescue for Solo Canoeists

By Tamia Nelson

July 24, 2007

One is the loneliest number. That's a fact of life. Bad things happen to good people. That's another. Put them together, and what do you get? Just this: If you paddle solo, you'll have to deal with any trouble that comes your way all by yourself. This is why many sensible folks think no boater should ever paddle alone. But who among us is always sensible? Nobody I know. The truth of the matter is that most canoeists and kayakers throw caution to the wind at least occasionally, even if it's only long enough to take a quick jaunt around Golden Pond. What about you? Are you ever tempted to paddle out on your own? Sure you are. Then it's a Very Good Idea to learn how to cope with capsizes. Alone.

Sometimes the dangers are obvious. No paddler needs to be reminded how easy it is to swamp and capsize in whitewater or heavy surf, or among the breakers on a windswept lake. Maybe that's why you won't find many experienced paddlers taking on these challenges solo. But you can also come to grief in relatively calm waters. Even on Golden Pond. And it's here that loners often go astray. A single beer at lunch, a clumsy thrust with a landing net, a slippery paddle shaft, a clueless powerboat driver …. It doesn't take any more than this. One minute you're in the saddle. In control. And the next? You're in the water. All by yourself. Of course, it's better if you can stop the clock and keep out of the drink altogether. A hint: Adequate flotation helps. A lot. With good flotation, a strong brace, and grasshopper nerves, you've got a fighting chance to keep a swamped boat upright long enough to paddle it safely to shore. It's certainly worth trying.

Then again, it doesn't always work. Then it's swim time for sure. What comes next?

Do-It-Yourself Rescue

First things first. You're wearing a properly fitted life jacket, right? And you took the water temperature into account when you suited up, even if it was 90 degrees in the shade at the put-in. OK. Let's take a closer look at the scenario. You're in the water. What do you do? Hang onto your paddle, and hold onto your boat. Sputter. Swear, if you like. Look around for help. Shout. Try three blasts on your whistle, if you have one. (You do, don't you?)

No luck? Then it's time to review your options, beginning with …

Swimming for It.  If you haven't strayed too far from shore, and if you're in sheltered waters, this may be your best bet. But how far is too far? That's the big question. And the answer is contained in another question: How far can you swim towing a swamped boat? Better find out before you have to. I'll bet it's a lot less than you think, though. Even 25 yards may be too far. The only way to know for sure is to try it. You'll probably find that it's better to pull your boat than push it — on flatwater, that is. In moving water, you do not want to get downstream of a swamped boat. Ever. Now let's get back to Golden Pond. Grab loops and short painters really earn their keep when you're swimming for shore. You'll also discover that a modified backstroke works best. At least that's my conclusion. If another swimming stroke works better for you, go for it.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the hard work's done when you feel cobbles under your feet. You have to get the water out of your boat next, and that's not easy. Lifting a swamped canoe is not in the cards — at 60-plus pounds, a single cubic foot of water weighs more than many canoes. You'll have to find another way. Start when your swamped boat is floating upright next to you in shallow water. Stand near the central thwart, facing the canoe. Next, bend your knees and pull the far gunwale up while bracing the near gunwale against your legs. Slow and steady does it. Continue until the now-inverted boat is balanced on your thighs. Then wait a minute or two for the dregs to drain from the bilges. When that's done, let the boat fall back onto the water. It should be floating high. Once you bail out the slosh, you're done.

Too far from shore? Swimming's not an option? And there's still no help in sight? Then you'll have to get the water out and get back in your boat with nothing to stand on. Sometimes you can…

Shake It Out and Slither In.  The cardinal rule remains the same: Hang on to your boat at all times. Even a gentle breeze can blow a swamped canoe away from you faster than most folks can swim. As long as you and your boat are together you're not really alone. But once you part company …. Begin by rolling the boat so it's upright. If it floats high enough — extra flotation helps! — you may be able to bail. No go? It's time for Plan B. Check to see that the gunwales are above the water's surface. They are? Then you can try shaking the water out. Here's one way. Grab a gunwale near the middle thwart. Now rock the boat, slowly at first and then faster, keeping the gunwales above the water. Don't just use your arms. Use a strong flutter kick to help out, timing each kick to coincide with a shove. You want to make the water in the boat slosh from side to side. Vigorously. After that, you just let momentum do the work. With luck, you'll be showered with water each time you shove, and your boat will soon be floating higher. Continue shaking till you've got as much water out as possible, and then use your bailer to finish the job.

Floating high and dry? Good. Now all you've got to do is get aboard. Some canoeists adapt the kayaker's paddle float, lashing a long paddle (or pole) to the middle thwart and attaching a spare life jacket or other float to one end, then using the resulting outrigger to stabilize their craft while they scramble aboard. Or — if you're reasonably fit and you've got a strong frog kick — you may be able to get aboard without a float. Grab the far gunwale with one hand while placing your other hand on the near gunwale (or on the bilge). Next, kick as hard as you can and lunge forward, tucking your head down and rolling into the boat while maintaining downward pressure on the far gunwale. Sound tricky? It is. But practice makes perfect.

Still no go? Maybe you're just not agile enough for such acrobatics, or maybe your swamped boat is floating too low in the water for the shake-out to work. Make a mental note to add flotation when you get home. Then try the …

Capistrano Flip.  No, this isn't a rum cocktail or an exotic ice cream treat. By some accounts, Ron Drummond coined the name, using it for the first time in an article in the Autumn 1964 edition of American Whitewater. Whatever its origin, however, the Flip is a solo self-rescue technique. Warning! It's not for everyone, or every boat, and it's definitely not for whitewater. Here's what you'll need if you're going to have a chance of success:

  1. A life jacket with beaucoup flotation
  2. A reasonably light boat, with little or no gear lashed to the thwarts
  3. A strong flutter or frog kick
  4. Small waves and light winds
  5. A lot of practice
  6. A little luck

Think you've got what it takes? Good. Let's get back in the water. Roll your canoe over. When it's bottom-side up, duck under the gunwale just forward or aft of the central thwart. If you've done it right, you'll be floating vertically, with your head inside the inverted canoe, breathing trapped air. Kind of eerie, isn't it? Take a few seconds to get your bearings, than face the bow (or stern) and grab both gunwales as near midships as possible. Gather your wits and catch your breath. When you're ready, lift one gunwale just above the water's surface to "break the suction." Now it's crunch time. Lunge upward with all the force you can muster, kicking as hard as you can, and heave your boat into the air so that it comes down right side up. (Second warning! Keep one hand on your boat at all times. Or else.) If Lady Luck is with you, your boat will be floating beside you.

It is? Great! Slither or lunge aboard. Congratulate yourself on a job well done. And while you're sponging up the last few quarts of water from the bilge, take a few minutes to review the …

Lessons Learned

Practice makes perfect, and nowhere is this more true than here. You simply cannot master the arts of solo self-rescue in your living room, and you can't put the job off till the day you need to use them for real. You have to get wet long before then. A sheltered bay on a sunny day is the perfect practice area. Don't go it alone, however. Solo self-rescue is best practiced in company. And wear a helmet if you have one. With all the heaving, rolling, and lunging that self-rescue entails, it's easy to hit your head. Begin by swamping your boat and emptying it in shallow water. Then paddle a little way offshore, dump, and swim your swamped boat back to the shallows. Hard work, wasn't it? Now empty your boat and rest up. When you're ready to go again, paddle offshore, dump, shake the water out, and reboard your boat. Lastly — if you're still game — try a Flip or two. The object of all this exercise? You need to find out what works for you and what doesn't. And what if nothing I've suggested here rings your bell? Look further afield. Ask other paddlers how they do it. Browse the Web. Or check out the books in your local library. For some reason, canoeing manuals from the 1950s — particularly old Red Cross handbooks — are especially good sources of information about self-rescue techniques. It's worth whatever trouble it takes to hunt one up.

Last, but certainly not least: Be sensible. Solo outings are inherently risky. The upshot? If you feel that you must go it alone, be doubly cautious in all other matters. Avoid open-water crossings and "serious" whitewater. Stay close to shore. Keep a weather eye on the sky. Shun hubris. And never ignore the still, small voice that warns you of danger ahead. 'Nuff said? I think so.

Bad days happen to us all, and if you paddle solo, you're on your own whenever trouble comes your way. That's when you'll be very glad you spent a couple of summer afternoons practicing solo self-rescue techniques in warm, sheltered waters. The tricks of the trade you learned then will be invaluable when you find yourself alone in the water with your swamped boat floating beside you. Don't leave shore without them.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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