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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Cover‑Up or Catastrophe in the Making?

The Pros and Cons of Canoe Spray Covers

By Tamia Nelson Lively Rapids

May 25, 2010

I like kayaks, and I've paddled them in most kinds of water, from rowdy Class IV–V drops to quiet beaver ponds to the margins of the ocean. But as much as I appreciate kayaks' sleek lines and inherent seaworthiness, I was a canoeist before I was a kayaker, and canoes still stand high in my affections. My first boat was a fire‑engine‑red fiberglass 16‑foot tandem canoe. It tempted me down from the mountains and got me out on the water, giving me a mobile platform for birding and photography into the bargain. I've owned a lot of canoes since then, of course, including 20‑foot freighters and 12‑foot pack canoes. As much as I've loved these boats, though, they all shared one drawback, a shortcoming not seen in kayaks: there's a big hole at the top that lets in water — sometimes a great deal of water. It doesn't take a novice canoeist long to discover the problem with this arrangement. One misstep on boarding, one ill‑considered lunge to grab at a hat caught up in a gust of wind, one big breaker taken over the bow and…well, I don't have to spell it out, do I? It's swim time. Still, canoes aren't quite as vulnerable as this would suggest. Folks have been traveling up and down wild rivers in heavily loaded canoes for centuries and living to tell the tale. They've even fitted canoes with sails to cross big lakes and ocean bays.

OK. Canoes leak at the top. But canoeists often take their boats where swamping is more than a theoretical possibility. That being the case, just…

How Do You Keep Water Out of a Canoe?

This is the question, I think, and it's troubled many a paddler who's contemplating a trip through treacherous waters. In the Same Boat reader Jack Strebel is one such boater. He's got an Alaskan river in his sights, and he's looking for a way to even the odds. But rather than paraphrase his letter, why not let him speak for himself?

Hi, Tamia!

Love your articles. I am looking for information that deals with decking a canoe to keep water out. I remember years ago seeing canoes that had snaps and/or tie‑downs for removable decks/covers on canoes. I would like to run a river in Alaska, solo, that goes through a canyon (Kenai River Canyon) with a long stretch of large choppy waves due to the narrowing of the river. After scouting it in a drift boat it seems unlikely that I can make it thru this section without filling up my canoe, a 16‑foot Mad River Freedom (carrying flotation), with water. I need to make it all the way through, as there is heavy brush and no place to eddy out. It seems to me the best way to stay dry and to maintain control would be to deck the canoe somehow. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Sounds like a trip to remember! The Kenai River is well‑known for its big fish, and it's a popular destination for both anglers and paddlers, in large measure because of its comparative accessibility. But the Canyon is a remote three‑mile‑long reach of continuous Class 2–3 whitewater, and as Jack rightly observes, it would be a bad place to dump. Here's a topographic map of the Canyon region:

Kenai Canyon Topo

While roads parallel the river in many places, the Canyon isn't one of them, and a solo run down through it definitely qualifies as risky business, despite the comparatively easy rapids. Jack is right to wonder how best to guard against swamping, with its attendant risk of capsize and the possible loss of his boat and gear. Water is mighty heavy stuff, and a swamped canoe is about as seaworthy as a concrete block. Even a couple of inches of splash sloshing about in the bilge can make it hard to keep a boat right side up in a strong current, and no sensible person wants to swim a cold, remote, wild river.

So, is a spray cover the answer? The idea is certainly attractive, and part of the attraction lies in its elegant simplicity. A close‑fitting cover stops breaking waves from dumping bucketsful of water into your canoe. Keep the water out, the argument goes, and you can't swamp. Simple. And a lot of ingenuity has been expended over the years in embellishing this basic concept, designing more or less bombproof attachment schemes, for example, and coming up with spray skirts to seal the necessary "cockpit" openings.

Like Water Off a Duck's Back

All of which I've left out of my sketch. And for the best of reasons: Spray covers are undoubtedly appealing, but they've never appealed to me. Still, I try to keep an open mind on the subject. One of the best discussions of the pros and cons of spray covers I've come across can be found in the 1988 edition of Bill Mason's Song of the Paddle, and I recommend it to anyone who's thinking about going covered. Now, however, I'll give you…

My Own Take on Canoe Spray Covers

As I've already made clear, I'm not a fan. Fabric spray covers are fussy beasts, and even the best of them poses some risk of entanglement or entrapment in a capsize. Moreover, while well‑designed covers keep most of the water out, most of the time, they're equally good at keeping water in. The upshot? Any wave that succeeds in smuggling part of its load aboard will stay with you for a good long while. Bailing a swamped boat with a spray cover isn't easy, and the pumps designed for sea kayaks will be hard pressed to cope with canoe‑sized loads of water. Why does this matter? At the risk of repeating myself, water is heavy. You really don't want to be running even the easiest of rapids with gallons of the stuff sloshing from side to side in the bilge of your boat. It's like having a big dog jumping from gunwale to gunwale.

My personal bottom line? If I'm looking at a river that requires covering up, I'll opt for a proper decked boat — a hard‑shell kayak or a decked canoe — rather than an open canoe fitted with a fabric cover. Or I'll go the Falstaff route, instead, recognizing discretion as the better part of valor, and lining or portaging around any water that's too lively for an open open boat. If a portage trail or tracking beach was good enough for the voyageurs, in other words, it's good enough for me.

That said, I'd be leading you down the proverbial garden path if I left the impression that going covered is an either‑or proposition. There is a middle way, and you'll see it in action on many a turbulent river. The recipe is simple: Instead of covering your canoe with a fragile fabric deck, swamp‑proof it with imprisoned air. And don't stop at half measures. Put all your gear in bombproof dry bags (and keep this load as small as possible). Then fill every remaining cubic inch in the boat with rugged, securely anchored float bags. In other words, you don't just want flotation, though that's the place to start. You want FLOTATION. It will take a little time to get it right, but when you've finished, you'll be doing far more than keeping the water out. If you also rig (quick‑release) thigh straps and put in enough hours practicing, you'll even be able to roll your "unsinkable" canoe right back up following a knockdown. The 1954 — yes, that's 19 and fifty‑four — Red Cross Canoeing Handbook will show you how it's done. Be warned, though: rolling a heavily loaded boat will never be a piece of cake. Of course, the prospect of rolling (or swimming), however remote, makes a wetsuit (or drysuit) de rigueur in any waters outside the tropics, and you'll want to wear a helmet, too, if you're going to spend any time hanging around upside down. Neither hypothermia nor concussion is conducive to a good time.

Skeptical? Are you wondering if a flotation‑filled canoe is truly swamp proof, let alone "unsinkable"? Well, you're right to wonder. No boat is unsinkable. (Remember Titanic?) Float bags can be punctured. Lashings can part. And even the best paddlers sometimes misread the odds. But — from the safety of the portage trail — I've watched paddlers in float‑bag‑filled canoes tackle Class V+ rapids that gave expert kayakers second thoughts. These hard‑charging canoeists didn't always stay upright, I admit, but they never had to swim, either. So filling your boat with float bags is certainly worth considering in big water, not to mention long, remote rapids.


Back to Jack's letter for a minute. When I wrote to him, outlining my take on spray covers for canoes (and asking for permission to reprint his note), he lost no time in replying. Here's what he had to say:

Thank you for shedding some light (and water) on the issue of spray covers. I hadn't considered the risk of entanglement and entrapment, and, as you pointed out, the spray cover will not keep all of the water out. I think the most prudent choice, as you suggested, is to fill the canoe to the max with float bags. Luckily we have come a long way from the days when we used truck‑tire inner tubes stuffed under a thwart for flotation, as I did paddling a 17‑foot Grumman solo 96 miles down the Green River (Desolation and Grey Canyons) in the early 1980s. I am well aware that the biggest danger on the Kenai River is the water temperature. Thank you so much for your reply and keep up the great job of writing. I love it.

From the Green River to the Kenai (and beyond)… It turns out that Jack's no stranger to the float‑bag option, after all. And it sounds like his adventures are just beginning.

When the water gets really rough, many paddlers abandon their open canoes for kayaks. But what do hard‑core, accept‑no‑substitutes canoeists do? A few cover the big holes on top of their boats with some sort of fabric decking. Is this a good idea? Not to my way of thinking. What about you? Are you tired of going topless? And are you considering covering up? Or have you already done so? Then drop me a line when you get a chance, and tell me all about it.

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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