Tippy Canoe and Logy, Too
Keeping a Swamped Boat Right Side Up
By Tamia Nelson
August 24, 2010
W e called it Fairy Tale Rapids, and the name fit. The Class III drop was a silver ribbon of fast‑flowing water running through a forested gorge. It wasn't long, but there were enough rocks to keep things interesting, and the towering standing waves at the bottom of the drop promised a lively finish. A bit too lively, we figured, looking thoughtfully at our heavily loaded Tripper. Still, there was a good‑sized pool below where we could bail, and we'd spent much of the day fighting a headwind. Now we fancied a bit of easy riding. We really didn't want to spend the remaining hours of daylight lining down through the little canyon, slipping and slithering over algae‑covered pebbles. So we opted to make the run.
It took us only a few minutes to get ready. Then our four canoes dropped down the rushing tongue of water that marked the start of the rapids. Farwell and I were in the third boat. He was in the bow; I was paddling stern, and I didn't envy him his job. The tongue wasn't exactly a royal road. More like a cobbled cart track. Rocks, carpeted with brown slime, loomed up on every side, many of them nearly invisible in the tannin‑stained water. Still, Farwell guided us deftly around them all — all but the last one, that is. He overlooked a good‑sized boulder lurking just below the surface, near the point where the current lines converged at the bottom of the tongue. We didn't hit hard. It was only a glancing blow. We just eased up on the shoulder of the rock. But then we started to pivot. And before we had a chance to react — it had been a long day, and the hot sun had made us both a bit dozy — the onrushing water had submerged our upstream gunwale. We didn't go over, though. Not at first. We braced downriver, clawed our way off the rock, and continued on our way.
Our troubles were just beginning, however. A 17‑foot canoe can hold a lot of water, even when it's half full of tightly lashed, waterproof gear bags. And in the few seconds we'd teetered on the submerged rock, our Tripper had drunk deep. So we now had only a couple of inches of freeboard. Instead of climbing nimbly over the seemingly endless succession of standing waves, we were wallowing through them, with each wave adding a few more gallons to our unwanted water ballast. And with hundreds of extra pounds weighing her down — a cubic foot of water tips the scales at about 62 pounds — our lively boat had become…
A Sullen Slug
As well as a textbook illustration of the evils inherent in the free‑surface effect. Keeping the wallowing boat upright was a constant battle. Every ripple now sent tens of gallons of water rushing toward whichever gunwale dipped lower, threatening imminent capsize. Yet we struggled on, meeting each sickening lurch with a quick counter‑brace. And — somewhat to our surprise — we made it through the rapids to the pool below, both gunwales awash but still right side up. Before we had much of a chance to celebrate, however, let alone start bailing, we touched one last rock. It wasn't much of a touch. More like a timid kiss. But it was enough. The Tripper became a Tipper, and over we went.
It was a pretty good capsize, as capsizes go. I held onto a now‑useless high brace as the canoe rolled over like a playful whale beneath us, and we entered the water in slow motion. When we surfaced, buoyed up by our life jackets and paddles in hand, our hats were still on our heads, and the shore was only a short swim away. What a relief! With the exception of a few practice sessions, this was the first time I'd gone over, despite my having already put many years of paddling behind me. And it happened on my first trip up North. So it was a christening of sorts, as well as being (as the saying goes) an educational experience.
OK. What did I learn? To begin with, I was reminded that water is heavy. It doesn't take much to weigh your boat down till the gunwales are almost awash. A single big breaker can do the trick. And once you've shipped that wave, once you've taken a load of water aboard and it's sloshing freely about in your boat, it's a little like having a Great Dane leaping heedlessly from one gunwale to the other. If you want to stay upright, you'll need to keep your paddle in the water, ready to counter each new lurch with a brace, until you finally come to rest in some safe haven. You'll also want to offload your unwanted (and capricious) liquid ballast at the earliest possible opportunity. So you'll need a bailer for every boater, stored where they're easy to get at and kept from washing away by short lanyards.
Was there more? Yes. I was left in no doubt that PFDs are called "life jackets" for a reason. We were only a short distance from shore when we went over, but it would have seemed a lot longer if we'd had to worry about keeping our heads above water as well as shepherding our waterlogged craft to safety. And I was very glad I'd devoted a few sunny hours to capsize and recovery drills back when I started paddling. I got my first unexpected wetting in a remote rapids, but you can capsize almost as easily only a few feet from your put‑in. Windswept lakes claim their share of boats, too. Even a breezy day on Golden Pond can turn ugly, especially when there are rambunctious kids (or a hyperactive dog) in the boat. And a fair number of anglers have gotten a dunking on placid beaver ponds, to say nothing of the many waterfowl hunters who've taken a ducking while waiting for the sun to rise. The water is mighty cold in the autumn marshes.
The upshot? If you paddle, you'll swamp sooner or later, and probably more than once. And just what keeps a swamped boat from rolling over? A timely brace. A handy bailer. Plus a gentle touch. You can't horse a boatload of water around in tight eddy turns. A cautious ferry will probably be the best you can manage
Or will it? A reader recently wrote about a trick I'd never encountered:
Paddling on the Edge
New Zealander Jean Pearson opened my eyes to the possibilities. And I'll let her tell the story in her own words:
One way I was taught to deal with a swamped canoe was to lean it over as far as possible so the downstream gunwale is underwater. That's right, underwater. This technique was originally introduced to me at a training session as a way of practicing the low brace. You lean the boat over and attempt to fill it up as much as possible while NOT capsizing. It's a good fun trick on a summer day. Having played with my boat I discovered that it was actually very stable to paddle with the gunwale submerged. In fact, more so than when I tried to paddle with the swamped boat in the traditional upright position. When upright, the water sloshes from side to side making a flip likely. When leaned, the water pours in the bow and out the stern. You just have to think of paddling on a different plane!
On an assessment course I was poling on a Class II rapid when I had an…um…event which led to my falling onto the back of the boat and filling it with water. There was a general kerfuffle as people jumped in to get ready for a rescue. I leaned the boat over so the downstream gunwale was submerged and paddled to shore quite comfortably. It does require good balance, and effectively the boat's chine becomes the keel. In my boat (a UK‑produced Melody — I can't remember the company name!), loaded with airbags, this technique works very well. It works slightly less well without airbags. I tried to do the flatwater trick in an Old Town Discovery, but the hull shape is all wrong as it is too flat. The Discovery just flips, so you do need to pick your boat for this technique to work. A shallow V hull does the trick.
I have to admit that this idea was entirely new to me. Though I've often solo paddled beamy tandem canoes "on edge," kneeling to one side of the keel and tipping the boat up on its chine, I've always kept the gunwale above water. I've never once attempted the maneuver in a swamped boat. But I'm going to give it a try before the season ends and the water cools. (I've magicked a virtual preview of the hoped‑for outcome in the photo at the bottom of this column.) And how about you? Have you ever paddled a swamped canoe on the edge? If so, let me know, and tell me how it worked out.
Of course, it's always better to keep the water in its place and out of your boat, and I have a three‑word formula that comes as near guaranteeing this happy outcome as is humanly possible: flotation, flotation, flotation. When we started down through Fairy Tale Rapids our Tripper was about half filled with well‑tethered dry bags. We thought this would see us through any eventuality, but we were wrong. Flotation is like money. You can never have too much. So don't stint.
Is there anything else you can do to minimize the chance that you'll have to put your brace to the test? Sure. Many canoeists use spray covers, and their fans make a good case for them, particularly when the cover is combined with ample flotation. But perhaps the best advice is simply to exercise reasonable care in entering and leaving your boat, and in distributing and securing your gear. Most important of all, heed the still, small voice that warns you of dangers ahead. If you follow these few rules, you should have little trouble keeping your head above water — most of the time, at any rate. And that's a good thing, isn't it?
A swamped canoe handles like a sodden log, and it's just about as stable. A solid brace can sometimes keep you from going all the way over, but there are no guarantees. The bottom line? That's easy: Be prepared. (You heard it here first!) You can never have too much flotation, and a few hours spent maneuvering a swamped canoe on a local pond will give you a feel for the way a waterlogged boat handles. Tippy canoe? Of course. And logy, too? You'd better believe it! At least when its weighed down with water ballast. But don't worry. With a little practice both you and your boat can rise to the challenge every time.
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