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VOL. 13 NO. 7
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Paddle sports safety

Be safe while having fun on the water this summer

Paddle sports safety

Whether you are planning on canoeing or kayaking on a lake, river or ocean, you’ll need to plan your outing based on the environment. Knowing your craft ensures you’ll have a fun and safe trip.


Kayaks have a narrower hull and less freeboard (the distance from the waterline to the upper deck level), which can make them somewhat less stable than canoes. However, they can also be easier to maneuver. The trick to handling a kayak is keeping it balanced.

To safely get in or out of a canoe or kayak, it’s important to maintain three points of contact. When one foot is lifted off the water bottom (stepping into the boat) or is lifted off the boat bottom (stepping out onto the water bottom), both hands should be braced on opposite sides of the boat. When you sit, don’t lean to the right or left. Keep your bottom on the seat, distributing your weight equally.

Attempting to stand or move about in a canoe or kayak greatly increases the chance of capsizing, as does any sudden movement. Keep your shoulders inside the boat’s gunwales (upper edges of the sides). When retrieving something from the water, reach with your paddle or guide the boat close to the object so you can grab the item from the water without leaning your shoulders over the gunwale.

Hazards of paddle sports

Canoeists and kayakers have a few things working against them if they have a mishap. They tend to boat in remote areas, far from rescue resources or help from passersby, and frequently paddle alone or with only one other person. Their vessels tend to be relatively unstable and prone to capsizing.

Paddlers are particularly at risk for entrapment. This dangerous situation occurs in flowing water when a boater becomes snagged on rocks or debris at a hazardous point (referred to as a strainer) and  is held under due to severe hydraulics of the water. Regardless of what kind of personal floatation device the boater wears, the paddler could drown.

Be aware of low-head dams as they pose serious dangers above and below the dam. If you ever get separated from your boat in swift current, float with your feet up and pointed downstream to protect your head and lessen the danger of entrapment.

In a kayak or canoe, you may not be seen by other boaters. Stay close to shore or large stationary objects. Make yourself visible by using bright colors on your kayak, paddles and clothing. Also use reflective tape on your kayak and paddles.

Equipment check

At a minimum, wear adequate clothing and pack a spare change of clothes. Use dry bags to carry clothes, first-aid supplies, cell phones, handheld VHF marine radio, GPS, lights and similar equipment.

Have a compass for navigating, a chart to know where you are, and a whistle to attract attention. Consider carrying a spare paddle. A take-apart model stows easily below the deck of your kayak.

By all means, have and wear a personal floatation device, preferably a Type III.

To learn more about paddle sports safety, take our America’s Boating Course.

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