What to do After Your Canoe Flips

Unless it’s at a youth camp where horsing around is the norm, when a canoe flips over it is usually not a celebrated occurrence. When a canoe flips it is always unexpected and often happens in slow motion yet with nothing the canoeist can do. Everything in the canoe ends up in the water. And of course, the canoe often lands on the paddlers in the process. In the end, the canoeists are left to somehow get themselves, their canoe, paddles, and gear all to safety. Here are some tips on what to do after a canoe flips.

Note: These instructions assume you are canoeing in a protected body of water. This does not include canoeing in whitewater, coastal waterways, or any paddling scenario involving tides, currents, or low water temperatures.

Take Care of Yourself First

The first thing that you absolutely must do upon capsizing a canoe is to make sure the canoe doesn’t come crashing down on you. There are three things you can do when flipping over to lessen the likelihood of injury.

However, once the canoe has flipped over, your goal is to make sure you aren’t injured and to keep yourself safe from this point forward. Initially, when getting your bearings, be sure to stay with the canoe. It is your best bet to be spotted and offers good flotation while hanging onto it.

Get Your Gear

Once a canoe goes upside, everything that was in it (including yourself) is obviously now in the water. If you’re in a protected body of water and you’re a good swimmer you can check for items nearby that are sinking and retrieve them before they are long gone. If you aren’t wearing a PFD, search for it on the surface of the water. Grab any flotation device you can find to keep you afloat. Some gear such as coolers and seat cushions will float. Definitely get anything that can serve as flotation as well as your paddle and keep it with you.

Deal with the Canoe

Hopefully, the air has been trapped under the canoe and it is floating upside down. Most canoes are designed so that they will float upside down or right side up, at least partially, even when full of water. Every canoe is different, however. You will therefore have to decide what you are able to do with the canoe.

Here are some options:

  • Stay with the canoe and wait for the rescue
  • Try to flip it back over, empty it out, and get back in it
  • Try to swim it to shore
  • Leave it and swim yourself to safety

The answers to these questions are not easily arrived at, except by trial and error. The first thing you should do is try to signal for help. If another canoe or better, a boat, comes to your rescue you can float back and wait for help. Otherwise, try to flip it back over if you can. This way you can put your gear in it or attach it to the canoe, even if it still has water in it.

Whether it’s flipped back over or not, try to swim to shore with the canoe. This might be an exercise in futility, but it’s worth a try. If you’re getting nowhere, and the shore is within reach, abandon the canoe and get yourself to shore. Then try to go out in another boat and rescue your swamped canoe.