hearts and minds

August 6, 2006

III. Everything Floats – by clyde winter

Filed under: Paddlesports — Hearts & Minds @ 1:41 pm

Anything that you carry in your boat that remains less dense than water when immersed and that is secured properly is flotation. It can be air bags, gear bags, packs, boxes, or structural foam. It can be a load of firewood if properly lashed in place. It’s not flotation if it can float free, deflate, flood, or shift position. That stuff is called flotsam and lost outfit. You don’t need flotation if the boat doesn’t swamp or capsize. If it does, wherever you are and no matter what kind of water you’re in, the more flotation you have the better off you’ll be. In all cases it’ll make recovering the boat and gear easier and quicker. In some cases it could mean survival.

It’s a big mistake to think that flotation and self-rescue skills like the so-called eskimo roll are only for whitewater rivers. If you capsize in a fully flotation protected boat and you pop up with an “eskimo” roll, it’s like an instant eraser for your mistake. It’s like the capsize never happened. That’s mighty nice wherever it occurs and it’s really special if you happen to pull it off after a dunk crossing an eddy line at the very last takeout before the river dives into a canyon with ten miles of continuous Class VI, or if you nail it following an upset by a whale or a surprise boomer breaking over a reef a couple miles from a rocky shore in 45 degree water, or in some other less dramatic but similarly compromising situation.

Let’s say you capsize in a fully flotation protected boat but you don’t have a roll, or you miss it and wet exit. Your canoe or kayak will float high and light and will remain stable and seaworthy. In open water you’ll have the opportunity to re-enter your boat, bail if necessary and paddle. It may not be easy but it will be possible. In a smaller river or creek it will be much easier and more likely to recover your boat and gear undamaged.

Now what if you capsize in a boat with no flotation protection beyond your PFD and the minimal amount the manufacturer built in to keep the boat from sinking like a stone? The total volume between and below the gunwales of a canoe is a couple hundred gallons or more and the built-in flotation is maybe one or two percent of the total volume. A canoe can hold literally a ton of water which will immediately fill and all but submerge it. While it is full of water, the boat is unstable, unseaworthy and provides no hypothermia protection. It’s virtually useless and you may decide you have no alternative but to abandon it and strike out swimming for shore. In open water it is very difficult to bail out such a completely swamped boat especially if the weather and water are rough. In a river or creek it’s hard to get this heavy, water filled boat to shore, it’s a hazard, and there is so much hydraulic force exerted by moving water on a submerged canoe or kayak (not to mention the momentum of a ton of moving mass) that if it broaches against a solid obstacle it will likely be wrapped and destroyed in seconds. You may have to let it go and try to find and recover it later.

A good flotation system designed by you for your boat and intended use is well worth the thought, work and cost. In the kinds of places and conditions most of us like to or wish to paddle, it’s a lot easier to keep the water out of the boat in the first place, than it is to try to remove it after it’s fully swamped and things are still happening. A word of caution. Gear, including flotation, that is inadequately secured may prove in a capsize to be an impediment to recovery and rescue, as well as an added safety hazard. It’s gotta stay put when the boat is upside down or when the water is trying to wash it out.

Personal flotation is something you wear and it too does no good unless it’s installed properly. A PFD is essential if you can’t float and swim. The law often requires it. You can’t even breathe in continuous whitewater without one. In cold water immersion if you don’t get out of the water quickly enough most PFD’s become nothing but a body marker. There are specialized work suits and float coats that provide excellent hypothermia protection as well as PFD flotation. These are useful on extended wilderness trips where wet suits and dry suits become unpleasant. Do not get a float coat without the neoprene diaper (also called a beavertail). Type I PFDs are the only kind that float you face up out of the water if you’re unconcious but they provide little hypothermia protection and paddlers don’t use them because they restrict upper body movement too much for us.

This is not to say that you must never just grab a paddle, throw your boat in the water and go. It’s simply that your decision to paddle without all your safety gear and full flotation protection should be a result of your considered evaluation of the situation…not of ignorance, habit or lack of forethought. And don’t impose lax risk taking on others who are trusting their safety to your good judgment and experience.

Go HERE to see the table of contents and other articles in this series. I appreciate any comment you care to make.


  1. I am inspired.

    Comment by Howard H — March 23, 2007 @ 10:54 am | Reply

  2. very good. Might direct the “incredulous” paddler to this post in the future

    Comment by Gnarlydog — June 22, 2009 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

  3. Very well written & informative series of essay – Thank you! My safety skills and preparations, such as they were early on, were self-taught until I bumped into someone who was not afraid to hurt my feelings in order to drill into my brain to be prepared for the perceived paddling conditions and then be prepared for a whole lot more.

    I’ll post a link to them on RiverTrekker.com


    Comment by Greg Joder — June 25, 2009 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

  4. There are two schools of thought regarding whether to lash packs tightly into a canoe or not.

    The first school teaches us to securely lash packs into the hull so that they remain inside during a capsize.
    The advantages are: The packs don’t float away. 2. The secured packs provide floatation. 3. The secured packs don’t present an entanglement hazard. 4. The securely-tethered packs don’t shift around.
    The disadvantages are: 1. It becomes much more burdensome to turn the canoe over to empty water, or to “lift over” a downed tree or beaver dam. 2. It makes loading and unloading the canoe for portages much more tedious. 3. It makes boat-over-boat rescues in open water much more difficult or impossible.

    The second school teaches us to secure the packs to the canoe with tethers so that they float free of the hull during a capsize. The advantages are: 1. The packs don’t float away. 2. The canoe is much easier to unweight for dumping or lift-overs. 3. Boat-over-boat rescues are much easier. 4. The boat is somewhat easier to load and unload. The disadvantages are: 1. The tethered, floating packs present an entanglement hazard. 2. The packs do not provide hull floatation for the boat. 3. The unlashed packs can potentially shift around.

    For the type of canoe camping that I do, I usually secure the packs with tethers only. If I were contemplating a river trip with serious current, I would use small air bags in the stems of the boat to provide hull floatation, and some type of quick-release strap securing the packs in the hull backed up by tethers, such that the packs can quickly be removed from the hull for short carries, dumps, or T-rescues.

    One such system I have used is to run a length of 1″ wide nylon webbing lengthways down the centerline over both the stem air bag and the pack(s), secured to a D-ring on the hull floor with a nylon Fastex quick-release buckle. It is a fairly simple matter to release the strap to get the packs out of the hull, if needed.

    Comment by pblanc — June 30, 2009 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

    • Sounds like good ideas. Rivers, creeks, lakes, coastlines, oceans, paddlers, boats, trips, expeditions,adjacent environments, no two are the same. Appropriate planning takes all into consideration. Sometimes a bombproof system is not foolproof. A wilderness trip with your gear soundly secured as in my description and in pblanc’s “first school” may sway a paddler to run that rapids with gear aboard, rather than portage the gear while paddling an unladen boat. And that may not work out well for ya.

      The principles of flotation as outlined in my essay do not mandate rigid, inflexible adherence to their ideals.

      Comment by clydewinter — June 30, 2009 @ 6:07 pm | Reply

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