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.
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