Canoe on Canoe Rescue

It has happened to the best of us. You’re wet, floating in a lake, your canoe is upside down, and you’re wondering what went wrong. Suddenly, you don’t care how this happened, you just want back on your boat because your paddles and gear are slowly bobbing up and down making their escape down the river – probably laughing at you.

Your first task at this point should be to determine your safety. Let your stuff go, you’ll go get it all later. If there’s no immediate need to swim to shore, get yourself back to your canoe. Whistle or call out to your dry friends in another canoe (it’s a good thing the group stayed together), and make sure everyone’s okay. Now you have two choices: You can either have the upturned canoe towed or swum back to shore, or you can try to right the canoe using a canoe on canoe rescue.

Let’s go over the steps and each person’s role to safely get you and your stuff back on the boat and on your way. We’ll assume you have two boats, the wet canoe that has been swamped with its two wet canoeists, along with the dry canoe with its two dry canoeists who are so far classy enough not to be laughing (they’ll be plenty of time for that later). If there is a third canoe, they can go and get the gear floating downstream, if it’s practical to do so while staying together as a group.

As with many safety procedures, the best way to ensure they can be done properly when needed is to practice. A good routine would be to practice some the first day of your trip before you set off, that way everyone knows how to do it. Alternatively, it’s a great way to get wet on a break on a hot day.

  1. After you’ve determined that it’s safe to do so, and that everyone’s okay, the wet canoeists should turn the boat upside down if it is not already
  2. The wet canoeists should then position themselves on opposite ends of the wet canoe, while the dry canoeists position their boat along side, perpendicular to the wet canoe, with the dry canoe forming the top of a “T”.
  3. The two dry canoeists should now position themselves to be kneeling facing the center of their canoe –  this will require one of them to turn around, so be careful, you don’t want two overturned canoes.  (Tip: Any time you’re moving in the boat, keep a hand on both gunwales)
  4. The wet canoeist closest to the dry canoe should now position themselves to one of the ends of the dry canoe, holding onto the tip of the canoe with one hand on both sides of the canoe. The idea is to keep safely positioned out of the way, without affecting the stability of the dry canoe by putting more weight on one side than the other. To put is another way: Don’t rock the boat, (baby).
  5. The other wet canoeist, who is at the bottom of the “T”, should push down on the tip of the canoe, to help raise the other end. This should also “pop” the wet canoe  out of the water, breaking any water seals that may have occurred. A dry canoeists should now reach (slightly) and grab the other end of the canoe and slowly pull the wet canoe over top of  the dry canoe’s gunwales. This may require a slight twist of the tip of the canoe if a water seal still exists.
  6. With the help of the second dry canoeist, as smoothly as possible to maintain the stability of the dry canoe, continue to pull the wet canoe over top the dry canoe until both canoes meeting at their center now forming an “X”. This will ideally empty the wet canoe of most of the water outside of the dry canoe, but you should now wait and allow the wet canoe to completely drain.
  7. The wet canoeist should be able to hang on to their canoe and even help by swimming it towards the dry canoe, as long as they are not doing anything to resist or deter the procedure. Once the boats form the “X”, they should position themselves at the vacant tip of the dry canoe (see step #4).
  8. The dry canoeists should now rotate the wet canoe right-side-up. The easiest way to do this is by having one person pull up the closest gunwale then reaching down and pulling the center thwart towards them. The other dry canoeist can now grab the top of the wet canoe and help rotate the boat while the first canoeist then pulls the bottom gunwale towards them. Again, be smooth.
  9. A dry canoeist should now slide the wet canoe – we’ll still call it wet for clarity – back into the water. For ease and stability, don’t lift the boat so much as let it rest on the water as soon as possible and ease it out until it’s completely outside of the dry boat.
  10. Now turn the wet canoe so that it’s parallel to and right up against the dry canoe. Once there, both dry canoeists should hold on to the gunwales of both canoes together nice and firm, while keeping their weight centered in their own boat. This will help stabilize the two canoes so the wet canoeists can get back into their boat.
  11. Now have each wet canoeist get back into their canoe one at a time. The easiest way would be to guide themselves to the middle of the wet boat, just to one side of the center thwart or yoke. Grab a hold of the gunwale in front of you, give a nice scissor kick to propel yourself up and reaching in and grabbing the thwart, then pull yourself into the wet canoe. Once the first wet canoeist is stable, the second should do the same.
  12. Now that everyone’s back on board, you should think about your next steps. If your paddles and gear have settled against the shore, it might be easiest to get everyone to shore and re-organize yourselves there. If they’re still floating you’ll need to get your paddles first so that you can maneuver properly.
  13. Until you have paddles for each canoeist, both boats should stick together when the waters are not completely calm. (Alternatively, when safe or when necessary, the wet canoeists can hand paddle). Pass a paddle to a wet canoeist and have one person on each boat hold together both canoe’s gunwales while the others paddle – one at the bow (front) and the other at the stern (back). Either go and get your paddles or take the wet canoe to shore to regroup. Remember, this isn’t an ideal way to canoe so do so only as long as necessary.
  14. Now, either with everyone having paddle in hand or safely on shore, go and get the rest of your gear. Make sure you get everything you can safely. It’s probably a good idea to find a spot on shore to re-organize and assess the situation, regardless. You don’t want to get too far away before realizing you’re missing essential gear. Also, depending on the temperature, the wet canoeists may need to get dry before you set off.
  15. Finally, this would be the time to do a little debriefing on how the boat got swamped, and how everyone can avoid this in the future. It is also the time to start poking a little fun at the wet canoeists.  It’s okay now that everyone is safe. The wet canoeists should remember this moment for when the roles are reversed, and wait for their time to laugh. It will happen (in direct karmic relation to how loud and long the dry canoeists are laughing).

Below we have included a video we found on made by the London Area Scouters. You can skip to the 1:59 mark where they get started:


3 Responses to “Canoe on Canoe Rescue”
  1. Fat Paddler says:

    Great stuff, it can be hard to find details on canoe rescues, especially in my part of the world. 🙂

  2. Canoeguys says:

    For more information on canoe rescues check out my article on “Cold water and hyopthermia safety” this also includes a section on canoe rescue in both the lake and river situation.
    Great video!

  3. Matt says:

    Good video with one exception. As someone who has conducted many rescues, some in 6′ waves and white water, it never goes that smoothly. There are always challenges. There was also no gear that needed to be gathered. I have found in many cases, the 2 people in the dry canoe can empty the canoe in a very short time frame without the 2 wet paddlers on the dry canoe. As long as no first aid is necessary, they should be gathering the gear!
    Overall good clip!

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