Safety Tips for Canoeing and Small Watercraft

With the Pandemic and Staycations craze, we are seeing an increase in tragic mishaps. We are also witnessing many unprepared paddlers, unaware of boating regulations and environmental etiquette. Many newbies are heading into the backcountry and crown lands for the first time‎. The  Canoeing industry is booming to the point that rentals and boat sales are hitting unprecedented levels. In my opinion, canoeing is the best way to explore Canadian Wilderness! And there is a great history to the canoe, and canoe routes of the Voyagers and z native Peoples.

Next to ATV’ing and Snowmobiling, boating fatalities cause many deaths in our great outdoors. Here are some tips from a grumpy seasoned canoe trip and camp leader, that could save your life:

Boating Risk Management and Hazard Identification

Understand what the risks and dangers are on the water. They include drowning, hypothermia, weather and storms, and cracking an ankle or back while portaging. Add poor planning, inexperience, and incorrect gear.

TIPS: Take a Canoeing or Kayaking course! Learn basic paddling skills, canoe safety and rescue skills‎, and route planning/map reading skills! Learn how to forecast dangerous weather and storms.

Temiskaming June 1978 Canoeing Disastet: 13 souls lost their lives on the first day of this tragic disaster. The causation determined at the coroner’s inquest  included inexperience sterning (steering), and communication in the large canoes, no canoe rescue Skills or plans, 50 degree Fahrenheit water, and panic.‎ 

Current Small Watercraft Canadian Coast Guard (enforced by the OPP and Park/Conservation Rangers) Regulations in  Ontario , that includes Canoes, Kayaks, Paddleboards, Peddle Boats, and Small. Fishing Vessels and Rowboats, include the following must haves:

  • CSA approved flotation device‎ per person, in the boat, properly size fitted
  • 50 ft of heaving buoyant rope
  • water baler of 1.1+ litre size, widemouth, and/or water pump
  • -paddle properly sized/pp, and/or anchor
  • -signal device, eg fox-40 Whistle, air horn
  • wide 180 degree nightlight for night travel
  • don’t overload the boat’s capacity
  • no open liquor or drugs in the vessel
  • no consuming liquor or drugs while on board

Warning: drunk or drugged operation of a small Watercraft affects your automobile drivers license and insurance rates, and is very dangerous and negligent. 

Note that fines for each safety violation can add up to several hundred dollars.

TIPS: wear your pfd or life jacket at all times! I recommend a throw bag with rope of high quality, vs the typical cheap yellow nylon rope, since it’s much more effective to throw the throw bag towards a overboard victim.

Observations last Labour Day Weekend at Kashwakmak Lake Boat Laumch, and at Marble Lake Public Beach‎:

At the conclusion of our 2019 Labour Day 3-day Canoe Trip, from Marble Lake to Kashwakmak Lake (North Frontenac), I asked my students to observe boats coming into the boat launch, and note safety violations. We saw several boats, in the span of an hour, with major safety issues. One small aluminum fishing boat was overloaded, had zero life jackets or rescue rope or signal devices, and several empty cases of beer and coolers. I asked one of the guys “where are your flotation devices”? He answered back sarcastically ” we don’t need them”! Many good boaters were also noted to be in full safety compliance.

Every year, we see motorized boats and canoes out on Marble Lake‎, completely oblivious to severe weather. For any boat with a motor, you need to have a “Safe Boaters License”. One day, we had a Tornado Warning for a vast area of Ontario, then the sky turned black, and upon checking the beach, I see an aluminum fishing boat with two yahoo’s consuming beer in the vessel, totally oblivious of the fury that was about to be unleashed. I blasted the air horns, while shouting obscenities. When they got to shore, they were greeted by their grateful kids, and very angry wives!  Apparently, the training is more of a rubber stamp, and doesn’t substitute for experience, and doesn’t include weather forecasting. Simply stated, when the thunder roars, get off the darn water asap. 

TIPS: get up to date weather reports, and pay attention to watches, bulletins, and warnings. I have a barometric altimeter on my Garmin GPS unit, that warns of bad weather. Marine reports can be found on am/fm radio. And I really like checking with Environment Canada and the Weather Network, via my smartphone, and using a Wilson’s We-Boost Cell Booster.

Canoes Selection for Safety:‎ an important aspect of boating safety is the selection of the appropriate design, weight capacity, composite, and stability balancing. For flat water, gradual designs with a tracking keel are best, and there are lightweight and durable composites eg Kevlar, Graphite, Aluminum.. Moving water canoes have  steep tumble home and rocker designs, and tough material composites eg ABS Plastics.

For fishing, a Squareback Canoe with a small 2.5 horsepower motor, or an Electric Trolling Motor, allows more accessibility into shallow and weedy areas (you can paddle!).

For a cottage, a cheap Coleman or Pelican canoe does the job (not good tracking, and very heavy for portaging) .

Kneeling versus sitting on seats is much more stable.

‎TIP: in a severe thunderstorm with falling branches and trees, crawling under an ABS Plastic canoe is much safer than staying in your tent!

Peddle Boats and Paddleboards: the same safety rules apply, as for any small watercraft!‎ Note the weight size capacity for paddleboards.

•••Inflatable Toy Crafts: these are largely unregulated, and we’re seeing an increase in accidents, rescues, and fatalities. You should still wear flotation devices, and have a signal whistle or air horn, and an emergency paddle.

Small Fishing Boats, Motors‎: it’s mandatory to have a safe boaters license, and some training. A good bilge water pump makes sense, and an extra gas can!

Hypothermia Kit: this should be in a plastic barrel pack, or a waterproof floating sealing bag. Contents can include woolens, sleeping bag, space blankets, endo lite foam pad, granola bars, small camp stove and fuel.

Where to buy canoes and gear?

My favourite canoe manufacturers are SWIFT, Langford, Mad River, Nova Craft, and Bluewater. ‎There are many used canoe swaps, and also plenty of canoes for sale on  Kijiji.  Shopping in the fall or winter gets you the best price and selection. Safety gear can be found at MEC, Bass pro, Cabelas, and Canadian Tire.

David Arama, Owner/Director WSC Survival School Inc. And Marble Lake Lodge