How To Canoe Self-Rescue On A Solo Whitewater Trip

Glenn MacGrady

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I agree with the rope attachment method discussed in this article for many but not all types of whitewater river conditions. It was used by members of my whitewater club 35 years ago, with double quick-release mechanisms for the rope in case of snag or entanglement, when playing solo in big holes that would produce frequent wipeouts and swims.


Solo-Canoe-Self-Rescue.jpg

One undertakes several non-standard canoeing risks when on a solo whitewater trip. So relative risks have to be balanced against one another. Losing your boat, gear and food is just about the biggest risk of all, so anything that can reduce that risk, though it may be a risk itself such as rescue rope self-attachment, is likely to be a lesser overall risk.
 
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A philosophical question.
I am agin it. A swamped boat will nearly always come to rest against some rocks, in an eddy or quiet water downstream.
I do not want to be attached to it after a capsize.
 
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I agree with ppine. Sounds like a recipe for a disaster.

Might consider it for a long, deep lake crossing. One could lose a boat quickly in windy conditions.
 
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I’m not discounting that people have had success with this approach, but I would never attach myself to the canoe. On day trips with my canoe club, I have capsized many times, both solo and tandem. The canoe has NEVER gotten away from me. And I have capsized in big water.
I have a lot of respect for you and your experience, so I am asking this seriously.

It seems to me that long lake crossings (or in coastal waters) and wind, a canoe would drift away rather quickly after a capsize.

Now that I think of it, I did witness a capsize in the 10,000 Islands. Strong winds pushed the canoe into a shallow bay. If the wind or tide had been in the opposite direction, the boat could have been lost.

I once posted on myccr for recommendations on a big lake capsize and was basically told not to get myself into that situation.

I’m a very cautious tripper, but I like to visualize catastrophes and plan what I would do in the event of…
 
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Erica,

After a capsize, I focus on holding on to my paddle, and then grabbing the painter secured by a bungee cord on the deck. I have always been able to do so, so far. The canoe has never gotten away from me. In the situation you describe, capsizing in the wind on a large, open-lake, strong-wind crossing, I am confident that I would still be able to grab the painter, and hold on to my canoe. i would, though, be in serious trouble. There is virtually no chance that I would be able to tow the canoe against the wind, particularly in cold water. The best I could hope for is that i could survive long enough for the wind to blow me and my canoe to shore.

That’s why, when wilderness tripping, I do not make large, open crossings in strong winds. I have sometimes waited two days for the wind to subside. I have never capsized while wilderness tripping. I attribute this to the paddling skills that Kathleen and I have developed, supplemented by being very cautious. We wilderness-trip for fun and joy. Capsizing, at least for us, is the opposite of fun and joy.
 
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nope! nope! never! I once participated in a SAR attempt (became a recovery) and when the victim was found he was entangled in his own rope, still attached to the sheared off deckplate. As for a quick- release harness I never have and never will completely trust them, even though I wore them daily in my job.
 
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Not something that I would do, but then again, I wouldn't be paddling those rivers solo.
QR harnesses can definitely be temperamental, we would take time to carefully cut the webbing so that it was not overly long to avoid twisting. It always gets me how each manufacturer has their own specs for how to thread the buckle.
I notice that he's not using a cow tail so he'd need to take his PFD off to attach the line, also it looks like the rope passes around the webbing straps on his float bag so they would take the load and not the end loop, plus there is the issue of having the two ropes tied together at teh float bag, creating an additional snag hazard.
 
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The paddler in the picture isn't on an "expedition", looks more like a park'n'play situation with no gear whatsoever.

When I'm running big and long rapids on an actual wilderness solo trip I will have the same setup with the throw bag except the bag rope is connected to the boat rather than the paddler. After dumping I might grab the bag that will be floating beside the boat but I still would not hook up unless I was in the recovery pool and heading for shore and drag the boat in after I reach semi-solid ground.
 
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PaddlingPitt, I agree I would wait out the wind, too.

Sometimes storms come seemingly out of no where. I agree a capsize under those conditions is likely to have a sad outcome.

I also have never capsized on a wilderness trip.
 
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This is kind of like the debate about whether to tie in gear or not. I don't think there's a categorical right or wrong answer here that applies universally for every situation. It depends on the kind of water you are on. Not just lake and river but the kind of river and whether you are alone or not. I can see some situations where being attached to the canoe via rope and quick release harness is the only realistic self-rescue option and while dangerous still the lesser of two evils.

But for most situations, no thanks. Not in pool and drop. Not when traveling with other canoes. And probably not on lakes except if you get caught by a big wind while crossing the middle of a very large lake.

A very experienced kayaker, well known around the DC area, was killed a couple of years ago when she flipped and her properly set up pigtail with quick releases nevertheless got caught up in a submerged tree.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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If you've never seen a boat washed away downstream from the paddler in whitewater, then I think you have either been very lucky or have never paddled or taken play risks in hard whitewater. I have seen canoes lost, including my own. These were dumps that happened at the head of class 5 rapids into which no rescue boater dared venture in order to chase the escaped canoe. Here's where my canoe went—Coal Mine Falls on the middle fork of the Eel River in California.

Coal Mine Falls.jpg


Another time I was so savagely window-shaded sideways while surfing the Big Nasty hole on the Cheat River at high water that my PFD was completely unzipped somehow by the hole as the canoe was flushed away from me by tens of thousands of pounds of reversing water force. Fortunately, I had replaced my PFD's fabric waist ties with mountaineering prusik cord and interlocking carabiners, so it stayed on me. And it was also fortunate there was a very slow pool downstream of the hole where my canoe eddied itself out. Big Nasty eats giant rafts, so good luck holding onto an open canoe when you are totally disoriented, terrified and half-drowned:


Paddling completely alone in hard whitewater like the Grand Canyon, with no potential rescue boaters, adds another level of risk. Securing oneself to the boat via a detachable belt or harness in such situation makes overall safety sense, in my opinion.

In our club, we added a second detachment link on the rope itself, within an arm's length of the paddler, just in case the belt or vest couldn't be detached for some (very unlikely) reason. We did this not because we were on a wilderness trip, but because we were playing aggressively in holes, dumps were unavoidable, not everyone had a bomb-proof open boat roll, and boats flushing away from a window-shaded and upstream dumping paddler's grasp was not uncommon.

I never saw anyone get entangled in the rope. To me, that's an over-hyped cautionary bromide right along with "never paddle alone", "never stand up in a canoe", and "never paddle without a PFD." Different experienced folks can weigh risks differently, and I happen to think just about all reasonable general rules have reasonable exceptions.

I can say from long practiced safety exercises, and real world whitewater carnage situations, it's easier for the rescuee to swim ashore with both arms free and a rope attached to a rescue belt/harness than it is to swim with one arm holding a painter. It's also easier for a rescuer to tow a dumped boat through a rapid attached to detachable belt belt rope than it is trying to hold the dumped boat's painter clasped in your paddle hand or clamped under your knee.

I would not recommend a self-attached rescue rope in smallish rivers that have lots of protruding or shallowly submerged rocks, or the probability submerged logs, branches or sweepers. The device is best limited to big water rivers with few surface and subsurface obstacles but large hydrodynamic water forces. And, again, I would recommend a second detachment mechanism within an arm's length of the paddler in addition to the detachable belt or harness on the paddler.

Along similar self-rescue practices, it is normal practice for outrigger canoe paddlers go out in giant ocean swells far from shore without wearing a PFD and with the canoe attached to an ankle leash. The canoe is your "PFD" and you cannot take any risk of it being blown away from you if you "go huli" (dump) while surfing big rollers. So, you must attach the canoe to your body.

For similar reasons, although I have never done it, it makes eminent safety sense to me to use a rope attached to some sort of quick release mechanism if you are a solo flat water canoeist making a big crossing in wind. In my opinion, having the boat blow away from you in wind and waves is a significant and perhaps fatal risk, whereas the risk of a fatal rope entanglement is tiny.
 
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Glen your last post is about right but I would like to include the getting your feet stuck under seat or stuck in upside down sea kayak as additional myths. I have often had throw bag at stern or at least easy reach. Big river or open water I see the use of attachment.

I came across this article a number of years ago. It is a great read and personal reflection on the many little things that lead to disaster. It is not a canoe but illustrates the risk of of wind blowing boat out of reach and discussion of throw bags. etc.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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I came across this article a number of years ago. It is a great read and personal reflection on the many little things that lead to disaster. It is not a canoe but illustrates the risk of of wind blowing boat out of reach and discussion of throw bags. etc.

That was quite a hair-raising survival situation.

One of the reasons I quit sea kayaking is because I never developed a reliable roll in my 50's. Without a roll, death is too likely when far off shore. So, I never went far off shore, which seemed to defeat one of the very purposes of sea kayaking--paddling out to islands and such.

At that point, I switched to a Hawaiian outrigger canoe, partly because it self drains and is so easy to climb back on, and partly because I could return to single stick paddling. But I still was afraid to make big crossings due to my advancing age and declining physical condition in my 60's, and the fact that I almost always paddled alone.

Today, I wouldn't make a big crossing in any paddle craft unless I was paddling with Seal Team 6 and a navy hospital ship. There's nothing much to see or do way out on the water anyway, and I've always enjoyed the visual aesthetics of paddling close to lake shores and the riparian intimacy of rivers and creeks.
 
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I was on the verge of tears as they were saying goodbye to each other, realizing they were probably going to die out there.
 
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Scary stuff. My Father was search and rescue in the Coast Gaurd on Lake Michigan and has told many similar stories. Most were preventable, but some freak occurrences. Bad things can happen fast. Big water always demands respect.

Bob
 
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