Paddle Sports and Small Boats

Paddle Sports and Small Boats

Two persons paddling on a kayak

Paddle craft include canoes, kayaks, rafts, utility boats and rowing vessels and are each operated differently. Some are used in white water, others in flat water. Some are even used in the ocean.

Safe Operation near Paddle Craft

In instances where two vessels are meeting, paddle craft always have the right-away. However, they are often easier to handle and their operators should be respectful and courteous to larger power boats that are near.

All boat operators should pay close attention when near any type of paddle craft or small boat. To avoid a serious accident, boaters should maintain a proper lookout and stay well clear of any paddle craft or swimmers that may be in the water. Boaters should be especially careful when boating in areas where visibility is limited by fog or other conditions.

Operators are not only responsible for their watercraft, but also for the wake that it creates. A boat’s wake can cause damage to small boats or paddle craft that are near. A large wake can be dangerous to swimmers or skiers in the water and can even cause paddle craft to capsize. When deciding upon a safe speed, boaters should be aware of the boat’s wake and any damage it may cause.

Safe Operation of Paddle Craft

Unique considerations for operators of paddle boats include:

  • Proper preparation before entering the water
  • Sufficient knowledge of how to swim
  • Clear understanding of how to effect self rescues in moving water
  • Proper loading of the paddle craft
  • Safe movement around the boat to avoid falling or capsizing

Preparation before Entering the Water

Before putting in the water, paddle craft operators should properly prepare for the trip by:

  • Checking the course of the water (if in moving water) and becoming fully aware of the features of the area that may affect the trip. It is a good idea to employ a river guide who knows the direction and special hazards of the water.
  • Ensuring that every person on board is wearing a U.S. Coast Guard- approved PFD or life jacket.
  • Checking the local weather conditions by radio, internet or through local authorities.
  • Filing a float plan with a friend or family member and striving to paddle with one or more partners, especially in rough waters.

Inspecting the paddle craft and ensuring that it is in good working condition.

Knowledge of How to Swim

According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, the large majority of all paddling-related fatality victims were not wearing a lifejacket or PFD when they fell into the water. Though it is important to have a basic understanding of how to swim when involved in paddling activities, the use of a PFD can be the difference between life and death for a paddler who has fallen into the water.

Self Rescues in Moving Water

Certain types of paddle craft, mainly kayaks, are especially susceptible to rolling over in the water. Kayakers must understand that they are likely to roll at some point, and should be fully prepared to perform a self-rescue while in the moving water. Self rescues take many different forms and include rolling their own kayak back to an upright position (“Eskimo rolls”), buddy rolls which are assisted by another nearby paddling partner or wet exits, where the operator actually exits the craft in the water.

While each of the safety techniques is important to know and practice, it is most important that paddlers are able to re-enter the kayak while in the water. Paddle floats have been created to assist in this undertaking.

Safe Movement on a Paddle Craft

Unsafe occupant movement and weight shift within a canoe has played a major role in nearly half of all canoeing accidents in the United States. Overloading one side of a paddle craft with people is also very dangerous. Boaters should ensure that all weight on the boat is as evenly distributed and low as possible.

Standing on a small boat or paddle craft raises the center of gravity and can cause the boat to become unstable. The change in the center of gravity makes it possible for a wave, sudden turn or wake to capsize the craft or cause a passenger to fall into the water. Passengers should also be especially careful when changing seating position and should avoid riding on a pedestal seat while the boat is underway. In canoes, the weight should be centered from bow to bow and from stern to stern at all times.

For boaters who plan to be involved in paddle sports, more education and information is provided through the NASBLA Paddlesports Education standards.

Proper Loading of Paddle Craft

Paddle craft operators should remain fully aware of their vessel’s carriage limitations and should possess the skill and knowledge to overcome them. For maximum safety, operators should always strive to keep as small a load as possible on the boat. Overloading a paddle craft with equipment and people is very dangerous. Too much weight will make it unstable and it may dip under water or allow small waves to crash onboard.

Read and take into account the guidelines on the paddle craft’s capacity plate. A craft’s weight limits should be modified for bad weather or when the weight cannot be evenly distributed, and boaters should always take into account all conditions and use their best judgment when making load decisions. Always maintain three points of contact with the boat to avoid tipping and falling.

Retrieving Overboard Items:

When retrieving items from the water and moving around the vessel itself, it is generally advised to restrict sudden movements and keep your shoulders inside the gunwales of the boat. Should something fall into the water, a good rule of thumb is to reach for it with the paddle or direct the boat closer to the item so that it can be grabbed without too much movement or without putting your shoulders over the gunwale and tipping.

Paddle in Numbers:

Just like with motorized vessels, boating alone is frowned upon and a mistake which can result in unnecessary incidents and even fatalities. Things to remember about boating and why there is safety in numbers:

  • Two or more boaters are better than one; weight is more evenly distributed between the axes (bow and aft) ensuring stability and less opportunity for capsize

  • Complete a float plan before your canoe trip and give it to someone who will not be going on the trip so they are aware of the details of your trip

  • Should an incident occur, there are more hands to help

What to Avoid:

It might seem like an obvious preparatory step, but far too many incidents and fatalities happen due to extreme conditions such as: poor weather, conditions of the water (current, temperature, etc.) and the distance kept between the boat and the shoreline. Some good tips to remember before participating in paddle sports are:

  • Check the weather conditions for the day before going out into the water

  • Always dress for an unexpected tip of the boat; being prepared is key to staying safe

  • Carry sunscreen and drinking water

  • Know the temperature of the water; incidents of hypothermia all too often come from boating in risky waters

  • Avoid boating too far from a shoreline, especially if you are still learning and not yet confident with your paddle sport of choice

Should there be any possibility of extreme conditions, or you think dealing with any of these conditions is beyond your skill level, it is important to avoid participating in paddle sport activities.

Get Trained

The best way to ensure your safety and the safety of others is by doing hands-on training of the various paddle sports. There are a variety of courses offered to beginner, intermediate and advanced boaters to teach proper paddling stroke techniques, safe entry and exit from the water and necessary skills for potential rescues. These courses provide a safe environment for students to apply their newly learned skills and techniques so that you they are well equipped to deal with such instances away from the classroom. While such training courses are not pertinent, they are certainly recommended.

For boaters who plan to be involved in paddle sports, more education and information is provided through the NASBLA Paddlesports Education standards.