Falling out of an open canoe is usually a simple matter. We allow our upper body to go too far outside the gunnel, lose our balance and find ourselves having an Out of Boat Experience. Those around us often laugh and hopefully we can see the funny side too. Occasionally however, just occasionally, a paddler falls in but finds a leg or foot caught in some loose gear or twisted under a seat or thwart and can’t free themselves. They’ll usually be floating alongside their boat with their head above the water and in no immediate danger but it’s an a uncomfortable situation both for them and potentially their rescuer.
If you’ve ever tried to lift something heavy from the water in a small boat you’ll know it’s very difficult – the more you try to lift, the more you’re likely to be pulling yourself in. That’s why on our Foundation Safety and Rescue Training (FSRT) courses we teach rescuers to approach the capsized canoeist from the opposite side to where they’re floating and rather than lift, push the other side of the boat down and scoop the paddler into their own boat. Once the capsized boat is the right way up you have the time to see what the problem is and in most instances the paddler who has capsized will be able to free themselves. Of course you’ll have communicated to them just what you’re about to do and asked them to hold on tightly so you can roll them and their boat as a single unit avoiding making the entrapment worse or risking breaking something in the process.
Pushing down on the side of the capsized boat closest to you and rolling the boat over towards you is good practice in any rescue, canoe or kayak. The technique will also work with an unconscious capsized canoeist or kayaker – a scenario we also train for on the FSRT course.
Rolling a capsized boat in the water rather than trying to lift it protects you from capsize or injury and is more effective for the person you’re rescuing; if that person is floating alongside their boat then just ensure you get on the right side of them, in this case the opposite side.