Capsized Canoe

This weekend I had the pleasure of capsizing my canoe on Lake Erie at night while walleye fishing. (Sorry for the novel)

I had my inexperienced 6’3 280 lb friend sitting in the bow seat of a Bell Northwind, while my scrawny 6’1 230 lb frame paddled stern. I figured since I was the more experienced paddler a 50 lb difference wouldnt be enough to cause any problems. But it was.

The canoe paddled fine, I put some extra weight towards the back to help the trim. I think the problem was that he just didnt have enough room up there and it wasnt wide enough for him to keep balanced.

What happened was he was tying a lure on (so he did not have his paddle in hand) and he sort of leaned to the right(with his leg almost over the gunnel) while a small wave was coming from the left, which caused him to lose his balance and get thrown. He held on to the gunnels and wrestled the boat around finally giving up and pushing off with his feat. Up until the moment he pushed with his feat I thought I was gonna stay in, once the fatso pushed off though I got thrown right in.

I had my pfd on, he didnt and I could not see it since it was dark. The paddles stayed right with the boat. My fishing poles and tackle box did not. We got the boat upright, but it was so filled with water we flipped it again and turned it over and there was even more water. By this time we were in the water for probably 5 minutes. He was having a hard time treading water so I told him to hold on to the boat. Luckily we were right near a boat launch, and a boat was coming in about 300 yards away. I yelled and signaled with my $10 dollar energizer flashlight/lamp (awesome buy) and eventually they came over and helped him into their boat while I tied the canoe onto their boat. We then used their spotlight to find the other life jacket and small cooler I had on the boat. What we did not find was my 2 fishing poles and tackle box with probably $100 worth of tackle.

Basically it got to the point where because he was using too much energy to tread water, he couldnt help me enough to flip the boat. So once I realized that I was going to swim to shore (try to pull the boat while he swam), thank god the other boat was there to help.

Things I learned:

  1. Always wear your pfd
  2. Keep valuables attached in some way to the boat.
  3. Dont let fat people sit up front

    What is the proper way to get back into and get water out of a swamped canoe? I am going to go out this weekend and practice this.

your friend
would need an xxxl pfd

This article
In the archives here of pnet. You should poke around the current and old articles and the Guidelines section for other stuff while you are there. I saw one go by that seemed to be about how to distribute weight in a canoe to handle wind.

Capistrano Flip
In my canoeing experience, two teens or adults of average fitness and size, wearing PFDs, are usually able to each command one end of a capsized canoe, lift it vertically out of the water, flip it, and set it back down nearly empty of water. They can then aid each other in getting back aboard. Apparently it’s called the Capistrano Flip:

This maneuver relies on both paddlers wearing their PFDs for the necessary flotation, and it helps if the canoe is fairly lightweight and has flotation chambers or foam inserts in both bow and stern.

Like all such canoe and kayak rescues, proficiency comes only with practice: Tell your chubby buddy to meet you at the lake this weekend with his swim trunks on …

Good Luck!


something else to keep in mind
After you’ve recovered your gear and canoe from the wind and current, and managed to get all the water out. Don’t just set up and start doing the “capistrano flip” back into the canoe without first climbing up and looking inside to make sure you are both getting back into your proper bow and stern positions.

I once came out with a big guy in a strong current and wind. We managed to do a pretty good job of recovering and getting back into the boat. It took a lot of energy. But, when we were back in the boat we realized we had done a “capistrano switch” and now the total novice was in the stern. He could not keep us oriented properly to the waves and within a couple of minutes we were back in the water and had to do it all over again.

Make sure you look before the two of you fight and claw yourselves back into the boat.

Getting back into a canoe is not easy.
I tried with my wife in a pool and we really struggled to get back in. We had bruises all over our legs. We only had our swim suits on so being fully dressed would have made climbing in much more difficult.

You need to empty out as much water as possible. Have one paddler hold on to a side while the other person climbs on board on the opposite side. Your overweight friend probably couldn’t do it. If there was any chop then, well, I wouldn’t count on being successful.

I tried with my solo canoe and couldn’t even do it in the pool pushing off the bottom – not even close. I guess if your athletic enough it can be done, but not by me. I was so unsuccessful that I feel no amount of practice would help me. After my unsuccessful attempts, I bought float bags for my solo canoe. You need to shoot up high enough to get your upper body over the canoe. I’m 6’1", 215lbs so like you got lots of mass on my ass.

I was thinking that having a rope tied on each side of a tandem that can be thrown to the opposite side would help the person pull himself in?

It is possible to self rescue in a tandem, but is difficult. It is worth spending the time practicing. Also, you will find out if you can do it since it is difficult to climb in.

The bottom line is that you better wear a PFD, and don’t wander too far from shore. Additional flotation would help keeping water out of the canoe and would make towing it to shore easier. A canoe cover helps keep gear in the canoe. If you just tie items in they will hang down and make righting the canoe much more difficult. The cover keeps the gear inside the canoe so it is easier to right.

The bottom line is that I wouldn’t spend too much time trying to get back in unless you practice and know how long it usually takes you in practice. I think you must think seriously about righting the canoe, bailing out as much water as possible and towing it to shore.

The sea kayakers might be able to give us canoe paddlers ideas concerning self rescue. They manage to get back in a narrow sea kayak so maybe those methods would help with a canoe?

Glad you survived to share
the tale.

Yep, the Capistrano Flip is the way to do it. AS has already been mentioned here, practice is key to the technique.

Depending on upper-body strength, vaulting into the boat can be a challenge. When I learned the CFI was a skinny youngin, and now fourty-odd years later I would be challenged. Maybe a stirrup…

ANother technique is canoe-over-canoe, assuming that you have a second pair of friends.

Canoe rescue & recovery is important enough to practice often. And is a great excuse to get wet in the summer. Also, how else are you going to learn the limits of your stability without practicing low braces? Brace till you flip, and do it again.


A stirrup is a big help
Lash a short loop of rope aroud a thwart with a Prussik…the yoke is best at the center.

The loop should extend just below the boat.

While the partner stabilizes (ie pulls down on the side away from the entering paddler), the entering paddler steps into the stirrup pushing foot directly down and gets into the canoe ala mounting a horse.

Then still amidships the former entered paddler should kneel in the bilge to stabilize the more fit paddler entering from the opposite side. Or the stirrup can be deployed over the other side.

It works best if the boat is mostly empty of water as things get pretty unstable if the boat is half full. But you ought to be able to Capistrano flip the boat empty of much of the water and one person before entering the boat, bails…I find a kayak pump handy for canoes too.

A last note. If your flip is no good one or both of you may be wearing a PFD with insufficient floatation

Flipping the boat

– Last Updated: Jun-09-08 2:25 PM EST –

would have been much easier if he would of had a pfd on. I joke calling my friend a fatso, which he sort of is. He used to play D1 college football and is a pretty good athlete, but he has prob put on about 30 lbs of gut since then. I am in excellent shape, I play rugby, and lift weights frequently(powerlifting), but with him having to tread water and help flip the boat, it was pretty much just me doing the flipping, and it was difficult. I can press 225 lbs over my head, but I couldnt flip that canoe by myself in water.

We could have abandoned the canoe and swam to shore, but that was a last resort.. I am glad the other boat was there to help, I am happy just losing a few fishing poles rather than my canoe (and fat friend).

Extra flotation
Might be nice in such situations to have an extra PFD or two, or any other kind of flotation.

A PFD is designed to help float YOU–the added weight of half a canoe may be too much, and sink you, so an extra PFD jammed between your knees might be all you need to get the canoe clear of the water and back upright.


I hate to be the bearer of bad news,
but no matter what anyone here tells you about the “capistrano Flip” or when they were in the boy scouts or other magic solution.

You two guys won’t be able to get the water out of that boat, and get back in it if you are over your head.

Swim it into where you can stand, and then with it upside down each of you get on a end, pick it up in the air and then flip it over.

No problem if you were in a ultralight racing canoe, but no matter how you try you won’t do it.



Au contraire
When but scrawny lads, my younger brother and I were routinely able to perform the Capistrano Flip, exactly as outlined above. In our favor were a bit of extra flotation in the bow and stern, and the oversized and overstuffed life jackets popular in those days:

But against us was our 18-foot-long, 36-inch-wide, 100-pound canoe. Not to mention our twiggy adolescent physiques.

It’s true that a couple of hefty adults of questionable fitness, and wearing modern Type II or III (low bouyancy) PFDs, will probably struggle with a large and heavy canoe, and may be unable to execute the maneuver. But as mentioned above, added canoe flotation, higher-bouyancy PFDs, and some practice should make this a practical and valuable safety skill.

Try it someplace safe, like a local beach, to learn it. If it turns out to be impractical or impossible for you and your gear, well, take the advice of others here and stay close to shore. Or maybe get some sponsons …


I seen a video showing how easy
the Capistrano flip is; however, I couldn’t do it with my wife in the pool. I tried with my 18 ft Kevlar canoe. I don’t have any trouble lifting my canoe solo and loading it on my RAM 3500; unfortunately, you need the right technique and coordination with your partner to do the flip. Another problem would be the extra cloths worn on a cold paddling day. Also, I doubt if you can do it with anything tied into the canoe. I doubt that two paddlers who don’t practice together would be able to do it in an emergency. While I’m not saying it isn’t worth trying to master; I wouldn’t count on getting it to work when I needed it – especially, since I usually go paddling with gear tied into the canoe and with a partner that I’d have to talk through the flip.

A rope tied to each side of the canoe that can be thrown over the opposite side would make the canoe easy to right. Some rafter suggested the idea on the CCR. I tried it and it works.

Getting the water out is another problem. I found the shaking the canoe trying to splash the water out didn’t work on my particular canoe since the shape tended to keep the water in the canoe. Also, you quickly get tired with not much success. I ended up just bailing. Perhaps a pump like the sea yakkers use would work; however, it would need to pump a large volume of water. Extra flotation is an easy answer to this problem. I think if you can get the canoe righted and floating high enough you can paddle it to shore.

The stirrup sounds like a good idea. Also, using my rope idea to right the canoe would also provide a help entering the canoe.

To say the least after my couple of pool sessions at self rescue, I wasn’t too optimistic with my chances of righting the canoe, reentering it and paddling off into the sunset. I know there are people when can self rescue in a canoe, but I can’t and I doubt any substantial number of canoe paddlers can either. However, I now know my limitations so won’t try on reentering the canoe unless the conditions are ideal and the water not too cold. I’ll stay close to shore and wear a PFD unless conditions aren’t in the least threatening.

Dig, if you will, the picture
Two paddlers, both over 200#. Lightweight kevlar canoe. Let’s say the boat is emptied and righted perfectly after the capsize and the paddles are safe, pfd’s are worn, all is well.

Both paddlers have marginal to adequate upper body strength. They both attempt to pop up and throw a leg over the gunnel to re-enter the boat. Let’s say their pop doesn’t fly so high, but the leg is up over the gunnel - one knee and a shoulder are on the boat in the struggle to get back in.

Wouldn’t said kevlar boat flex to the point of damage and or warpage?

I dig the picture
Two paddlers each floating a hundred feet apart and each with a leg over a half a canoe.

Fifty feet between them there are a couple of seats bobbing merrily.



Center of gravity
This seems to have been your undoing:

What happened was he was tying a lure on (so he did not have his paddle in hand) and he sort of leaned to the right(with his leg almost over the gunnel)

: ) Maybe give your buddy a short lesson in keeping your center of gravity in line with the center of the canoe.

It is very worth the effort to swamp a canoe in a pool and practice flips and getting in. It is not easy to do, especially, I would imagine with the waves you describe.

Glad you are all okay. Did you catch anything? ; )

Both my wife and I got back into the
righted canoe once emptied. We bruised the hell out of our legs but we got in the canoe. I pulled myself in, with difficulty, then I pulled my wife in. So, if you can right the canoe and empty it, then you can reenter a tandem canoe. If we could do it with no special athletic abilities then I give most paddlers a good chance to succeed. The strongest paddler should get in first to help the other. So the problem would be to right the canoe and empty the water out of it.

I have enough body strength to pull myself in, but I can’t bob high enough to get my upper body high into the canoe so I need to really struggle to get the mass of my ass over the gunwales. This didn’t stop me from pulling myself into the tandem canoe since my wife kept the canoe from flipping over again; it just wasn’t pretty.

With the solo canoe and nobody holding the canoe, I didn’t even come close and I just flipped the canoe over every time I tried. I had no luck from the ends either. I couldn’t even do it pushing off the bottom of the pool – a bummer. You would need to get most of your body weight over the center of the canoe otherwise it will just turn over because the bulk of the weight is over the gunwale.

Thanks For Scaring Me!
I’m going canoe camping for four days, beginning tomorrow, with a friend who I shall only refer to as “Fatso.”

Just like you, I’ve been putting the greenhorn up front.

He’s had a bunch of surgeries and shifts position a lot.

He has a bad habit of placing his hand on the gunnel, then all his weight on his had as he shifts. This tends to drive the gunwale right down to the waterline.

He’s nearly dumped us a couple times when I wasn’t prepared for his move.

Based on your tale, if we go in the drink this trip, it could easily kill him. He is 60 years old and he knows this is probably the last canoe camping trip he will ever get to do. He did some calculating today and determined this is the 19th year we’ve been doing this Father’s Day excursion…with a few missed years due to bad luck. It means a lot to him.

I think I’ll be a little extra careful this year.

This isn’t meant to be hostile …
… and I was going to stay out of it , but , “who’s the capt. of the boat” ??

Who needs to wear a life vest anyway , always , without exception ??

If you answer every occupant in the canoe , then you have learned something very valuable , better late than never , I guess .

No proper PFD , no ride , no exceptions , ever !!

Best way is don’t flip it

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