coastal canoeinig

My wife and I bought an 18 foot Sundowner this past spring, and have canoed on many lakes nearly every weekend all summer. We live in central Washington state and have made a few three- and four-day overnight trips, too.

Of course, this means we've encountered a lot of so-so canoeing conditions, and some really great conditions. We're slowly building experience, carefully crossing lakes in safe conditions with no mishaps yet.

Query: what does it take to canoe safely in protected coastal areas? Virtually every time anyone says anything about saltwater, it is in combination with kayaks, and almost never canoes. I realize canoes are inherently more affected by wind and wave action, but if it is per se unsafe to put a canoe in protected areas of Puget Sound, for instance, how come this is never made an explicit warning?

Are kayaks just so much more cool?

Enlighten me.

good question

– Last Updated: Aug-27-09 12:53 PM EST –

Folks have been going to sea in small open boats for centuries. Arguing that only decked boats are safe seems absurd. On the other hand, those folks usually had a lifetime of experience, and could judge conditions and make decisions better than 99% of the recreational boaters today.

If the conditions are no worse than you've dealt with on a lake, having salt in the water shouldn't make a difference. What will make a difference is dealing with currents, tides, breaking surf, and other coastal features.

The other big difference I see is the relative difficulty of self-rescue compared to a skilled kayaker.

If you're humble, make conservative decisions, and seek local knowledge, I don't see why you shouldn't enjoy your canoe in protected coastal waters. You might consider adding a removeable spray deck and/or extra flotation, like a center bag.

One source of canoe decks:

canoe limitations
I have had a canoe out in costal waters a few times. As angstrom mentioned, one limitation is the greater difficulty of getting back into the boat and bailing it out, in the event of an accident, especially if you have no additional flotation.

Another limitation is the greater windage that canoes present which can be a big issue if the wind picks up suddenly.

If you have to paddle in or out through shore break, obviously an open boat is much more susceptible to swamping. A spraycover could help there.

Given those limitations, there is no reason you can’t take a canoe offshore under appropriate circumstances, as long as you keep a close eye on the wind and weather.

Graver consequences?
As the others have said, on a fairly good day with good conditions, a canoe is fine for sheltered coastal waters. i have solo-d and tandemed a couple times here in Narragansett Bay.

But if seas get up or wind creates a capsize situation, rolling a kayak or self-rescue with a kayak is generally a LOT easier and safer to do, especially if you are out there alone.

I paddle alone in a canoe a lot, but if I am in coastal waters, I make sure I am with a competent group. Given land-sea-tide dynamics, conditions can generally deteriorate a lot faster on coastal waters than they can even on large lakes.


As you mention Puget Sound, the
Victoria Canoe and Kayak club regularly canoe the Gulf Islands.

Tides and Currents
Tides and currents are a lot different in the marine environment.

No offense, but if you have to ask here, you probably need to learn a lot more about marine conditions to be safe.

If you are already famliar with local conditions from other activities, like surfing, diving, powerboating, fishing, etc, then you probably already know if, and when, its safe.

If the envornment is new to you, scout it out, and see what the locals are doing on the water, ask questions, and follow their lead.

stay ashore / close to shore
I have a 18 foot Sundowner as well and plan on taking it in coastal waters as soon as the highs are back in the mid eighties. There is a barrier island I hadn’t visited since Gustav and Ike, and I’d like to see what’s left of it. My main concern is boat traffic when crossing passes, but that problem plagues kayaks as well.

As far as safety, I’ve been kicking the idea around of adding a large center bag, but I think the best safety device when canoeing the coast is your brain (or maybe an outrigger depending on your brain…) Know when to stay ashore & practice self rescue in rougher seas (something I need to do as well)

second the airbag
My son Aaron and I occasionally paddle the Block Island, RI area, as well as the Thames River/Fishers Island sound area of Ct., subs, ferries and all. Definitely bag your boat, for tandem a rear bag and center are what we use. A swamped canoe is going nowhere, while bagging allows the opportunity to bail if neeeded.

I can only offer four other suggestions 1) be aware of following seas, use them to your advantage if you know how, but be aware of the possibility of broaching. 2) the universal rule of canoeing, at least on active water, is KNEEL.3)Observe the waves breaking on the shoreline. Pick the calmest area you can find, time your landing, and keep yourself seaward of the canoe once out 4)unless playing, stay far enough offshore to avoid building surf.

Aaron at Block, age 14…

Under rated tool
I say go for it.

Canoes can handle waves just fine. Just ask any tandem whitewater canoeist about the concept of the “dry line”.

Canoes have more windage, but tandem canoes with a load are arguably easier to handle than kayaks in conditions that cause weatherhelm.

Inherit in the above is the skill of the canoeist. It ain’t the boat…

Of great concern is capsizing or swamping. Modify your boat accordingly. You should be “rigged for flip”. Glue in strap anchors and strap all gear down…which also creates stability (ballast) in rougher conditions. Consider adding float bags to back up the flotation tanks in the ends (assuming your boat is the composite).

As for the comments about poor self rescue, nothing could be further from the truth. A tandem canoe team can right a fully loaded (rigged for flip)canoe and re-enter about as fast as most kayakers can set up for a re-enter and roll. And you can still paddle a swamped canoe fairly well, if there is enough gear/ballast strapped down. You may want to augment the usual bailing system (cut-up plastic gallon jugs, or hand pumps) with an electric bailer. That way, both can paddle instead of one bailing.

There are limitations, of course. But most are dealt with by proper navigating. Surf zone over 2 feet would be one limiting factor- you would need a deck cover.

Perhaps the biggest limitation is the Sundowner. More than likely, your boat has the tractor style seats for sit 'n switch paddling. A better choice would be cane seats; when it gets bumpy, you will have far greater control and stability in the classic kneeling position.

Back to “proper navigating”. IMO, far too many kayakers place safety in gadgets, boats, and rolling, and rarely get truly good at navigation.


Kayaks are specialists . . .
If you can roll, or even if you can’t, a kayak will be easier to recover in the event of a capsize on open water.

That said, many of us can avoid capsize on open water by taking fewer risks.

Canoes can be quite stable, if people let them. They have other advantages, too.

Here is a great article (SGrant of myccr, titled Ocean Canoeing, Some Basics):

Also, I agree with the post about knowing the local conditions, and for this reason I disagree with the “stay close to shore” advice. There are some tidal rips close to shore that are truly incredible - so local knowledge is the way to go. Talking to kayakers might seem strange at first, but it is usually worth it.

kayaks vs. canoes
This is pretty simple. Kayaks are decked the decks keep waves out of the boat. Canoes are not decked, waves fill canoes.

Yes you can do it, with canoe float bags and fabric decks but they can be more expensive than buying kayaks.

Bill H.

Great link! Thanks! (NM)

Keep an eye on the weather
I canoe the coast of New England frequently. Usually by myself as there are few others local to me who are interested. :frowning:

I fear the ocean. No matter how big and seaworthy your craft is the ocean can be bigger and meaner.

No matter how strong your skills are the ocean can be stronger.

But the ocean can be pretty friendly too.

I pay close attention to the marine weather forcast including wave conditions and water temperature. I also pay attention to the tides. I try to get as much info as I can about how all of those affect local conditions before I go out. Kayak clubs can be a good source of that sort of info.

I take advantage of harbors, barrier islands, capes and anything else that gives shelter from the open seas.

I try not to get into situations where I might get swamped or dumped.

I also try to have a recovery plan. What to do if (when) I do get swamped or dumped.

So far so good.


Ocean fear
I find it scary that there’s nothing but horizon out there. If there’s a good onshore wind, okay, but winds shift. I’ve never had a canoe on the Ocean, and only a sea kayak a few times.

I have canoed on the Chesapeake which probably presents conditions you might encounter on the Sound, except the tidal exchange on the Sound is many times tide on the Bay, where it the tide only 2-3 feet.

I remember seeing a Bill Mason video where, after swimming ashore, he is watching his canoe founder in waves on one of the Great Lakes.

I characterize my preference for sea kayaks on big, open waters this way: In a kayak, if a wave hits me in the chest, I can laugh at it. In the canoe, if a wave hits me in the chest, I have a problem.


Chesapeake Bay is not the ocean?
It’s protected but I’d still consider it part of the mighty Atlantic.

ah, young glasshoppuh
The conditions between a bay like the. Ches. and the open ocean are worlds apart. The Ches is very shallow, which will allow a short steep chop to develop quickly, as opposed to open water which will create a widely spaced swell, until gale conditions hit when you’re just so much dead meat.

Sailing I liken sounds and protected bays to a quick 2 step in boat motion in a blow, whereas open water is like a 4 story elevator ride.

Agree on your brain…
being the best piece of safety equipment. Better than any specific type of boat, for sure.

I’ve been kayaking just north of you for a dozen years, but I’ve also been canoeing on the saltchuck for a few years. Yes you can canoe on ocean - you just have to do your homework and use your head. Just like kayaking, come to think of it.

Listen to your weather radio, study your charts and tide/current tables, and plan your route accordingly. Anything less would be irresponsible for any boater.

As you probably know, canoes really settle down with a proper load, so take all those luxuries.

Gotta go. I just got back from a saltwater canoe camping trip with my kids and I have a pile of laundry to do.

just buy a canoe made for the ocean
decked canoes are the coolest thing humans have ever made.

Can Be Done
My buddy and I did a run from Bangor to Bath following coastal routes sailing and paddling our canoes. Lots of long crossings, some nice wave action. We had end float bags and tied our gear in most of the time…duh. Can be done but like others said check the tides, when that damn car ferry is coming along. Also, we did gunkhole quite a bit, seemed the wise thing to do considering the crap weather we had.


Copy that!
OP here.

It seems like we’re pretty doggone prudent out on the lakes, and I’ve just not quite understood why playing it ultra safe on Puget Sound is going to be instant peril.

You folks have convinced me to give it a go, with a little extra dose of prudence.

Still not sure why it seems like kayakers and canoers speak a different language, but whatever.