Saving a pinned canoe

Came across this, Great way to unpin your canoe!

A z drag seems like a good thing to know but have never ended up actually using one in a “real life” situation. Unfortunately, I’ve wrapped plenty boats but the good thing is I’ve gotten a number of them off. The only time I left a boat was when I thought it was too risky to attempt extraction. I was fortunate and got that boat, a kayak, back when water levels dropped.
I’m not against z drags but I think too often folks look for the mechanical advantage rather than simply working with the flow. Many times elevating an end, or pulling in the direction of the flow will simply do the trick.

I too have never used a Z-drag to unpin a boat, but I have used one to pull a strainer out of a rapid. The article covered the basics but was not particularly good, in my opinion. For one thing, I would never use a 5 mm rope loop as an anchor. Just not strong enough. Much better is a length of 1" tubular nylon webbing tied in a loop using a water knot.

The use of pulleys will significantly increase the efficiency of a mechanical drag over using carabiners alone. The article mentioned Petzl Ultra Legere pulleys, which I have used, but these will not work with many carabiners and are not as efficient as real rescue pulleys.

Ultra Legere pulley:

Rescue pulleys should have side plates that swing open so that they can be applied to a standing line and don’t need to have the rope threaded through:

The article said that a Z drag has no braking device. That would be true for the drag shown, but nearly all experienced users of drag systems recommend the use of a “brake Prusik” at the anchor carabiner which will prevent sudden recoil of the rope if tension is released. There are “Prusik minding” pulleys that prevent the brake Prusik loop from fouling in the anchor pulley. Here is a diagram of a drag including the use of a brake Prusik:

with a Prusik minding anchor pulley:

Jim Coffey is an expert in swiftwater rescue and when carrying rescue gear recommends a 4-3-2-1 rule: four carabiners, three pulleys, two Prusik loops, one webbing anchor - all in addition to a high quality rescue rope.

A mechanical drag can exert terrific force. The attachment point to the boat is critical. A drag can easily rip out thwarts and seats. Carabiners can also break, and when they do it is at the gate. A locking carabiner which screws down closed at the gate is considerably stronger. If you have to use non-locking carabiners and have enough, use two at the same location, with the gates facing in opposite directions.

Sometimes (if you’re lucky) an easy pull in the right direction will pop a canoe, kayak, or raft off a rock. While running Marsh Creek in the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, we encountered a raft group which was working to release a raft which was pinned on a rock in the middle of the river. We stopped to check out the excitement, and noticed that they had a z-drag attached to each end of the raft, and were pulling on it from both banks at the same time, as if they were trying to pull it in half. I suggested to the people on our side of the river that they release their z-drag. They did, and the raft immediately slid off the rock and pendulumed over to the other bank.

Odd though it seems, as there are a great many more experienced whitewater boaters here, I’ve been involved in two z-drag extractions. TheBob set up a dry land demo of the technique one year while we were camped at Pulltite on the Current. A season or two later our Spring rendezvous was flooded out and we did a later gathering based out of Wildernesswebb’s farm from which we paddled Big Creek, a tributary of the St. Francis R., in MO.

Out of all of us only the team of DuluthMoose and PuffinGin had actually gone to the trouble of putting together a Z-drag kit and, as luck would have it, they pinned in one of the “shut-ins” on that river and had their kit on board. GuideboatGuy and I, having successfully made it through the stretch were waiting with TheBob, Duggae, and some others at the bottom when we saw a red canoe going end-for-end far upstream and another tandem canoe (bad day for tandem paddlers) tipping about two thirds of the way down. GuideboatGuy and I waded and climbed (while keeping an eye out for cottonmouths) up to assist the first boat while Bob and Doug (and some others - Boyscout? Rena?) helped below. By the time we got there the rig had been set but the first choice tree that it was anchored to (at a preferable pull angle but just a little too far from the pinned boat) was being moved to a closer tree. It took a little while - water knots in webbing are slow to pick apart. Guideboatguy and I waded out to the boat and attached the haul line and stayed to help lift and flip the boat to get it off the rocks (it was pinned bridging two boulders.) Worked fine but what I learned is that it could be tempting and easy to get between the boat and the rock it was pinned to while trying to lift and flip - that could be disastrous if the rope broke or the brake slipped. And I was nervous about the rope - it was stretching to an incredible degree. I was having visions of a giant rubber band breaking and snapping us in the face. That would not have been pretty. Lessons learned: watch where you stand as the boat comes off, use a strong non-dynamic (floating) rope for your Z-drag kits, have lots and lots of that rope.

The second was with PaddleLupe and her husband on the Current. Earlier a couple had pinned a rental canoe on a submerged tree stump and the Mo. DNR in a jon boat was in the process of setting up a Z-drag to pull it whe we happened by. The DNR guy was alone and so was incorporating a ratcheting “come along” to help him with the pull. I’ve never seen that trick mentioned in any Z-drag illustrations or explanations elsewhere. All went well till the haul prusik broke. (Lesson learned - that little prusik rope is carrying just as much weight as the main rope. It needs to be strong and in good condition. Even pros can overlook such little details.) I donated a couple feet of my painter to the cause and again the system worked.
That trick with the “come along” is a nice thing to have in mind. Even with mechanical advantage a substantial amount of force is needed to overcome the ton or more of pressure being placed on the canoe by the current. If you’re supposed to do it alone there’s no foul in using all the “cheats” you can think of. I suspect those Mo. DNR guys had encountered that situation many many times before and had their fix at the ready.

Now I figure I’ve seen more pinnings and Z-drag stuff than the law of probabilities should allow any canoeist who isn’t a whitewater specialist. I hope to forget all about ever seeing another pinned canoe. Nothing but blue skies from now on. Right.

Well it works on paper, anyway…The prussik knot is also used by mountaineers to help climb vertical rope–But how many here can say they’ve actually employed it BY ONESELF (as depicted in the F&S illustration)to free a wrapped canoe? My own experience with assisting pinned canoes in anything above Class II+ water, usually involved at least two other guys helping out, the use of pulleys, and/or sometimes, a good long length of log to act as a pry… :stuck_out_tongue:

Most of the experienced whitewater boaters I have known will return to the scene with a ratcheting come-along if the easily portable devices fail to free a pinned boat.

Freeing a pinned boat with a mechanical drag system requires a whole team, or at least benefits from one if available. Ideally, upstream safety should be set to warn any approaching boaters that a line is strung across a portion of the river. Downstream safety is also useful in case anyone working to attach a line to the boat or lever it free takes an unintentional swim.

The possibility of a rope giving way is real. When applying the load necessary to budge something like a pinned canoe, even a high quality static rope will stretch considerably and it is often necessary to reset the traveling Prusik before the boat even budges.

The diagram of a Z-drag I posted above is not terribly realistic because it shows a vector pull on the haul line. For maximum efficiency, the pull on the haul line should be in-line with the line attached to the boat. But that puts the “hauler” directly in the line of fire if the rope, a Prusik, or a carabiner should fail. For that reason, most experienced Z-drag users will use yet another 'biner and a “redirector” pulley at the anchor webbing so that the haul on the rope can be applied at right angles to the drag itself, to get the person out of the danger area. An old and common trick is to hang a PFD from the line to damp the recoil of the rope somewhat if it should part.

maybe “the recoil” is part of the reason why I never looked to z drags more- in practice we snapped an anchor tree once- lucky no one got hurt, another time we managed to get the whole system gummed up with a stuck prusik, mostly it was just inconvenient to reset everything to continue pulling

i do remember learning a rope trick that involved looping rope around the pinned canoe and rotating the canoe off the pin, that’s another trick I only used practicing.

strong arm method, 1) paddle or wade out to pin, 2)usually you can work in the downstream eddy formed by the pin. 3)Attach line to pin. You want something solid like a thwart to tie into. The line can serve two purposes- you can send this over to shore for additional pulling or simply use it as a control line for when the boat comes loose.
4) pull or push with the direction of flow and also exert force vertically- up or down. If you can get a boat end to slide up or down then the boat will often move, but sometimes, unfortunately, it pins the boat worse but usually it just slides off the object.

Sending a signaler upstream and setting safety below is a good idea for any type of rescue. Another good idea is to always wear decent footwear in case you have to hike out but good footwear is critical for traction in the riverbed during the rescue itself.

All of the boat rescue scenarios I know of are based on the idea that you can get to an end of the boat safely. If you can’t do that you’re gonna be walkin’ or ridin’ out in another boat with someone else. So fill those open canoes and kayak with lots of flotation- prevention is the the best medicine.

It took four old men (I’m the only one still workin’ in the bunch) to retrieve just one throw rope out of the middle of the south fork of the payette this summer. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one dispensing advice seein’ as I seem to get into more than my fair share of these situations.

My only experinece unpinning a boat with ropes:

I wish I took better pictures of the way the lines were tied, but I was more concerned about getting my canoe out.

here is raft pin that got a lot of social media attention, probably had to cut the flow back at the dam to get that boat off's%20Ark%20%3D%20WTF%20-%20Mountain%20Buzz&

I carry a Z-drag kit on my raft at all times. Never had to use it…yet.

The Steve Thomas rope trick is a means of securing a haul line to a pinned canoe in such a way that tension on the line tends to work with the current to lift and empty the boat. It also makes it much less likely for the line to rip out a thwart. I have never used it in practice, only practiced it. It looks as if the boat in Erik’s photos might have been a candidate for it:

Actually, the double rope harness rigged around the center of that canoe might have been an even better method.

Often times it is simply not possible to apply tension in the optimal direction to unpin a boat. There might be nothing but deep water in that direction for a distance longer than the combined length of the available ropes. In this type of situation a vector pull using a rope attached to the main haul rope might allow tension to be applied in the desired direction:

@tdaniel said:

i do remember learning a rope trick that involved looping rope around the pinned canoe and rotating the canoe off the pin, that’s another trick I only used practicing.

That is actually the method we used when recovering the boat in that situation described by PJC above, because it was the only thing that could possibly have worked. The pulling rope was already installed by the time I got there (after walking an eighth of a mile upstream along a field of boulders as big as cars, full of brambles and deadfall), and with considerable pulling, the boat hadn’t yielded in the slightest. Feeling around underwater revealed that the line of pull would take the boat right into another rock on the upstream side, which already was in flush contact with the hull. With no other direction to pull, we wrapped the rope over the top and around the boat so that it would rotate out of that tight predicament, and that actually worked pretty slick. Once it rolled just a little, the current lifted it right out.

@pblanc said:
The Steve Thomas rope trick is a means of securing a haul line to a pinned canoe in such a way that tension on the line tends to work with the current to lift and empty the boat. It looks as if the boat in Erik’s photos might have been a candidate for it:

We did tie the boat so it would rotate up out of the current as we pulled, but in my case there was way too much water in the boat for us to move it. Finally we started using an old 2x8 to lift the unwrapped end of the boat at the same time we pulled. That eventually lifted and rotated the boat out of the water enough that we were able to push it off the rocks. One foot stomp and it popped back into shape. This is the boat last time I took it out - couple of creases in it, but otherwise you would never know it was wrapped.


Twice in the past ten years while paddling my local(the Catskill Creek)I’ve come across wrapped canoes that were left for dead by their owners. I was solo both times and the boats were too remotely stranded for me to salvage by myself(and the Steve Thomas rope trick weren’t doin’ it on the one boat I tried–Besides, I was in a kayak.) The canoes didn’t look in all that bad a shape, but I guess their owners just said the hell with it. I checked my home library to see how Cliff Jacobson relates to salvaging badly wrapped canoes:

“We rescued the canoe, stomped it back into shape, applied duct tape, and finished the trip without incident. Later at home, I repaired the canoe to its former strength with Kevlar and fiberglass and paddled it for three more years. I eventually sold it for $500.”

Another solution - wait till they turn the water off. We were able to do that with this boat. It was pinned during a poling trip on a dam release weekend.


We went back the next day before the water turned on and literally picked it up off the rock.


Stomped it back into shape, and the owner is still using it.


you’re lucky if still want to paddle a boat that’s been wrapped with a crease line- somehow “the glide” phase became nonexistent in the boats I wrapped, a bit like paddlin’ a pig.

My Mohawk paddles fine - it was a bit of a pig to start, so the crease doesn’t make much difference.

I just thought of another example of letting the water drop. Riverstrider’s boat got pinned in a log pile during a high level run on our local river a couple of years ago. We waited a few days for the water to drop, and pulled it off easily. That boat needed more that a foot stomp to repair.

Paul and Keith start the pull

Later that day we were paddling the river and found another boat that pinned during the same high water. It popped off pretty easy and we got it back to its owner (not the best picture but…)

Another pinned boat from Saturday's flood

It was a two boat day.

@eckilson said:
“Stomped it back into shape, and the owner is still using it.”

–Hopefully, he’ll put in at least a couple of additional thwarts and flotation before taking her in whitewater again.

Great thread, everybody. Nice topic, Andy.

I think that boat was an Explorer. Even the new ones come with only one thwart - that’s a little light.

Floatation definitely helps, but it is no guarantee. My Mohawk small bow and stern bags, but it still got pinned. I think poling is tough on boats in part because you are limited on where you can put flotation