Scared of canoeing, help please!


My husband just bought a 17 ft. canoe and we took our three children (2, 4, and 6 years old) to the lake today for the first time. All three children wore life vests. The experience was terrifying to me. I could only stay in the canoe for a few minutes before I made my husband row me and my 2 year old to shore. I was terrified the canoe would tip over and my 2 and 4 year old who can’t swim would be struggling and I’m not a very good swimmer myself…My husband is a great swimmer, though.

I want to love this but the entire time i am so scared I feel like I am going to throw up.

Advice and encouragement would be much appreciated!!!


Shallow water, let the kids romp
and do what ever they want with the boat and you in it ! Practice everything right there with your husband standing by. This way everyone knows whats what and (IMO) your anxiety will be the only thing that sinks to the bottom.

Also swim lessons for the kids if they are not.

Wait until the water is warm enough to swim in before doing it, though. YOU need to get comfortable in deep water (wearing a life jacket) and the only way to do so is to put the life jacket on and go out into water that’s over your head deep. Once YOU are comfortable and you trust yourself and your life jacket, you’ll be comfortable with the kids. Just keep in mind that as long as the water and air temps are warm and it’s not a huge, windy lake, the kids can bob around for a LONG time with no ill effects.

However, a healthy dose of respect for the water is always called for. If the water is not completely comfortable temperature-wise, hypothermia is a real danger. And big expanses of windy water are always questionable as far as safety in a canoe unless you’re experienced in paddling in the wind.

Tell hubby
that for the time being, to just paddle in water that is only a few feet deep, so that if the canoe tipped over you could just stand up and grab the kids

I have always thought that no one should be in a canoe or kayak if they can’t swim, even if they have a PFD on.

Jack L

Amen, to Jack’s advice. Why chance
giving someone a negative experience for a sport that can be an enjoyable one for the whole family.

For non and poor swimmers
Your fears are reasonable and spot on. Learn to swim first !

What are you afraid of ?? …

– Last Updated: Apr-28-13 9:09 AM EST –

...... let me guess .

Drowning , you or children . Being helpless to prevent it .

The canoe turning over and everyone ending up in the water way out there away from shore , and possibly drowning .

The canoe not turning over but , children or yourself falling overboard , way out there away from shore , and feeling helpless to prevent a possible drowning that may follow .

Same as 1st or 2nd scenario but "not drowning" , just being stuck out there in the water bobbing and floating around w/o help or rescue , possibly family getting seperated and drifting away from each other .

People do drown . It happens when they can no longer keep their head above water . The reasons for not being able to keep one's head above water are many , body trauma from an impact , caught on something in the water , waves and rough water constantly covering one's head , strength exhaustion then sinking to the bottom , not being able to swim (sinking to the bottom) , in the water having having heart attack or stroke , cold water either quickly or slowly making one unable to move arms and legs (partial paralizes) , auto falls of bridge , shark bites you , run over by power boat (impact) , slipping in tub and knocked out face down (impact) , concrete boots . and the list goes on and on .

When you are in a pool the water is clear , you can see bottom . But when you are out on the lake or river , bottom is often not visible ... the water is dark looking and the surface is usually all you see . Unlike the pool , not seeing bottom in the dark water can be an uncomfortable feeling .

In order for one to be involved in , and enjoy an activity that has increased risk to life or injury (being in or driving an auto very much included) , one must understand that "risk management" is the key factor to participation .

Some form and level of education relating to the activity is recommended (often mandatory) in order to become proficiently skilled at it . In order to take control and effect a predictable outcome . To be comfortable and able to enjoy it .

So these are my recommendations for you .

1., ... keep gaing edu. in the paddling activity . By reading related materials (among others , Tamia's "In The Same Boat" articles here on are an exceptionally good source , and enjoyable) .

2., ... become involved with other paddles , share conversation and experiences ... like you are doing here on .

3., ... aquire practical experience by "going canoeing" , being in the canoe .

4., ... Swim lessons , pool time or shallow water practice ... helps gain confidence that you are in control , can control the outcome of an unexpected canoe flip or overboard fall .

5., ... Learn to properly fit your PFD , and then experience being in the water while wearing it (go take a dunking) . Do this with the kids as well , they'll love it ... look Ma , no hands , I'm floating !!

6., ... Understand there is a scale of the associated risk involved in paddling . As well the risk management increases proportionately with the scale ... keep the risk at the lowest levels as a beginner (calm , flat water , light or no wind, not too far from shore , avoid power boat waters , warm comfortable air and water temps. , short outings , and "only allow increased risk" as your experience , confidence , risk management abilities and comfort grow to match the higher risk conditions .

Pertaining to #6 , "ALWAYS REMEMBER" ... you can chose to say "No Go" today if the weather and water you see in front of you at the launch site are not what you expected , not what you wish to get into today . A pack up canoe and crew to go have a look see (expecting to go canoeing today) ... and changing your mind at the launch site due to conditions (or even your physical and/or pyscological condition that day) ... is always an exceptable outcome . Plans can change , no big deal , come back another day when things are better .

Tell yourself , if I'm going to do this canoeing thing ... then I'm going to do it like a pro , I'm going to read about , think about , and do everything I possibly can about the activity ... I'm going to be in control and take control . After all , your kids will be depending on you doing it that way ... and there's not a doubt in my mind , that you can be that prepared if you wish to ... and have fun . You can't make 3 , 5 or 10 years of experience happen in 2 days , but you can gain lightning speed in the edu. dept. side of it all , and that relates to quick gains in the actual paddling side of it . And with those gains comes the confidence and comfort to enjoy and have fun .

Ummm , canoes wiggle alot , them seem as if they wil turn over any second with the slightest provocation ... but they don't flip nearly as easily as you may think (acually takes quite a bit of horsing to flip a canoe) . They roll , bob and bounce with the water , one needs to learn how to just stay loose and centered and allow yourself to move "with" the canoe as opposed to fighting it ... that's part of the fun with canoes . This loose body motion comes with time in the canoe , don't worry not much time , but the more time the more natural it gets .

Have enough floatation to keep anyone afloat

It understandable that as a non-swimmer you are apprehensive about being in water - we see it now and again when teaching kayaking.

Here is what I find works very well - we ask clients to put on PFDs, get in the water so the feet are still touching the bottom, then float your feet up are make sure you can see your toes wiggling.

When doing the same with kids - make sure pfds fit

Regarding kids - my friends’ kid started getting into pool when he was 2, swimming and 4, swimming with grace at 6. Learning swimming at young age is so much easier than starting later in life

Your problem is not the canoe

– Last Updated: Apr-28-13 10:39 AM EST –

It is that you can't swim. Being that afraid of getting into the water with a PFD is an overly extreme reaction for someone who feels competent in the water. Focus on solving that. No one who is not a competent swimmer belongs in a boat, at least if it is on the water IMO.

To be a little more harsh, I was raised to believe it is not responsible to let kids grow up not knowing how to swim. My mother had learned to swim young, but she had an experience as an adult (her plane missed the runway and landed in the harbor at Newark) that hammered it home. None of the three of us were allowed to get beyond the earliest age where we could get lessons without learning.

The YMCA, if there is one anywhere within reach, offers not only great lessons for kids but also lessons specifically for (usually fearful) adults. Get your kids solid as soon as you can and get yourself wet too so you can help them if needed.

I was a nonswimmer in small boats …

– Last Updated: Apr-28-13 10:22 AM EST –

... for a long time. Actually, I should say I wasn't really a nonswimmer, but a poor enough swimmer that everything changed when the water was over my head. Even the thought of swimming lessons was scary to me due to various experiences as a kid that I don't need to go into. I DID go in the water a fair amount where it wasn't over my head, and remembering what that was like later on, I realize that a PFD would have made a lot of difference in my comfort level in deep water. I finally saw a good opportunity to take swimming lessons as a young adult, and I did it. It's one of the smartest things I've ever done.

I agree with a lot of the advice above. Once the water gets warm I'd suggest playing around in the boat near shore with just you and your husband, so you can concentrate entirely on what YOU are feeling. Be communicative with your husband too. There's nothing more counterproductive than being afraid and not saying what you think, figuring you'll just get over it on your own but while not being in complete control. Stick to shallow water at first. Rock the boat, flip it intentionally, all that stuff. Then just walk it to the shallows and empty it out, and do it again. You'll feel a lot better when you understand how and why the boat moves beneath you, and what it really takes to make it flip.

Taking swimming lessons is a really good idea too. See if you can find a way to make that happen. Believe me, I KNOW, if you aren't comfortable about the idea it's easy to find reasons to see lessons as being too inconvenient. You won't still think that afterward if you make up your mind to do it, and ALSO to get something out of it. In the meantime, by all means learn to get comfortable being supported by that PFD. That will help a lot (but not as much as improving your swimming skills).

Just do it…

– Last Updated: Apr-28-13 12:21 PM EST –

There are lots of good thoughts expressed already but I'd add...

On a calm, warm, summer day, over a sandy, weed-free beach, just put on your PFDs, go out with your husband into waist deep water and tip the thing over. Just do it. (There it is, that's what you've been dreading. Its just good ole summer fun.) Laugh. Drag it in. Drain it. Do it again. Repeat as time allows.
I bet the first time you try you'll be amazed at how hard it actually is to tip a freely floating canoe. Most people fall out first and find themselves wading beside a boat with at most a few inches of water in the bottom. You might find yourself thinking that if you'd just hung on you could still be paddling. That's probably true. With discipline and practice you'll be able to actually swamp it on purpose though.

Having done this, you'll know what it takes, develop a feel for when things are getting "iffy." It takes more than most beginners think to tip a canoe. And when swamped they float better than most folks think. Even without a PFD (and I'm definitely NOT recommending going without) a properly made canoe will support swimmers even when completely swamped. Just toss your paddle into the swamped boat so it doesn't drift away, hang on, start kicking.

On a lake and if you've stayed reasonably near shore you and your husband can just take your time and swim it all in, just as you've done before on a sandy beach.
The kids can float inside the boat just as paddles do. (After you and your husband get used to playing in the shallows, its probably a good idea to let the kids, in their PFDs, get in on the fun next time. Especially after they're old enough and they've had some swimming lessons.)

Cold water, strong winds, big waves breaking on rocks, current on rivers, all these things present their own hazards and you can learn to handle each in their turn and on your own schedule, but they are all things that can be foreseen and avoided if you choose to. The most important safety item you'll ever carry is your own good judgement. (Don't leave shore without it.) The spot where most folks, even those with some experience, are more likely to tip is while getting in and out - usually in the shallowest water imaginable.

You'll probably learn to love being on the water. (My mother did when I was young, though she always remained less than enthusiastic about big waves. Perhaps that's actually reasonable, come to think of it.;-)) So will the kids. This is grand adventure for them and a childhood without a taste of adventure is a sad thing to contemplate.


– Last Updated: Apr-28-13 1:34 PM EST –

The primary risk is hypothermia if the water temperature is below 70F. You can certainly die of hypothermia if you can't reach shore and remain in the water for a long time. If the water is below 70F you should keep the canoe close to shore and if it is windy stay on the downwind side of the lake. You aren't going to drown with a PFD on unless you lose consciousness. As far as your level of fear you just need to go swimming with that PFD on and see how well it works.

Some swimming lessons would help,
but IMHO…two adults(Recreational level) and three children in a 17footer isn’t a great setup. An OT Tripper has the most chances…but something larger, with soft edges would help. The addition of the three children definitely needs the more initial stability.

Sounds like someone is used to paddling solely with their arms while remaining motionless…(—> doomed to pain).


Get some lessons
Three very young children and a not-very-confident adult in the water is a difficult situation to deal with. Your husband’s swimming skills are not the main concern, it is his canoeing skills.

Can he handle the canoe in a brisk wind or is there a risk it could get blown away from the shore? Does he know how he would go about getting the five of you back in the boat quickly in the event of a capsize? Does he know that the kids must be wearing full life-jackets and not just PFDs? Does he know how he would summon outside assistance should it be required?

The best time to learn the answer to these questions is during controlled practice sessions supervised by experienced people, not during a real incident.

O.K. next would be to hear from
your husband for a balanced understanding …

Lots of great advice. I may sound harsh but do not pass on your fear of water to your children. Get comfortable on the water before you go out again with them. Kids pick up on parents fears very easily. Obviously, good pfd’s that fit and are appropriate are key. When my daughters were 5 or 6 I would flip the canoe near shore (at about 6 ft deep or so) so they know what it would feel like. It showed them that the canoe would not sink and that it was not that big of a deal. Good luck.

baby steps dealing with consequences
Fear is about thinking (over thinking?) about consequences. So the key is to directly confront those consequences but in extra safe situations. Start by spending more time in the water letting your PFD help you float and learning to trust it. Dress warm enough that you can just float without getting cold. Just float for a while then swim to shore. Learning to swim without a PFD is even better for confidence even if you always have the PFD. Next, in very shallow water (three feet or so) get goofy and gradually swing the boat back and forth until it does flip. Do the same with the kids. The more being in the water is a non-event the more you relax in the boat. You also learn where the real line is before flipping which may be less of a risk than you had thought.

Canoe fear
Build your confidence in a stepwise fashion. Start by paddling without the kids. Wear a PFD and go when the water is warm. Turn the boat over on purpose in shallow water. Learn its limitations. Learn to rescue yourself. Take swim lessons. Then when you figur all that out and have some confidence you can take the babies.

Your fear is natural and helps to preserve your whole family. You were not ready to be out there. It is supposed to be fun.

Non swimmers should not be on the water

– Last Updated: Apr-30-13 2:23 PM EST –

After you learn to swim, you can learn the "Boat Boogie Wiggle". It's easy to learn and fun to do. Really works to overcome the fear. Learn to swim first. Does it make sense to be on the water if you can't swim? Why not take a class in Lifeguarding if you're going out with kids? Knowing how to swim is one thing but knowing how to rescue is another.

And of course, learn to swim in full gear, using the paddle and without losing boat.

And non-flyers…
… should not be in airplanes?

Stay within the limits of what you can wade out of (it only takes about 6" to float the boat and another foot or so to use a paddle effectively), and get used to the canoe. You can be taking swimming lessons as well, in the meantime.