Can a Canoe Sink? A beginner’s Guide to Safety

Like any boat, canoes can sink if filled with water. Fortunately, there are many factors that can work together to mitigate the risk of both capsizing your canoe and the risk of having your capsized canoe sink.

I’ve been paddling the waters of Ontario since 1981, and I’ve been in scary conditions that have led me to research the best ways to stay safe in a canoe and to minimize any inconvenience that comes from capsizing your canoe on a trip.


Do Canoes Capsize Easily?

Canoes are designed to minimize the risk of tipping and they’re meticulously engineered to be as safe as a small water vessel can be. However, relative to larger and wider boats, a canoe is certainly easier to capsize.

If there was a reason someone wanted to capsize a canoe, most adults could do so easily by leaning heavily to one side over the gunwale.

I’ve written at great length on this topic including issues related to the stability of a canoe. You can read about it in more detail in our recent article “Why is my Canoe so Tippy?”


Will a Canoe Sink in the Rain?

A canoe most certainly will not sink in a rainstorm even if the rain is falling pretty heavily and you’re far from shore.

Even under storm conditions, the rain alone (I’m not talking about wind and wave conditions) will not be enough to sink the canoe even after many hours.

Even if the canoe gathers many inches of rain (which would take several hours under typical rain conditions), the canoe will most likely not lose any noticeable freeboard (the amount of UN-submerged canoe hull).

If you practice common sense and don’t try to sink the canoe for any reason, it won’t sink because of rain. Presumably, you’ll make it to shore within an hour or two of heavy rain, or you’ll use a bailer to slowly get rid of accumulated water in the canoe.

If you do, you won’t notice any difference in the safety or performance of your canoe even in heavy rain.


Will a Swamped Canoe Float?

Any modern, well-made canoe is designed to float just under the surface of the water if it is swamped. Most recreation canoes and flatwater trip canoes are pre-fitted with installed FLOTATION CHAMBERS whose purpose is to keep a swamped canoe from sinking to the bottom of the lake or river.

Flotation chambers are designed to keep the body of the canoe afloat just under the surface of the water if it is FULLY submerged. However, in the vast majority of swamped canoe cases, the gunwales will still be above the waterline and the canoe will float upright.

In any case, no matter how submerged the canoe is or if it’s upside down or not, it will stay near the surface (and likely protrude a bit) if it capsizes.

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Swamped canoes are designed to stay afloat. Their flotation devices along with paddlers’ life jackets make canoeing a relatively safe and non-threatening activity.

Can a Wood Canoe Sink?

A wooden canoe can capsize like any other canoe, but it will not sink to the bottom. Most wood canoes have enough buoyancy in the wood itself to keep it at least near the surface (though it could be a few feet under without flotation assistance).

A wood canoe is really the only kind of canoe I’ve seen that MIGHT not have flotation chambers. That’s because wooden canoes are often custom-built by craftsmen who do not sell them commercially, and they may not include flotation chambers.

However, even most wood canoes made privately, will include chambers to keep it afloat within a few inches of the surface if it capsizes.

In an absolute worst-case scenario, a wood canoe can sink to the bottom, but only if the wood is water-logged and soaked thoroughly. The canoe would also have to have no flotation chambers at all.

Pretty well every canoe made with materials other than wood, will be made at a factory for commercial sale, and will include flotation chambers, so it will not sink (ie. aluminum, fiberglass, kevlar, carbon, plastic, Royalex, T-Formex, Fuff-Stuff, etc.)


How Do I Keep A Capsized Canoe Afloat?

We’ve talked a bit about this already and how most canoes already have the ability to stay afloat if capsized. However, you can employ additional precautions and techniques to maximize a canoe’s ability to stay afloat like adding flotation aids.

Whitewater canoes almost always require float bags that are strapped into the bow and stern of the boat. That’s common practice with rough river canoes but you can always add some float bags to flatwater canoes if you have extra space and you’re concerned.


How Can I Avoid Swamping my Canoe?

The biggest factor in the whole topic of how to deal with a capsized canoe is how to keep it from capsizing in the first place. Here are some excellent guidelines to avoid swamping your canoe;

1Stay near shore while paddling lakes and be very cautious about paddling in larger waves and in windy conditions.

2 – Keep your center of gravity low and keep as much weight as possible stored BELOW the gunwales.

3In threatening conditions (wind and waves) it’s best to continue paddling (rather than standing still) and to learn how to use your paddle (in the water) to minimize canoe instability.

4 – Consider additional stabilizing floats to further reduce the chances of ever flipping and capsizing your canoe.

5Maintain a minimum freeboard during your voyage. In my experience, a good minimum to shoot for in a tandem lake tripping canoe is around 9 inches. Any less than that and you start to increase your chances of taking on water from windy and wavy conditions.

If you paddle a solo tripping canoe, that minimum could be reduced slightly, while still maintaining a high level of safety.

6 – Be aware of how the canoe is trimmed and tilted. Trim refers to how the canoe is tilted off of perfect level from front to back. If your canoe is trimmed too low on the front, it can be more easily susceptible to taking on water and ultimately being swamped.

Be sure that the canoe is level side to side and that it’s not tilted. A tilted canoe (which can be a result of uneven gear loading or one of the paddlers sitting closer to the gunwales than the other paddler), will decrease balance integrity and increase your chances of tipping.

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Swamping a canoe is no fun (unless it’s on purpose) but if it’s Summertime and you’re near shore, it’s not usually the biggest inconvenience on earth!

HERE’S AN EXCELLENT ARTICLE that details more steps you can take to keep your canoe stable and upright in poor paddling conditions.


What Should I Do If My Canoe Capsizes?

If all else fails and you actually do end up tipping your canoe, I can offer you my most practical advice based on over 40 years of experience.

While it is true that you can respond to a capsize by following a number of different courses of action, I believe some actions are more prudent, safer, and easier than others.

Here are some easy to understand and follow DOs and DON’Ts that I suggest (this is my opinion);

DO

  • Stay with your canoe. By leaving your canoe and swimming to shore you increase your chances of not staying above water, you increase chances of lost gear (especially in a river), and you decrease your chances of being seen by a potential rescuer. The exceptions to this rule is if you’re in a whitewater situation and you can get to safety before more dangerous rapids ahead, or if the water is extremely cold and you’re near shore. Get to shore and get help rather than staying in the freezing water.

  • Swim with the canoe back to shore (this is the best option if you’ve followed my advice to stay near shore. I always stay 20 – 50 feet from shore except during times where I have to cut across a short section of open water to get to my destination.

  • If you are far from shore and you can’t easily swim back to shore (with or without the canoe), it’s smart to have an emergency lanyard or short rope that can be wrapped or tied to your wrists and attached to the semi-submerged bow or stern in order to keep your head out of water if you grow weary after being in the water for an extended period of time (this is an old-timer technique my Dad used to employ)

DON’T

While it’s quite possible (and potentially preferable) to employ some of the following techniques, my advice for DO and DON’T is targeted mostly towards beginners. Novice paddlers will typically cause more harm than good by trying to do some of the items on my DON’T list.

  • Don’t bother with flipping and emptying and rescuing your canoe on the water. Even if you have a partner or partners in a separate canoe, the advanced technique of open water canoe rescue is difficult in the best of conditions and can very dangerous to both the rescue canoe and those in the water.

  • Don’t abandon your canoe before you try to bring it with you as you slowly move towards shore. It may be more difficult to retrieve it once you leave it. You’ll have to somehow get to it from shore and it may be farther away based on wind, current, waves.

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Swamping a canoe can be fun in the right context and it’s a good opportunity to get kids used to being in a swamped canoe so they’re less likely to panic if it happens for real.

The Takeaway

A canoe is not that easy to tip over if it’s loaded with gear and you’re interested in staying upright. It’s well-designed to handle most conditions you will face on a river or lake.

Rain will not sink a canoe and even wooden canoes without flotation chambers won’t sink to the bottom. All commercially-sold canoes have flotation chambers or other flotation aids built-in (ie. my solo canoe has lots of compressed styrofoam in the structure of the hull as well as in the bow and stern).

That means that virtually 100% of the canoes you’ll ever see on the water will float (if only just under the surface) if filled with water.

The best way to deal with a swamped canoe is to make sure it never gets swamped, but if it does, be sure to practice my DOs and DON’Ts bullet points if you’re a novice or intermediate canoeist (or you’re advanced, but paddling with only one canoe in your party).


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Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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