Our rivers are wonderful resources and should be enjoyed but they can be dangerous. This page has been developed to give paddlers and boaters basic information about river hazards and provide safety measures. Even with all we know the most important thing that we can all use to be safe on the rivers is COMMON SENSE.
Common River Hazards
Foot entrapment - Catching a foot in rocks on the bottom of the river. May be
caused by trying to stand up while getting swept downstream in water mid-thigh
to mid-torso deep.
Strainers - Trees or single branches in the current, with river water flowing
through, can cause a severe pinning hazard. Strainers many be caused by
erosion. Trees can also fall because of old age, floods, and storms. Look for
them on wooded riverbanks, along small creeks after high water, often found on
the outside of bend, and on less utilized rivers. Always look downstream to
spot bobbing twigs or irregular flow patterns.
Man Made Entrapments - Manmade objects in the river are inherently more
dangerous than most things natural. Keep an eye out for bridge pilings, low
head dams, junked cars, any man made object found commonly in urban rivers,
highway crossings, and abandoned dam sites. Make it a habit to visually scan
Broaches - Getting pinned on a rock, either amidship or at the ends. Avoid
sharp rocks that can potentially crease a boat or serve as point to be wrapped
by your kayak! Develop the instinct to lean into the rock with your boat and
body leaning together.
Undercut Rocks - Undercuts are water features where a slab of rock, or rock
shape, forces the current flow to go under the surface. Learn to spot them by
the dark shadow on the upstream side of the rock, the lack of pillowing action
by oncoming water, and by the lack of a predictable eddy on the downstream
side. Most dangerous undercuts are well known by locals, and listed in
Entanglement - Getting tangled exiting your boat is most likely to be caused by
ropes, and loose lines, in your boat. Practice wet exits and critically
evaluate your outfitting for entanglement potential. Treat throw ropes as
potential hazards. Keep them neatly bagged, and carry a knife for rescue.
Vertical Pins - When the bow buries and gets pinned on the bottom after a steep
drop. This is not a concern until you are paddling drops of over 3 or 4 feet.
Advanced paddlers prevent them by checking the water depth first, and leaning
back and performing a 'boof' move to keep the bow up. Paddling boats with a
large volume bow reduces this risk substantially.
Dams are built to back up water in a
reservoir for a variety of reasons. Dams are hazardous both above and below the dam.
These wall-like structures pool the water as it flows over the crest and drops
to the lower level.
This drop creates a hydraulic, which is a
backwash that traps and re-circulates anything that floats. Boats and people
have been caught in this backwash. A person caught in the backwash of a
low-head dam will be carried to the face of the dam, where the water pouring
over it will wash him down under to a point downstream called the boil. The
boil is that position where the water from below surfaces and moves either
downstream or back toward the dam. A person who is caught in a low head dam
struggles to the surface, where the backwash once again carries him to the face
of the dam, thus continuing the cycle
To complicate matters, these dams are
usually loaded with debris, such as tires and logs on the surface and rocks and
steel bars just below, posing additional problems should a person get trapped
in this dangerous structure.
Dams do not need to have a deep drop to
create a dangerous backwash. During periods of high water and heavy rains, the
backwash current problems get worse, and the reach of the backwash current is
Small low-head dams that may have provided a
refreshing wading spot at low water can become a brutal death trap when river
levels are up. Simply put, it is not the drop of the dam which is the lethal
danger, but the backwash current. This backwash current is governed by volume
of water and flow.
From downstream, you may not realize the
danger until it’s too late. From upstream, low-head dams are difficult to
detect. In most instances, a low-head dam does not look dangerous, yet can
create a life-threatening situation. You should always pay attention to warning
signs, markers or buoys and keep well clear of low-head dams. If canoeing or boating above any dam, always have an anchor and plenty of line ready in case of motor failure or other emergency. In other words, be ready to put the breaks on
Canoeing and Kayaking
- Be honest with yourself when evaluating your skills (and skills of
others in your party). You will have a safer and more enjoyable trip if
you choose sections of the river that match your ability.
- Check on current water levels before embarking on your trip. The
difficulty level of certain sections of river can change dramatically with
changes in water level. Gentle stretches can become dangerous with high
water levels. At extremely low levels, you may find yourself paddling
through puddles, dragging the canoe over rocks, or portaging.
- Know your physical ability, swimming skills and paddling skills. If
you are uncertain about how much you can do, start with a short trip.
- Wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket at all times. Even
gentle stretches of water can have wicked undercurrents. Even good
swimmers need to wear one.
- Never boat alone. A preferred minimum is three boats.
- Scout rapids and make rescue plans if needed. Be aware that on some
sections of these rivers, land access may be difficult and help is far
- Learn basic water rescue techniques and first aid. Learn to
recognize the symptoms and treatment for hypothermia.
- Know your limits; do not attempt a section of river beyond your
- Pay attention to weather and water conditions. Wear wool clothing
or a wet suit and dress for the water temperature. If the water
temperature and air temperature combined total 100 degrees or less, wear
- If you capsize, hold on to your craft and get immediately to the
upstream side. Float on your back, feet together and pointed downstream.
If you go over a ledge or drop, tuck into a ball. Release your craft only
if it improves your safety. Stay upstream away from the boat.
- Carry the proper equipment including dry clothing and a first-aid
kit. Store all extra gear in a secure watertight container.
HAVE SOMEONE HOLD THE CANOE STEADY – you
don’t want to tip the canoe before you even get out on the water!
CROUCH LOW - keep your knees bent and GRAB
THE SIDES OF THE CANOE FOR BALANCE as you walk to your seat
ALWAYS WALK ALONG THE CENTER – keeping your
feet on the centerline will help keep the canoe from rocking.
- STAY LOW – do not stand up or walk in your canoe when
you are away from shore.
- ALWAYS WEAR YOUR LIFE JACKET - you never know when you might fall out or tip
- AVOID SUDDEN OR JERKY
MOVEMENTS – rocking from
side to side could cause the canoe to tip over.
- BE AWARE OF THE CURRENTS IN
THE WATER – you don’t want
to end up floating farther downstream than you planned. If the current
starts to pull you along faster or you see lots of rocks in the water
ahead of you paddle away from them or paddle towards the shore.
- ALWAYS SIT ON THE SEATS OR IN
THE CENTER OF THE CANOE –
sitting on the side of a canoe will cause it to tip over.
- STAY AWAY FROM LOW HANGING
TREES AND BRANCHES NEAR THE SHORE.
- DO NOT CANOE IN BAD WEATHER.
- AVOID LETTING BIG WAVES HIT
THE SIDE OF YOUR CANOE –
always try to keep your canoe at a right angle to the waves otherwise the
wave might push your canoe over.
IF YOUR CANOE
- DON’T PANIC
- STAY WITH YOUR CANOE
- PADDLE OR PUSH YOUR CANOE TO
SHORE – with the help of
the other person in your canoe, you can get out in shallow water and flip
the canoe to dump out the water and climb in. Your canoe will float even
if its full of water until you can get to shore to empty it.
- ALWAYS BRING ALONG EXTRA
CLOTHING IN A WATERPROOF CONTAINER- you want to be prepared in case your canoe tips or the weather
BE SURE TO BRING
THE PROPER EQUIPMENT:
- SUN PROTECTION – hats, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants
- FIRST AID KIT
- PLENTY OF FOOD AND WATER
- LIFE VESTS
- MAP – be sure you know where you are so you do not get lost!
TIE ALL YOUR
EQUIPMENT TO THE CANOE – put
your equipment into a waterproof bag to keep it dry and tie it to one of the
center beams in the canoe so that you don’t lose everything if your canoe tips
- Make sure that your water skills and experience is equal to the
river and the conditions.
- Never boat alone. Always have at least one (preferably two) other
boats with you on a river trip.
- Know your limits of swimmers rescue and self-rescue on rivers.
- Know when and how to swim for the eddy.
- Reduce injuries by wearing protective footwear and proper clothing
designed for river recreation.
- Plan your trip and stick to your plan.
- Stay away from the river during high water.
- Wear a properly fitted Personal Flotation Device (PFD) at all times
when you are in or near the river.
- Be prepared for extremes in weather, especially cold. Know about
the dangers of hypothermia and how to deal with it. Know early signs and
symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration in hot weather.
- Carry a first aid kit and know how to use it. Learn or review
medical aid responsibilities and CPR.
- Watch out for new snags after winter and spring floods.
- When in doubt, stop and scout. If you are still in doubt? Portage.
- If you capsize, hold on to your boat unless it presents a
life-threatening situation. If floating in current, position yourself on
the upstream side of the capsized boat.
- Dress properly and bring an extra change of clothing with you in a
- Avoid overexertion and guard against extreme weather conditions.
- File a "float plan" with a reliable person indicating
where you are going and when you will leave and return. Remember to
contact the person once you have returned safely.
- Do not overload or unevenly load your craft.
- Do not attempt to stand or walk in swift moving water.
boating fatalities don't have anything to do with bad weather or hazardous sea
conditions. They typically occur in smaller, open boats on inland waters during
daylight hours when weather and visibility are good, the winds are light, and
the water is calm. Despite these ideal conditions, passengers fall overboard
and many boats capsize, causing over half of all boating fatalities.
Capsizing, Swamping or Falling Overboard:
is when a boat turns on its side or turns completely over. Swamping occurs when
a boat stays upright and fills with water. Sometimes a person falling overboard
from a boat causes the boat to capsize or swamp. Regardless, the outcome is the
same—people are in the water unexpectedly.
To help prevent and prepare for capsizing, swamping, or
someone falling overboard, follow these guidelines.
- Make sure that you and your
passengers are wearing life jackets while the boat is underway.
- Attach the ignition safety
switch lanyard to your wrist, clothes, or life jacket.
- Don't allow anyone to sit on
the gunwale, bow,
seat backs, motor cover, or any other area not designed for seating. Also,
don't let anyone sit on pedestal seats when operating at a speed greater
than idle speed.
- Don't overload your boat.
Balance the load of all passengers and gear.
- Keep your center of gravity
low by not allowing people to stand up or move around while underway,
especially in smaller, less-stable boats.
- In a small boat, don't allow
anyone to lean a shoulder beyond the gunwale.
- Slow your boat appropriately
- Don't risk boating in rough
water conditions or in bad weather.
- When anchoring, secure the
anchor line to the bow, never to the stern.
If you should capsize or swamp your boat, or if you have
fallen overboard and can't get back in, stay with the
boat if possible. Your swamped boat is easier to see and will
signal that you are in trouble. Also signal for help using other devices
available (visual distress signals, whistle, mirror).
- If you made the mistake of
not wearing a life jacket, find one and put it on. If you can't put it on,
hold onto it. Have your passengers do the same.
- Take a head count. Reach,
throw, row, or go, if needed.
- If your boat remains afloat,
try to reboard or climb onto it in order to get as much of your body out
of the cold water as possible. Treading water will cause you to lose body
heat faster, so try to use the boat for support.
If your boat sinks
or floats away, don't panic.
- If you are wearing a life
jacket, make sure that it is securely fastened, remain calm, and wait for
- If you aren't wearing a life
jacket, look for one floating in the water or other floating items
(coolers, oars or paddles, decoys, etc.) to help you stay afloat. Do your
best to help your passengers find something to help them float and stay
you have nothing to support you, you may have to tread water or simply float.
In cold water, float rather than tread to reduce hypothermia.
If someone on your boat falls overboard, you need to
- Reduce speed and toss the
victim a PFD—preferably a throwable type—unless you know he or she is
already wearing a life jacket.
- Turn your boat around and
slowly pull alongside the victim, approaching the victim from downwind
or into the current, whichever is stronger.
- Stop the engine. Pull the
victim on board over the stern, keeping the weight in the boat balanced,
especially in small boats.
Sitting on the gunwale,
seat backs, or any other area not designed for seating is risky behavior and
can result in falling overboard.
It is illegal in many states.
- Keep centered in the boat
with your center of gravity low in the boat. Always keep your shoulders
between the gunwales.
- If possible, don't move
about the boat. If you must move, maintain three points of contact. That
is, keep both hands and one foot or both feet and one hand in contact with
the boat at all times.
- Evenly distribute and
balance the weight of persons and gear within the boat, keeping most of
the weight low. It is extremely important not to overload a small boat.
- Attach 7-8 feet of
galvanized chain to the anchor. The chain aids in setting the anchor by
lowering the angle of the pull as the chain sinks and lies on the bottom.
It also will help prevent abrasion of the anchor line from sand or rock on
the bottom. Most anchors grip by digging into the bottom when the line is
pulled horizontally. Any upward pull may break the anchor loose.
- Be sure the anchor line is
strong and long enough to anchor your boat. A good rule of thumb is that
the length of the line should be at least seven to ten times the depth of
the water where you are setting anchor.
- Since an anchor can be a
safety device in an emergency situation, store the anchor and its lines in
an accessible area. If the engine breaks down, you may need to anchor
quickly to avoid drifting aground.
Follow these steps to anchor your boat.
an area to anchor with plenty of room. Ideally, it should be a
well-protected area with adequate water depth and a sandy or muddy
slowly into the wind or current to a position upwind
or upcurrent of where you actually want to end up.
you are at that position, stop the boat and slowly lower the anchor over
to the bottom. Never anchor from the stern as
this can cause the boat to swamp. The square stern
may be hit by waves, and water will splash into the boat. The motor's
weight will add to this problem.
back the boat away downwind
Let out about seven to ten times as much anchor line as the depth of the
water, depending on the wind strength and wave size. Tie off the line
around a bow
and pull on the anchor line to make sure the anchor is set.
anchoring, take visual sightings of onshore objects or buoys in the water
to help you know where your boat is positioned. While at anchor, recheck
these sightings frequently to make sure the anchor is not dragging.
check connecting knots on your anchor line. When possible, use splices
instead of knots. Knots weaken a line more than splices.
Follow these steps to retrieve your anchor.
- Move the boat directly over
the anchor while pulling in the line. Pulling the anchor straight up
should break it free.
- If the anchor is stuck, turn
your boat in a large circle while keeping the anchor line pulled tight.
- When the anchor breaks
loose, stop the boat and retrieve the anchor. Never drag the anchor behind
More safety tipsMake sure that your watercraft is in good condition. Keep motor tuned. Water is hard on wiring and any electronics is subject to corrosion. Make sure that any corrosion is cleaned and coated. Take extra tools with you.
50% of all boating accidents are alcohol related. Drinking while operating a watercraft may not be illegal in some states, but it is stupid in all of them!
Always have an alternate method of propulsion. In canoes and kayaks that means an extra paddle. In powerboats it is an oar. This is important if the motor quits and it is the law in most states.
Carry the correct fire extinguisher, first aid kit, water bailer and it is very important to carry the correct size anchor with a line attached so that it can be used quickly in an emergency.
Some type of communication device is important in the event of an emergency. If you are not carrying a marine radio, a cell phone will often work.
Never overload a boat. Most watercraft have a U.S. Coast Guard maximum load rating plate. Heavy objects such as coolers, water and fuel should be considered along with the number of persons allowed in the rating.
There is no substitute for experience. If you are new to boating (especially on rivers and off-shore) take and experienced person with you.
Write up a float plan and leave it with a responsible person. Check in from time to time. This can provide valuable information in the event of a search. Click Here to get a printable float plan form by the U.S. Power Squadron.
Check the weather
conditions before going out and be prepared for bad weather. Take rain gear and a bailing bucket. With boats equipped with bilge pumps, make certain that they are in good working order before setting out. The photo of below show a great program sponsored by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers along the Cumberland River. "Kids Don't Float" is the message at the loaner life jacket station.
Here's a little known fact. 90% (unconfirmed statistic) of men found drowned from falling overboard while fishing are
found with their fly open. If you don't
want to go below to use a head or porta potti or don't have such creature comforts then get a small plastic pot. Don't
stand out by the rail or near the edge of a boat. Its a lot easier to
lose your balance than you think.