Canoe Self Rescue

You shouldn’t paddle on the Lower Mississippi unless you are capable of the self-rescue technique.  You shouldn’t invite others to join you unless you can perform accepted canoe rescue techniques such as the T-rescue, and you should be able to teach it to everyone in your group.  Don’t make decisions that you will regret the rest of your life.  The Mississippi doesn’t play around.

On the small river self-rescue is not required because you can easily swim to shore, swim your vessel to shore, and it’s easy to bail out on shore.  The Mississippi River is an entirely different body of water with extreme conditions on the largest of scales.  Paddling on the Mississippi is best compared to paddling in San Francisco Bay, or the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, or the Inside Passage of Alaska.  Think and be prepared for big boats, big water, big waves, big hydraulics, changing weather, wind, and cold water conditions (Fall, Winter, Spring).

On the Mississippi River you might have more than a mile to reach shore.  That’s a long swim most people are not prepared for even in the best of conditions.  A one-mile swim might require more than an hour to reach shore.  Can you get there before the towboat gets you?  Towboats might be steaming towards you, and the water might be cold.  Unless they are purposely looking for you (after you have radioed them VHF-13) they probably won’t even see you.  From the distance you look like driftwood to a tow pilot. You might have additional complications such as waves, whirlpools and boils.  Anything that doesn’t float will immediately sink in deep water never to be seen again.  Let it go and take care of the most important thing — your survival and the survival of others in your group.

Anyone can learn canoe self rescue technique with a little attention and time.  Most people can learn it in a one-hour workshop.  Self-rescue technique is taught and practiced by the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, the American Canoe Association, National Outdoor Leadership School, and regional outfitters such as Quapaw Canoe Company.  Contact any of the above for instruction.  Links listed below.

Capsize is the worst-case scenario for a Mississippi River paddler.  Capsize puts you in danger of cold water, towboats, buoys, and loss of gear.  This is one of the risks all paddlers must accept when they get on the water.  When you drive you are in danger of auto wreck.  And so you wear seat belts.  On the water you in risk of capsize and so you wear your life jacket, tie down valuable gear, and you learn self-rescue technique.

List of priorities: in case of capsize 1) hold onto your paddle, 2) make sure you are okay, 3) make sure everyone else is okay, 4) perform self-rescue, 5) paddle to shore and re-group, 6) continue journey after everyone has dried out and warmed up.

Canoe Rescue Methods include: A) solo rescue, B) T-rescue, and C) parallel rescue.

SOLO RESCUE (1 canoe)

If you are alone in a canoe that capsizes you have the most difficult of rescues to perform.  Especially if you are in a heavy 2-man canoe.  Its best to let go of all gear.  Cut it loose if it’s tied anywhere on canoe.  (some people say only tie down gear with long loose lines to facilitate rescue).  Do you have your paddle?  If not, find it and tie it down somewhere.  Its the one piece of gear that you must have once you are righted.  If you are carrying a VHF Marine Radio notify any vessels in the area of your situation using channel 13.  Otherwise they may or may not be able to see you and stay out of your way.  (Note: carry submersible radios only.  Shake water out of the microphone speaker before using.)

If you are a strong swimmer you can get underneath your canoe, lift it up and flip it over.  If you are not  strong swimmer, roll the canoe over full of water.  Now locate a bailer and start bailing as fast as you can.  As you remove water the canoe will rise out of the water and regain flotation.  This might take a half hour, and longer in windy conditions with waves.  Once you have removed enough water that your canoe is stabilized you can “jump” back in the canoe.  This requires some strength and a lot of dexterity.  If you’ve practiced this beforehand it will come easily.  If you have never practiced this technique you will have a lot of trouble learning it now in this stressful situation.  Note: in windy conditions never let go of your canoe!


Canoeing is always about balance.  The best way to get back in your canoe when you are alone is to pull yourself to the stern end of your canoe so that your canoe is balanced.  This is the one situation in which you are at a distinct advantage paddling a heavier canoe.  This maneuver can be very tricky in one of the ultralight canoes.  If you need more weight as counterbalance you can throw gear back in canoe first on the opposite end — if any is nearby.  Grasp the canoe on both gunwales so the canoe maintains balance and heave yourself out of the water and get your chest firmly planted onto the gunwale toward one of the ends.  In a Grumman canoe there is a wide flat deck on either end that makes this easier.  Sometimes it helps to partially submerge yourself and then pull up strongly in one smooth motion using the momentum of the pull to propel yourself upwards.  If you don’t get it the first time try again.  Keep trying until you get your chest up on gunwale.  This is usually more difficult for females than males.  Using your chest as a pivot rotate your body around so your legs fall into the canoe.  Now its simply a matter of rolling yourself over and getting yourself on your seat or on the floor of the canoe so that you can finish bailing.  If you have gotten this far, congratulations!, the worst is over.  Retrieve any important gear.  Complete bailing.  Retrieve all gear.  Continue journey.  If you have been in cold water and are shivering or feeling weird go immediately to shore and build a fire, drink some hot liquids, get in a sleeping bag with hot water bottles, or whatever it takes to warm up.  Do not continue paddling on the river if you are cold.  It will only get worse.

T-RESCUE (2 Canoes)

If you are paddling down the river in a flotilla with other canoes and one capsizes you can use the very effective T-Rescue method.  As always, conduct a quick self-assessment first make sure you are okay and not injured in any way.  Check on everyone else.  Is everyone present and accounted for?  If you are in the water this will be more difficult, but if you are dry in the upright  canoe it is critical that you first make sure no immediate medical or psychological attention is needed.  If the water is cold your rescue needs to be quick and effective.  If either of the rollover paddlers are in shock or in danger of hypothermia it would be best to get them out of the water and into the dry canoe as soon as possible.  This will make rescue more difficult, so you will have to make a choice and make it quick.  In warm water months rollover paddlers would be best to stay in the water and assist T-rescue. If tows are in the area notify them of your situation via VHF marine radio channel 13.

The T-Rescue works like this: Instruct wet paddlers to hold onto the gunwales of your canoe, ideally one on each side port & starboard for stability.  Collect paddles from flipped canoe and secure.  Pull your canoe perpendicularly into the nose of the upset canoe life.  Leave the canoe upside down so the water drains as you pull it out.  Pull the nose of the canoe up and over you gunwale at midships (halfway in between bow & stern).  As you lift water will drain out of the canoe.  Keep pulling upset canoe over dry canoe until it rests balanced on your midships.  Now grab the canoe and rotate it upright.  Tie one end of the canoe to yours.  Slide it off your midships back into the river.    Now you can assist wet paddlers back into their canoe and then gather any gear that was lost during capsize.


If you are in a flotilla of three or more canoes you can execute the parallel rescue.  This has some advantages on windy days when it might be difficult to hold onto canoe during the T-rescue, and maybe are having trouble with waves.  As above, first make sure that everyone is okay and not injured in any way.  Does anyone need any immediate medical or psychological attention?  If tows are in the area notify them of your situation via VHF marine radio channel 13.

Collect paddles from flipped canoe and secure.  Arrange dry canoes on either side and parallel to upset canoe.  Leave the canoe upside down so the water drains as you pull it out.  All dry paddlers can lift together and canoe should easily rise out of the river, as you lift water will drain out of the canoe.  Now rotate it upright.  Tie one end of the canoe to yours.  Slide it off your midships back into the river.    Now you can assist wet paddlers back into their canoe and then gather any gear that was lost during capsize.

If there is heavy gear tied into canoe, or you are unable to lift wet canoe out of the water for any reason, you can always rotate it full of water between rescue canoes and everyone bail.  It won’t take long to empty the canoe with 4 people bailing together.  You will be glad that you tied all bailers to seats or thwarts and that they hadn’t floated off during capsize.


Dry paddlers should assist helping wet paddlers back into rescued canoe.  Hold onto gunwales on opposite side of wet re-entry for balance.  In extreme situations where the paddler can’t seem to get back into rescued canoe, pull canoes parallel to each other and have paddler hold onto both canoes and then get one leg into each canoe and then pivot into rescued canoe.  If you have performed the parallel rescue you are already in position to do this.  After parallel rescue all four dry paddlers can balance canoe while wet paddlers re-enter rescued canoe.  Retrieve gear.  Complete bailing.  Go to shore and re-group.


After any rescue its almost always best to go to shore and recollect yourselves.  Dry yourselves out, dry any important gear, and let the shock of the accident pass.  It might be a good idea to go ahead and make camp and call it a day.  In cold weather conditions it will probably be critical you do so with a fire, hot drinks or soups, and careful attention to paddlers who were in the water.  Choose a safe place out of the wind.  Unless they are in wetsuits or drysuits, have capsized paddlers immediately change out of their wet clothing.  If it is raining of course put up a shelter first, build a fire and then change into dry clothing.  One sign of hypothermia is the inability to make rational decisions about your well being, or the well-being of others, so be forceful if necessary.  Your friends will appreciate it later and you can laugh about it as a good adventure — in which everyone came home in good condition.  The best way to rewarm a victim of hypothermia is to remove all clothing and put them in a sleeping bag (or 2 sleeping bags) with a warm person who has also removed all clothing.


1) Why can’t I just swim my canoe to the shore and then bail it out?

During downstream journeys on the Mississippi River you are almost never near enough to shore to easily swim and upright a capsized canoe.  Almost always you will have to cross the eddy line, or the drift line along shore where giant boils are billowing upwards followed by whirlpools of all sizes.  Pulling a swamped canoe across these water lines is very, very difficult.  Remember you will have to swim and hold onto your paddle.  Attempting a swim instead of performing self-rescue might result in disaster.

2) Can I perform T-Rescue or Parallel Rescue with kayaks?

Yes, you can use kayaks to perform the T-Rescue or Parallel Rescue.  Be very careful of course not to cause further capsizes during rescue.

3) Is it possible to use a Stand-Up-Paddleboard for rescue?

Stand-Up-Paddleboards (SUPs) make excellent platforms for canoe or kayak rescue.  In fact they might become your vessel of preference if you have any in your flotilla.  Wet paddlers can easily grab and hold onto SUPs.  If they are cold or in shock they can more easily get out of the water, even if it just means getting their chests out of the water.  Also, its much easier to pull an upset canoe up and over the belly of a SUP than it is up and over the gunwales of a canoe.  Lastly, in windy conditions SUPs are more seaworthy than canoes or kayak because you can’t sink them nor capsize them (note: the SUP won’t flip over unless you hit a giant crashing wave or are broadsided by a buoy).

4) Where can I learn more about canoe rescue?

There are excellent instructional videos and courses available about canoe rescue.  Do an online search and make your choice.  Printed literature abounds also.  My personal favorite is Doug McKown’s classic Canoeing Safety & Rescue (1992, Rocky Mountian Books).  But also useful is the Canoeing (Red Cross) and the Outward Bound Canoeing Handbook.

5) I’ve read this topic and read available literature.  Am I ready for the big river?

No, you must practice canoe rescue.  You can’t just read about and consider yourself capable of canoe rescue.  Its one of those things you’ve got to do to understand completely.  The saying “practice makes perfect” definitely applies here.  Once you learn it, teach it to others.