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Preventing a capsize

Foundation Open Canoe Skills
By Paul Bull – UKCC Level 3 Coach at Paul Bull Coaching

Paul Bull coaching

In the last article I described some methods for turning a canoe whilst on the move. This time I’d like to concentrate on what to do when it all goes a bit pear shaped and we have to prevent a capsize.

Notice I’ve specifically called this article ‘Preventing a capsize’ rather than support strokes? I am a firm believer that there is more to preventing a capsize than just the default low recovery or low brace stroke!

So, we are paddling along, down our river and hit a rock or another obstacle that starts to capsize the boat or maybe we catch ourselves out on an eddy turn or a wave and the boat starts to capsize. Whatever the cause, follow a few simple principles and we can pretty much avoid a capsize and swim…

Disassociation of the top and bottom half of our bodies:
When learning something new, or when something unexpected happens we have a tendency to stiffen up and become rigid in our movements. This is exactly what we want to try and avoid happening to us when we attempt to prevent a capsize. If we allow our bodies to become rigid we will soon have our centre of gravity outside of the gunnels and the boat will continue on it’s capsize path. By “rolling with the punches” as boxers do and being flexible, keeping our centre of gravity over the boat we are often able to absorb the impact and allow the boat to move underneath us. At that point, if we disassociate the top half of the body from the bottom half, shift the weighting from the knee nearest the gunnel that we are capsizing towards to the opposite knee the boat will start to flatten. If we then follow this movement with our torso and upper body we can then get our centre of gravity back over the boat and prevent a capsize from occurring.

Paul Bull Coaching

Having an active, weighted blade:
Trimming the boat differently changes the shape of the boat in the water. When we trim towards the back of the boat we deepen the skeg of the stern in the water and the boat wants to go straighter. If we trim forwards, we release that skeg and the bow bites into the water and the boat pivots around more quickly.

Once we have initiated our turn we can then micro-trim the boat to achieve different outcomes, or shapes of turns. If we want to achieve a wide turn, we can trim ourselves towards the stern of the boat, accentuating the skeg effect. If we want a tighter turn we can trim ourselves towards the bow.

Paul Bull Coaching

A low recovery:
When all else has failed and we have gone beyond a point of no return and our gunnel nearest the paddle is just entering the water line beyond our boats point of secondary stability, we may now have to perform a low recovery stroke. If we have tried having an active blade (and attempted to power out of the capsize) we will find our blade at the back of the boat. Am I going to take my blade out of the water and start a bracing stroke with the paddle at 90 degrees to our canoe or am I going to start the stroke in the water after I have completed my forward stroke? I choose the latter, so I maintain my active weighted blade for as long as possible.

Paul Bull Coaching

For me, the low recovery starts towards the back of the boat, with a blade almost flat on the surface of the water. We then drive the paddle forwards towards the front of the boat in a big wide arc, with the leading edge of the blade slightly upwards so that the paddle skims over the surface of the water and does not dive deep. I feel this is better and more proactive than a simple slap downwards with the paddle at 90 degrees to the canoe as the paddle remains nearer the surface of the water; is active for longer; and allows us to transition into another forward power stroke if required.


As we drive the paddle forwards we perform the same transition of knee pressure as described at the start of this article – transferring our weight from the knee nearest the lowest, capsizing gunnel to the opposite knee. Following this movement with our body recovers our centre of gravity back over the boat and hey presto we are still upright and the boat still occupied!

A three-stage process:
Think of these three elements as consecutive events – disassociation of top and body, then active/weighted blade and then finally a low recovery. I don’t just wait until the boat goes beyond a point of no return – i’ll start at the most relevant point and reserve my “low recovery” top trump card until the end! With practice it will become a natural process.

Paul Bull Coaching

So what should we do if we capsize towards our off-side, away from the paddleside?

There is no real ideal solution for this other than to attempt to transfer our centre of gravity back over the boat as described above or to attempt a pry stroke or draw stroke. The pry or draw is only going to be effective if we can reach the water however, and this is not always possible when the boat is capsizing away from the paddle side.

Paul Bull Coaching

Have a go at these concepts if they are new to you and let me know how you get along!

Happy paddling!

Paul Bull Paul is an enthusiastic full time UKCC Level 3 Coach who’s passionate about helping people to develop and enjoy kayaking and canoeing whether that’s more advanced skills on the more technical or bigger volume rivers of the UK and Europe or grass root sessions nearer to home. Paul delivers a range of BCU and personal skills courses in both canoe and kayak. More information about Paul and the courses he offers can be found at via Facebook at

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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