Survive This: That Sinking Feeling

How to rapidly mend a hole in your canoe, even when navigating rapids.

EMERGENCY SITUATION: While whitewater canoeing, a hole appears in the bottom of your canoe. How do you repair your craft and get back in the water?

SOLUTION:There’s an old adage about damaged boats: You’re better off holding onto a sinking one than trying to float without it. In other words, boats are more buoyant than you are. So, first, don’t panic.

A small hole or crack may be an annoyance, but it’s probably not life threatening. Most canoes will remain buoyant long after taking on water (though, naturally, they’ll become less maneuverable). Even if the hole is so large that the canoe is in danger of sinking within minutes, do not abandon ship. In rapids, even a partially submerged canoe will offer some protection from the rocks.

Second, do a quick visual damage assessment. If the breach has occurred anywhere in the forward third of the canoe, you can buy some time by moving paddlers and gear slightly toward the stern, thus shifting the load and bringing the damaged section out of the water. Hold the canoe as steady as possible while you make the adjustments. And no, if the damage is in the stern, don’t move everyone to the bow.

Next, navigate the rapids accordingly. If you’re in Class 1 or 2, it’s probably safe—and possible—to simply paddle to shore to make your repair. But if you’re in serious whitewater, battling the current isn’t an option—and you must keep the boat pointed downriver or risk capsizing.

Regardless of the level of rapids, you won’t be able to perform a decent repair while the boat is wet, with one exception. If the damage is a small puncture, stuff it with a sock to prevent more water from entering the canoe, then bail.

Once you’ve navigated the rapids, steer the canoe to shore, get out, and dump any collected water. Dry the damaged area thoroughly on both the inside and outside of the craft. Then, apply two pieces of good-quality duct tape to the damaged section, one on either side of the canoe (experts recommend waterproof “boat” tape, but any old duct tape will do). Press firmly on the tape, put the canoe back in the water, and be on your way.


  • Store tape in a waterproof bag. Consider taping or tying the bag to one of the seats or a thwart (horizontal crossbeam).
  • Wrap several feet of tape around a pencil, small dowel, or something buoyant, and place it in the bag.
  • Bring along an emergency repair kit that includes a small saw, special glues and resins, and sandpaper. Pack the right kit. Some only work with specific hull materials.
  • Make sure you have a firm grasp of the draw stroke—a helpful maneuver for making quick lateral adjustments.

Josh Piven is the co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Handbook series. Visit his Web site

1 Comment

  1. Wrap the duct tape around your water bottle. A typical Nalgene type bottle will take 9.5 inches of tape per wrap. If you wrap it correctly, water will not penetrate the edges of the tape adhesive and it will be ready to use.

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