Why is a Canoe Easy to Tip?


Canoe tipping

All boats are susceptible to tipping over, but there is a higher probability of this happening with certain boats, especially when they are manned by inexperienced crew. One boat that is often easy to tip over by beginners is a canoe. This begs the question why is a canoe easy to tip?

Inexperience of the canoeist is the main reason a canoe will tip. However, there are several factors that make a canoe easy to tip for a beginner. Uneven weight distribution and a high center of gravity are common causes of instability on a canoe. Bad weather and high waves can cause a canoe to tip. Using the wrong type of canoe for the marine environment can also lead to a canoe tipping over, for example using a canoe with good primary stability in waters that require good secondary stability, such as using a flat bottom canoe in very choppy water. 

Why canoes tip over

A canoe is a small, narrow, lightweight boat that is highly susceptible to tipping over if it is not handled correctly. Simply put, if a canoeist is unable to maintain stability and balance on their canoe then it is likely to tip and even capsize. This is way canoes usually only tip when they are manned by inexperienced paddlers.

Although there are several factors that can contribute to instability on a canoe the main reason a canoe will tip over is because of the inexperience of the canoeist.

This does not mean that canoes cannot become unstable even for experienced paddlers (they are just more equipped to handle the situation). There are several factors that can contribute to instability on a canoe.

The main reasons instability occurs on a canoe are:

  • Uneven weight distribution.
  • A high center of gravity.
  • Challenging weather and water conditions.
  • Using the wrong canoe type.

Let’s take a look at each of these instability causes in more detail to see why they can contribute to making a canoe easy to tip.

Uneven weight distribution

There no question that uneven weight distribution will cause instability issue on a canoe and can even lead the boat to tip and capsize.

A canoe is easy to tip when it is loaded unevenly, for obvious reasons. If you load a canoe heavily to one side then it will lean to that side and be more likely to take on water and tip. The same is true if you load the boat heavily at the stern or bow forcing that part of the boat lower into the water.

The weight of the load of a canoe should be concentrated along the centerline of the boat and spread out along its length, rather than near the sides or in one particular spot as this will help to prevent tipping.

High center of gravity

Having a high center of gravity is another culprit behind canoes tipping.

If you are on the water, you should make sure that your center of gravity is low because a higher center of gravity will make your canoe very rocky and unstable.

We can think of center of gravity in these terms – tall things tend to fall over easier than smaller things. So if you stay tall in a canoe, thus having a high center of gravity, then when you lean to one side you are more likely to tip the boat than if you stay small, having a low center of gravity.

To maintain a low center of gravity many canoeist will paddle while kneeling in the boat. However this does not mean that you cannot sit in a canoe or even outfit your canoe with tall swivel chairs (as we demonstrated here). You just need to make you are using the correct type of canoe for the marine environment you are boating in and have at least some experience with paddling.

Bad weather & challenging waters

Of course, the weather is a huge factor when it comes to instability of a canoe.

Canoes were initially designed for fairly calm water use so they are not, what we would call, an ocean-going vessel capable of riding high waves.

In bad weather it likely that you will encounter more turbulent waters and this is where canoes can run into problems.

Although some canoes are more capable of riding rocky waters better than others, due to their unique hull characteristics (see our list of different canoe types here), and some are even capable of basic ocean use, a canoe has a very shallow draft, and so its stability is highly affected by strong winds and harsh waves, especially when they hit the sides of the boat.

Of course there are certain modifications you can make to a canoe to make it more stable and better capable of use in more challenging waters, the most common of which is fitting canoe outriggers.

Using the wrong canoe type

Not all canoes are the same. Although all canoes look the same there are some slight differences in their hull designs that make a huge difference in how they are used and where they should be used.

When it comes to a canoe, and a kayak as well, primary and secondary stability play a huge role in how the boat should be used.

Although there is a more in-depth explanation of primary and secondary stability on this website you can think of these two stability characteristics in very simple terms as follows:

  • Primary stability refers to the stability of a boat when it is used on calm water.
  • Secondary stability refers to the stability of a boat when it is in more turbulent water.

There is always a trade-off between primary and secondary stability – a boat cannot be excellent in both areas.

Although better primary, or secondary, stability can achieved via several different hull design changes, we can think of it in the following simple terms for the sake of illustrating this point.

Good primary stability is usually created on a canoe by giving it a flat bottom and straight sides.

The flat bottom means the canoe “sits on” the water and rocks very little, if at all, when the water is calm. The straight sides complete the primary stability by stopping the boat from rocking from side to side. This hull design makes a flat bottom canoe the perfect recreational canoe for calm inland water use.

On calm waters flat bottom canoes are extremely difficult to tip.

For more information on the many practical uses of flat bottom canoes and how it differs from other types read this article.

On the flip side (excuse the pun) a flat bottom canoe is a very bad choice for choppy waters such as the ocean, rapids or in challenging weather and waters. In such environments you need a canoe with good secondary stability because it is the better choice for challenging waters and rocky waves.

Secondary stability on a canoe, like primary stability, can be produced through a variety of different hull designs but, again for simplicity, let’s just say that good secondary stability is usually achieved by giving a canoe a more rounded bottom and rounded sides.

The rounded nature of the canoe allows the boat to rock from side to side easily and “right” itself after each rocking motion. This makes the boat much more stable in waves and challenging waters because it is less likely to take on water.

The more secondary stability a canoe has the more tippy it will feel however, even though the less likely it is to tip!

Canoes with good secondary stability will feel especially tippy in calm water and will be easier to tip by inexperienced paddlers.

How to prevent tipping

Now that you are aware of the above stability factors that can cause a canoe to tip you can prepare yourself, and your canoe, so you avoid tipping completely.

Be aware though that although beginners are susceptible to tipping a canoe, an experienced canoeist will rarely tip their boat.

So, rest assured that as you grow in experience you will be less and less likely to tip your canoe. Until then here are some tips to help you reduce the likelihood of tipping your canoe.

Lowering your center of gravity

As stated earlier, a high center of gravity is one of the factors that can cause a canoe to tip. Therefore, a quick solution to this is to keep your center of gravity low.

A way to do this is to paddle while kneeling, keeping a wide stance between your knees.

Kneeling is also quite comfy in the beginning when compared to sitting on a hard seat but it can become uncomfortable on your knees over an extended period of time. For this reason many canoeist will use a kneeling pad.

Leaning downstream

Lean downstream. This is a helpful tip especially when you like to go canoeing through rapids or rocky bodies of water.

Leaning straight up increases the likelihood that your canoe will tip over especially if you hit an obstacle. However, if you lean downstream then the weight distribution on the canoe will change and most likely counteract the tipping motion.

Given that this is a helpful way to prevent your canoe from tipping over, it could get a little uncomfortable if done for a long period of time. So, it is best to only do this when you are going through rocky parts of a river, through rapids or when navigating turbulent water.

Use the right canoe for the job

Make sure the canoe you are using is suitable for the waters you are navigating.

If you own your own canoe then be sure to only use it in the type of appropriate waters that it was designed for.

As outlined above the primary and secondary stability hull characteristics of a specific canoe will make that boat more suitable for some marine environments than others.

Of course this does not mean that you are stuck to one type of environment just because you have only one canoe. Experienced canoeists can make use their canoes in most inland waterways (within reason), but if you are a beginner you are better to stick to waters best suited to your canoe type.

Master entering and exiting the canoe

One of the most unstable moments you will have as a canoeist will be upon entering and exiting your boat.

Entering and exiting your canoe is a very tricky skill for many people in the beginning and can lead to the boat tipping over.

A good tip for entering the canoe is to put your paddle in the boat first and then put just one foot in. Wait to get your balance as you feel the movement of the boat and then follow this up by pushing yourself into the canoe using your other foot and seating yourself quickly.

Another way of doing this is to focus your weight in the middle of the canoe on one leg before fully entering the boat. Use 3 points of contact initially, both your hands and one foot should be placed in the canoe first to give you more control over the movement of the boat.

You can perform any of the above actions in reverse to exist the boat.

Remember to always be attentive of your center of gravity while entering and exiting your canoe. After a little experience entering and exiting the canoe will become second nature to you and tipping will be unlikely to occur.

What to do if the canoe does tip

What happens when you have taken all the precautions you can to prevent tipping and your canoe tips over anyway?

Here are some pointers for you to get yourself, and your canoe, safely to shore in the event of tipping.

In open waters, like lakes, and slow moving water, it is advisable that you stay with your canoe even if it is full of water or has completely flipped over. Staying with the boat and holding onto it will help you stay afloat especially if you have outfitted it with airbags and other flotation devices (see our canoe safety outfitting guide).

However, if you happen to capsize in a fast moving stream, then you should stay away from your canoe because there is a possibility it will pin you down or it might slam you against rocks, trees or other obstacles.

If you do end up in the water remember to float on your back with your feet downstream. This should be easy to do if you are wearing a good quality PFD (which you absolutely should always be wearing).

If you have a whistle blow it to alert others that you are in trouble and if there is reduced visibility or it is dark (see our guide on canoeing at night) then you should fire off a flare.

Summary

Experienced canoeists rarely tip their canoes. As you gain more experience canoeing you will be less likely to tip your canoe.

However, as canoes are small, lightweight boats they are easy to tip when they are not used correctly and hence beginners are more at risk of tipping a canoe.

The factors that are often involved in tipping a canoe are:

  • Uneven weight distribution
  • A high center of gravity
  • Bad weather & challenging waters.
  • Using the wrong canoe type.

All of the above factors can come into play and affect the overall stability of a canoe.

However, this does not mean that every time you go canoeing, you will tip over and fall into the water. There are preventive measures that you can observe so you can lessen the likelihood of your canoe capsizing .

These are:

  • Lowering your center of gravity.
  • Leaning downstream.
  • Using the correct canoe type for the marine environment you plan to navigate or staying to the appropriate waters for your canoe type.
  • Mastering entering and exiting the canoe.

Though following the above recommendations will greatly reduce the likelihood of you tipping your canoe they will not automatically stop your canoe from tipping over especially if you are new to canoeing. So, in the event that your canoe does tip over, there are specific things that you will want to do to remain safe.

  • If you tip over in a relatively calm body of water, like lakes, or large calm rivers then you should stick with your canoe and use it as a sort of flotation device.
  • If you tip over in fast moving rapids or turbulent fast moving water then it would be advisable to stay away from the canoe and float on your back.
  • Signal for help if you cannot make it back to shore on your own.

If you want further tips to prevent your canoe from tipping read this article.

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