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Some Safety issues to take into consideration with sailing canoes
Boat Design and Condition
Fitting a sailing rig to a canoe puts extra demands upon it so everything should be maintained in good condition. The design should have a generous depth (of at least 12" from gunwale to keel-line) and an evenly curved sheer line (gunwale side-profile). These factors should result in a 'drier' and hopefully safer boat. Some hull models and/or constructions may need stiffening to withstand the levering forces of the mast. Buoyancy:- should be as much as can be fitted without affecting how the canoe is sailed. It must be sufficient to support the swamped boat, its gear and crew and should also float it high enough to enable bailing from outside the canoe prior to climbing back in. All such buoyancy must be either built-in to the canoe's structure or firmly held in place in the case of foam or airbags.
These should be strong, securely attached, easy to use but readily retracted when not needed: eg while paddling.
Sail and Spars
These should be easy to both rig and stow, inside the canoe and whilst on the water. The stowed rig should still allow both paddling and ready access into and out of the boat. Sail areas of between about 20 and 50 square feet, depending on the canoe, have been found to be most useful. Spars should be buoyant wherever possible, tube-ends being plugged.
Reefing is an extremely useful but undervalued technique. Being able to reduce sail area (quickly and tidily - by at least 30% or so) whilst on the water will allow better control and confidence in more difficult conditions and also when learning or feeling tired etc. See also the Wind scale page.
Should be neat and non-snagging, but more importantly sound and plenty strong enough for their function - to cope with brisker winds and choppy water. There are particularly large forces on rudders and their fittings especially going downwind and in waves. Non corroding materials, screws and bolts etc, although generally more expensive initially, will normally be worth the investment, both in ease of use and lasting indefinitely.
There should be one paddle for each crew member plus a spare in the canoe. They should all be secured in some way so as not to be lost during a capsize but still be easily accessible in a hurry.
Gear to be carried
Wind and waterproof clothing should be easily available in the canoe and will usually be worn on all but the best of summer days. Increasingly people in the group are using breathable dry suits. The wearing of a good Buoyancy Aid (with a whistle attached) should be regarded as second nature. Items like a knife, spare warm clothing, hat and gloves, hot/cold drinks (not alcohol!), food, a bailer per crew member, map and compass should all be considered carefully for their usefulness on any outing even of only a few hours.
A "survival" bag should be carried (a very large, heavy-gauge polythene bag to form a makeshift shelter to help in the treatment of hypothermia). A "bits and pieces" pack with a simple 1st-Aid Kit, some lengths of cord, shackles, a few tools, sticky tape and so on (to enable some makeshift repairs to be done to both person and boat/rig) will not add much to the burden but may save a lot of hassle should the need arise.
If undertaking ventures on larger expanses of inland water or tidal areas then serious consideration should be given to the taking of additional safety and attention-attracting items which could include for example emergency distress flares, a VHF radio and a sea anchor (drogue).
Skills and Abilities
Trips and venture should be chosen carefully to match the experience and competence of the canoe-sailor. Both sailing and paddling abilities should be considered when making such decisions. For example if a breakage or other problem arises then the crew should be capable of paddling back to safety.
Cruise in Company
If unsure, the company of those more capable is an obvious and wise precaution. Sailing in the company of other canoes or small boats has a great deal to commend it from the safety angle and usually adds to the enjoyment anyway.
Even for the experienced the colder seasons present extra potential risk when low air and water temperatures have serious consequences in the event of a mishap. These factors become so much more important during such times that many would consider the winter months to be a non-sailing period, for repairs, maintenance and expedition planning while waiting for the better and warmer weather.
Righting and recovery from a capsize
Should the worst happen there should be a planned and preferably rehearsed self-rescue strategy to carry out. Methods vary according to equipment and personal preference. Some are as simple as bailing out and climbing back aboard while others rely on the use of more specialist devices. Whatever is chosen, the time to find out its effectiveness is in controlled practice sessions and not during an 'epic'!
Experience has shown that for most people the highest wind in which canoes can be enjoyably sailed is a Force 4 (described as a "Moderate Breeze" in land-forecasts). The ability to reef is certainly an advantage and would increase the chances of coping with "Moderate to Fresh" conditions. Most would then be heading for home while many probably would not have even set out in the first place! (refer to Wind scale page for more detail)
Many canoeists would dispute the wisdom of using open canoes on any tidal waters. However, in certain cases like some estuaries and sea-lochs, the area is virtually enclosed and therefore in practical terms more like an inland lake. Sound judgment and discretion should still always be applied in these situations, especially at narrowings and their seaward openings where the tidal currents will be strongest (and often faster than a canoe can sail let alone be paddled!).
Coastal and Open Waters
In more exposed tidal waters normal precautions apply, but even more so, given the inherently vulnerable nature of the canoe to wind and waves; with it's lack of deck and modest freeboard and beam. Nonetheless there is no doubt that a well prepared boat, in the hands of an experienced and competent canoe-sailor who carefully judges conditions, is capable of fairly challenging ventures. These can be coastal cruises or open crossings but, make no mistake, such exploits are not for the beginner, the ill-prepared or the faint-hearted!
Whatever type of water used, be it inland or tidal, whether going with others or alone, it is sensible to leave word with someone responsible about where you are going and how long you will be out so that, if you don't return, action can be taken to ensure your safety.