Most boating fatalities occur on nice days and in waters close to home, in mild conditions, and within reach of safety. Many involve paddle craft such as canoes and kayaks.

According to the latest 2008 Coast Guard Boating Statistics, 114 paddlers lost their lives while operating canoes and kayaks last year. Surprisingly, paddle-craft fatalities were more than double those involving jet skies.  

In a recent canoe fatality on Mullet Lake, Michigan, a couple paddled off shore in their canoe to fish in the lingering tranquilly of dusk. Somehow they were separated from the canoe; the next morning their bodies were recovered after loved ones called authorities when the paddlers failed to arrive home. They were not wearing life jackets.

Too often, paddlers, for that matter most boaters, drop like ill-fated birds that lose their keen eye to a distraction only to be gobbled up by a cat in waiting. It’s been my experience that the marine environment, like a cat, strikes when one least expects.

Over 24 years of writing the Boat Smart column, that, by far, has been my greatest challenge: convincing boaters that the marine environment is inherently dangerous, but also very safe if one boats smart.

My concern is that as fall colors light up the many rivers, streams and lakes across the Great Lakes many paddle craft folks will be seduced by the intoxicating lure of nature. Not a bad thing at all if one keeps safety foremost in mind. Here are some tips that promise to keep paddlers safe while enjoying the splendor of fall.

Not only should the children wear life jackets, but adults should as well.  Should a child go overboard the natural instinct for an adult is to jump in to assist. Sadly, this was the case involving a 61-year-old male who jumped off his small boat to assist his 2-year-old granddaughter who had fallen overboard.  The incident occurred on June 14, 2009, on Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan. The small girl, who was wearing a life jacket, survived; the grandfather drowned.

Paddlers should scout a river before embarking with small children. A good friend of mine, Todd Reed, a retired Coast Guard chief, told me that he and his wife, Debbie, will test run a river section before taking their small grandchild out. Also, it’s advisable to check with local canoe/kayak rental agencies for local river knowledge.

Rescue heaving line. Should a person fall overboard, a rescue heaving line provides the means to retrieve the person in the water, especially from a distance. The Coast Guard carries a 70-foot rescue heaving line aboard their rescue boats. You can view the rescue heaving line on my website:

Whistle I urge paddlers to carry a whistle on their life jacket, which they should wear at all times. Should paddlers separate and float out of sight of each other, the shrill from the whistle will alert companions to their whereabouts, and it will also attract other paddlers. I also highly recommend carrying night illumination like a glow stick or strobe light on the life jacket. Make sure these items are tethered to the life jacket.

Float plan.  Let loved ones know where you will be paddling, your expected time of return and a description of your motor vehicle and location, and provide a cell phone number should you carry one. And make sure the cell phone is secured in a water-proof, Ziplock-type carrier in your life jacket.

Capsizing. Should you capsize, stay on the upstream side of the canoe.  You can be crushed on the downstream side if you run into an obstruction. Float on your back with your feet and arms extended. Float with your feet pointed downstream to fend off rocks and debris. Don’t fight the current. Use the current to backstroke yourself to shore. On shore blow the whistle to attract attention; it sure beats yelling for help, and it’s a lot more effective. 

Boat Smart  It’s a sure way to a safe and enjoyable day on the river while enjoying fall colors.

Tom Rau, a leading authority on boating mishaps, is a retired 27-year Coast Guard veteran, boating safety columnist, and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. His book is a 20-year journal of recreational boating mishaps with valuable lessons learned. It, along with recent rescue stories, can be viewed at:

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Photo(s) by Tom Rau