Canoe safety: Keeping safe on the water

Canoe safety: A kayaker comes to the rescue of another kayaker who has fallen into the water

Canoe safety: If you end up in the drink, a buoyancy aid will keep you floating until rescue arrives.

Messing around on the water is fun, but it is not without risk. Even good swimmers can struggle in cold water, and many of London’s waterways have steep, walled in banks that are not easy to scale. Here’s our top tips for canoe safety and keeping safe on the water.

Always wear a buoyancy aid (life jacket). The buoyancy aid should fit you closely. Children should wear appropriately sized buoyancy aids and should not use an over-sized adult buoyancy aid. Be aware that second hand or old buoyancy aids may have lost their floatation and may not work correctly.

Paddle with friends – Even the most experienced kayakers and canoeists tend to paddle with friends or club mates. You are unlikely to have any problems on the water, but if you do, you may need somebody to help you or to fetch assistance.

Avoid tidal waters like the Thames unless you are an experienced paddler. The river has fast tides, eddies and undertows and is busy with large, fast moving boats and sheer walls. Clubs which paddle on the tidal Thames know what they are doing – join one if you want to paddle on the river.

The Port of London Authority gives this sobering advice regarding swimming in the tidal Thames, which kayakers and canoeists should bear in mind.

  • Powerful tides, running at around five miles an hour, will overpower even the strongest swimmers.
  • Eddies and undertows – caused by the uneven river bed, bridge pillars, piers and moored vessels – will suck swimmers under in seconds and keep them below the surface for days. No safety precautions can counter these lethal currents – surviving them is a simply matter of luck.
  • Bitingly cold river water will cripple the most accomplished swimmers and cause involuntary breathing spasms – know as a ‘gasp reflex’ – when a person is temporarily submerged.

The Port of London Authority has produced detailed guidance on paddling on the tidal Thames. See

Clubs which paddle on the tidal Thames know what they are doing – join one if you want to paddle on the river.

Keep clean – London’s canals and rivers have plenty of fish in them, but they have plenty of other stuff in them as well, especially after heavy rain. Cover any cuts and wash your hands after paddling or before eating. Weil’s disease (Leptospirosis) is a particularly nasty bacterial infection, carried in rat’s urine, which can occasionally contaminate water. It is very rare, but can be contracted by paddlers – usually via cuts or the mucous membranes of the eyes and mouth. Click here for more information on Weil’s disease.

Wear shoes – All sorts of sharp stuff can end up in London’s waterways. If you do accidently take a swim, you don’t want bare feet.

Watch out for other river users – Most waterway traffic will be larger than you, and may not even see you. It is up to you to get out of the way of larger craft. River traffic on the Thames will stay on the right hand side of the river where it is safe and practical to do so. Many fishermen also use the waterways – keep an eye out for their lines and always try to give them plenty of room – they have as much right to enjoy the water as we do.

Keep an eye on swans – For most of the year these large birds don’t mind sharing the water with us, but during spring and early summer male swans can be very aggressive towards anyone approaching their nest or young. Such aggressive swans are unmistakable and should be given plenty of room.

Canal locks – Kayakers and canoeists should portage (walk around) the locks which control the water flow along London’s canal system. When in use the locks can produce strong currents, boils and undertows.

Weirs – All weirs can be extremely dangerous and should not be approached unless you are an experienced canoeist or kayaker who understands weir dynamics and water flows.

Alcohol – Water and booze do not mix. Every year people die because they have gone out on the water whilst drunk. Enjoy your paddling and save the drinking for later.

Canoe safety training

The British Canoe Union (BCU) has established a series of training courses to enable paddlers to learn both basic and advanced canoe safety skills.  The starting point is usually Foundation Safety and Rescue Training, which is suitable for all paddlers.

To find out more about these courses, see the British Canoe Union website.

Some canoe clubs and training providers can run Foundation Safety and Rescue Training courses, and will advertise any canoe safety courses they are running.

Many paddlers also take First Aid courses, particularly those who partake in higher risk activities such as white water kayaking.  Registered coaches must hold up-to-date first aid qualifications. Whilst many places can offer first aid training, wilderness first aid training is recommended for white water and sea kayakers, who may need to provide medical attention in remote areas.

Image courtesy of Dan Tattersall