Can Canoes Sink? We find out why and offer some great solutions to prevent it here in this article.

Can Canoes Sink?

Going canoeing is both a fun and rewarding endeavor. Sliding over the waters in such a smooth and relaxing style is a pastime that many of us benefit from after our long days at work or office. And during a pandemic, having some peace of mind out on the water is something we could all use. But having peace of mind may come with a high price if you sink your canoe. So, can canoes sink?

Canoes can sink like any other water traversing vessel (watercraft). However, there’s hope with some simple additions that can help keep your canoe afloat. And some simple techniques to correct an overturned canoe, if armed with the knowledge of their workings.

I’ll be reviewing the most common reasons why canoes sink, how to avoid the situation, techniques to right the wrong, and a few key things you can do to safeguard yourself when going out on the water in your canoe. Join me on this canoe adventure, won’t you?

4 Common Reasons Why Canoes Sink

Naturally, one might think of a few reasons why a canoe might sink, and usually, all of them have to do with human error. When dealing with personal watercraft, especially those powered by people, there are not many reasons why a canoe is going to sink that don’t relate to human error. 

Armed with the knowledge of why canoes can sink, one may use preventive measures to avoid a canoe sinking incident. A canoe may sink due to user error, an over-weighted hull, weather conditions, or poor judgment.

  • User Error
  • Over-Weighted Hull
  • Inclement Weather Conditions
  • Poor Judgement

1. User Error Is The Most Common Cause Of A Canoe Sinking

Canoes are misused by people all the time. Sometimes, it’s just a quick scare that the canoe might tip over. Other times, it’s a more serious situation like a canoe taking on water and then sinking. 

Knowing how to enter and exit a canoe is the first means of preventing user error issues with tipping or submarining the watercraft.

Secondary to entry and exit of the watercraft is the proper method of sitting in the canoe. Standing in a canoe is ill-advised. The lower a person’s body weight to the center of the bottom of the canoe hull, the more sturdy the craft will be. 

When you stand in a canoe, your center of balance raises above the canoe’s hull, making it very unstable. So, always stay low and sit or squat as low in the canoe as possible for maximum stability.

2. Over-Weighted Canoe Hull Can Sink Your Ship

Speaking of user error, the not so obvious mistake some make is overloading their canoe. A canoe, like any other watercraft, stays afloat by buoyancy. Add too much weight, and it will sink like anything else. 

Before embarking on the canoe, ensure your craft is not overweight. Know your limits, and stay within them. Even if it looks fine in calm water, always be aware that surroundings can change quickly out on the water.

3. Inclement Weather Conditions Might Sink A Canoe

Weather can change quickly. Depending on the local conditions and how far out you’re going with your canoe, it can quickly become a life or death situation. 

Taking a canoe out on larger water bodies like the great lakes or even the oceans’ coastal regions can be dangerous; it is advised to know what kind of conditions you may be facing. Always know what the worst-case conditions in your region can throw at you. Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best; that’s my motto when it comes to water safety.

Sometimes suitable GPS units can tell you of incoming inclement weather. If you’re bringing a smartphone, as long as you’ve got range, you should be able to track the weather. But remember, paddling can sometimes get wet, especially if it starts raining, so investing in a good waterproof bag for your smartphone is a wise decision. I use this waterproof smartphone case found on Amazon.

The images shows a waterproof bag for a smartphone with accessory waterproof pouch. Very useful if you sink your canoe, to be able to call for help.
If out on the water, keeping your communications and identification documents dry is a smart idea.

4. Poor Judgement Sinks Canoes

Sometimes we make a terrible call. Like knowing there is a storm coming, but it’s an hour away, and your campsite is only 45 minutes by canoe. Weather can change, and you may not have had as much time as you thought. I like to keep an emergency radio and flashlight with me, just in case.

The Eton is a perfect little tool. It can use solar or batteries; it’s got an emergency weather radio, so you don’t get caught out in a gale. And it’s got a handy clip for easy carrying. I like this little unit, and for less than $50, you really can’t go wrong. That’s why I grabbed one of these multi powered emergency radios and flashlights from Amazon.

How To Avoid Sinking A Canoe

Here are a few tips for avoiding sinking a canoe.

  1. Never embark at night.
  2. Never embark out onto waters beyond your skill level with the watercraft.
  3. Always check the weather before embarking.
  4. Always bring the proper equipment (life jacket, whistle, bilge pail, etc.)
  5. Never exit or enter the canoe out on the water unless doing so in a proper manner. If alone, it can be exceedingly difficult to enter or exit a canoe on your own, so use extreme caution when canoeing alone. The best practice is to have some friends and go in at least two separate canoes.

Canoe Sinking Prevention

There’s nothing worse than having a great canoe trip all planned out and sinking your canoe. Having your gear disappear beneath you into the dark watery depths is heart-wrenching. Not to mention the possibility of drowning – a real terror if you ask me. That’s why prevention is critical when planning any watery excursion.

Preventing a canoe from sinking is easy with a few vital preventive measures. These might include adding floats or air-bags to the vessel or only paying attention to wind and weather conditions while not overloading your boat.

Let’s take a look at the three main things one can do to prevent a canoe from sinking.

  • Adding Floats Or Air-Bags To A Canoe
  • Check The Local Weather Forecast Before Embarking
  • Know Your Weight Limits And Stay Within Them

Can Canoes Sink? Try Adding Floats Or Air-Bags To Avoid Sinking When Swamped

Several readily accessible product addons for canoes help maintain a floating vessel, even if it’s flipped over in the water.

The image shows an inflatable pillow in a bright red color. The pillow has multiple tie off points to secure it to the fore or aft regions of a canoe. These pillows help avoid sinking a canoe.
With multiple places to fasten to the canoe, this inflatable pillow is intended to aid in keeping the canoe from sinking should it take on water.

Floats like the one shown above (from Amazon) are essential tools to ensuring that even if your canoe did inadvertently flip over, it wouldn’t sink. Not with two of these canoe floats installed fore and aft. The canoe float shown above was available for sale at the time of writing on Amazon.

Adding fore and aft floats to a canoe is a smart idea. Many manufacturers of fiberglass and Kevlar canoes fabricate float pockets right into the fore and aft regions of the canoe. Take a look at the picture below of my Kevlar canoe’s aft float pocket built right into the body of the canoe itself.

An inside of a canoe with built in float compartments fore and aft.
I took the above picture in my garage, so pay no mind to the poor lighting. I was winter out so no alternative.

And You Can Add Sponsons To Your Canoe To Help Prevent Sinking

What is a sponson? They are a projection of the hull to help stability. In most cases, canoes do not come with these installed. But, you can easily pick up and install a set yourself. I found the following kit on Amazon for a DIY sponson set for your canoe.

The image shows a set of foam sponsons that you can install yourself to the sides of the canoe hull to prevent sinking.
A DIY set of sponsons to add to a canoe hull to help prevent sinking. These also act as a bumper when you approach a dock or similar structure.

The thing I like about sponsons is the dual nature of the foam to act not only as a floatation device, but also as a bumper. I hate when my canoe gets all scuffed up from rubbing against the dock when I launch or exit the watercraft. But adding a sponson set fixes that.

If you aren’t comfortable with drilling, you can always use marine-grade super adhesives to adhere the sponson to the hull. Just make sure you don’t use something that could react with the hull materials or paint negatively. However, drilling and bolting is the most secure method if installed properly. I would also upgrade all the hardware to stainless steel.

Check The Local Weather Forecast Before Embarking

I can’t stress this enough. Consider the average speed of a canoe and how far you need to travel. Let me tell you a true story that happened to me about twenty years back.

I was new to canoeing, a young and eager outdoorsman with more ambition than good sense. I used to go to a place called Franklin Island. The island is located not far from the eastern shores of Georgian Bay, off Lake Huron. Here’s a picture of the area:

This capture shows the landscape of the western shores of Georgian Bay, namely Franklin Island located 1 km off the western shores of the bay.
Rocky and beautiful Franklin Island.

It’s beautiful and rocky, and the weather can change pretty quick out there on the water, so safety is paramount. When you look at it on a map, it doesn’t seem like much distance, but more detailed, and it’s quite the journey for a beginner. Here is a route I used to take, shown in the Google maps screen capture below.

The image is a capture of Google maps showing a route traversed by canoe to cross the mainland to Franklin Island.
I ‘Googled’ my route, and this was the approximate path I took twenty years ago.

We canoed 3.8 km from our point of entry to our point of exit on the route shown above. This route may be slightly off, it’s been a few years, but that’s the primary route I remember. I remember it being just shy of 4km, crossing just over 1km across the deeper waters. And I even remember asking myself, ‘can canoes sink?’ about halfway across the water.

With an average canoe speed of about 3-4 mph (4-6 km/hour), we didn’t break any speed records when we did the trek. I can tell you that our canoe trip usually took about 45 minutes. When conditions can change in as little as 20 minutes out on the water, it can be a bit of a gamble if it isn’t clear when you embark.

So, to get back to my story, I went out with a girlfriend one year, taking her out via a canoe. I had done the excursion half a dozen times with no issues. But this time, it was mixed overcast and had a slow breeze when we set out.

Well, I can tell you that with the weight of gear and my company with zero experience in a canoe, it was more than a little slow going. We wound up being about halfway across the deepest, most considerable portion of water when the wind picked up, and the waves got to be small, maybe 6″ (15 cm). I can tell you when you are half a kilometer (half a nautical mile) from land, in a canoe, with someone scared and with no experience, and your canoe is weighed down with a weekend’s worth of gear, it is a scary situation. We came very close to swamping a few times.

I can tell you that now I pack lighter and use a larger canoe for longer trips to ensure maximum buoyancy if I’m crossing larger bodies of water with gear.

I didn’t get any footage, but I can tell you it came in fast and looked like this:

Know Your Weight Limits And Stay Within Them

Every boat, watercraft, kayak, or canoe has a weight limit. As we all know, when a boat is right-side-up, it is only a matter of weight before the boat will drop below the water-line and sink. Canoes are no exception, and all have their weight restrictions.

Canoes have a weight capacity like any other watercraft. If you don’t know your canoe’s capacity, a simple formula can be used for figuring it out: Length x Width / 18. Where 18 is representative of an average person’s weight divided by ten.

Canoes come in a variety of sizes. The most common are from 10′ to 17′ in length. In general, a 10′ canoe can take two occupants and a small amount of gear. Similarly, a 17′ canoe can usually handle three occupants and a decent amount of gear. However, the actual capacity will be determined by the previously mentioned formula as canoes’ width can vary.

How To Bring More Gear Than A Canoe Can Carry?

If you’ve got more gear than you can safely stow aboard your canoe, why not grab a rubber dinghy and separate your gear between canoe and dinghy? If there’s only two of you going, one in a canoe and one in a dinghy, and you’re all set.

Although, I would assume that with that much gear, you’ve likely got at least four people, in which case a single canoe just isn’t going to cut it. Here’s a cool little dinghy to add for less than $500 if you aren’t up for buying or renting a second canoe.

It is a pretty decent example of a rubber dinghy found on Amazon. This one runs under $500 for the 5-person model. You can toss all kinds of gear in this and tow it behind you. But, you’ll need some strong paddlers if you have a lot of gear! Another way to get around the extra power needed is with a small electric motor assist like this one:

The mounting kit for a motor for the dinghy, as found on Amazon is shown above. This mount is not the same as one that would be utilized for a canoe, although I like the concept of having the motor at the aft-most point rather than the traditional side-mounted trolling motor mounts. I know a dinghy with a motor is a far cry from talking about sinking a canoe, but it’s an effective sidekick for the canoe journey when a lot of gear is being used. And overloading a canoe is a major threat to keeping the canoe from being swamped. It’s a mistake many new canoeists make, so I felt it prudent to offer this alternative solution to swamping and possibly sinking a canoe from too much gear.

The above trolling motor (as found on Amazon) has 62lb of thrust, so it gets the job done to help you get across the water with your gear. One or two people in the dinghy, and two in a canoe, and add the gear, and you’re good to go. That way, you can bring friends or take the gear in the canoe and the dinghy. Either way, you get across the water with all your gear without the fear of having to ask “Can canoes sink?”.

A canoe mount for a trolling motor is shown in this photo.
A canoe with a motor mount attached. Notice a lack of floats on the aft end of the canoe. I would add floats to this model.

If you think that the motor for your canoe isn’t a bad idea, you’re not the first person to consider making their canoe motorized. Take a look above at the mount I found on Amazon for a canoe to use a trolling motor. Although a motor combined with a battery will increase weight in the canoe, they will help with propulsion. However, the effect of added weight and a lopsided weight at that will not assist in preventing a canoe from sinking, that’s for sure.

If you’re trying to keep your canoe from sinking, adding extra things like trolling motors that require either fuel or a battery (more weight) can be risky for many reasons. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea if it’s a big canoe and you’ve got some experience, but I wouldn’t try this in your first year or two of canoeing. That’s just my two cents, but I think that safety is paramount.

Just remember safety first. We don’t want any sinking canoes out there! But if you do sink, go take a look at getting yourself an underwater action camera. There are all kinds of underwater action cameras on the market for underwater photography to find your lost and sunken canoes. But hopefully, it won’t come to that.

Sources For The Can Canoes Sink Article

Want to read more about canoes and other watercraft?


Scroll to Top