Water Safety

Before you head out to explore Canada’s magnificent outdoor playgrounds, ensure that you invest some time – and money – to get properly outfitted.

Cold, clear and inviting…three words often used to describe the vast and various bodies of water in and around Canada. Watersports addicts from around the globe flock to Canadian provinces to share the beautiful lakes, rivers and ocean shorelines with local enthusiasts. From fishing and boating to paddling and diving; from the sail sports to the board sports, Canadian waters have all the bases covered.

From boating regulations to cliff jumping cautions, this section gives you invaluable information to help make your aquatic adventure safe and enjoyable, regardless of your sport of choice.

Always leave a trip plan and make sure you take the essentials.


Know Before You Go!

  • Wear your lifejacket: It’s the most effective piece of safety equipment you can use while on the water. Most marine incidents occur quickly and without warning.
  • Be prepared: Carry the required safety equipment and ensure vessel preparedness. It could save your life on the water.
  • Be aware of cold water risks: The immediate effects of cold water immersion can be life-threatening.
  • Don’t drink and boat: For your own safety and the safety of others, you must to be attentive and responsive.
  • Take a course: Familiarize yourself with the area and activity in which you are engaging.


The best way to prevent hypothermia and hyperthermia is to avoid it. Know the signs and symptoms and take immediate action before it becomes a medical emergency.



Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. If the body’s core temperature drops too low, it will become a life threatening situation.

Hypothermia is easy to avoid: hydrate, keep dry, snack and avoid excessive heat loss.



Hyperthermia is the term we use for illnesses related to too much heat. Our body perspires to cool our rising core temperature as we paddle.

In the event of hyperthermia, take a break, find shade, hydrate or go for a swim.


1-10-1 Principle—Cold Water Immersion

1-10-1 relates to the three phases of cold water immersion and the approximate time each phase takes.

  • 1 minute—cold shock: An initial deep sudden gasp followed by hyperventilation that is 6 to 10 times more rapid than normal breathing. You have one minute to get your breathing under control.
  • 10 minutes—cold incapacitation: Gradual loss of effective use of your fingers, arms, and legs. If not wearing a lifejacket, drowning is likely because of swim failure.
  • 1 hour—hypothermia: Even in ice water it could take 1 hour before becoming unconscious due to hypothermia. In order to lose consciousness the body core temperature has to go below 30 degrees; this time can vary depending on the temperature of the water.

The longer one spends immersed in cold water, the less the chance of survival. Self-rescue skills and the ability to alert SAR usually dictates whether the outcome is a rescue or a recovery.

Practice self rescue methods to reduce the use of SAR and lower the risk of distress during water incidents.

Rip Currents

What is a rip current?

A rip current is a narrow, fast moving belt of water travelling away from shore. It forms as waves travel from deep to shallow water, breaking parallel near the shoreline that then form a current flowing rapidly back out, away from the shore.

A rip current is not an undertow. It is a horizontal current that can pull a person away from the shore. It does not pull people under the water.

Rip currents mostly form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near structures such as groins, jetties and piers. They can be very narrow or extend to hundreds of metres. The seaward pull of rip currents varies from ending just beyond the line of breaking waves to hundreds of metres offshore.


Potential risks to swimmers

While useful to experienced and knowledgeable water users as a quick pathway beyond breaking waves, there are some serious risks associated with rip currents.

A rip current can quickly pull people along shallow water into deeper water. When pulled in by a rip current, the instinct is to swim back, against the current. Depending on the strength of the current, this might cause exhaustion.


How to identify rip currents

The best way to prevent getting pulled in by a rip current is by observing the movement of the water before setting out. Here are some of the visual characteristics of rip currents:

  • A noticeable break in the pattern of the waves; flat part vs. lines of breaking waves on either side of a rip current.
  • Foamy river-like formation due to the current carrying foam from the surf to open water.
  • Foam or debris moving out on the water instead of being pushed towards the shore.

How to swim out of a rip current

It is always best to prevent being pulled in by a rip current by looking at the waves before heading into the water. However, should you get caught in a rip current, there is a way to swim out of the current.

Think of a rip current as a conveyor belt, or treadmill, carrying you away from the shore. Swimming against the current might not get you any closer to the shore. Instead, try the following:

  1. Get out of the rip by swimming across the current, parallel to the shore, in either direction.
  2. Once out of the rip, swim back to shore in areas where you see objects, including swimmers, being pushed towards the shore, or signal for help.

River Features and Hazards

These are some of many river features you may encounter within moving water.


An upstream current that forms behind a surface object. It can be used as refuge from the main current.

Hazard: The “eddy line” between the upstream and downstream flows may be unpredicatble or have a dramatic effect on your paddle craft.

 Low-Head Dam

This dam extends the entire width of the river and creates a hydraulic of recirculating water that spans the river, and a boil line which marks the separation of the downstream current (outwash) and the upstream current (backwash).

Hazard: Sometimes referred to as a “drowning machine,” this feature will trap and hold a buoyant object (such as a person or a paddle craft) in the recirculating water, continually forcing it back into the dam.

Debris is also often held by the hydraulic, creating more hazards for a person.

Escape is nearly impossible; rescue is extremely difficult and dangerous. The water in the hydraulic and just below the boil line is highly aerated, so paddle craft cannot get a good “bite” to make it through. The low-head dam is often very difficult to see from the upstream.


An obstruction that water is able to move through, but not solid objects. Examples are downed trees, gratings on culverts or pipes, and fences in flooded areas.

Hazard: The force of the current can hold a person immobile against the strainer with tremendous force and may be impossible to escape from.

River Signals

When on a river you are likely to come into contact with another water craft, in order to ensure the safety of both yourself and others on the river it is important to be aware of the following signals. 


There is a hazard ahead. Wait for all clear sign before proceeding.

Form a horizontal bar with your outstretched arm or paddle. Those seeing the signal should pass it on to others on the river that may not see it.


Three (3) long blasts on a whistle while waving a paddle (or arms) overhead.

If you do not have a whistle, use the visual signal. A whistle is more convenient if attached to your PFD.


Proceed down the centre of the river or in the direction being pointed to. Put your paddle vertically in the air with the blade flat to ensure maximum visibility. You may also use your arms—raise them vertically.

If you wish to signal what path to go on, angle your arm or paddle towards said path.

Never angle the signal towards the obstacle you are trying to avoid.


Pat the top of your head repeatedly while pointing your elbow outwards toward the side.

Paddler’s Code

As you read the following story you will realize how Paddle Smart can help you avoid and solve inexperienced situations and maintain safe on the waters!

Safety is shared, be part of the solution! We encourage all paddlers to be responsible for their actions on the water.

Canoe etiquette—a true story

The problem with ignoring others while travelling remote wilderness areas, besides being characterized as brash and unmannerly, is that you never know if you’ll need help.

It was my father who taught me this. He always insisted I say hello, maybe even have a quick conversation with the people we met in the woods.

My dad’s lesson echoed in my head as things turned dire for an ill-fated group of three paddlers I encountered in October. White-capped waves were forming and the air temperature hovered just above freezing. Midway across the lake, the paddlers capsized and yelled for help.

Their canoe was overloaded with lawn chairs and a beer cooler, their clothes and sleeping bags weren’t packed in waterproof bags. None of them wore lifejackets. Earlier that day, the trio drifted by my canoeing partner and me as we sat, eating our lunch. They didn’t return my friendly gestures.

I waved, said hi and asked how their trip was going. In return, they completely ignored me and continued on across the lake, not once looking back in my direction. I wrote them off as snobs who feel that shunning other paddlers in the backcountry is the next best thing to seeing no paddlers at all.

My canoe buddy suggested we just snub the nasty trio right back and continue on our way. And we did. Until we caught up to them, cursing as they frantically searched for the unmarked portage at the end of the lake.

We had evil thoughts of misguiding them to a false trail, but my conscience took over. I yelled out directions to the correct path. Barely acknowledging us, one paddler motioned back with a half-hearted wave. Another responded bitterly that they already knew the location of portage. The third continued to disregard our very existence as if we were intruding on their experience.

Had they been friendlier, they would have realized we were also trying to advise them of which fork to take midway down the trail. We left them to argue, portaged across the unmarked trail and set up camp on the next lake. As we settled in, we were astounded to see the three paddlers crash through the bush into the lake, not from the portage access but from a totally different direction. They didn’t heed our fork-in-the-trail advice, if they even bothered to listen. Dad would’ve said that justice had been served.

That’s when the wind picked up and sent them for a swim. Despite our misgivings, my canoe mate and I did the right thing. We rescued the doomed group and brought them to shore to share our campfire and dry off. They were a tad sheepish around camp. We finally shared a proper hello, discussed trip plans and I provided them with my father’s advice.

Excerpted from “Proper Canoe Etiquette” by Kevin Callan.


Who would you rather be? Kevin and his canoeing partner or the three paddlers?

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