Canoe Ballast – Sink AND Swim

This is a response to a comment in Red Rock Outdoors from a reader who uses ankle weights to serve as ballast for a Quetico 16 solo canoe.   I thought it would make a great post about canoe ballast and safety concerns, so I added a bit more to it for our readers.

Paddlers seeking to solo paddle, try all sorts of ways to weight down the front of their tandem canoes.  The most common is to add a bunch of rocks.   Another way is to add a 5 gallon bucket partially filled with sand.  One kind reader likes to use up to 4 ankle weights in the bow of the canoe.  The point is to add weight to make the bow bite the water to aid in canoe tracking and improve overall stability by the canoe “wetted surface” or the most of the bottom of the canoe resting on the water.  The more canoe supported by water, the more stable it is resting on the water.  If you are riding a wheelie with the bow up in the air and out of the water, that means that you are decreasing wetted surface and putting more weight on a narrower section of the canoe behind you.  Imagine sitting cross-legged on a taut cable with each butt cheek on each side of the cable and your feet resting on said taut cable.  Aside from the incredible discomfort, your ability to balance comes down to that fine line and I’m pretty sure that a flying Walenda would be about the only person who could do this.  Now sit the same way on a flat floor and see how wobbly you will be.  You won’t.  You’ll be rock solid -assuming you didn’t sit on the cable first.    That is a way to describe the advantages of maximum wetted surface regarding a canoe resting level on the water.  That, and improved tracking are what we are striving for when using ballast in a tandem canoe used as a solo.

From a ballast standpoint, any object for weight will do.  However, there is a specific reason for using “the Perfect Rock” aka “bag of water”.   If you load up a canoe with rocks and it takes on water, it could go to the bottom of the lake.    Now, if the canoe rolls when capsized, the rocks can dump out but may not completely fall out due to the lip of the gunwales or maybe getting caught under a seat. A sinking canoe means there is no floating canoe on which to hang while waving the other arm furiously for help.   IF you have your life jacket on AND it is summer with warmer water, no floating canoe is a problem but less so.    If you are floating in the cold water of spring of a deep water lake, you may have  as little as 15 minutes to get to dry land and a fire.  Hanging on a floating canoe improves your chances a bit.   It is easier to see a canoe’s gunwale in the water than just a canoe bow or stern pointing to the sky and even then barely sticking out of water.

Securing a weight to any part of a canoe guarantees that it will not fall away from the canoe upon its capsizing.   This only increases the probabilities of an accident ending badly.   I usually recommend that nothing ever be secured or lashed to a canoe.  Let it go.  Get it later and if you lose some of  it, so what?   You can always replace gear.   In the event of a capsize, righting the canoe with packs and gear hanging out but tied to the canoe during the struggle of being half submerged really complicates self-rescue efforts and also tires one out a lot quicker.    There is enough going on without another distracting layer of complications.  Tying gear in for a Boundary Waters canoe trip is unnecessary.   If you want it to float, just put your gear in a garbage bag or big canoe bag within the pack, twist it closed and tuck it in.  Unless you are hauling gold bullion, you pack will float.

That being said, using a water bag means that wherever a canoe can float, there is ballast and lots of it.    Crossing portages is really easy.    When the canoe capsizes, the water bag is equal in density to the lake water and has no effect on the canoe’s ability to float, whatsoever.

While I agree the ankle weights do the job, they also potentially put you at risk.    Someday, when it is warm water, put on your swim suit, life jacket and take the canoe in 4 feet of water and roll it with the weights secured into it on the bow.   See what happens.   And, whatever you do, resist the urge to do this test in the deepest part of the lake. I’ve always marveled at our canoe demo paddlers who take a canoe and test it’s stability over a 30 foot deep part of the lake, far from other humans.   A canoe’s stability can be determined in 2 feet of water just as easily as 30 feet.    Your canoe’s flotation compromise, if any, can be determined in 4 feet of water, as well.

My guess is that the one end will sink and the point of the stern will be left pointing to the sky leaving you with very little to hold on to in the event of a capsize. This would not be good. I can tell you a true story about how a similar situation ended very badly in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.   Just the bow of the canoe was barely there to hold on to and two people drowned.  It was very tragic.

Be safe.

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