Canoe Rigging 101

An exclusive excerpt from the new NOLS textbook

The following is an exclusive excerpt from the new book NOLS Canoeing, by NOLS senior faculty member and program supervisor Zand Martin. The book is billed as “The perfect guide for those getting started and those who want to build on their skills.” It covers “basic strokes and maneuvers, lines, drills, rigging, loading and unloading, and carrying and transporting,” and includes hundreds of full-color photos and illustrations with sections on: Expedition planning; choosing and outfitting your canoe; water science; safety; navigation; environmental ethics. Zand Martin is a C&K contributor who paddled across North America in 2010, Europe in 2011, and Mongolia, Siberia and the Russian Far East this summer. Read Martin’s tips for crowdfunding your next expedition in the current, March issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now. Click HERE to order the book.

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Rigging

The need for a canoe rigging system and what type you should use depend on where you intend to use your canoe; a focused river canoe used on a route with continuous whitewater needs a reliable and secure rigging system, but a focused flatwater canoe used on a calm lake route might not. Generally speaking, in moving water all gear should be secured so that in the event of a capsize, the safety boat or swimming paddlers need only rescue one thing rather than several. If the packs are waterproof, the tied-in gear will also serve as flotation as it displaces water in the swamped canoe.

Loading the canoes close to high-consequence water requires communication and planning. Nisutlin River, Yukon Territory.

Loading the canoes close to high-consequence water requires communication and planning. Nisutlin River, Yukon Territory.

GRAVITY RIG

On a lake route, a gravity rig—simply placing gear in the boat without tying it down—might be enough, depending on conditions. Rescuing a swamped, loaded boat with tied-in gear in the middle of a windy lake is very difficult. You might need to secure the swimmers and either tow the boat to shore or wait for it to be blown there at the risk of losing it. Ideally, you would not be out in those conditions, but storms often come up abruptly and unexpectedly. With a gravity rig, you may be able to T-rescue
the boat (see chapter 11), pluck the swimmers out of the water, and capture a few key packs, though it is all a dicey proposition in rough conditions.

Many rivers are “pool and drop” in nature: each set of rapids or section of moving water begins and ends in a calm pool where rescue is easy and a capsized canoe whose load was gravity rigged can be put back together without the worry of losing much gear. Still, a securely tied-in load on a continuous or pool-and-drop river is probably the best option, as it is on an open lake, although this requires situational judgment.

DIAMOND RIG

One highly effective method for securely rigging a canoe for downriver travel is the diamond rig. Three metal and vinyl D-rings and four rope D-rings form the basis for this system. The three D-rings are installed on the bottom of the canoe on the centerline under the bow thwart, yoke, and stern thwart, and the rope rings are placed just under the gunwales halfway between the thwarts, as described in chapter 2.

You then lace the load together with a cam strap, a 15- to 20-foot (4.6- to 6-meter) piece of 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) flat webbing with a cam buckle sewn to one end. Other options are tubular webbing without a cam buckle or quality rope, but for ease of use, the cam strap is worth the extra cost.

Starting at the bow, you place the buckle on the seat, then thread the strap through the floor D-ring under the bow thwart, over the load, through the gunwale rope ring, over the load, down to the floor D-ring under the yoke, over the load, through the other gunwale rope ring, and through the buckle, and then cinch it tight. For added security, and to avoid having a loose piece of webbing, the tail can be finished with a half hitch or a slippery half-hitch just behind the buckle, and any spare strap can be laced across the load. The straps should not go around or over the thwarts should not be twisted, and should be neither loose nor too tight; they need only be tight enough to prevent any movement of the load.

The diamond shape of the cam strap rig secures all the gear in the canoe, making it rigged to flip, but this rig requires a bit of practice and close attention to detail to be fully effective.

The diamond shape of the cam strap rig secures all the gear in the canoe, making it rigged to flip, but this rig requires a bit of practice and close attention to detail to be fully effective.

A close-up of the diamond rig. Note that the cam strap is threaded through four D-rings—two on the bottom of the hull and two at the gunwales.

A close-up of the diamond rig. Note that the cam strap is threaded through four D-rings—two on the bottom of the hull and two at the gunwales.

Repeat the process on the stern compartment. The straps share the D-ring under the yoke. These two diamond-shaped (when viewed from above) straps will hold the gear in place if the boat capsizes and will keep the load from shifting during aggressive maneuvers. Odd-shaped or small pieces like 1,831-cubic-inch (30-liter) barrels, fuel jugs, water jugs, rocket boxes, or portable toilets might require a little creativity, but as with the larger pieces, it is a good idea to thread the strap through a handle or hard point on each item so that even if it slips out from the load, it remains attached.

SECURING THE LITTLE STUFF

After the big pieces have been loaded and secured, the smaller but rather important pieces of gear still on the beach need a secure home as well. The key here is to attach every single item to the boat, while keeping the area around your seat, knees, and thighs free of anything that might entangle. A daypack might be clipped into the bow or stern or on top of a low-lying load, while the spare paddle can be strapped on top as well or jammed down the side of the canoe between the load and the hull. Map cases benefit from a 2- to 3-foot (61- to 91-centimeter) length of p-cord, which you can use to attach them to a pack or thwart with a releasable hitch, like a thief’s hitch. Water bottles need straps or clips to hold them in; taping a spare length of webbing to each bottle and then clipping it to a pack or ring is an easy solution.

Dry bags secured to the hull of the canoe with cam straps in a diamond rig.

Dry bags secured to the hull of the canoe with cam straps in a diamond rig.

READ MORE from Zand Martin:

HERE for a look at the last 40 years of paddling conservationism.

HERE for tips on the right progression for gaining multi-day paddling skills.

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  • Burt Kornegay

    NOLS has it right. When running whitewater rivers on a wilderness trip, all gear should be securely strapped into the canoes: bags, barrels, and boxes. The goal should be to have it so well secured that if you pick up the canoe on land and turn it upside down and shake it, all gear stays strapped in and doesn’t move (the way a well-secured patient stays strapped in a stokes litter, no matter how it is turned when being carried across rough terrain). This secured gear displaces water taken on when running rapids, and it serves as flotation. IF the secured gear is combined with small bow and stern float bags, a 17′ tandem, swamped to the gunwales, will still support its paddlers and allow them to reach shore or an eddy, where they can then empty the boat.
    Burt Kornegay, Slickrock Expeditions

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