Duckworks - Safety First!
The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders

Safety First!
by Wayne Spivak
National Press Corps
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Vigilance is needed by all
Canoe Club Saves 3

3 Canoeists Capsize in Potomac
Washington Post: Sunday, Sept 18, 2004.

Three people were rescued from the Potomac River yesterday after their canoe tipped over about 200 yards west of the Key Bridge, according to the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

I received an e-mail a while ago from Larry Schutte, the President of the Washington Canoe Club (WCC). In that e-mail, he sent me the full clipping of the story about the three Canoeists who almost died, when they rented a canoe, and then decided to get tanked.

Larry said, “While they would have drowned without life jackets (no one could get there in 1 minute), the exceedingly well coordinated and rapid response by the DC Harbor Police, the Coast Guard, the National Park Service Helicopter and the DC Fire Department enabled them to get to the scene in about 10 minutes from the time they went in the water. Frankly that was remarkable given that they came from 5 miles downstream.”

Larry further explained away the Washington Canoe Club’s role in saving these people as being in the right place at the right time. I never dismiss the actions of a volunteer, who is under no obligation to help, when in fact they do get involved and in this instance made the difference between life and death. The member of the WCC who was involved in the save deserves the thanks not only of those they saved, but of everyone who uses the Potomac River.

What went wrong?

Why did the WCC need to save these three canoeists? Because we in the recreational boating chain were not vigilant enough.

Merriam-Webster defines vigilant as “alertly watchful especially to avoid danger”. We failed in that act. More correctly, everyone failed those three people except the members of the Washington Canoe Club.

We as a society did not live up to our role as educators. We failed to educate the canoe rental industry. We failed to educate the liquor retailers around major canoeing grounds. We failed to educate the canoe renter’s.

I’m not saying we didn’t try to educate. Or that the education we are doing isn’t working elsewhere, or in other instances. But we as a society erred this day. Someone somewhere missed the fact that these individuals were going to go canoeing drunk.

I’m sure the canoe rental place didn’t rent the canoe to people who showed signs of intoxication. The liability for such an act would generally preclude a business from that folly. But we didn’t educate our canoeists.


We as a society also failed our canoeists, because they weren’t wearing PFD’s. No one, who goes out in a paddleboat (canoe, kayak or rowboats) should ever NOT wear their PFD. These vessels are easy to capsize, and not always easy to right.

Our canoeists were not wearing their PFD’s. After you hit the water is not the time you want to start about thinking putting on your PFD. Generally, it’s too late. Once you capsize your vessel, whether it’s a paddleboat or a powerboat, your chances of being injured, in shock due to the injury or cold water, make it very difficult to don a PFD.


One might say, “All’s well that ended well”. And one might be correct, but only as it relates to these canoeists able to tell and re-tell their story. This story will never end “well” until there are no more drunken boaters.

This story will not end “well” until each one of us who is involved in recreation boating, gets involved in recreational boating safety! We are all responsible for each other out there. That mean’s the grocery store that sells its wares to the boating community is just as important in the chain of safety as the rental company, the gas dock, the local marine law enforcement, the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

How do you get more vigilant? Take a boating education course. Join the United States Coast Guard. Become a Waterway Watcher. Get involved.

For more information about the United States Coast Guard ( or the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary (, or to take a boating course, see us on the web or find us in the local phone book.

For more information about Waterway Watch, contact your local USCG Auxiliary Flotilla ( and read about it here: