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What is a Leading Cause of Death for Paddlers in Small Crafts Such as Canoes, Kayaks, and Rafts?

Fact checked by William Hart

what is a leading cause of death for paddlers in small crafts such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts

Paddlesports are perfect for nature lovers. They are also inexpensive and require minimal knowledge and experience in boating. In 2020, the Outdoor Foundation reported nearly 38 million Americans took part in the sports.

Unfortunately, the rising number of participants resulted in more kayaking accidents. In the same year, paddlesports contributed 26% to the total boating death rate.

What is a leading cause of death for paddlers in small crafts such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts? The top reason is drowning after the small water craft swamps or capsizes. This, however, could have been prevented if paddlers took more caution and worn PDFs before the boat went underway.

Table of Contents

List of Reasons Causing Fatality in Small Watercraft

Reason #1. Drowning


According to the US Coast Guard’s 2021 written boating accident report, among 96 deaths while kayaking, 86% were due to drowning. Approximately the same rate applied to canoers. The year witnessed a total of 46 deaths, 85% of which were from drowning.

Are canoes or kayaks safer? Though fewer casualties were caused while canoeing, don’t assume one is safer than the other. Accidents will happen if you come unprepared, regardless of the boat type you choose.

In most flatwater accidents, victims fall overboard and drown because the boat capsizes. Sadly, kayak drowning statistics showed that 80% of the victims were not wearing PDFs when the mishaps occurred. Otherwise, they could have lived.

You might assume that you’ll never venture too far with a kayak, and when accidents occur, you can grab onto the boat to stay afloat. But that is not always the case. Don’t underestimate the likelihood of drowning for paddlers in small boats!

Reason #2. Hazardous water and weather conditions


The water can bring surprises — wind changes directions; tidal waves occur; trees fall and float on the water; sudden rain or fog reduces visibility to a dangerous level.

So, the second culprit behind boating deaths is no one else than mother nature, who causes 40% of paddling accidents. Small boats are vulnerable—they will capsize easily when strong winds suddenly change the currents, especially when someone paddles in an unsteady boat.

Make sure to consult the water body’s map, learn the hazard warning signs, and check weather information before going kayaking in a new area.

Reason #3. Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a top cause of death for those on small boats. Paddle crafts are fully exposed to weather conditions and temperatures; thus, your body can suffer hypothermia when the air turns frigid.

If you live in a cold country, consider wearing thermal garments when kayaking. In addition, don’t forget to stay hydrated.

Reason #4. Lack of experience

Most paddlers take up kayaking as a hobby in their free time. Thus, they are often inexperienced boaters. Nearly 30% of the victims only participated in the watersports for less than 10 hours prior to accidents.

Even worse, many paddlers don’t invest their time in learning the operation techniques, marine navigation rules, warning signs, and acquiring safety equipment such as PDFs and first aid kits.

When accidents take inexperienced paddlers by surprise, they might not know how to flip a capsized boat, how to protect themselves from cold water exposure, and how to get back on board after falling.

Before taking up kayaking as a new leisure pursuit, consider taking a class. You will learn the basics of boat handling techniques, safety precautions, and marine rules. You can also do research online to prepare yourself.

Reason #5. Intoxication

The last cause of death for paddlers is intoxication, which takes up 25% of the total number of accidents. Alcohol misleads your judgment on the water and prevents you from handling the kayak safely. You are also at higher risk of falling overboard under the influence of it.

Remember that you must be sober when operating any vehicle or machine.

Tips to Minimize the Risk of Death When Using a Small Craft


Small crafts are less stable and sturdy than larger vessels; they are prone to capsizing under any sudden movement. You might be surprised that 50% of fatal small watercraft accidents involve fishing, in which the anglers might jerk the rod and cause the boat to tip over.

Kayaking deaths per year will continue to rise, unless paddlers start taking action today. Keep these tips in mind to maintain your boat’s balance and minimize the chance of mishaps:

  • Make sure you and the passengers onboard are wearing proper PDFs
  • Avoid standing up or walking on kayaks. If necessary, keep at least three points of contact on the deck when you move.
  • Never overload a kayak
  • Spread people and items onboard (such as spare PFD, spare paddle, food, and drinks) evenly
  • All guests should maintain a proper sitting posture. Don’t tilt your head too far to the side or put your shoulders over the gunwales. Falling overboard is a major risk on small boats.
  • Slow your kayak when turning or being caught in the wakes of other vessels
  • Never go kayaking when the weather doesn’t cooperate
  • Never go kayaking under the influence of alcohol


What should you avoid when paddling?

When you go paddling, avoid venturing into these areas:

  • Fast-moving water: Unlike power-driven vessels, kayaks and rafts are incapable of escaping fast-running water. Your boat will get caught in the flow, and you will lose control of it.
  • Waterfalls: Always check the map of the water body and avoid sailing your boat near waterfalls. Such forceful currents can trap and pin the boat underneath the water, preventing you from swimming away.
  • Water obstructions: Once you spot a floating water obstruction, stay away from it. Don’t assume you can approach it from the sides and pass it easily as hazardous water might be nearby.

What should you do when visibility is reduced?

Don’t attempt to paddle at night or in foggy zones. Power-driven vessels might fail to see you and collide with your kayak, leading to severe casualties. So, when it starts to rain or become misty, consider sailing back to shore.

What should you do first when a kayak capsizes?

The first thing to do is to quickly check your partner and assist him or her as needed. If your boat capsizes in running water, swim to your watercraft, hold onto its upstream end, and wait for help.

If your boat capsizes and floats away, swim to the nearest floating object, hold onto it, and wait for help. Most PDFs come with a whistle, you can use it to attract attention.


What is a leading cause of death for paddlers in small crafts such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts? The short answer is drowning. Sadly, 80% of the victims could have survived if they wore PDFs on their deathly kayaking trip.

Other top causes include weather conditions, hypothermia, the operator’s lack of experience, and intoxication. But now that you know the causes, you can prepare for what’s about to come and minimize the chance of mishaps. We wish you the safest trips on the water!

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