Capistrano Flip

The most effective means of self-rescuing a canoe originated far from traditional canoe country. In the early 1960s, Ron Drummond was surfing waves in the Pacific Ocean near San Juan Capistrano, California, when he hit on a quick way to empty and right a swamped canoe—a regular occurrence for a Grumman in the surf zone.

Drummond’s Capistrano Flip quickly gained a following. Andrew Westwood was a nine-year-old camper when he first learned it. He and his camp friends made a game of practicing the Flip with cedar-canvas canoes, but Westwood says the technique is equally effective on remote wilderness lakes.

So when he and his wife Carole sat down to write their new instructional guide from The Heliconia Press, Canoeing, Essential Skills and Safety, the Flip was in. “It looks hard to do but if you can tread water, you can do the Capistrano Flip,” says Westwood, who has taught canoeing for 15 years, leads multi-day wilderness trips in the Canadian North and has also won multiple North America open canoe whitewater slalom championships.

The skill may not be difficult, but capturing a photo sequence demonstrating it turned into something of a travail. The couple spent hours immersed in cold water, demonstrating the Flip dozens of times for photographer Paul Villecourt. But in his wife Carole, Andrew Westwood says he couldn’t have found a more patient partner. “As an outdoor adventuring team, we’re pretty much inseparable,” says the Ottawa, Ontario-based Westwood.

Even if you learned the Capistrano Flip in summer camp, it’s a good idea to practice on flatwater before you’re faced with the challenge of capsizing in the real world.

1. If you find yourself overturned and in the water, the first step is to stay calm. Get your wits about you and make a plan for self-rescue. Above all else, a successful Capistrano Flip requires solid teamwork and communication.

2. Keep the boat upside down. Both paddlers should get into the air pocket under the canoe. You’ll need both hands to right the canoe so cradle your paddles under the thwarts to get them out of the way. You’d be surprised how secure they are in this position—they’ll be ready to use when you’re back inside the upright canoe.

3. Both paddlers then position themselves at their respective seats on the same side of the canoe. While your hands hold onto the gunwales, your legs should be treading water. Work together to lift one gunwale slightly out of the water to break the airlock.

4. On three, and with a big kick fling the free gunwale up into the air. If your timing is right, the canoe will land upright and relatively free of water. Just be sure you don’t let go of the canoe. If you’ve capsized in wind and waves, it could easily drift away faster than you can swim.

5. Now all you have to do is get back in—which, unless you have the flexibility of a nine-year-old, is the hardest part. Position yourself next to your seat, and on the opposite side of the canoe from your partner to act as a counterbalance. Do a big scissors kick and heft yourself onto the gunwale. Now scootch up, throw one leg over and wriggle your way in. The trick is that both paddlers must be doing this at the same time.

6. Bail out your canoe—you do have a bailer, right? Or paddle to shore to remove any remaining water.

Learn more canoe techniques. Canoeing, Essential Skills and Safety is available now at

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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