For pleasure one evening last April, 76-year-old William E.
Colby went paddling in his canoe near his home in southern
Maryland. The next day the canoe was found, but Colby was missing.
Talk of foul play arose. Colby, a former director of the Central
Intelligence Agency, was known to be cautious and methodical.
But canoe experts said there was no mystery to his
disappearance. They were sure that he had drowned after making
simple mistakes common to canoeists. Canoeing appears to be
sedate, and it often lures paddlers into risky behavior.
After nine days Colby's body was found in the Wicomico River,
near his house at Rock Point, Md. He lay not far from where his
empty, overturned canoe had beached. He bore no visible marks of
According to the autopsy, Colby had suffered a heart attack, but
numbed by the cold water and weighted by his clothing, he died
of drowning and hypothermia. Presumably he had tumbled from his
canoe or tipped it over. No life jacket was found. "There is
nothing unusual about this case," a police spokesman told
reporters. "Canoe drownings happen often on rivers and lakes."
Indeed, between 73 and 90 paddlers drown each year, according to
Coast Guard surveys. This grim data may be news to most of
America's 14 million recreational canoeists, but it has long
troubled the American Canoe Association (ACA), the National
Safety Council, the Red Cross and other groups that work to keep
people from drowning.
The safety of canoeing has been a public issue since early in
this century. Canoeing was vastly popular from 1885 until 1920.
Then, after magazines reported a high incidence of drowning
among paddlers, canoes were banned in many places. Within five
years 275 canoe builders had gone out of business. In 1926,
however, recreation leaders resurrected canoeing. Its popularity
grew steadily after that, but now the activity seems threatened
by the same troubles that beset it long ago.
The big problem is design. Modern canoe seats are unsafe because
they put paddlers in a position from which it is easy to tip the
canoe. There were no seats in the birchbark and cedar vessels of
native North Americans, who invented the canoe. There were no
seats in the mighty 40-foot canoes of the French-Canadian
voyageurs who paddled from Montreal to the Pacific and the
Arctic. Everyone paddled on his knees, with thighs spread and
buttocks braced against the thwarts. This provided leverage and,
more important, stability, making capsizing very unlikely.
Pioneer woodsmen acquired or copied the Indians' canoes and
their kneeling technique. But when horses and roads and
steamboats came, canoeing was forgotten. It enjoyed a revival
after 1854, principally because a book by Henry David Thoreau,
A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, fascinated wilderness
lovers. Many of them built canoes. Sensing a business
opportunity, a shoe clerk named J. Henry Rushton became a
canoemaker in 1873.
Rushton's graceful Indian-style cedar craft, lightweight and
only 10 1/2 feet long, sold briskly from his shop in Canton,
N.Y. He invented ways to quickly stretch watertight canvas over
a wooden hull and set up a factory in 1881. He prospered.
Competitors did too, notably the Old Town company, which started
in 1902 and is still in business in Old Town, Maine.
Dartmouth College was one institution that emphasized the
outdoor experience. It bought canoes and encouraged students to
make expeditions along the Connecticut River. Elsewhere around
the U.S., canoe clubs sprouted. Entrepreneurs opened canoe
rental stands in parks with lakes. Love-struck couples, family
picnickers, hunters and fishermen went paddling by the tens of
thousands on sunny Sundays.
But in 1920 people around Boston raised questions about frequent
canoe drownings in the Charles River. The weekly Illustrated
World investigated. It apparently got little help from
institutions along the Charles, but it turned up horrendous
numbers along a 50-mile strip of the Merrimac. Canoe drownings
there numbered as many as eight per Sunday. IS CANOEING A SAFE
SPORT? was a headline in one of the weekly's issues in February
1920. Scribner's and The Outlook picked up the outcry.
Nobody had imagined such casualties because canoeing deaths were
scattered through many jurisdictions. All paddlers seemed to be
at risk. Youth camps locked up their canoes. Some cities and
counties prohibited canoeing. Rental stands closed. Five years
later canoeing was definitely on the decline in the U.S.
But the ACA, the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross wouldn't let the
sport die. They had seldom seen drownings among their own
members. Why were others drowning? Because, these organizations
discovered, manufacturers had popularized canoes with seats.
Such craft were like ships with cargo piled on the upper decks.
But they were comfortable, and they made canoeing more appealing
to novices. Most people who drowned weren't paddling in the
age-old style, on their knees. They sat with their knees above
the gunwales. If they were caught broadside by wind or current,
their canoes could turn over. These canoeists might also reach
too wide with their paddles and topple out. Then they might sink
and drown if they were nonswimmers wearing regular clothes. They
seldom had life jackets.
In 1927 the ACA, the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross set out to
restore old-style paddling. Their manuals exhorted, "For safe
canoeing, remove seats and replace with thwarts." Subsequent
manuals proclaimed, "Seats have been relegated to their proper
home--the firewood pile." Canoeing instructors chided pupils who
got off their knees. Editors of Boys' Life and other scouting
magazines rejected photos that showed sitting paddlers. The
Grumman Boat Company resumed production of seatless canoes in
1927, primarily because the Boy Scouts ordered about 3,000 for
569 camps where canoes had previously been taboo. The Red Cross
put efficient rescue crews in canoes on the Merrimac and Charles
Rivers, and elsewhere. Incidents of drownings diminished.
Canoeing became beloved again.
But in the 1970s new instructors lost their predecessors' zeal
for teaching students to kneel. A revised edition of the Scouts'
merit-badge pamphlet showed paddlers on seats. The text
suggested "sitting squarely on the seat... or, much better,
kneel with your knees far apart." Sports Illustrated's 1981
manual Canoeing Skills for the Serious Paddler, written by Dave
Harrison, also compromised: "Most of the time I'm sitting
comfortably. But [in rough water] my partner and I shift to our
Predictably, reports of canoe drownings increased. Legislators
acted. Laws in some states now require canoeists to wear a
personal flotation device (PFD). In May 1995 a federal law took
effect, mandating that a wearable PFD be carried for each person
aboard any craft, no matter what the size. Camps, canoe clubs
and lifeguard crews now strive to make sure that life jackets
are always worn. Compliance is spotty, however, because PFDs
make paddling awkward.
Is canoeing on the wane again? Canoe manufacturers do not
release sales figures. The Boy Scouts have closed certain "high
adventure bases" that featured canoeing. Many youth camps have
deemphasized canoe trips. But polls show no drop in canoeing's
Ironically, William Colby had learned to paddle kneeling as a
Boy Scout in the 1930s. As an active supporter of scouting, he
had helped promote the wearing of PFDs and the buddy system. So
he knew the right way to canoe. But apparently, like others, he
Keith Monroe, of Los Angeles, spent nine summers as an aquatics
director at boys' camps in California.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN MUMMERT/AP The former CIA director's body was not recovered until nine days after his empty canoe was found. [Police carrying body on stretcher near water]
B/W PHOTO: ROBERT HALMI Safe paddlers kneel and wear PFDs (top). Sitting in a canoe is unwise--and roughhousing is reckless. [Man wearing personal flotation device while paddling canoe]
B/W PHOTO: ARCHIVE PHOTOS/LAMBERT [See caption above--boys playing with poles while standing on canoe gunwales]