On Nov. 15, 2018, an Ontario judge ruled that canoes are “vessels” under the Criminal Code of Canada, making them subject to the country’s impaired driving laws. Previously, the Criminal Code had only applied these laws to motorized road vehicles. The Code also had no clear definition for the term “vessel.”
The historic ruling is related to the tragic death of an eight-year-old Huntsville boy. On April 7, 2017, Thomas Rancourt drowned after the canoe he was riding in overturned in the Muskoka River. The man he was with, David Sillars, was charged with impaired operation of a vessel causing death, operating a vessel with a blood-alcohol level over 80 milligrams causing death, dangerous operation causing death and criminal negligence causing death. At the start of his trial, the court first had to settle the question of whether the Criminal Code applies to canoes. Had the judge ruled that a canoe is not a vessel, only the charge of criminal negligence causing death would have been upheld. (Sillars has pleaded not guilty to all four charges; his case is ongoing.)
Rancourt’s death has brought renewed attention to the risks of drinking and boating. We asked Sgt. Paul Csanyi, an officer with the Marine & Search Incident Response Team at Halton Regional Police Service, about this and other safety issues.
What are the dangers of drinking and boating?
Any intoxicant, whether it be drugs or alcohol, can impair your ability to operate a vehicle safely and effectively. For recreational boating, the weather is a compounding factor, with the sun and the swaying of the vessel. They all contribute to impairing your ability.
What’s the legal blood alcohol limit for operating a boat?
The same rules that apply on land apply on water: the legal limit across Canada is 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood.
Is alcohol allowed on canoes?
Transporting sealed bottles, cans, or containers of alcohol or liquor would be permissible – an individual transporting alcohol to a neighbour’s cottage across the bay, for example. The general rule for consuming alcohol on vessels is that the vessel requires three elements: it must have sleeping accommodations, it must have permanent cooking facilities, and it must be at anchor or moored at a dock. With a canoe, it’s next to impossible to satisfy the first two requirements.
What happens if you’re caught impaired in a canoe?
You’d be looking at the same fines and statutory requirements as you would if stopped in your car, except impoundment — we don’t really impound vessels. Your driver’s license would be suspended, even though it’s a canoe. Then you’re at the mercy of the courts. They have at their disposal monetary fines, probation time, license suspension and/or custody, depending on your criminal record, if there’s personal injury involved, and other mitigating circumstances. Those are all factors at sentencing.
When people go out in a canoe, what should they bring?
First and foremost is personal flotation devices (PFDs) or life jackets. Also paddles for propulsion, a bailing bucket and, if you’re going to be in open waters, flares or a flashlight.
There should be one PFD per person, right?
Yes, one per person, and ideally we’d like to see people wearing them, as opposed to just having them. Wear the life jacket — that’s what’s going to save you.
Each PFD also needs to be approved by Transport Canada or the Canadian Coast Guard. Look for the label. With our proximity to the U.S., a lot of people buy PFDs there, and unfortunately they’re not approved in Canada. Anything approved by the United States Coast Guard will keep you afloat, but it’s not approved for Canada. We try to educate people on that.
What about PFD sizes?
Each PFD must be appropriate for the person’s size. PFDs have a size and weight rating. So if you have a child’s PFD and the only person on board is an adult, that’s not compliant.
One problem is that, for infants, there’s no PFD approved in Canada for them to wear. There are PFDs for infants available in the U.S. — people on pleasure craft and larger boats, if they have infants on board, they bring those. It’s tough to be critical of that when there’s nothing in Canada approved for that age category.
What other canoeing safety tips can you share?
Weather is always a huge factor. I highly recommend checking the forecast before setting out. Especially on Lake Ontario, we come across canoeists, kayakers, and stand-up paddle-boarders who get blown out too far. It looks like a nice, calm day along the shore, but a strong offshore breeze slowly blows them out to a point where the weather exceeds their capability to return.
Stay within your abilities. Also, try to canoe in known areas such as lakes, rivers, streams — smaller bodies of water that a canoe is really designed for. When encountering waves, try and take them head on, as opposed to broadside, for more stability.
A canoe is one of the more unstable platforms to be out on in the water. Keep your centre of gravity low. And try to canoe with two people at all times. The front person gets in first and is always the last out. That keeps the weight nearest to the centre of the canoe — the front seat is closer to the centre. Also, stay hydrated and dress appropriately for the weather.
What about the dangers of cold water?
I can speak to Lake Ontario. It takes quite a long time for the lake to warm up – not until later in July and August, even September. You might be out on a nice sunny day in May, June, even early July, where the temperature might be 80 degrees, but water is still 45, 50 degrees, so it’s deceiving. Hypothermia is always a consideration.
What if my canoe overturns?
Stay with the canoe, and if you haven’t ventured too far from shore, try to swim and push the canoe back to shore.
If my canoe gets blown too far offshore, and I have a cell phone, who should I call?
Call 911 or *16. *16 will put you in touch with the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre. For Ontario, it’s in Trenton, and they would deploy help.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.