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 non-swimmers 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 knees."
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 popularity.
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 got careless.