Monday, December 7, 2009

(Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble) Introduction: Kayaking Safety

The introduction of the book is a treasure trove of safety information for any paddler new or seasoned.  I found the checklists and insets rich with vital information.  This should be information should be packaged and sold with every boat.  Information includes segments on tides and currents, safety equipment and safety checklists.  Since authors would not be happy if I transcribed the entire introduction, I’ll let you read the book for the details.

I did want to pick on one issue that was mentioned in the introduction: “Rescue beacons and other communication devices”

Personal rescue beacons, cell phones and VHF radios are a sea kayakers last line of defense when everything else has failed.  When conditions or circumstances exceed skills or means calling for help is the final option.  Unfortunately, not for everyone, a recent article I read recently highlights the impact that affordable rescue beacons are having on search and rescue teams.  I know that that most people will not use these devices frivolously, but I have a deeper concern. 

Does having one of these devices extend the risks that people are willing to take?

 I am not sure that I can honestly answer that question for myself with a confident “no”.   I know that there are crossings and conditions that I would only tackle in a group.  Even then, I know that whatever could befall me could overcome the group as well and I may be on my own anyway.  Still, having a group is better than not having one.  I think the difference that having the beacon makes is that it almost seems to eliminate the risk not just mitigate it.  The false sense of security given by the thought "I have a beacon, if all else fails I can call in the cavalry" is easy to slip into.  This forgets a couple of key points. 

The first hole in this assumption is that the device will actually function when you need it to.  Four years on a nuclear submarine taught me that Murphy has a strict law and terrible sense of humor.  I will confess that on  a couple of occasions I have gone paddling and forgotten to check my VHF radio only to find that the batteries are low or even worse dead.   A beacon is susceptible to this and other failures.  Keep in mind that the laws of physics could care less about your circumstance.  If you don’t have enough juice the signal is only going to go so far.  As far as cell phones go, when the stuff hits the fan is not the time to find out how water proof your phone is and if your providers network coverage matches their advertising.

The other flaw in this thinking is that it ignores the fact that whatever conditions lead to the crisis may prevent or impede your rescue.  Bottom line there is no sure thing and there is no replacement for the right equipment, good planning, strong skills, and an honest assessment of conditions versus skills.  Accidents happen and even the most skilled and best prepared of us can be lost.

The last few weeks I have been monitoring the news reports around the world for kayaking incidents and there seems to be about one paddling incident per week that result in a search and rescue operation.  The fatalities have included paddlers of all skill levels as have the survivors.

One of my outdoor role models is Reinhold Messner, the first person to summit Mt. Everest without bottled oxygen.  In a documentary shot by Outside Magazine they asked Ed Viesturs, another accomplished Himalayan climber, what set Reinhold apart.  His response was something to that effect that he wasn't more skilled than anyone else and he wasn’t unique physically.  What made Messner the most successful climber of the 20th century was his judgment and instincts.  That when attempting to summit a certain mountain he turned around eight times before he finally reached the top. It was that sort of judgement that kept him alive and allowed him live long enough to accomplish more than any other modern climber.

Judgment seems to me to be the combination of instinct, experience, humility, and skill balanced against the desire to push past our limitations and grow.  It is our most important piece of safety equipment.


  1. Great read........and oh so true.....thanks?

  2. Deep Trouble is a great book to get you thinking about safety - at least one of the incidents in there will sound familiar to you whether you are a beginner or experienced paddler. The consistent theme is lack of forethought that got the paddler(s) into trouble. Hopefully it makes people think a little more before each paddle and also go out and read a more comprehensive book on safety skills and get some practice time in.

    As far as the rescue beacons go, I own a SPOT and do a lot of solo paddling on the ocean and remote paddling on rivers. I don't feel I take any greater risks because I have the device but I do believe it adds to my overall safety. The misuse of any new technology does not mean the technology is flawed. It will take time for users to understand proper use and authorities to adjust to its improper use. I don't have the statistics but I would guess that such devices have saved more lives of those using them when needed than they have led to injuries during unnecessary rescue attempts.

    In theory I like the idea of fining folks for improper use of such signaling devices but I realize that in practice it becomes a very tough judgment call in most situations. It would most likely just lead to many costly court cases which is something our society really doesn't need.

  3. Bryant I agree that these devices are saving lives and I intend on owning one in the near future. It brings to mind the famous quote from Spider Man. "With great power comes great responsibility."

    Thanks for the comment! I am looking forward to hearing more from you!

  4. Another thing to think about is keeping the group together. This article was written by my kayaking instructor after an incident while guiding in Baja Mexico:

    Here's the incident:

  5. I suppose there will be some exceptions, but for the overwhelming majority of people I disagree with the concept that having emergency devices (or safety skills for that matter) makes people less safe than they would be without them. This is like arguing that seat belts, air bags, and power disk brakes make cars less safe – possibly for a few drivers this is true, but in terms of doing the greatest good I don’t think we would want to ban those safety features.
    One very real risk to practically every piece of safety gear a kayaker may want to carry is that it may hinder their ability to roll or do a re-entry rescue – especially when the new gear is carried on their PFD or rear deck of their kayak. Consider this risk before adding new gear, and whenever it is safe to do so, test your ability to perform your safety techniques after adding new gear that could get in the way.

  6. I have a hard time believing adding emergency and safety gear increases a willingness to take extra risks. But I do believe that I'm willing to take extra risks when I have the proper safety equipment to take those risks. I think that's an important distinction to make.

  7. The danger or problems are rarely with the equipment being carried, it is more often a lack of knowledge, common sense, and paddling skill that get people INTO trouble in the first place. What the person is carrying for safety equipment sometimes saves his/her butt. Many years ago, I made a poor decision to take my 10-year-old son kayaking on a very cold day. When he capsized, we avoided tragedy as a result of the immersion clothing he was wearing, and the extra dry clothing and fire-starting materials that I had packed along with us. I also owe thanks to the other members of our paddling group who were there to help.