Monday, March 29, 2010

Chapter 4: Of Risk, Knowledge, Choice... and Special Vulnerability

Chapter 4 is pretty short since the only person involved in this incident did not live to give his account of what happened. We, and the author, are left to make assumptions on the basis of what we do know. This is frequently the case when we hear stories in the news about solo kayakers that are reported missing on the water and then turn up dead presumably having drowned. While the assumptions may not always be totally accurate for a given story, I think there are still some limited lessons that can be learned from what we do know.

In November 1984, Carsten Gursche went out kayaking on Vancouver's outer harbor. There was a strong westerly wind of 20 knots and fairly steep waves. No one saw Carsten capsize, but some windsurfers noticed his upside down kayak in the water as they were packing up to go home and called the authorities. His body was found washed up on shore about 12 hours later.

What we do know for sure, and that all kayakers should learn from, is that Carsten did not wear a PFD and he was not dressed for the water temperature since he was not wearing a wetsuit. In a sidebar article in this chapter entitled, "Sudden Drowning Syndrome", Matt Broze talks about the physical effects on a paddler who capsizes into cold water without proper thermal protection. This is a subject that I have recently blogged about myself on my website, Sudden unexpected immersion in cold water, especially when one is not wearing a PFD and a wetsuit or drysuit is almost a certain recipe for tragedy. I encourage you to check out the website, "Cold Water Boot Camp" to see videos of real people being subjected to immersion in cold water in a controlled experiment. I would also recommend that you read the book, "Hypothermia, Frostbite, and other Cold Injuries" by Gordon G. Giesbrecht and James A. Wilkerson, especially chapter 5 on cold water immersion. The information by Matt Broze still appears to be pretty accurate despite being over 13 years old, but since the subject of cold shock is still relatively new and unknown to many people, it is good to get the latest and most up-to-date information. Dr. Giesbrecht is somtimes referred to as "Professor Popsicle" for his research into the effects of cold water on the human body. I think that all kayakers, as well as all boaters, should know the meaning of his "1 minute, 10 minutes, 1 hour" slogan which refers to the amounts of time you have after falling into cold water before you become incapacitated and drown.

While it would appear that Carsten Gursche may have lacked sufficient skills and experience and may have been using a kayak that lacked adequate flotation, I am somewhat hesitant to make those assumptions since there is only anecdotal evidence to suggest that these were contributing causes to Carsten's death. It is perhaps safe to say that solo kayaking presents greater risks than paddling with a group. The margin for error is much slimmer when you go out by yourself.

I think that some discussion questions for this chapter would likely be;
1. Do you paddle alone sometimes or all the time? If so, how do you attempt to mitigate the risks associated with paddling alone?
2. Have you experienced any of the symptoms of "Cold Shock" when kayaking? What happened?
3. How seriously do you take the warning to "dress for the water temperature" or "dress for possible immersion?"
4. What do you wear when you go out paddling and how do you decide what to wear for a particular day trip?
5. Have you taken formal instruction or how have you attempted to develop your skills since becoming a kayaker?
6. Do you always wear your PFD? If not, why or on what basis do you make that decision?

I'm looking forward to hearing what other readers think about these questions, or perhaps other questions that may come to mind after reading chapter 4 of "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble".


Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter 2: Another Lesson from the School of Hard Knocks

It's been awhile since Rick posted a blog about the first chapter of the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble". Rick found himself suddenly too busy to complete the project, so he asked me to step in. I read this book back in the late 90's when it first came out, but it has been worthwhile for me to go back and re-read it over the years, and now again to remind myself of the lessons learned from the incidents that are related in the book.

Chapter 2 talks about a trip in July of 1984 that was planned for the west coast of Vancouver Island. It turned out to be a rather large group of paddlers, 16 people in 15 kayaks. Only a few had open water coastal kayaking experience, although most had whitewater experience. After spending 3 days near Hotsprings Cove, the group planned to move to another campsite taking a route that involved paddling in some more exposed conditions. Wind, breaking waves, and a change in weather conditions from warm sun to chilly fog all contributed to some problems, although thankfully, everyone came through the ordeal safe and sound with only one rescue required.

Frankly, as an instructor and a long-time sea kayaker, this is a pretty familiar story. As you read the account, I challenge you to identify the mistakes made by this group as well as the things that they did right. Then be honest, how often have you made these same mistakes or been part of a group that fell into some of the same traps? Most tragedies or near-tragedies happen as a result of a "chain of mistakes", many minor, that cascade into a really serious life-threatening situation. If any one of the links in that chain can be arrested, we end up with a good story and an adventure. In this case, I think the whitewater paddling experience of many in this group kept them upright in rougher seas. Whitewater paddling gives you much more opportunity to develop bracing skills and to refine your sense of balance. The only person to go over was the one with the least paddling experience.

To be fair, sea kayaking as we know it today, was really just coming out of its infancy in the mid 1980's. I started kayaking in 1988 and I know how much gear at that time was still more or less "home made". Equipment and safety techniques that we take for granted as being standard for any serious sea kayaker were, in many cases, still being tested and refined by the real-world experiences of paddlers. The tow belts that are so easily purchased and carried nowadays were not readily available in the mid 80's. Many of the pieces of safety gear that we now carry were developed to address problems that were identified after incidents like this were reported in publications like Sea Kayaker magazine back in the mid to late 80's.

There is also an interesting sidebar article in this chapter about dealing with fear. I think that this is an important topic that is too often neglected by instructors when teaching kayaking. We all deal with fears of one sort or another when learning to kayak or when paddling in conditions that, to us, are challenging. How we deal with those fears can have more impact on the outcome of a situation than the actual level of risk or danger that we are dealing with. If you claim that you have never had any fear, I don't think I want to paddle with you. You are either in serious denial, or you are not smart enough to identify actual risk. I'd really like to hear comments on this topic. When has fear impacted your paddling? How do you separate actual risk (rational fear) from perceived risk (irrational fears)? How do you prevent fear from escalating into panic?

I have many personal experiences over my two decades of kayaking that I am happy to share in this blog, but I'd like to hear what you're thinking before I start boring you with my take on everything. I'm looking forward to having some great discussions about all the stories in this book. I read all those original safety articles in Sea Kayaker magazine written by Matt Broze and George Gronseth long before the book came out. I respect and admire the work that the authors did and continue to do in advancing the sport of sea kayaking. Now it's time for you to jump in and let me know what you're thinking! Perhaps, where appropriate, Matt and George will grace us with their current perspectives.