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".



  1. I have to say that I am a NOLS sea kayaking instructor, and 'deep trouble' is on every course I have worked - not by my choice, but by general 'oh! ya gotta bring deep trouble!' and for some reason it always seems to be read by those who are most scared. maybe it's some sort of soothing tonic? who knows.


  2. I have not found that to be the case in my experience, although I can see where that might happen. Perhaps it has something to do with the demographics of people who take NOLS courses. I've been an ACA and BCU certified instructor for over 10 years and a sea kayaker for over 20 years. The stories in this book were compiled from the "Safety" articles that appeared in Sea Kayaker magazine from it's inception in the mid 80's until about the mid 90's. I have never found the stories to be particularly scary in my mind, but rather very instructive and in a way, somewhat empowering. As kayakers, we will never overcome the power of water, be it on rivers, lakes, or the ocean, and we will never completely eliminate risk (nor, I think, would we want to). However, in all of these stories there are useful lessons to be learned about preparing to handle certain risks, and about being humble enough to know when to stay off the water and avoid excessive risk. I, and many people I paddle with, have learned a great deal from reading these stories and were saved the trouble of having to learn from personal experience. I paddle in challenging conditions with a healthy respect for what can happen, but also the confidence of knowing that I've done what I can to mitigate the potential risks.

  3. And I would agree with all that you said. I was merely, commenting that it is a staple in the libraries I have carried on courses, and that I found it interesting that the most apprehensive paddlers chose to read it.


  4. I'm sorry. I guess I misunderstood your original comment. My bad. :)