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The Complexities of Sea Kayaking

It’s been a long time since I’ve published anything new in this blog. This is mostly due to a complete knee replacement I had done on my left leg in June, 2010. Most of the summer of 2010 was dedicated to recovering from the surgery and regaining motion lost some 22 years ago in an industrial accident. Part of that recovery was done using mountain bicycles. At one time in my life bicycling played an important role. Last summer a Trek 4500 mountain bike played a big part in my physical therapy.

My Carbon Fiber Trek (OCLV) (Successor to the 4500)

As I slowly regained the ability to ride a bike I progressed from short rides to longer rides and by the end of August I was riding alone on rough paths into remote desert canyons. At this point I realized that if new kayakers were approaching paddling the same way they might have approached mountain biking they were vastly underestimating the potential danger. And people who are teaching kayaking to new paddlers need to understand that the complex nature of the sport is subtle and not readily apparent to new participants.

The average outdoor enthusiast is usually aware of the dangers of outdoor sporting activities. But the layers of danger present in kayaking far exceed those of other sports and, worse yet, they are generally invisible and often underplayed even by experienced kayakers. No one pooh-poohs the risks of rock climbing or white water kayaking but who can believe a calm day in a comfy little boat can turn life threatening?

Nearly invisible and rock-strewn path at Lake View Ranch, Odessa, WA

Many, if not most, sea kayak tragedies begin on calm water in weather that is settled. New paddlers may be used to other sports where they can stop easily or wait out any sudden bad weather in more-or-less comfortable conditions. If you fall off your mountain bike you probably aren’t going to die even if you are in a remote area. But if a new kayaker capsizes and swims out of the kayak is is an instant life-threatening situation.

Most kayak fatalities involve the paddler becoming immersed in the water and being unable to regain entry to his (or her) cockpit.  This situation is unheard of in other sports. When I rode solo into desert canyons on my Mountain Bike almost the worst thing that could happen to me is that I’d have to walk the bike back out. Even sudden bad weather was not much of a factor because I would simply look for shelter or, at worst, hunker down and wait. A bicyclist will often not even bother to check weather forecasts before heading out. Converting this attitude to kayaking is like asking for trouble in many locations.

Old Jeep Trail into Basalt Canyons near Coulee City, WA

Even the simple task of removing a piece of clothing like a splash coat or getting lunch out of a day hatch can be difficult in a kayak. And answering the call of nature is often truly dangerous. Consider the mountain bicyclist who simply stops and finds a tree. This is the sort of thing that new paddlers don’t see when they head out for a day’s kayaking on a local bit of water.

Paddling instructors who deal with novice kayakers need to keep in mind that the more subtle dangers of kayaking are really more akin to those you’d associate with flying small airplanes than to other sports. In both of these (and I do both of these) sudden changes in the environment can rapidly deteriorate into truly tragic consequences. No one quarrels with the expensive and intensive instruction given to budding pilots yet people blithely set of on serious paddles without a second thought; or much knowledge or navigation, survival, or paddling skills.

These subtle complexities of sea kayaking often lull the novice into thinking that the sport is calm and peaceful; and, indeed, it can be and often is. But sudden changes in circumstances can thrust the unprepared novice into a situation they are not prepared to deal with. Unlike most other sports people are familiar with, sea kayaking can – and does – deal out wild cards to the complacent.

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