Death Avoidance Strategies for Paddlers

We as kayakers are participating in an assumed risk sport; which is to say that there are risks inherent in the activity. These risks can be minimized by prudent decision making, but can never be eliminated. Much like skiing, or mountain biking, participants need to accept the fact that someone may get injured or killed, we each hope it won’t be us, or someone we know. There are a few ways to manage these risks.

Here’s a scenario:

You and 2 friends are meeting in the morning for a 10 mile round trip out to an island (1 mile open water crossing). The forecast is for on-shore winds at 10 knots. The water temp is 63 degrees. On the way to the launch site one friend calls on the cell to say he can’t make it. You arrive at the launch and note that the winds are now blowing off shore and it feels like a bit more than 10 knots.

So even before you get on the water you’ve got a red flag for having the group drop to 2; a red flag for offshore winds, and a red flag for cold water (haven’t bought your drysuit yet) Everyone is going to have a different comfort level for how many red flags they are willing to accept before changing plans. For me 1 red flag I’ll make a mental note, 2 red flags and I’m starting to think about other options, at 3 red flags I am seriously considering plan B. If another red flag pops up then I am almost certainly changing plans.

What makes those red flags:

Less than 3 paddlers–if someone needs help your options are very limited–you might be able to tow a paddler but not if they are incapacitated and need to be stabilized. There were 2 recent incidents each involving a pair of paddlers where one person was unable to stay upright in their boat. The conditions in each case were such that a contact tow was not feasible and use of a towline would only work if the victim could be stabilized. One incident resulted in a fatality as the victim succumbed to hypothermia; the second duo averted a more negative outcome when another paddler came to their aid.

Offshore winds–If you are unable to paddle or wet exit and get separated from your boat and have to swim, getting back to shore against the wind is at best extremely difficult and potentially impossible. Furthermore the greater the distance from shore you are, the larger and more challenging the conditions will become. So, if you have an incident in offshore winds, it will only get worse as you drift.

Cold water–Is 63 degrees cold? How about 75, 85? (anything less than 98.6 starts the decline into hypothermia) It all comes down to how you’re dressed and how long you may be in the water.

The Route–Given the plan for the 1 mile open water crossing to the island you have the potential of being out of your boat a half mile from land.Put on a wetsuit or drysuit and try swimming a few laps at a pool and see what the likelihood of swimming a half mile is going to be.

The prudent response to these red flags would be to modify the route to explore the coast. That still leaves a couple of flags for only the 2 of you and the water still might be a bit chilly but you’ve radically reduced the chances that something is going to go wrong.

One key is always asking the “What If?” questions. What if we capsize 100 ft from shore, or a half mile from shore? What if the wind picks up to 25 while we’re on the island? What if I need to be towed? It pays to keep your mind sharp while paddling and always be on the lookout for potential problems and to be building a mental list of possible responses.

The level of risk you’re willing to accept is very much a personal decision. I once ran an instructor training program in whitewater. We got out of our boats to scout a rapid that I had run many times before. We looked at possible routes and pointed out the nasty hole near the bottom where a paddler really didn’t want to be. I asked the group what they felt their chances were of making it through the rapid successfully and based on those chances would they choose to run it. One person said they felt they had a 50/50 chance of making it and wanted to run it. I suggested that for me I need to be 98-99% sure I’m going to make it based on the consequences of not making the line (in this case having a bad ride in a big hole). I vetoed the 50/50 shot and we all walked the rapid. While some paddlers are content with marginal odds they still must take into consideration the consequences of being wrong.

You will likely never regret making the conservative decision. You may very well regret ignoring all those red flags. In almost every accident report I’ve ever read there is a progression of events and rarely a single factor that led to the incident. Paying attention to a series of small, seemingly unrelated issues, could very well keep you from becoming a statistic.