Friday, August 26, 2011

Three stages of kayaker evolution- confessions of a Stage 2 paddler

Karl was scolding me. A few days earlier, he had seen me paddling on Red Rock Lake; we had waved to each other across the broad expanse of the giant, bluff-lined reservoir on that beautiful fall day. Now, in a conversation in his car, my ears burned and my face flushed with embarrassment mixed with anger over having my shortcomings bluntly pointed out to me. “You were paddling on Iowa’s biggest lake, alone in a remote area, on a windy day in October, without a wetsuit in cold water, without the ability to roll, having never practiced a self-rescue. You are lucky you didn’t capsize. We would have read about you in the disaster section of Sea Kayaker.”  Deep down, I knew he was right, but my self-dignity required at least a feeble retort: “But I didn’t capsize. Everything turned out fine. I had a great time.” That only set me up for the final broadside: “That’s the attitude that victims have right up to the moment of their disaster. Then they flip and can’t get back in their boat, or swim to shore, or stay warm, or get rescued. It will happen to you sooner or later if you keep that up.”

Photo by Diane Michaud Lowry

His words stung because I had always considered myself a capable outdoorsman, having honed wilderness survival skills for many years as a backpacker and hiker. I knew how to make fire, create shelter, and find my way, but during my self-review provoked by Karl’s criticism, I discovered a fatal flaw: my skills were suited to land, not water. I could survive in a terrestrial wilderness, but from a capsized kayak, I would first need to get to land for them to become effective. Karl was right – in my newfound enthusiasm for paddling, I had glossed over the need to learn a new set of water-based survival skills.  

I decided to fix that. I purchased a wetsuit and learned to brace and roll. I learned how to self-rescue and how to rescue others. I am now a 3-star BCU paddler, an ACA-certified instructor and trip leader, and a continuing student of paddling safety. Reflecting on my own evolution as a kayaker during the past ten years, I perceive three stages that new paddlers potentially pass through during their progression from novice to expert:

Stage 1: Novices Acting Like Novices
These are self-admitted beginners who engage in conservative paddling in calm, benign, near-shore environments without exposure to the dangers of wind, waves, tides, storms, or isolation. As long as they paddle within these parameters, declining to venture into risky environments or promptly retiring ashore when risky conditions threaten, quiet water skills are usually sufficient. Their self-image as conservative paddlers coincides with the reality of their conservative paddling.

Stage 2: Novices Acting Like Experts
In this stage, enthusiasm for adventurous paddling outpaces the real level of skill possessed by the paddler. These overconfident paddlers venture into places that are – or could easily become - windy and wavy, exposing them to risk because they are unskilled at avoiding, escaping, and recovering from the danger in which they place themselves. The pages of Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble [Ragged Mountain Press, 1997] are filled with fatal and near-fatal examples: people who paddle without wetsuits but are soon soaked with cold water; who cannot read the water but paddle across rough tidal straits; who start out in benign conditions but are later overwhelmed by wind, waves, and weather. In these cases, their self-image as capable paddlers is not matched by the reality of their unpreparedness. This is where Karl perceived me to be on the day I earned his scolding.

Stage 3: Experts Acting Like Experts
Here is where most of us want to be, paddling at a level where are risks are matched with needed skills and equipment. There is a gradation of “experts” within this broad class, ranging from newly minted adepts to deeply experienced old hands, but a quality they have in common is the ability to balance risk with competence and good judgment. They include the guides we respect and the adventurers who inspire us. They go into to but also return safely from beautiful and sometimes dangerous places.

Photo by Diane Michaud Lowry

However, even experts can get overconfident or show lapses in judgment, essentially creating a fourth class: 3B, Experts Acting Like Novices, or Smart Paddlers Doing Dumb Things. Examples from Deep Trouble include the experienced kayaker who inadvertently left his floatation bags at camp but still paddled through a narrow sea arch into violent surf, swamping and ultimately sinking his kayak; and another expert who knowingly set out into a developing gale, but even after capsizing in chaotic seas and struggling to shore, he relaunched into the maelstrom, declined assistance from a passing boat, and capsized again, finally signaling for rescue from a second boat and - after the ordeal - blaming his kayak! Like the Stage 2 novice, overconfidence can lead even experts into conditions beyond their ability.

The goal of new paddlers should be to progress from Stage 1 directly to Stage 3 while skipping Stage 2 (overconfident novices) and avoiding overshooting the mark into Stage 3B (overconfident experts). Ways to eliminate Stage 2 are to take kayaking lessons and to practice basic skills before venturing into risky waters. Experts should strive to avoid 3B and to set good examples for novices. It’s really up to you to choose the right path because not everyone will have a friend like Karl who tells them what they need - but don’t want - to hear.   

Even though we may not realize it at the time, we all need friends like Karl to provide us with the "tough love" of giving good, but potentially unwanted advice.  Let's all work on being safe and helping our fellow paddlers be safe, too.  If you're giving advice, try to be helpful, not insulting or condescending.  If you're receiving advice, listen and accept its intended message.  It might save your life someday.