Greater Duty of Care Part II Risk Assessment

In the past few weeks, there have been a number of incidents on the Great Lakes, and on the west coast. Some were fatal, some merely ended in rescues. Sea kayaking as a sport, at least among non-kayakers has a bit of a reputation for being careless. Among water sports, we are more vulnerable to the elements, probably even more than sailors. Yet sea kayakers venture out into an environment that they don’t necessarily have a ton of experience with. Wind, waves, swell, tidal current, air temps, water temps, rough coastal features, river mouths all work to provide a challenging environment for paddlers who venture out.

Going back to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, I remember thinking about the mentoring system of The British Navy in the age of sail. The Navy took boys as young as 10 to sea. Exposing them to horrific risks, bad food, and brutal discipline. Boys spent years as midshipmen. They were tutored into the nautical profession to become officers. This is because it took at least 10 years to learn their trade, understand their environment, their vessel, and the dynamics of warfare at sea.

Sea Kayaking could learn something from this approach. It is a a sport with many great paddlers, but few great leaders. We simply don’t put enough emphasis on seamanship and understanding the environment into which we blindly venture. How many ACA coaches, or even BCU coaches do you know who have spent 10+ years in direct study of the sea, and further how to lead groups out into that deep blue horizon? I can only think of a handful. I am not one of them for the record.

But, we were talking about the Greater Duty of Care, and risk assessment. Often, we focus on the fun part at kayaking symposiums, incident management. Rescues, towing, and other hard skills. It’s critical to have these skills, they are what make the difference between life and death, but only when the first part, the risk assessment, has failed. In most cases, the incident at Lumpy Waters included, did not fail to manage the incident, they failed to do a risk assessment. Why? I wasn’t there. I would presume like anything it was a number of factors, not one smoking bullet. But could it be that we have failed, collectively, not as individuals, to create a culture of mentorship, tutelage for leadership and the greater duty of care in sea kayaking.

Paddlers are lauded and laureled for their ability to pick up the pieces, but rarely for having the balls/ovaries to say, I won’t take a group out in these conditions today. If you say that, it is as if you are saying, “I don’t have the hard skills to cope with the environment.” When in fact, what we should be hearing is, “If I am responsible for the lives and well being of those around me, I will not go. I care more about the group than my street cred.” This is what should change culturally. Kayaking, like any sport has cultural momentum behind it. When we get together there is always a strategic increase in macho bullshit activity, or what I have now coined as SIMBA. Don’t fall victim to it!

This is only part of the problem though, we have also been caught up in what climbers call, “summit fever”. This is the phenomenon where paying clients get hung up below the summit, and their guides short rope them to the top so they can say that they tagged the summit. Then on the way down, when the clients can’t cope anymore, or collapse, they are in the death zone, and no one can help them. This shouldn’t happen. Guides should be able to judge the ability of their clients and only take qualified climbers to the top. As our kayak training events get more ambitious, we should be wary of “summit fever” and short roping paying clients to the top.

We forget our more callow youths too quickly, and when we lead people we don’t know on the water, they may appear skilled, but prove to be oblivious to certain dangers. Often the people you are leading, don’t have the experience to understand their environment as well as you do, they are not afraid of the things you are afraid of, and are not cognescent of dangers. This problem allows participants in our classes to expose themselves to dangers repeatedly without even understanding where things may have gone wrong in the past. Don’t fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger syndrome, this concept frightens the hell out of me. Students are often drawing the wrong conclusions about failed attempts in rough water. I literally listened to one student tell me the reason he swam in surf repeatedly was a deck bag.

So with these thoughts in mind, how can we expect coaches to make proper risk assessments?

My biggest beef with kayaking is the complacency in seeking training. If 10+ years is what it took to lead a watch as a lieutenant, is 10 years too long for sea kayaking? Develop a mentorship with a coach who demonstrates the highest level of both hard and soft skills. Never assume there is nothing left to learn. Seek out training and observe different schools of thought. If you are charged with the lives of others around you, and you enjoy coaching, don’t you owe to yourself and those you are charged with to pursue meaningful tutelage?

When leading groups out onto the water, here are a few things to maybe keep everyone grounded.

  • Have a plan. Communicate the plan, stick to the plan, but be flexible on changing your plan. This includes having a float plan, and a way to communicate.
  • Always designate a leader. As nerdy and hierarchical as it seems, it will clarify everything on the water if/when everything falls apart.
  • Always do a risk assessment on shore. Follow the Body Boat Blade risk plotter, if anything plots in the red, come up with a plan b for sheltered water, or land based activities.
  • Use local knowledge, know the tides, current, outs, and weather. But know all of it down to the hour.
  • Don’t leave shore with a group without a chart. Knowing where y0u are and where the nearest help is could make all the difference.
  • People are always your greatest asset, and your greatest liability. Try to know who your leading with, even if you’re not the trip/class leader.
  • Do a warm-up to assess your group including instructors prior to heading out. The simple make a star formation will show you who has boat and edge control in a hurry. Or use another simple game.
  • If the stakes increase, continue to assess the situation, and ensure you have an out.
  • Double check students equipment and ensure it is serviceable and appropriate to the conditions.
  • Use CLAP. Communication, Line of Sight, Avoidance Positioning.
  • Managing large groups makes everything harder, breaking them down into smaller groups with assistants you trust. It makes everything easier.

With all of this said, I try to never forget that kayaking is supposed to be fun. The reason we all do this is that we are pursuing that one perfect moment. That moment rarely comes without risk.


  1. It\’s an interesting point on the nature of talent. I was discussing this with some buddies last night about cycling/running. Some people are just wired for hard cardiovascular exercise, they can take oodles and oodles of punishment, and then recover quickly and keep going. Where as some people can work and work and work at running and never get below a 9:00 minute mile. I think the same is probably true for leadership, kayaking, and group management. Some people just have the talent, and some don\’t. And in those cases the guy with 2.5 years experience, vs the guy with 10+ years experience might be very little. It\’s an interesting question.


  2. Nice post Keith…although it draws my thoughts to the issue of nature v. nurture and how this may apply to sea kayaking. I’ll start off by saying that I am a huge proponent of high quality leadership, the acquisition of skills through time with coaches and time on the water, risk assessments and all the aspects of safety that you advocate for in this article. What peaked my curiosity was your assertion of the time needed “living” in the environment in order to make these types of quality decisions (that may or may not have been your assertion, but I’ll go with it). I wonder where “inert” talent figures into the equation? We’ve all known paddlers who effortlessly acquire skills or are self taught. With only a few subtle refinements they are as skilled or polished as some who have spent years mastering skills. Or the innate ability to transfer risk assessment from other venues into sea kayaking? Give them a “acronym” such as CLAP to help frame their leadership mindset and they’re a leader I’d trust my mother to go out paddling with.

    in my 5* sea assessment in Holyhead..we had one paddler from the west coast, two paddlers from the Great Lakes, and two paddlers from Wales. The west coast paddler was on his second attempt and passed, one paddler from Wales passed and I was given a “strong pass” while the other GL paddler did not pass. The other great lakes paddler used the excuse…er…reason that he didn’t have access to the environment as the largest component of not succeeding which could have been totally valid. For me…it was my first time in Wales (granted I spent a week paddling prior to the assessment) but I was able to transfer skills from whitewater and surf, and leadership in backcountry skiing, canoeing, rafting, etc. What was the reasoning for one of the Welsh paddlers with plenty of time in the environment, solid 4* skills, experience leading groups, etc..who did not pass? This is highly rhetorical, I know, but it goes to the factors I consider when assessing instructors and choosing leaders for my programs.

    One of our “up and coming” paddlers and now coach/guides has been paddling with us for the better part of 2.5 years. His technical skills, leadership abilities and judgement rival those of many of the other good instructors, coaches and leaders I see.

    I don’t mean to slight anything that you’ve written, if fact I agree on 98% wholeheartedly…I just constantly consider how we differentiate our approach for the abnormalities. Does the “cream” rise to the top regardless of time, environment and other logical factors?