Kayaker Fatality-is it the right question?
There have been a ton of posts already about the tragic death on Lake Superior of Kevin Dammen.
The media has covered this event from different angles, and even CASKA’s Tom Bamonte’s post did an excellent job of elucidating the dual-nature of our sport.
One thing that continues to strike me each time there is a new death on the Great Lakes in the sport of kayaking is that the media asks a series of questions, which are invariably the wrong questions. Where was the paddler headed? Who was with them? How cold was the water? What was the weather like? And if the reporter is especially ambitious they might ask how much experience the paddler had. These are all good questions that help fill in the story for a local paper. But it does point at a larger gap in the understanding of fatal kayaking incidents. They certainly never ask if the kayaker had a skirt on the kayak, which may not have been the case with Kevin. The never ask if the kayaker could roll, perform a self-rescue, or a t-rescue? They never ask if the kayaker attended any ACA/BCU training session.
My aha moment is that according to non-paddlers, the media, search and rescue from the DNR, police, and Coast Guard it seems to be based around the idea that kayakers are essentially un-powered boaters. This intuitive or cognitive leap may sound like no big deal, but stick with me.
Interestingly I called the Wisconsin DNR after they did a nice write up to try and inform paddlers about potential risks. Though from my point of view, the article from the DNR achieved more from the point of view of body recovery in a search and rescue than it did in preventing incidents from occurring.
The Wisconsin DNR essentially told me that in search and rescue, their reporting of incidents is based around power boating. How many hours had the victim/pilot logged, and so forth, but nothing in the details about paddling experience, or skills. While this is an after the fact record of the details, it does illuminate that much of the focus on safety and searches revolves around power boating for the Wisconsin DNR. Sounds fair as this is the majority of the boating activity. Kayaks and Canoes make up a smaller portion of recreational boating.
From my trips to Bayfield the National Park Service does ask some very good questions of paddlers headed out to the Apostle Islands. How long are you staying? Where will you be each night? Do you know about the bears? Do you know how cold the water is? They may even ask if you have a wetsuit or a drysuit. Because a kayak sits in the water and the paddler is literally inches above the water, we are more half-swimming than we are half-boating. The types of questions asked of a kayaker do not probe into the nature of our sport. Doug Van Doren has a saying that boaters like boats, and kayakers like the water.
I can say from my time in kayaking that I do not care for big boats, I like to get wet. Staying dry is not part of my interest in the sport. Certainly kayak surfing has taught me plenty about the eventuality of a swim, more than the unlikelihood of a swim. Based on this thought process even the basic safety propositions from inexperienced paddlers and the National Park Service fails to address this fundamental conceptual difference in our sport, our passion and our safety. We are a unique in that we are both endurance athletes and a skill-centric sport. This isn’t to say that sailing/powerboating don’t have their skills, but there is certainly a very different level of emphasis.
If we understand our safety from a perspective of being half-swimming everywhere we go with a paddle, the Great Lakes begin to look a little different. Perhaps more ominous, bigger, and less friendly, but maybe this helps clarify our abilities.
My question to Great Lakes Sea Kayakers is this:
If we were to offer a new series of questions for the National Park Service to ask before they turned kayakers loose on Lake Superior to do overnight trips in the Apostle Islands, what would it be?
In the spirit of Kayak Quixotica’s Kayaker Peer Review post, what would this series of questions look like from our community. I will be calling the National Park Service and suggesting a list to propose to the park and I’d love to hear your feedback.
Picture if a Park Ranger asked you these questions prior to your Apostle Islands Trip. Not to prevent you from doing a trip, but to inform you of the risks.
- Do you have the ability to receive weather updates either on land or on the water during your trip? From a Marine VHF radio or wireless device?
- Are you able to self-rescue your kayak with either an eskimo-roll, or a cowboy re-entry in rough water
- Can you perform a t-rescue for a companion that has exited their kayak in deep water?
- Does your kayak have a sprayskirt to keep water from entering the cockpit?
- Does your kayak have bulkheads fore and aft to keep it from sinking should you swim while at sea?
- Does your kayak have full static rescue lines to allow for a tow? Does anyone in your group possess and know how to use a tow-belt?
- Do you have immersion protection to adequately protect you against the current air and water temps?
- Do you have a signaling device to call for aid? Radio, cell-phone, flares, smoke?
- What is your groups collective decision process for go/no go based on risk factors such as cliffs, waves, wind, and temperatures?
- How far can you paddle a day in winds at five knots, ten knots, fifteen knots? etc.
There will always be those who will not care about these questions and proceed anyway. However I would argue that if a beginning group with any common sense heard this at the ranger station they might make some decisions differently.
What’s your checklist?