By John Dowd
Editor’s note: John Dowd has been sea kayaking since 1961. He is the author of “Sea Kayaking”, a manual for long distance touring. Dowd is also the founding editor and past part owner of Sea Kayaker Magazine and author of a series of marine adventure books for young adults. He is the founding member of TASK (Trade Association for Sea Kayaking) and founder of Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Center as well as the co-producer of a sea kayak video series (free on YouTube). Click on this link (one link will get you all three) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fc1ixH3mfdI&feature=youtu.be to check out the videos – they’re great! In Episode 1 at 51:10 there is some cool footage of Eric and the Rangers mixing it up in rock gardens.
Risk homeostasis according to the analysis of Gerald J.S. Wilde is an idea still debated amongst academics that build and lose reputations on such things. It is significant to sea kayaking because it offers explanations to some otherwise puzzling phenomena, for example the lack of a noticeable rise in mortality from the thousands of rec boats sold with no buoyancy or spray skirts. We in the trade fully expected the bodies to come washing ashore as big box stores started selling $249 packages. Years later we are still waiting. This would not have been a surprise to Wilde.
A kayaker who wears a wetsuit, body armor, and a protective helmet is more likely to paddle stormy rock gardens than that same paddler when wearing a bathing suit in a rec boat. The point is that everyone makes such adjustments based upon the perceived risk, and the accuracy of these assessments affects what they do. Their adroitness may be improved by education and experience but the target level of risk is the key and it is constant.
Therefore, addressing the cold-water debate a paddler in a full wetsuit will be more inclined to take cold water risk than someone without; thus the actual risk is held to levels acceptable for both individuals. People buy into the advice of others when it comes to assessing acceptable risk so long as that advice does not conflict with their experience. This may explain why a minority of paddlers adhere to the “always dress for the water” concept. They are in fact doing a risk/benefit analysis and opting to come up with their own compromise: usually a light (comfortable) farmer John and paddling jacket combo that will improve their reaction time for re-entering their boat should their roll fail, but in no way could be considered dressing for prolonged periods of immersion.
The point that Wilde makes is that accident outcomes are unlikely to improve until individuals reduce the amount of risk they are willing to accept. This may occur naturally as the person matures or has children or has a “near death” experience that causes them to reduce the risk they are willing to take. It may also explain the perception of youth as accident-prone. It is not that they lack dexterity or an understanding of risk so much as they are willing to accept a higher level of risk than their parents or grandparents.
Humans learn very early that water is dangerous and cold water is undesirable without ever needing to understand the science. Total landlubbers are capable of making this judgment; indeed landlubbers often have a heightened fear of water. Those who designate sea kayaking as an extreme sport underestimate the savvy of the general public while (not coincidentally) elevating their own status. Indeed it seems that just as often it is the self-proclaimed experts who find themselves in trouble, calling on the coast guard for help (again?) on the state of the art electronic device that they carried to reduce their risk. It has often been noted that those who have insurance tend to take that into account when assessing risk; thus paradoxically insurance (read also safety gear) tends to lead to more risky actions.
Maybe there exist appropriate statistics for kayak deaths during the past thirty years. If so I am unaware of them but I would bet a Schermuly flare and a nose clip that the fatalities per person-hours on the water have been and will remain a constant and show no significant difference between “novice” and “expert”. At this stage that is pure speculation but parallel examples exist in many other fields. Wikipedia has some useful examples from Wilde’s work that show the way we change our behavior so our perception of acceptable risk remains the same. The key word there is perception. The more informed one is, the more likely this perception is in fact the level of risk we are targeting.
This does not mean we should not wear wetsuits or PFDs or carry flares, VHF radios, etc. To the contrary, it means that we can do more challenging trips and still stay within our target zone of personally acceptable risk.