Sea Kayaking and Risk Homeostasis

by Nancy Soares on April 7, 2014

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) 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.

Is it risky? Yes, but he's dressed appropriately.

Is it risky? Yes, but he’s dressed appropriately. Gath helmet: check. Stohlquist kevlar PFD: check. Heat Wave custom wetsuit: check. Neoprene gloves and booties: check.

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.

In the Mediterannean in June we dressed like this.

When we’re touring in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sardinia in June we dress like this. Pictured: Barbara Kossy

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.

In the Pacific off the coast of Northern California we dressed like this.

When we’re rock gardening in the Pacific off the coast of Northern California we dress like this. Pictured: Mark Boyd, Jeff Laxier, and Michael Dedman.

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.

Southern Oregon in July on Carberry Creek, paddling backwards. Current: minimal. Air temp: 90F; water temp: 68F. Water depth: I can walk out and I'm wearing booties. Should I be wearing a helmet and elbow pads too? I thought about it and accepted the risk.

Southern Oregon in July on Carberry Creek. Current: fast. Air temp: 90F; water temp: 58F. Water depth: I can walk out and I’m wearing booties. Should I be wearing a helmet and elbow pads? I thought about it and accepted the risk.

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.

Acceptable risk, baby!

Acceptable risk, baby! Pictured: Nancy Soares. Photo by Cate Hawthorne.

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.

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The Last Sea Kayaker

by Nancy Soares on March 17, 2014

A similar photo by Michael Poewrs of this same spot was featured on the cover of the June 1997 issue of Sea Kayaker.

A similar photo of this playspot by TR Michael Powers graced the cover of the June 1997 issue of Sea Kayaker. Pictured: TR’s John Lull and Dave Whalen.

I received the last Sea Kayaker magazine with mixed feelings. When Eric was alive I didn’t read Sea Kayaker much – just when there was an article about a place I found intriguing. Eric often railed at what he saw as uninteresting content and that put me off. One of his pet peeves was an issue that featured a photograph of a cow. “Cows???” he would yell, stomping around and waving his arms. “Cows??? What’s that got to do with sea kayaking?!”

The cow was someone’s idea of noteworthy on a kayak trip, but having grown up in Anderson, California where there are lots of cows to Eric they were ubiquitous and boring and don’t belong in a magazine about an exciting sport like sea kayaking. In fact, he cancelled his subscription to another paddling magazine because he found it tedious. On the other hand, Eric did write articles for Sea Kayaker and it was a valuable platform for him. He also subscribed because as a sea kayaker he wanted to keep abreast of what was going on in the industry.

When I read Chris Cunningham’s farewell editorial in the February 2014 issue, I understood the source of Eric’s frustration with the magazine for the first time. Chris quoted founding editor John Dowd in the first issue introducing Sea Kayaker’s mission: Sea Kayaker is designed to provide a forum for the touring kayaker. It will focus exclusively on subjects of interest to those who take to open water for a day, a week or a month.” Well, duh. No wonder Eric found Sea Kayaker frustrating.

Sea Kayaker was geared toward touring kayakers. Eric was a whitewater sea kayaker, and while he enjoyed going on retreat and the occasional excursion to Baja, he disliked touring. As he said, “I’d rather go for a hike”. His goal was to play in surf, rock gardens, and caves and to get away from the Herberts. Naturally his approach was different from that of the creators of Sea Kayaker. It’s a miracle in a way that any of his articles got printed at all, since his content always had an edge and involved doing a lot of things other people thought were crazy. But when Eric died, Chris wrote a very kind piece in the editorial.

After Eric died I knew that if I continued this blog as he requested I had to stay abreast of the industry too. I started reading every issue of Sea Kayaker cover to cover. Not being a gearhead I’m not very interested in product critiques, but I always read the Lessons Learned sections and because I enjoy travel lit I enjoyed reading about the different kayaking destinations. I also enjoyed reading the Letters. I got the impression that touring sea kayakers while sometimes a bit narrow are generally pretty high level people: intelligent, educated, interested in the world around them and able to appreciate nature. And over the years there were many stunning photographs, not just of cows. Reading the magazine connected me to the greater kayaking world; Sea Kayaker expanded my horizons and I’m grateful.

Reading Sea Kayaker also gave me a sense of continuity with the past. The magazine started in 1983 when the sport was in its infancy at about the same time Eric was formulating his ideas for the inception of the Tsunami Rangers. You might say that Sea Kayaker and the Rangers grew up together. So reading the last issue was bittersweet. I’m glad I had an opportunity to pay more attention to the magazine after Eric died and I’m sorry I won’t be receiving it any more. I think the way they decided to bring an end to the publication by fulfilling incomplete subscriptions with issues of Adventure Kayak is a good one and I will look forward to reading that magazine too. But it’s the end of an era.

Bon voyage to everyone at Sea Kayaker. Thank all of you for your years of hard work on behalf of the sport of sea kayaking. Fare well wherever you fare.

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Sea Kayaking Microwave – Surfin’ Tsunami Style

February 24, 2014

Share By Steve King and Scott Becklund Editor’s note: The Tsunami Rangers refer to the wave at Mushroom Rock as Microwave for two reasons: it’s a mini-version of Maverick’s and there’s a naval station with radio and radar on the bluff above the break. Thanks to TR Michael Powers for all the great photos! Steve: About [...]

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February 1, 2014

ShareEditor’s note: Our featured poet, Katie Whalen, age 14, is the daughter of Tsunami Ranger Dave Whalen. We are reprinting her poem with her permission. Thank you, Katie. Rhythm by Katie Whalen  The warmth of the sun-beaten rock soaks into my skin. My legs dangle off the edge. Thirty feet below me I gaze upon the pebbles [...]

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Go For It!!! Commitment in Sea Kayaking

January 13, 2014

ShareCommit by Eric Soares Be there Scope it out Wait for the opportune moment Commit Commit with abandon Ride the grooveline Go ballistic Stay tuned Ambient to change Sense the crash Save yourself Be there Without commitment There is no fulfillment The venture fails The flower bears no fruit The love fades away The wave [...]

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Of Cocktails and Kayak Trips

December 23, 2013

ShareEditor’s note: We at the Tsunami Rangers website hope that you and yours have a very Merry Christmas! And a Whoopee, er, that’s Happy New Year! There may be teetotalling sea kayakers out there but I don’t know any. Booze and the sea just go together. Yo ho ho! and a bottle of rum! In [...]

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Sea Kayaker’s More Deep Trouble – Gotta Have It or Make It Stop!?

December 2, 2013

ShareMore Deep Trouble is another collection of death and disaster stories featuring sea kayakers, compiled by Sea Kayaker editor Chris Cunningham. More Deep Trouble is a follow up to Deep Trouble, and like the previous book includes the Lessons Learned from each event. I mentioned More Deep Trouble to Tsunami Ranger John Lull. John has years [...]

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Wild in Spirit – The Latest Tsunami Ranger Project

November 18, 2013

Share“What’s next for the Tsunami Rangers?” Eric always said. Right now, Tsunami Ranger Michael Powers is working on Wild in Spirit, a coffee table book of fabulous photographs from around the world highlighting inspirational quotes. One of my favorites this one from Rumi: Wild in Spirit is dedicated to Tsunami Rangers Eric Soares and Misha [...]

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The Combat Roll

November 4, 2013

Shareby Tsunami Ranger John Lull While paddling south one day from Point Arena on the northern California coast, I spotted an inner passage through the sandstone cliffs, cut deep into the uplifted marine terrace.  After exploring the passage for a considerable distance, it became obvious it would dead end up ahead, so I entered a [...]

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Sea Kayaking Na Pali Redux – Rolling With the Tao

October 14, 2013

Share“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” -Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching” My experience on the Na Pali expedition was an exercise in how to roll when things don’t go as planned. I had misgivings as soon as I arrived on Kauai and discovered 26 people signed up for [...]

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