The Rashomon Effect: Sea Kayaking Variables in Perception

by Nancy Soares on July 29, 2013

“Rashomon” is a 1950 movie directed by Akira Kurosawa. It involves a rape and a murder allegedly committed by the bandit Tajomaru, played by Toshiro Mifune. There are four witnesses: the bandit, the wife, the samurai, and the woodcutter. Each witness has a different perception of events. Any cop will confirm this is often the case: everyone agrees an incident took place, but each witness tells a different story.

Toshiro Mifune in "Rashomon"

Toshiro Mifune in “Rashomon”

This phenomenon which I’m calling the Rashomon Effect has applications for kayakers. In “Worst. Crash. Ever.” I misjudged my distance from the rocks at Pillar Point. What I saw that day was Nancy Keeping a Reasonable Distance From the Cliff. What Eric saw was Nancy Way Over on the Reef in the Kill Zone. Very different perceptions, and needless to say, Eric’s was more accurate.

At the seventh annual Reef Madness Sea Kayak Race in 2012, the Rashomon Effect came in to play as Rebekah Kakuk and I surf landed on Miramar Beach. Rebekah waited for a soft spot and paddled in smoothly. I was just behind her. I aimed my kayak about a boat length to her right. I heard a wave crackling behind me as I paddled hard for shore. My bow slid up on the sand and I jumped out, grabbed the handrail, and hauled the boat up the beach. No problem, right?

Thou Shalt Not Smite Thy Fellow Boater...Oops!

Thou Shalt Not Smite Thy Fellow Boater…Oops!

Wrong. It was only after I saw the photograph that I realized the truth. The photo shows Rebekah sitting sidesaddle on her kayak. My rudder is clipping her boat as the surf slings my stern around. Because of previous injuries she was having difficulty standing up. Had my boat hit hers much harder she might have been knocked over.

This is a little incident with big implications. I should have kept more space between Rebekah and me but because the waves seemed small I didn’t think I needed much cushion. Once on shore I should have stayed aware of the position of my boat relative to hers even though she was now behind me. On the ocean you need 360-degree awareness for safety. But I heard that wave behind me and didn’t want to get caught. Because I allowed my perception to narrow to “Get out of the way of the wave” and didn’t keep in mind “Watch out for Rebekah!” I violated Rule #7 of the Ten Commandments of Sea Kayaking: “Thou Shalt Not Smite Thy Fellow Boater”.

Tsunami Rangers make mistakes too - Jim and Eric at the Sea Gypsy Race on Miramar Beach

Tsunami Rangers make mistakes too – Jim and Eric at the Sea Gypsy Race on Miramar Beach

Here’s another example of the Rashomon Effect. Eric was teaching a rock garden class. About six of us were lined up facing a rocky cove surrounded by boulders and cliffs near a place the Tsunami Rangers call Sniveler’s Slit. The first instruction he gave us was “Don’t go over there!” indicating a point on our left where the waves break.

As Eric was talking one of the students began drifting toward the very place we had been told to avoid. Either she hadn’t listened to him or she was oblivious to her surroundings. Eric had to get her attention and call her back to the group. Later he told me that when he tried to explain to her why she needed to stay with the group (receiving instructions, staying safe) it was like talking to a wall. Nothing he said registered. Nevertheless, she had endangered herself not only by drifting off physically but by drifting off mentally. Her perception was way off. And she didn’t even get it when it was pointed out to her. Scary.

Eric at Sniveler's Beach

Eric at Sniveler’s Beach

It’s interesting how no two people’s perceptions are alike. To understand this, sit in a room with someone. Describe what you each see. Your descriptions will differ. Now try to describe the part of the room you can’t see. How much do you recall? Next, try this exercise in a rock garden by observing then describing objects, distances, and wave action. Compare your description with that of your buddy. The closer you get to perceiving exactly what’s happening the safer you’ll be.

Eric had that 360-degree awareness. He knew where he was in relation to everything else on the water at all times. I remember his story about the time he was kayaking near Maverick’s not long after his surgeries and went blind, probably because of his medication. He was alone but he told me he was able to sense where he was in relation to the rocks and the break by how the water sounded and felt. In the dojo I’ve trained blindfolded. It heightens your other senses. I don’t know that I’d recommend blindfold training for kayakers, but it might make an interesting experiment on an easy day.

Here’s one last example of the Rashomon Effect taken from our recent Na Pali adventure. Conditions were rough and we couldn’t paddle down the coast as planned so our guide Mark Hutson had most of us practice going out through a reef and coming back. I decided to watch. The paddlers went out through a keyhole between two breaks just down from Ha’ena. Mark divided them into three groups. The strongest paddlers went first. Mark had asked them to follow him but instead of waiting once on the water the entire group took off. They didn’t head sufficiently into the wind so half the group got blown back. Luckily they managed to get outside before they were blown into the kill zone. When they debriefed Mark reiterated that everyone needed to follow him.

Dumping surf on the reef on Kauai

Dumping surf on the reef on Kauai

The second group launched. Even though Mark had just explained procedure, everyone repeated the same mistakes as the first group. They didn’t wait for Mark and made the same error as to trajectory. As this group was weaker, people were blown into the break and got pounded. There was another debrief. The third group launched. This group was weakest, but they had an advantage in that they had watched the previous two groups and heard both debriefings. Nevertheless they still repeated the same mistakes as the others. And they got creamed.

I saw multiple kayaks go over the falls together. I saw someone cleaned off their deck by another boat. It was mayhem. Four people ended up swimming all the way in to the beach. Our guide Sasha came up to me after retrieving one boat and rescuing a swimmer. She said two things: “Clusterfuck” and “Near death experiences for everyone.” Her face was grim. Later that evening I heard Mark ask one of our paddlers what she thought of the day. “Cool!” she said with a smile. You could almost hear Mark’s jaw hit the floor. “That’s what you thought???” he replied in disbelief. Clearly he and Sasha thought otherwise.

One person’s cool is another one’s clusterfuck. The challenge is to adjust our perception as close as possible to Reality and not be misled. Eric wrote that “the biggest hidden threat is…a bravado that results in foolhardy actions”. As we push the boundaries of our kayaking it’s important to hone our awareness. The difference between what’s actually out there and what we think we see can be huge. More important it could get us hurt or killed. The Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki says, “Most people are not only fooled by something, they are also fooled by themselves, by their ability, their beauty, their confidence, or their outlook. We should know whether or not we are fooling ourselves. When you are fooled by something else, the damage will not be so big, but when you are fooled by yourself, it is fatal.”

Share your thoughts on perception and awareness by clicking below!

Editor’s note: I would love to give credit to the person took the photo of me and Rebekah at the race but I can’t remember who it was. Any help on this would be appreciated. For more information on the topic of awareness in sea kayaking see http://seakayaker.us/current-issue/ and check out the article by Aras Kriauciunas on how perception influences your decision to launch. On a related note, check out the Neptune’s Rangers article on complacency at http://neptunesrangers.blogspot.com/2013/07/complacency-can-get-you-into-trouble.html

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Sasha July 29, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Hey Nancy!

Interesting reading – very dramatic sounding though! Just to prove your point, if I wrote about that day, it would sound very different to what you’ve written! I do certainly agree with my original impression – what a clusterfuck! (But I don’t remember saying that there it was near death experiences for everyone… might be I did, but I think it was in jest! There certainly wasn’t a “kill zone”, just a “wipeout zone”.)

What you don’t mention though, is WHY we have different perspectives. Obviously in some of your examples, its to do with experience or not being totally aware of everything around you. In the case of Na Pali, it was my role as a guide, being responsible for several people’s safety, that shaped my perspective. The paddler who thought the day was cool was only involved in their own personal scenario and emotions (“life and death struggle”), not particularly concerned with anyone else, hence they had a very different view.

Also, I thought it was interesting that BOTH on that day at Ha’ena, and also with that one student of Eric’s, the lesser experienced person/people did not follow instructions! However, thankfully in these cases, nothing bad happened, and for our group it was actually a positive experience. As one paddler said to me after, “I’m so glad I got wiped out! Now I know what it feels like and I don’t have be scared or nervous.”

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Nancy Soares July 30, 2013 at 7:11 am

Hi Sasha! Thanks so much for commenting. You’re right – I don’t know why we all have such different perspectives. I think it has a lot to do with the Suzuki quote; what we see is colored by our ability, our confidence, our outlook, etc. I am really interested to read the books Bill mentioned when he commented on this article on FB, “Thinking Fast and Slow” and “Blink”. I’ve read “Deep Survival” and it was fascinating but I’ll have to check it out again as it’s been awhile. I remember the author has a lot to say on the types of people who survive vs those who don’t. Oddly, sometimes the people you think are least likely to do well live and those who on paper anyway look like survivors literally lie down and die.

It IS interesting that in those cases you mention people didn’t follow instructions. However, I do know that the time I surfed into the cliff I thought I was following Eric’s instructions to the letter. I obeyed him implicitly on the water because he knew so much more than me. Why I was so off in my calculations I will never know and I could have died as a result. After I recovered from my injuries I went back a week later, tried it again and did just fine. Weird.

You’re also right about the positive result of the day at Ha’ena. It’s good to know you can wipe out and it’s no big deal. And as I think I mentioned it was a safe place to practice. You could see that a lot of the paddlers that day were exhilarated by the experience. And wipeouts do make great stories. Who wants to read about “oh we went out, paddled around, and came back”. As Eric would say, “Yawn!”

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Nancy Soares July 30, 2013 at 7:24 am

I forgot to mention, the next article on this post, coming out in 2 weeks, will be by Steve King on the entire Na Pali adventure. Of course, his perspective will be unique. And I understand Michael Powers is doing another one for some magazine. It will be interesting to compare how they view their respective experiences.

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Rainer Lang July 30, 2013 at 11:15 am

What I’ve always admired about the Tsunami Rangers is structure.

As I understand it; each paddler conditions themselves to a high degree of personal skill and ability; learning 360 degree awareness. There is peer review, coaching and learning communication skills. Then they learn to work as a team to achieve objectives that may be beyond the scope of an individual. I remember Eric called this “Unit Integrity”. Even when an individual was separated from the group, you would know their skill set and capabilities and could predict their actions.

It shouldn’t surprise me, but it still blows my mind when after WE decide The Plan, everyone goes off and does their own thing: Charlie-Foxtrot! I’ve seen this on paddle trips, hiking excursions and group motorcycle rides, where a large amount of time is spent hunting down people who should have never left the group.

In The Worst Class Ever from Eric’s book, I can now see what you meant by the Rashomon Effect. Andy and I were paired as a partners for the class, were given instructions to look out for each other. When the conditions degraded, and the group structure broke down, we adjusted our plan.

By a combination of portage and strategic paddling we arrived at the put-in without incident. All the while, unaware of the circumstances that were unfolding with the rest of the group.

For us, that fact that we made it back unscathed, was a personal victory. Yet others from the group were in serious trouble.

A thought provoking ,and flashback inducing topic for sure!

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Nancy Soares July 31, 2013 at 8:11 am

Thanks so much for your insightful comment, Rainer. Yeah, that Worst Class Ever went down in history as one hella clusterfuck. I will never forget that day and I wasn’t even there. I WAS home when Eric arrived sputtering and cursing. Yikes! You could probably write a book on all the subtleties of the Rashomon Effect with regard to that day.

Both you and Sasha mention the thing about not following instructions. Even in Sardinia our guide Claudio wanted us to stick with him and most of the time I was the only one who did. Halfway through the trip he even said to me, “I like you, Nancy. You do what I say.” Well, duh, he’s the guide. He knows this place. And I’m paying him good money to tell me what to do. I don’t know what was going on with the others. Following instructions seems so basic but because people so often don’t I wonder if there’s something a lot more going on besides the Rashomon Effect. Anyone have any ideas?

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Tony Moore August 2, 2013 at 1:58 pm

An “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode comes to mind, I believe it was “Incident on a Corner”, where 5 witnesses to an event on a street corner have 5 differing accounts as to exactly what occured.
It would seem that these differences of perception can be due to a number of factors, the simplest being that different people may view the same event from different angles and distances, and also they may have different levels of visual and auditory acuity. More complex, at least from an analytical view, is that we are all individuals with different life experiences. As an example, when my wife and I go to Boston, she is like a deer in the headlights, with sensory overload paralysing her. I on the other hand grew up in the city, so I learned from early childhood how to filter out all the noise and focus in on what’s important. On the water it’s the same. Once when I took 2 of my daughters on a paddle from Jamestown to Newport, we had to cross a shipping channel. I soon noticed an oil tanker heading down the bay while it was still extremely small visually. They marvelled that it could ever be a threat, but then were amazed at how quickly it arrived, passing a safe distance in front of our bows only because I had all of us stop paddling beforehand. The more time you spend out on the water, the more you learn, and this affects your perception. I knew we were going to be crossing a shipping channel, so I was actively looking for large vessels, and knowing how fast a ship could be going, I was looking as carefully and as far away as my vision allowed. My daughters, on the other hand, were oblivious to any potential danger.
In rock gardens, your knowledge and experience is key to the way you perceive things. Let’s say the water starts sucking out of an area in a rock garden where you are. The perception of this to a rock garden veteran versus a newbie could be completely different. The veteran may have even anticipated water sucking out, and planned his reaction. The newbie, on the other hand, may not even realize the potential danger of that water returning with a vengeance.
How we handle emotions also could be a cause of different perceptions. Probably fear is the most relevant emotion in extreme kayaking, especially a paralysing fear. What one paddler may call a fun, exhilarating paddle to another may be a terrifying trial with life and death in the balance.
Whether due to different visual angles, different life experiences and personalities, various individual preferences or emotions, surely being aware that we as individuals do not always see things the same way is an important factor not only in kayaking, but in life in general.

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Nancy Soares August 7, 2013 at 8:39 pm

All good points, Tony. I just got back from 8 days on the upper Sacramento River. I spent a lot of the time watching the water. Even in the smallest riffles I could see major hydraulics in microcosm. Once again, I’d like to quote Suzuki, the Zen monk, because I think after all is said and done this concept is at the heart of the issue: “In Buddhist scripture there is a famous passage that explains that water is not just water. For human beings water is water, but for celestial beings it is a jewel. For fish it is their home, and for people in hell or hungry ghosts it is blood, or maybe fire. If they want to drink it, water changes into fire, and they cannot drink it. The same water looks very different to various beings.”

Bottom line: different people see different things because they’re different. Rainer mentioned the worst class ever. Eric and Jim were about as attuned to each other as any two people could be especially on the water but even they could get out of synch. That’s why it’s important to polish our mirrors, so to speak so that we reflect the ever-changing reality around us as accurately as possible without a lot of interference, whatever form that interference may take.

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Moulton Avery August 22, 2013 at 4:45 am

Familiarity seldom increases our awareness of the objective dangers present in a particular situation; far more often, it breeds a sense of complacency that can cause us to understate the danger and to miss things that would have otherwise stood out and caught our attention when we were less familiar with the terrain.

In Deep Survival, Lawrence Gonzales provides a very sobering account of experienced guides choosing to launch two separate raft trips on the Illinois River in central Oregon. They elected to run a stretch of the river that includes a Class V section called The Green Wall that Gonzales points out can only be run between 900 and 3000 cfs. The guides chose to put in at 13,500 cfs and two people died – one from each group; both fatalities were river guides with a lot of experience.

A less experienced paddler who was less familiar with the river said this about his own group’s decision to stay on shore:
“When the river has been coming up a foot an hour all night, when it’s gone from clear to chocolate milk, when there are no more eddies and there are 18 inch diameter trees going down at 15 miles an hour, it’s just not a tough decision.” He saw something that the guides missed.

Gonzalez makes this observation about the guides and their fatal decision: “they probably thought, if they thought at all, that it would be okay. They had a lot of experience at running the river, and it had always been okay. Big water, said their emotional systems, equals big fun.”

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Nancy Soares August 22, 2013 at 9:31 am

Great observations, Moulton! Great story too, and very illustrative of the Rashomon Effect. As I mentioned above, it’s not always the big, the strong, the experienced, who survive. In fact, as the stories in Deep Survival prove, it’s often the reverse. In your example, the guides were fooled by their experience so badly they failed to see the Reality in front of them and they abandoned common sense, the good sense that the less experienced paddler and his group were able to demonstrate. The more experienced guides saw “fun” while the less experienced paddlers saw “death”. In this case the less experienced paddlers had the better grasp of the situation. Something worth contemplating. Thanks again.

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Moulton Avery August 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

Spot on, Nancy. It’s sobering stuff, and any paddler who thinks they’re immune to this sort of mental blunder is sadly mistaken. It’s a fact of life and the way our brains are wired; under the right – or wrong – circumstances, we are all fully capable of missing gigantic, shrieking clues that are right under our noses.

Although we occasionally play there, Mother Nature’s back yard is not a playground. I think humility in the face of her awesome and unlimited power is the first virtue of wilderness travel, and a potent talisman against complacency, rationalization, justification, and self-deception – all of which are waiting patiently, just below the surface of our awareness, for an opportunity to emerge. And goodness knows, my life has been a whole lot smoother since I managed to acquire a wee bit of humility;-)

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Nancy Soares August 25, 2013 at 10:27 am

Humility, yes, that elusive quality. When we spoke last night on the phone I mentioned Eckhart Tolle. He says: “In form, you are and will always be inferior to some, superior to others. In essence, you are neither inferior nor superior to anyone. True self-esteem and true humility arise out of that realization. In the eyes of the ego, self-esteem and humility are contradictory. In truth, they are one and the same.” So many of the errors of judgment that make up the tales of dire straits in kayaking, and I imagine in other such stories as well, involve ego taking over. “I am experienced, therefore I can’t/won’t fuck up…” Wrong. When we stop listening to the voice in our heads as though it were gospel and start simply being still, alert, and open we can begin to see the Reality that exists outside of ourselves. Seeing that bigger picture we can make better decisions, both on the water and off.

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David McArthur September 29, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Although safety must always be of primary importance, it is unfortunate that in many cases a sufficient exposure to discussions like this and books like “deep trouble” will stymie a rational decision process.
On occasion a less experienced kayaker will challenge the group lead’s decision on the basis of it not being the being most conservative – at all costs.
As a simple example, I was leading a relatively easy trip along a fairly sheltered stretch within the sound. We stopped at a beach for lunch, and as expected the breeze picked up somewhat in the early afternoon. Launching now involved getting through a cresting 1-2′ wave coming into shore. One of the participants had heard that surf was dangerous, advanced skill and despite my reassurance that simply paddling through it would be sufficient she felt that a slogging portage through a mile and a half of spartina to the bay would be a better choice.
The sport of sea kayaking unfortunately to much of the public appears off-limits and generally unappealing due to the elitist attitudes and overemphasis on safety and skills.

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Nancy Soares September 30, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Hi David! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I never thought that the discussions and books you mention would stymie rational thought processes, but I think I see your point. I wonder though if that chick was just One of Those People who see danger in everything everywhere. I had a client once whose mom gave her a bike when she was a kid. She fell off the bike (hey, it happened to all of us, right?) but her mom freaked out and took the bike away. Super overprotective mom. As an adult my client could barely walk down the sidewalk without fear. Now, who knows what your paddler’s background was. That was kind of the point of this post – to demonstrate that we all see things differently. From one perspective, a wave the size you describe is nothing – easy as pie. But she may have looked at that little wave and seen something as big as a house. Or perhaps she just lacked experience and had gotten most of her information about kayaking from someone who clearly didn’t know what they were talking about. Of course, without proper gear, even a small wave can be a hazard – helmets, for example, are good. I’m curious, though. How did you handle the situation? Did you demonstrate how the small surf could be navigated with ease? Did she end up portaging by herself or with others? What was her level of experience? What’s yours? All these things and more can factor into someone being afraid. We usually fear what we don’t understand. Perhaps she didn’t trust you for some reason. Perhaps she didn’t trust herself. You say “fairly sheltered” and “relatively easy” but that could mean anything to anyone depending on their level of experience and style of kayaking. I’d love to get some more background on your story. It could be instructive. Thanks again.

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