Derek C. Hutchinson: a living sea kayaking legend

by Eric Soares on September 13, 2011

(note to my readers:  This post begins an occasional tribute to individuals who have made major contributions to sea kayaking)

Derek C. Hutchinson

Derek Hutchinson could be called the father of modern sea kayaking for his paddling prowess, long distance journeys, kayak designs, his entertaining talks and advanced bracing classes worldwide.  To me, he earns the title by penning the first book on how to sea kayak.  Called SEA CANOEING, it was published in 1976 and has been reprinted many times.  I bought the third edition, published in 1984, when it first came out, and it transformed me from a wannabe to a full-fledged sea kayaker (read more about what I and many top kayakers learned from this book and Derek by linking to:  From this book I learned how to outfit my kayak, how to navigate, how to surf, self-rescue, and roll my kayak.

In 2011, Derek Hutchinson enters the North Sea--once again!

Derek led a grueling North Sea expedition in 1976 from Felixstowe to Ostend.  This was a long open-sea crossing, which many kayaking mariners would agree is more difficult than a coastal expedition, because there are no landmarks to guide you along and you feel so vulnerable when out of  sight of land (at least I do).  He also paddled in the cold Aleutian Islands—without immersion clothing!

Derek Hutchinson's famous hat trick

And that brings me to an important aspect about Derek.  He is very knowledgeable and opinionated—downright cantankerous in fact!  If you ask him, he will tell you all about boat design, Alaskan paddles versus Greenland paddles, soft cover versus hardback books, and his development of self-rescues (for example, the “all-in” rescue).  And if you prod him a bit, he will describe and then show you his patented hat trick!  To see and hear him discuss various kayaking topics, click on and enjoy Derek pontificating in 2007 at the kayak symposium in Port Townsend, Washington. Note that not everyone present at Derek’s interview agrees with him on everything!

I don’t go along with him on some things either—for instance, his insistence that an advanced kayaker is unlikely to capsize and can at any rate roll easily on the first try in rough conditions and therefore should dress like a “sensibly turned-out hill walker” when kayaking, instead of in “a stinking, sweating, steaming and prickling” wetsuit “like an out-of-work frogman.”   I think he is dead wrong about that—as even experts can mess up big time on occasion and end up swimming (I’ve blown my roll and swam dozens, perhaps hundreds of times—of course, this could be because I’m a lousy roller).

One of Derek's many sea kayaking books

But even though I don’t always see eye to eye with Derek, I respect him for all he has contributed to sea kayaking.  He has designed over a dozen sea kayaks, he has written several seminal sea kayaking books, he has made long distance trips and surfed and did seal launches and landings and paddled in ice and wind.  He has developed innovative ways to rescue.  And he was the first modern kayaker to accomplish these feats, now standards of modern sea kayaking.  We have all benefited greatly from his contributions.

I owe Derek so much for what I know about sea kayaking, and for inspiring me to go for it and pursue my kayaking dreams.  Decades ago I tried his seal launch—and it worked, even 25 feet up!  And then I tried his seal landing—and it worked, even in big crashing surf on hard rocks.  So when Michael Powers and I wrote our book, EXTREME SEA KAYAKING, we asked Derek if he would write the foreword, and he graciously obliged.  We consider him our Sea Daddy, because even though we never took an on-water class from him, we absorbed every word he wrote.

Derek's latest DVD with University of Sea Kayaking--tall tales from an ancient mariner

Further, Derek is a great orator.  He is the most entertaining kayaking speaker I have ever heard.  He doesn’t need a multimedia show to keep his audience riveted.  His sharp mind and dry British humor, combined with his myriad experiences and unique perspectives gained over a long lifetime of paddling, make for a spellbinding talk.  If you ever get a chance to see and hear Derek give a presentation, and you have box seats for the symphony at the same time, give away your symphony tickets and walk right up to the front row and enjoy the Derek show.

Derek's first DVD with University of Sea Kayaking, and what he'll be teaching in San Francisco Bay next month

Though Mr. Hutchinson is getting up there in age, he still goes out and paddles, still designs and produces.  And he is still teaching people how to go “beyond the cockpit” in style.  For those lucky enough to be in the San Francisco area next month, Derek and Wayne Horodowich will be teaching a master on-water class on bracing and edging a kayak on October 8th and again on the 9th in Emeryville.  Sponsored by Bay Area Sea Kayakers (BASK), it will be a memorable seminar.  Contact Mark Silowitz at for more information.

Please share what you have learned from Derek C. Hutchinson, a living legend.  I didn’t have space to talk about all his books, his innovations, his years as a senior BCU coach, his sea stories, and his artwork and illustrations. So please, tell us your Derek story or share what you learned from him by commenting below this post.

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

John Dowd February 15, 2014 at 5:29 am

Moulton you don’t just throw out slanderous allegations then walk away from the table. Either justify the comments you have made or retract them. Same goes for Carl. You seem to have been maligning me and my reputation for years. I don’t normally spend much of my life on line so I only discovered this while researching the upcoming sixth edition of “Sea Kayaking”. Maybe you are safe to elevate yourself on Derek’s reputation. I’m not yet dead and thus it is not safe to do that with me.

Regarding your dressing for cold water obsession. The problem you seem to have is not with the science but with your application and interpretation of the science. Dressing for cold water is not a silver bullet. A strong 190lb paddler in a standard kayaking wetsuit is incapacitated by cold within seven minutes of immersion in water below 48 degrees. What sort of assurance do you offer there? You focus on only one aspect of Kayak safety. Choice of boat makes a huge difference to whether or not you find yourself in the water in the first place. And of course skills. But most of all, a thorough understanding of seamanship is the key to surviving by avoiding trouble in the first place. People who follow your advice and dress for the water are in for a surprise if they think they are safe. That narrow focus on a single – be it a useful – part of the equation is why you were not taken as seriously as you might wish by the bulk of the paddling community. And you won’t get there by trampling the reputation of others dead or alive.


Carl White February 15, 2014 at 7:49 am

John, your efforts to deflect criticism are heroic, but they are futile. We all know that neither Moulton nor I ever promoted the wearing of wetsuits/drysuits for sea kayakers on cold water as a panacea, a cure-all, a one-solution answer to the many hazards to which kayak mariners may be exposed. In my case, had you followed my postings on various sea kayaking message boards or several Letters to the Editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine, quite recent, you would be well aware of this.

The problem that you shared with Derek and with your fellow TASKers was that you all somehow equated open water kayaking with hill walking or cross-country skiing or maybe mountain biking, without fully understanding the enormous difference that the cold water substrate makes in the overall safety/danger ratio for the “ordinary folk, especially women and families” (recognize your words?) that you hoped to entice, cajole, persuade out onto the wide waters. You all certainly loathed wetsuits–you didn’t need them: Derek because of his skills; you in your beamy Klepper double–and too much emphasis on wetsuits and drysuits, as opposed to the empty sanctimony of urging people to “dress for immersion” or to “dress appropriately”, might be bad for business, might scare people off.

No, the single-issue, obsessive crowd here were those who pointedly avoided talking seriously about the concrete, realistic, specific responses (dress: wetsuits/drysuits) to the cold water threat that all along were being worn by whitewater kayakers, by surfers, windsurfers, jet-skiers, by virtually every other sort of people at play out on the water. The record is clear; the verdict is in.


Carl White February 15, 2014 at 8:18 am

John, for more insight into my recent postings, check out the “Sea Kayaker’s More Deep Trouble–Gotta Have It, or Make it Stop!?” thread right here, just above this thread.


John Dowd February 15, 2014 at 11:00 am

Wow. Judge jury and executioner and to hell with the evidence eh? Provide some evidence of my contempt for cold water survival and I will quote you many more examples of how I have given it priority ever since the first edition of my book. You even presume to claim I don’t like wetsuits. huh? What an ignorant statement! For what it is worth I have bags of wetsuits…Industrial suits, a free diving suit (my favorite) and several paddling suits that I wear during the appropriate times. I also have a Kokatat dry suit. How do you presume to accuse me of hating wetsuits? It seems we only disagree on when they should be worn and you and your little special interest group seem to have created a bogy man out of the people who disagree with you, vilifying them and in the absence of evidence, creating a slanderous self serving fantasy and intimidating others to keep agreeing with your extreme position. That is the intellectual bullying part I mentioned. Provide evidence or shut up!


Moulton Avery February 15, 2014 at 11:20 am

Very well, John, I’ll return to the table to both justify my position and respond to the substantive comments that you’ve made. Stay tuned.


Carl White February 15, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Where to begin? I had hoped to have a serious discussion of both the evidence base and the long history of the differences between the Dowd/Hutchinson/TASK/Sea Kayaking Industry (SKIN) view of how serious is the cold water threat to sea kayakers, and more evidence-based views. This includes whether the wearing of wetsuits/drysuits should be encouraged as the standard response to a cold water situation, or whether this protection should be donned only after the kayaker(s) concerned believe that the conditions are severe enough to justify the alleged discomfort of such apparel. We all know that newcomers to an activity quickly pick up what they perceive to be the established norms, usages and practices of that activity. Here, in my neck of the woods, years of familiar donning of wetsuits and especially drysuits have become the standard, habitual response to cold water sea kayaking, largely due to the powerful influence of mentors who themselves took seriously the data base accumulated by experienced and thoughtful sea kayakers like Moulton Avery, and widely promulgated by being published in Sea Kayaker Magazine following the departure of John Dowd.

The case for habitual wetsuit/drysuit use is very strong, as Eric Soares correctly understood, and as did many, many others; the case for kayakers donning the suits only after some particular threshold of danger is perceived, is very weak, especially given the peculiar, particular nature of the cold water substrate upon which the boosters of sea kayaking wish to launch a broad, general cross-section of the public. Matt Broze, in Sea Kayaker, has written, “The large increase in inexpensive recreational and fishing kayaks sold like commodities (where there is little or no kayaking expertise) are far more likely to result in a huge increase in what will be reported in the media as “kayaking fatalities” than the few sea kayakers who are out on the edge and pushing the limits of what is possible in a sea kayak.” While Matt’s remarks are in a different context than that of whether cold water wetsuit/drysuit use should be seen as an integral part of kayaking, nevertheless Matt is clearly looking ahead to the possible fruit of years of TASK/SKIN promotion of kayaking (sea kayaking particularly) to a general public who have not been habituated by SKIN to understanding the threat of cold water. As an aside, one of the real benefits of habitual wetsuit/drysuit use is that it makes kayakers more aware, more conscious of the potential danger of cold water, rather than dismissive of the threat.

What is sad is that there is much here that could be discussed in a thoughtful way (I’m certainly trying), but it seems to be all too much for John, and we get the sort of spasm that precedes this post. I had indeed hoped for better.


John Lull February 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm

Carl, just a quick comment on this statement:

” This includes whether the wearing of wetsuits/drysuits should be encouraged as the standard response to a cold water situation, or whether this protection should be donned only after the kayaker(s) concerned believe that the conditions are severe enough to justify the alleged discomfort of such apparel.”

As I’m sure you’d agree (but I think it needs to be stressed), the main problem with the strategy of donning cold water protective clothing only when conditions are perceived to be severe, is the fact that, on the sea, conditions change. And conditions can go from benign to severe in a very short period of time. I stressed this point over and over in my book as an argument for everything from dressing appropriately to learning to roll, brace, and attain the skills needed for rough water paddling.

Where I’m a bit confused here, or maybe simply uninformed, is your depiction of a “Dowd/Hutchinson/TASK/SKIN” viewpoint (conspiracy??) on safety issues. I’ve read Derek’s & John’s books, I knew Derek and in fact took my first sea kayak class from him way back in the stone age, and I’ve worked in the SKIN world. I just don’t see any particular, or unified viewpoint on cold-water or other issues, shared by these people. Quite the contrary. I agree that in some quarters sea kayaking is taken way too lightly, the sale of ‘safe & stable’ rec kayaks (I’ve called them death traps; they lack adequate flotation among other problems) are over promoted to the uninformed, rental programs are poorly run, etc. But this is not universal. I worked for California Canoe & Kayak for a number of years and the emphasis was on solid instruction/training and safety issues, along with selling boats and the proper equipment. And I know many other commercial enterprises are responsible and safety-oriented. Maybe too many are not, but I don’t think you can characterize the entire industry that way as whole (and maybe you aren’t).

As to John Dowd & Derek Hutchinson, from what I know they had very different styles and outlooks on sea kayaking so can’t and shouldn’t be lumped together. I can’t speak for either of them, so I’ll leave it at that, except to say I wasn’t aware that either of them were as slipshod on safety issues as you are implying. They both contributed a lot of solid advice and ideas, based on their own extensive experience to the sea kayaking community. If you vehemently disagree with them on the cold water issue, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss everything they contributed to kayaking. No doubt we’ve all made claims that could be disputed or called unsafe. Eric stirred up some controversy with his statement: “PFD–BFD” at a symposium and Steve Sinclair felt the same way about PFDs. Eric did change his mind on that, to some extent in later years. Someone took me to task for not discussing foot pumps (to pump out water) in my book.

So much for my quick comment! 🙂


John Dowd February 15, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Hi Carl, Don’t worry. I just bite when I’m being attacked. Lets start by not considering TASK, Dowd, Moyer, Broze, etc., as speaking with one voice. Certainly no one there speaks for me nor I for them. The amazing thing for me was to discover people discussing something they thought I said twenty-five or thirty years ago. I have had nothing to do with TASK for over twenty-five years and I’ve been out of the industry for that long. The development of my ideas on risk and kayaking can be traced through the different editions of my book.

Let me share an insight that changed all my thinking about risk. It is the work of Professor Gerald JS Wilde who studied automobile statistics from around the world for the past seventy years. To the chagrin of the automobile industry which likes to sell cars based on their safety features he discovered that the ratio of fatalities to person hours driven remained constant despite improvements of roads, introduction of seat belts, ABS braking systems, crush resistant cabs, safety glass etc. He concluded that we adjust our behavior to achieve an acceptable level of risk or THE ACCIDENT RATE IS ULTIMATELY DEPENDENT ON ONE FACTOR ONLY: THE TARGET LEVEL OF (ACCEPTABLE) RISK OF THE POPULATION. This applied to risky activities has profound implications. For example it explains why a surge of fatalities did not occur when masses of plastic rec boats hit the market. More electronic safety gear, flares, VHF radios, surf helmets, and yes dry suits means we are more inclined to take risks in our sea kayak. Homeostasis is its name and it tells us that as our knowledge of an activity increases, the subjective risk (the risk that depends on our actions) remains a constant. That is why either the way you advocate dressing for the water or the way I perceive it will ultimately come up with the same result. I hope this will prove a helpful contribution.


Carl White February 16, 2014 at 8:01 am

Believe me, I appreciate the return to calm and civility encouraged by John Lull and demonstrated by John Dowd. John Dowd’s protestations against the vehemence and the unexpectedness of the comments directed toward his views were a little hard to digest, given that there is a very long history–anywhere from 19 to 28 years–of his exposure to these selfsame comments via articles in ANorAK (which Dowd’s SK Magazine received regularly as a member-subscriber)–and in Atlantic Coastal Kayaker–from 1987 through 1995, at the least. None of this recent exchange of views here could really have been news to him.

I nowhere implied that Dowd and Hutchinson were slipshod on safety issues, as a general rule: only on this issue of when to dress for immersion was there any real difference. John Dowd might even recall that I favorably reviewed the 3rd edition of Sea Kayaking in ANorAK, declaring it the best manual available despite its several flaws. And I certainly don’t dismiss everything they contributed to kayaking–who would? But like us all, even gurus can be very wrong about certain things; the problem is when they begin to believe in their own infallibility, and then dismiss accurate criticism with disdain. John Dowd again may remember that I penned one of the very first letters of criticism to the then brand-new SK, complaining (as is my custom) about the fact that PFDs and immersion-proof clothing were nowhere to be seen on SK covers as sprayskirtless kayakers paddled open water over cavorting sea lions. Or maybe it was among icebergs. I don’t remember his reply, but I’m sure it did not satisfy.

The homeostasis hypothesis is an interesting one, but whether it is applicable to sea kayaking, or to kayaking in general, has yet to be demonstrated. The Coast Guard, the ACA, and just about everyone else concerned with water is constantly urging people to wear PFDs while in small craft. Is it correct to deduce that, if no one wore their PFDs, the fatality rate for small craft would remain the same. What if everyone wore PFDs? It remains a hypothesis.


Moulton Avery February 16, 2014 at 10:46 am

I’ve never slandered or libeled you. The criticism that I and others have made over the years against the pernicious “challenging conditions” argument that you continue to promote dates back decades.

The gist of the matter, which you know only too well, is that with the active participation of people like you, the Trade Association of Sea Kayaking (TASK) went out of its way to denigrate and brush off everything that I or anyone else had to say about the hazards of cold water, cold shock etc. That’s precisely what you’re doing in this discussion.

Instead, TASK promoted an alternative concept – “challenging conditions”. It advised paddlers that if they didn’t “plan on capsizing” – if they “thought” their level of skill sufficient to safely handle the conditions in which they “expected” to be paddling – then they didn’t need to worry about dressing for the water temperature.

I personally consider it to be the single greatest blow ever dealt to the safety of our sport, and my most detailed criticism of it appears in Anatomy of a Bad Decision, Sea Kayaker magazine newsletter, November 2010:

John, earlier in the thread, you stated your position on cold water safety as follows: “…the essence of my attitude is that the paddler assesses the risk and dresses accordingly, balancing risks of hypothermia against hyperthermia … the emphasis therefore is upon risk assessment and sound decision making, not following rules that are sometimes foolish.”

“Dress according to your assessment of the risk”. That’s “challenging conditions” from start to finish, but you’ve gone one step further and added the hypothermia / hyperthermia canard – yet another excuse for skipping thermal protection. Here’s an example of that one in action:

“Practically, we’d have many cases of heat illness if actually dressed for Arctic water on a warm PWS [Prince William Sound] day. We balance our clothing for both the water and surface conditions”

In other words, if it’s a warm day, don’t dress for the water temperature.

This advice makes no sense whatsoever when it comes to safety. As I pointed out earlier, even experienced paddlers like Randy Morgart and Dave Dickerson get into trouble – sometimes lethal trouble – by following it.

You made a number of statements about me or cold water safety, and I’ve answered them below:

You said: “Regarding your dressing for cold water obsession. The problem you seem to have is not with the science but with your application and interpretation of the science.”

I don’t interpret the science, John, I simply state the scientific facts. I also emphasize cold shock – a term that, oddly enough, you have yet to use in this discussion. What I’m saying about the danger of cold water isn’t my “opinion” – it’s the conclusion of scientific research that’s been conducted for the past 30+ years.

You said: “Dressing for cold water is not a silver bullet.” You’re right, it’s not. I never said it was. No type of thermal protection can keep you alive indefinitely, but as I stated in a recent letter to Sea Kayaker, ““Cold water immersion is a race against the clock, and the virtue of cold water gear is that it buys you time.”

It also eliminates cold shock. That’s huge, because it prevents a whole bunch of nasty problems – like total loss of breathing control (including gasping, hyperventilating, hypocapnia, and reduced breath-holding time), swimming failure, being dazed and unable to think, and being physically unable to help yourself – problems that occur immediately upon immersion.

You said: “People who follow your advice and dress for the water are in for a surprise if they think they are safe.”

It’s not the paddlers who listen to me who are in for a surprise, but rather those who listen to you and mistakenly follow the flawed logic of your “challenging conditions” argument. They’re the ones who wind up paddling on lethally cold water dressed like they were going for a walk in the park.

You said: Choice of boat makes a huge difference to whether or not you find yourself in the water in the first place.

You’re saying that paddlers don’t have to dress for the water temperature if they paddle a certain kind of boat. That makes no sense. People die every year because the “very stable” kayak or canoe they were paddling somehow managed to turn over – often in flat-calm water. That’s what happened to Dave Dickerson.

All this cold water safety stuff can seem like much ado about nothing – until you wind up in the water with no protection, fighting for your life.


John Dowd February 16, 2014 at 8:12 pm

I too welcome the more civil tone Carl. That does not mean I will ever accept what I consider to be unfair criticism. As for the old debate I was aware of it but along with many from the West coast viewed it as a quirky East Coast thing. I only became concerned when some of your group decided to give the ACA the tools to regulate Sea Kayaking. Hey you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

After selling my share of Sea Kayaker magazine and stepping aside as editor I went off on a new life tack. It was with great surprise that I discovered that ancient debate continued thirty years later with me as the villain credited with things I never said and attitudes I did not share.

As for Wilde: his views are very disturbing to many people, particularly those in the security and safety industries. Automobile manufacturers hated what he said. His observations pertain to human nature not just the auto industry. It applies to climbing, diving and yes kayaking too. I believe it is one of those universal truths uncovered.

Moulton, I am not aware of any concerted effort to deny the value of wetsuits. Indeed the race against the clock idea for wetsuits was something I discussed in the first issue of my book. It is an old and obvious idea that I would not at the time have thought to be contentious. The problem seems to be that only a small number of sea kayakers agree with you that all kayakers should dress for the water all the time. You seem to take this very personally and rather than re-examining your basic idea, you suspect a conspiracy among those who view it as ‘over the top’.

As an editor I did not publish your work because it seemed to be unbalanced and it reminded me of the advocates for helmets and body armor when we drive a car – over fifty thousand people a year die in traffic accidents and 90% of those through head and chest injuries. If I was likely to crash that is what I would want to be wearing. But we don’t unless we are driving stock cars.

Most people assess and accept the risk before going into the water. That is not silly and it is not a skilled process. (thus the failure of the rec boats to produce hundreds of bodies. The people who buy them normally understand their limits) That is normal. Tsunami Rangers always wear a wetsuit because it makes sense to do so if you are exposed to the elements as they are. White water paddlers are far more likely to swim than sea kayakers, as are kayak surfers. For these situations a proper wetsuit makes sense. On a private trip up the BC coast then a farmer John, neoprene booties and paddling jacket is a good system even if a capsize at sea is unlikely since it makes launching and landing comfortable and of course in the off chance you did fall over and fail to roll, it will give you a better chance of re-entry since it buys a bit of time. If that’s what you call dressing for the water then few would disagree with you.

I did not say that paddlers of a certain kind of boat should not dress for the water. Paddlers should always consider that option…just do the usual cost benefit analysis and the type of boat will be part of that equation.

I really did not want to re-enter this ancient dreary debate. What I wanted to hear from you was either evidence of the evil of which I was accused or a retraction.


Carl White February 17, 2014 at 7:35 am

It seems that John and I share the same fear that sea kayaking might become (more) regulated. On the basis of no known fact, John says that “some of (Carl’s) group decided to give the ACA the tools to regulate Sea Kayaking.” I say HUH??? John, what are you smoking these days? I honestly have no clue what you are talking about.

However, years of SKIN failure to properly locate sea kayaking at an extreme end within a broader spectrum of boating safety may certainly cause sea kayaking to go the route of SCUBA and become thus subject to odious regulation. I refer to the following 3 points which I have stressed many times on this forum:

A) That sea kayaking is marine boating using the most limited, basic, primitive equipment. We must be therefore the best-informed, wisest boaters on the water, as our margin for error is so small.

B) A paddler in a standard single must remain awake, alert, and able in turbulent water, or, unless rescued, he or she dies. There is no provision to lie ahull, perhaps below deck, and ride out the situation.

C) The mariner’s substrate will almost immediately try to kill anyone who finds him or herself immersed in it, by drowning, cold shock, or hypothermia.

TASK, SKIN, and John have explicitly promoted for decades the notion that sea kayaking is or can be a mass-market, general population, family, children-friendly activity. His 2008 and 2012 comments in Adventure Kayak indicate that he is still devoted to this mission. The nature, though, of open-water kayaking is such that it is most safely pursued by a “natural constituency” of mariners drawn to sea kayaking by its own appeal, and who have the necessary judgment and self-discipline to safely practice it. The real danger to the long-term health of sea kayaking comes, not from some ACA plot (about which I know nothing), but from decades of TASK/SKIN failure to understand the dangers of what they have gotten this wonderful activity into. They are literally playing, not with fire, but with cold water. Someday the various state boating law administrators/Coast Guard/Marine Police may catch up with us all, and John and his allies will have to explain their behavior to the greater sea kayaking. community.


Carl White February 17, 2014 at 8:14 am

I now turn to the homeostasis argument.

I’m sure (or I ought to be sure, if Prof. Wilde’s work is accurate) that the Prof’s facts about auto accidents and safety features are correct. I’m not convinced, though, of his conclusions. The late Stephen Jay Gould observed that, everywhere, there are trends going up and trends going down (there are also those trends going nowhere). The trick is to tease out actual causality from coincidence, when we look at the possible connection among these various trends. While it may be true that we adjust our behavior to achieve an acceptable level of risk, it does not necessarily follow that we cannot move the level of actual risk, of actual accident rate, up or down, as John’s interpretation of Wilde’s work suggests. I may be erroneously interpreting John’s notion, but I think he is saying that, whether we urge people to wear wetsuits or not, there are going to be X many fatalities, no matter what. If that is your conclusion, John, I think it is a very wrong one.

I think the real situation is that, in any sort of choice situation, we have forces driving up risk/hazard/accident, and forces driving them down. In Wilde’s automobile case, improvements in safety/design work to increase safety, and forces work against. Wilde postulates risk homeostasis. I can think immediately of driver distraction (electronics), driver impairment, the possible influx of young and inexperienced drivers, the growth of an aging driver population, the contraction of driver training opportunities. It may be that these two trends cancel one another out, by coincidence, and there is no homeostasis at work here at all.

Let’s look at obesity. There are factors up and factors down. But rather than overall population weight remaining constant, it goes up and up. According to the homeostasis argument, maybe the population will reach some level of weight where it is “comfortable”, and there is nothing to be done about it. I think this is nonsense. I hinted also at the role that PFD use might have on overall small craft fatality rates. In short, I think those that have capitulated to a homeostasis argument in order to advocate a laissez faire attitude instead of more rigor in advocating for cold water immersion protection (and PFD use) may be following a false god.


John Dowd February 17, 2014 at 9:12 am

Carl I did not mean to imply homeostasis applied to everything. That is clearly not the case. Wilde was just dealing with acceptance of risk as far as I know. Look at it this way; if you were going onto freezing water wearing just your bathing suit, you would behave differently than you would if you had a full dry suit on. You would have adjusted your behaviour to reflect an acceptable level of risk. And yes that varies between individuals. It is an idea worth exploring.


John Lull February 17, 2014 at 9:22 am

Carl, I realize you are referring to John Dowd (not me) here:

“On the basis of no known fact, John says that “some of (Carl’s) group decided to give the ACA the tools to regulate Sea Kayaking.”

I was a bit puzzled by John D’s statement also, but I’m pretty sure we’re all in agreement regarding regulation of sea kayaking. I’d like to point out that includes the ACA (at least back when I was involved with it). The ACA has a saying: “Education, not regulation.” The idea being that by providing training, instruction, and education about the marine environment, we can avoid the need for regulation. Presumably by lowering the number of casualties & expensive rescues, which would lead to the desire on the part of government agencies to regulate.

I probably don’t fully understand the homeostasis argument, and I don’t know the statistics, so I may be way out of my element here, but I can’t believe the number of serious ‘incidents’ among sea kayakers wouldn’t increase without the use of safety equipment and proper training (I’m in agreement with you there). John is probably right that the reason we aren’t seeing dozens of rec boat deaths is because those who use them do so mostly in calm lakes, etc. But I did help rescue a couple of guys in bathing suits, drifting in the cold water on an outgoing tide on SF Bay, headed out the Golden Gate, after capsizing in a tide rip. Their rec boat was 99% submerged. Lucky for them, we found them right after they capsized and they suffered only mild hypothermia.

As to selling the idea of sea kayaking to a broad swath of the public, I agree with you on the one hand. On the other, and maybe this is the homeostasis argument, the idea is easy to sell, but when a lot of folks confront the reality of a cold, wet scary environment, in a tiny craft that they actually have to paddle themselves in shark-infested waters, many/most of them don’t pursue it. So there’s at least some ‘self-pruning’ going on.


John Lull February 17, 2014 at 9:30 am

Ah ha, John, I just saw your latest post above on homeostasis, and yes what you say there makes sense, although I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions. But it is an idea worth exploring and a very interesting one.

Let me give you an example. I know I take greater risks in the ocean when wearing full cold-water gear and a helmet, in a kayak that I’m familiar with, and doing something I think I have the skills for, than I would otherwise. I could be argued that the family member piddle-paddling their rec boat next to shore in the local pond is much safer than the experience, skilled kayaker out in ocean rock gardens. And for sure the more skilled & confident you are, the greater risks you’ll take. At least until you finally realize that the ocean can toss something at you that no one could handle.

So maybe it all balances out, but I’m still on the side of stacking the deck in my favor as much as possible.

But yeah, vary interesting idea.


john dowd February 17, 2014 at 9:51 am

john Lull that is exactly what I mean about the homeostasis of risk. The ramifications are profound.

I shudder at the thought of re-entering the ACA debate but I read above that Moulton was lamenting having to start from scratch and pay for courses in a program he helped start for the ACA. Surprise surprise. I stuffed a manila folder with letters to Chuck imploring him not to give them the skills they needed to take control of instruction. ,The slocan About education not regulation is a smoke screen. They regulate by controlling access to who is teaching. They are in the business of regulation as is the BCU and PAddle Canada. If you doubt that just look at the fee structure.


John Lull February 17, 2014 at 10:15 am

John D wrote: “I shudder at the thought of re-entering the ACA debate.”

LOL, so do I; let’s not enter that morass!

I’ll only say that while I think there is great value in training/instruction, the ACA, BCU, etc suffer the same problems as any bureaucracy. I don’t really think they control who’s teaching, though. There’s no law that you have to be certified to teach kayaking, and I would hope there never would be. I probably shouldn’t have said that and opened the door to such a discussion…


John Lull February 17, 2014 at 9:31 am

I mean VERY (not vary!).


john dowd February 17, 2014 at 10:40 am

For the past few years I have been working on a book(?) about Freedom and responsibility in the outdoors in which I explore, amongst other things, the nature of bureaucracies in a culture of fear. it is one of those works that look like it will never be finished. Mostly it was designed to help develop my own thoughts but I am trying to convince my publisher to include at least some of it in the sixth edition of Sea Kayaking. it is relevant to this conversation.


John Lull February 17, 2014 at 11:26 am

That sounds really interesting. I hope your publisher includes it!

I’ve always been interested in risk management and I have a lot of ideas on it; but ultimately, risk is risk. It it’s not risky, it’s not risk. And that’s my zen saying for the day.


Moulton Avery February 17, 2014 at 2:45 pm

The discussion we were having earlier isn’t some old, tired, worn-out debate best left in the dustbin of history, and anyone who thinks it is should keep reading. Cold water immersion has always been the most significant safety issue in our sport, and the kind of advice we give paddlers has life or death consequences.

John Dowd has done a really great job of making this discussion as confusing as possible, but it’s actually a very simple debate about whether paddlers should always dress for the water temperature – or not. One side says yes, they absolutely should, and the other side offers a bunch of threadbare excuses for why they don’t have to.

Dowd accuses people like me and Carl White of making up slanderous accusations against him. We’re not. What we’re saying is that he was on the wrong side of a big debate about the most important safety issue in our sport. He keeps asking for “evidence” when in fact he’s provided all the necessary evidence himself.

John, you said “It seems we only disagree on when they [wetsuits and drysuits] should be worn and you and your little special interest group seem to have created a bogy man out of the people who disagree with you, vilifying them and in the absence of evidence, creating a slanderous self serving fantasy and intimidating others to keep agreeing with your extreme position. That is the intellectual bullying part I mentioned. Provide evidence or shut up!”

That quote perfectly summarizes everything that’s been said so far in this discussion.

John, you’re absolutely right that we disagree with you as to whether wetsuits or drysuits should always be worn when paddling on cold water. We think they should and you don’t. The remainder of the paragraph is how you characterize people like me and Carl White when the subject comes up for discussion.

You said “As for the old debate I was aware of it, but along with many from the West coast viewed it as a quirky East Coast thing.” That’s like calling a grizzly bear a puppy dog. You were more than aware of it, John – you were one of the biggest players in the entire debate. As the author of the book Sea Kayaking, and as a founder, shareholder and editor of Sea Kayaking magazine, what you said had enormous influence.

You also characterized this as an East Coast / West Coast thing. It wasn’t. There were plenty of people on the West Coast and in the Great Lakes area who were staunch advocates of always of always dressing for the water temperature. Expert paddlers like Eric Soares and Steve Sinclair were among them.

In February, 2011, Eric posted an article entitled Kayaking and Cold Water Immersion. A lot of people commented, and it developed into a very interesting discussion. Cold shock, something you have yet to mention, was a big part of it. So was dressing for the water temperature. At one point, Andy Taylor commented about the uphill battle faced back in the day by experienced kayakers who understood the danger of cold water. He said:

“We tried and tried but it was very difficult to convince people to wear wetsuits at that time, and most of the then brand-new ocean kayaking industry actively opposed the idea. Steve actually had one well-known outfitter pull him aside and say, “What are you doing? You’re going to raise the entry level of the sport!”.

That “industry” is what Carl White and I are referring to when we say TASK (Trade Association of Sea Kayaking). Everyone on our side of the debate used the term “challenging conditions” to describe TASK’s argument because that was the term that TASK itself used when it said paddlers could skip wearing wetsuits or drysuits if they didn’t think the conditions were going to be “challenging”.

John, I never submitted an article to you for publication when you were the editor of Sea Kayaker because it was obvious to everyone that you would never have published it. Not, as you stated above, because you “viewed it as unbalanced”, (you never even saw it) but because you weren’t interested in anyone calling attention to the single greatest hazard in our sport: cold water.

When Chris Cunningham became editor I found a much more receptive ear and he published Cold Shock in the Spring, 1991 issue. Every letter to the editor in response to my article was negative and reflected the TASK point of view. Except one – and that letter didn’t just come from some no-name paddler. It came from Eric Soares:

“Moulton Avery’s article, “Cold Shock” should be taped to the forehead of every sea kayaker contemplating a paddle in cold water. For every death attributed to cold shock, hypothermia, and exhaustion, there must be a hundred close calls and a thousand miserable experiences – all due to poor judgment regarding paddling attire.

For inexplicable reasons, intelligent and knowledgeable paddlers often choose to wear waterproof anoraks, baggy paddling pants, rubber boots, hiking clothes, and other paraphernalia guaranteed to fill up with water, lose insulating properties, inhibit swimming, and provide passage to the promised land. Avery’s article shows that we must wear this apparel on shore and dress for the water when kayaking.”

If you could ask all the paddlers who have died from cold water immersion over the years how they feel about it, there’s no doubt about which side of the debate they would stand on. And I guarantee you they wouldn’t like the way in which the “challenging conditions” argument has wormed its way into the fabric of our sport. Here are two examples from the sea kayaking instructor’s manual of a very well known wilderness school:

”Putting on a wet or dry suit means that you are planning on encountering serious sea conditions and have planned accordingly.”

“We balance our clothing for both the water and surface conditions. Our best protection from cold shock is to be off the water if a capsize is likely. If you cannot get to protected water or to the shore, dressing for cold water immersion may help, with a focus on insulation on the head and neck. Some people advocate wearing wetsuits and other extreme cold water protective gear. This would be wise for an aggressive paddler who is likely to tip over or be slammed in the face by a cold wave, but for the more casual … expeditionary paddler, this extreme is unnecessary.”

This debate isn’t dead, folks. It’s very much alive, and those two quotes are a good example of what cold water safety advocates like myself have to deal with every day.


John Dowd February 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Well I can’t add more I guess except for one correction. We did receive your article. My position on the debate can be explained thru the lens of Wilde’ observations of the homeostasis of risk.


John Lull February 17, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Moulton, I can’t help but comment on this rather absurd (I want to say ‘idiotic’) statement you cite from a well known wilderness school, and I share your frustration if this is typical:

“We balance our clothing for both the water and surface conditions. Our best protection from cold shock is to be off the water if a capsize is likely….”

They might just as well say, “to prevent capsize or cold water shock/hypothermia, stay out of a kayak.” Their statement totally ignores the primary fact that conditions can change quickly in the marine environment, far too quickly in many cases to get to safely by simply paddling to shore, assuming a safe landing site is available. IMO, dressing for the water is only the first step. Attaining the necessary skills, ranging from paddle strokes to bracing to rolling, along with knowledge of the marine environment, are what constitute the BEST protection from cold shock, capsize, etc. Short of just staying onshore. In fact, I’d advise anyone who isn’t willing to train, learn the appropriate skills, and use the proper equipment, to do just that: stay ashore!

Regarding getting the message out, there’s a point where you have to accept the fact that “you can lead a horse to water….” etc.


Carl White February 17, 2014 at 5:37 pm

John (Dowd): based on what I sense about your understanding of Wilde’s homeostasis hypothesis, I would urge extreme caution. I don’t purport to be that knowledgeable about it, but you may be following a fatuus ignis into an even more uncertain and unstable safety argument than you’ve before espoused. If it has indeed “changed all (your) thinking on risk”, you may be in danger of again falling in love with a false god.

Regarding the ACA, I recall that their sin was to set up standards and criteria for certifying their own instructors. Is that correct? If correct, in what way is that evil? I am truly a stranger to this area, and have difficulty understanding how or why this is important.

I would also like to see my notions about the 3 areas I outlined above that serve to place sea kayaking at or near the far end of a safety spectrum and thus render it not suitable to a general population, mass-market, family and child target audience. The cold water issue is really only a part of the very problematic TASK/SKIN effort to get lots of people out onto open water. I do recognize that if you address this, it could be very unsettling, as years of effort and ideology would need to be re-examined.


Moulton Avery February 17, 2014 at 7:19 pm

John, unfortunately it is typical, and it provides a clear look at how deeply the bankrupt “challenging conditions” argument has become embedded in the culture of sea kayaking. That’s why I said earlier that I felt it was the single greatest blow ever dealt to the safety of our sport.


Moulton Avery February 17, 2014 at 7:50 pm

John, I hear what you’re saying about leading a horse to water. Not too long ago I was really upset about a particular cold water tragedy and Chris Cunningham gently pointed out that I couldn’t save everyone. I said yeah, I know, but that hasn’t stopped either of us from trying.

I agree with you about training and seamanship, but I also think that there are thousands of recreational paddlers who have absolutely no idea how dangerous cold water is. My hope is that if they find out, it will influence their decision about paddling without protection.

When I get discouraged about the uphill battle, I think about the people who have died. Many recent fatalities are positively heart-rending: A Scottish wildlife expert and his seven year old son; a young man on his honeymoon; two young women in the prime of life who were just out for a short rec-boat paddle; a father who took his two year old son out for a canoe ride on a shallow lake to give his wife a break on her birthday; a young woman who went out for a short canoe trip with her boyfriend, who wanted to serenade her with a guitar; and three little kids who died with their father on Loch Gairloch in Scotland.

It’s a long list that gets longer every year, and the victims are fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, grandfathers and grandmothers, none of whom expected to die when they went out on the water that final time.


Carl White February 18, 2014 at 7:45 am

Nancy, this is an interesting and possibly even important discussion. I am not familiar with how this site works, but would it be possible to let people know that this discussion is taking place? Somewhere right in the Home section? If you think it’s a good idea, of course–certainly not my place to decide. I’ve done more thinking about homeostasis, and would benefit from the input of others, on this subject and all of the others discussed here.


Carl White February 18, 2014 at 7:53 am

It might even make sense to detach much of the preceding very long thread, say, starting with John Dowd’s February 3rd post, and set it up as an independent discussion on cold water safety, its history in sea kayaking, and also homeostasis and its place.


John Lull February 18, 2014 at 10:33 am

Carl wrote: “I would also like to see my notions about the 3 areas I outlined above that serve to place sea kayaking at or near the far end of a safety spectrum and thus render it not suitable to a general population, mass-market, family and child target audience. The cold water issue is really only a part of the very problematic TASK/SKIN effort to get lots of people out onto open water. I do recognize that if you address this, it could be very unsettling, as years of effort and ideology would need to be re-examined.”

I understand your concerns, Carl (and Moulton), and I’ve always said that sea kayaking has been inaccurately viewed and promoted as a safer or tamer activity than say, whitewater kayaking, to the general public. I guess if it was limited to small lakes or ponds it would be, but the marine environment encompasses a much wider range of conditions and some areas can be more treacherous than say, a class 2 or 3 whitewater river. For one thing, river rapids can be rated, scouted, or portaged, and at a given flow level, are predictable. I don’t want to start up a river vs sea comparison, just used that as an example.

Having said that, I don’t think the industry has been all that successful in selling sea kayaking as a ‘family-oriented’, anyone-can-do-it activity to a wide swath of the public. I’m not saying they haven’t tried to, but a LOT of the general public has a healthy (for many of them) fear of deep water and paddle sports; otherwise those of us who have been involved in the business side would be rich! Sure, it’s more popular than it was 30 or 40 years ago, but I think it peaked and there really is a ‘filtering’ process whereby a lot of people give it a try and decide it’s not for them. I don’t see hoards of kayakers out on the water around here (thankfully).

I’ll admit I could be totally wrong, and while I do feel for those who go out unprepared and pay the price (as Moulton pointed out), I think the necessary safety information is out there and easily accessible. Numerous articles and books have been written, instruction is widely available, and I don’t think the industry is suppressing that info. You guys may be right that some promote the idea that you can paddle in shorts & a T-shirt, but the opposite viewpoint is widely available, and I’d say more common. I’ve heard the phrase “dress for the water” ever since I started paddling, many years ago.

My viewpoint may be skewed a bit. The notion of paddling out here in the ocean on the Northern California coast without wearing a wetsuit has never been entertained by any sane person. In fact, not even by some who might be viewed as insane!


Moulton Avery February 18, 2014 at 10:45 am

John Dowd makes a very good point about certification programs, and he saw that downside one hell of a long time before it ever came up on my radar. I like to teach people to kayak and I was ACA certified at one time, but the certification lapsed. Every sea kayaking instruction program that I’ve looked – from REI to Mom and Pop would consider me unqualified to teach so much as a puppy intro flatwater class because I don’t have a current certification. It’s the inflexible confluence of certification and liability concerns, and the result is that there’s no room for folks like me in formal teaching situations. So I mentor.


Nancy Soares February 18, 2014 at 11:48 am

The problem with re-hashing this argument on a website entitled “Extreme Sea Kayaking” is that most of the people who subscribe to it already dress for impact as well as immersion and take precautions against cold shock, hypothermia, etc. because they’re used to cold water and bashing around in waves, caves, and rock gardens. The victims Moulton mentioned, the husbands, wives, and kiddies who died don’t fall into this class and those are the people it seems need to be reached.
Nevertheless, in the for what it’s worth department there are already multiple articles on this website that cover this issue:
However, if anyone would like to continue the discussion I have a couple of suggestions. First, Moulton informs me he’s writing a book on the subject. When that book comes out I’ve promised to review it and promote it on this website. In the meantime, Carl or Moulton or anyone else who’s interested can refresh this argument and bring it into the 21st Century by looking at books, magazines, manuals, etc. that have been published within the last five years or so. What’s being said, if anything about this issue? Who’s saying it? Is the “challenging conditions” argument being perpetuated? What’s being done to protect the people who are most vulnerable? Who are the outfitters, the organizations, the writers and the websites that are promoting awareness? What can be done to reach the people who need information the most? Who are they talking to, what are they reading, what websites do they frequent?
If someone wants to copy and paste portions of the thread on this post they are welcome to do so, but get permission from the players first. The main thing, from my perspective, is that any new article on this topic for this website be CURRENT. And please, no ad hominem attacks which weaken even a good argument. Once this article is written, I’ll be happy to publish it. It can also be offered to kayaking websites all over the world, although it seems like it might be better to get the info out to more general outdoor recreation sites since the audience for kayaking even if it’s not extreme is comparatively narrow and people who drown as a result of cold shock and hypothermia aren’t just kayakers.
On the other hand, I’d love to hear more about the homeostasis concept. Dowd, are you still out there? Want to do a piece for our website? I’d welcome your contribution and you’d have an opportunity to get input from a lot of good people.


john dowd February 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Hi Nancy. Thanks for the invitation. I will see what I can do. I dont feel the current discusssion is likely to go anywhere since we all seem to be talking past each other.
I’m no specialist in the Homeostasis of risk however. I just read Wilde’s book and saw the implications. I do have some stuff ready to publish on ‘Freedom and responsibility in the outdoors in a culture of fear’ (north America). It also deals with the power of process and the nature of bureaucracies in the likes of sea kayaking. i’ll look and see if there is anythiing suitable for an on-line discussion.


Nancy Soares February 18, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Hey, Dowd (I’m going to keep referring to you by your last name to avoid confusion with Lull) you don’t need to be a specialist. If you check out Eric’s article (the one on kayaking and cold water immersion listed above) you can see he did not consider himself an expert on the topic and specifically referred to himself as a layman. But this homeostasis concept is something that sounds like it fits well with extreme kayaking, and I know it would be of interest to our readers. It’s certainly interesting to me. And it’s new: I’ve never heard of it before.
I’ve often thought about the culture of fear in America. At my dojo I am surrounded by guys who are infatuated with weapons. Some of them have spent small fortunes on their arsenals. These are guys I love and train with all the time but I have a theory that the more weapons one has, the more paranoid one is. Could be wrong on that, but of all of us at the dojo I’m the one who indulges in the most risky behavior. Yet I have no guns.
At any rate, please don’t feel anything you write for us has to be definitive. It just needs to lay out the concept in such a way as to trigger discussion.
Glad we didn’t lose you there 🙂 Let’s keep in touch on this.


John Lull February 18, 2014 at 4:24 pm

I’m with Nancy. I find the general topic we are discussing here to be of great interest. And I don’t really think we’re talking past one another. I’m reading what everyone is saying very closely and several good points have been made in all these posts.

One thing that may be related here is the idea of personal responsibility. While I totally agree we want to put the best info out there and should put right any ideas we think may jeopardize the safety of those wanting to get out on the water, there will always be a certain amount of disagreement among the ‘experts’, ‘gurus’, and some of us who just have a big mouth and like to spout our opinions (I’ll raise my hand to that). Especially in this computer era, there is a ton of info available on any topic, including sea kayaking safety. So, at least to some extent, the would be paddler has to sift through that info, use some common sense and reason, and come to some conclusions on their own. Then temper that with experience on the water, hopefully in increments and training sessions in a relatively safe environment; one with some bailout options. I covered a lot of this in my book.

The bottom line is for those who want to get a certain answer, if they want to be told sea kayaking is totally safe and easy, no training or skill needed, no wetsuit or dry suit necessary in cold water, etc, they can probably find something written or spoken somewhere to tell them that’s the case. If they are foolish enough to buy it, then they’ll likely get into some trouble. I mean, if you want to believe the earth is only a few thousand years old and evolution is a myth, you’ll be able to find plenty of nutcases to ‘verify’ that for you. So it’s not limited to sea kayaking. I know I’ve read a lot of nonsense regarding sea kayaking and every other topic I know anything about. That’s why when I taught kayaking, I urged students to put everything to the test. So ultimately it’s up to each individual paddler to figure it out and sift the wheat from the chaff. (sorry for the cliches).


Carl White February 20, 2014 at 5:20 pm

In response to Nancy’s request for current input on how sea kayaking is being presented to a general public today–now—I’m offering my mailman’s contribution: the latest Eddie Bauer catalog. On the cover we have four Eddie Bauer guides–Lynsey Dyer, Ben Stookesbury, Julia Dimon, and Trevor Frost–all identified as having strong outdoor credentials (way more impressive than mine!). They are shown paddling sea kayaks on open water, along the cliffs of the Canary Islands, and later, inside, coming ashore. No sprayskirts or PFDs in evidence. I was rocketed back in time to 1984 and the first Sea Kayaker covers. Ahh, change!

That will be all from me for now, but I’ll have an opportunity in a month or so to see what other literature is being widely made available to would-be kayakers, and will report on my findings.


Nancy Soares February 20, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Next question: what are you going to do about it? See “What’s being done to protect the people who are most vulnerable?” and “What can be done to reach the people who need information the most?” above.


Carl White February 21, 2014 at 8:01 am

If the question is: “What are You–(in the rhetorical sense of We)–going to be doing about it?”, I add my full-throated Amen!: What indeed? If it is: what are you–Carl White–going to be doing about it?, my answer is that I’ll be soldiering on into the gathering darkness, doing what I first started doing in 1984 with that first of many annoying Letters to the Editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine. Then CAME the several overview articles I penned in ANorAK harshly taking to task TASK’s vague and airy approach to cold water safety, and the resulting dialogs with its several defenders. I sent off carping letters to Wayne Horodowich and to Nell Walton when I was solicited by them for input on how TASK’s SKEG (Sea Kayak Educators and Guides Alliance) guidelines should be formulated (no reply). Atlantic Coastal Kayaker later reprinted my censorious overview article, “Bared SKIN: Where the Sea kayaking Industry Went Wrong on Cold Water Safety”, along with several Letters from me commenting on recent New England cold water fatalities, and this prompted a very clarifying exchange of Letters to the Editor with Nell Walton, former President of TASK. It was from this exchange that I understood just how deeply rooted was the avoidance on the part of the industry to discuss the cold water issue in terms of sea kayaking as a mass-market, general public activity. And, of course, there continued the decades-long series of Letters in Sea Kayaker, most recently on the Storm Islands incident and on PFD usage.

Everyone of us has a task (pun!) and a gift. Mine is to be a pest. I am very grateful, first to Eric Soares, and now to Nancy for allowing me to air my views here on this site, and hope that it will continue to be a forum for ongoing discussion of these issues.


John Lull February 21, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Carl, I agree that writing letters to the editor of magazines that market kayaking in this devious, inaccurate fashion, and getting the word out to the industry regarding any safety issue is an admirable and necessary enterprise. I even wrote an entire book on safety issues; not just cold water safety, but many other issues that have been, and continue to be, ignored or distorted. For example, the idea of paddling a closed deck kayak out on open water without a spray skirt is asking for serious trouble (there’s a horror story on this topic in the first “Deep Trouble” book, I think). Now compound that lack of a spray skirt with wearing only a bathing suit in cold water, insufficient flotation in the kayak, a lack of rolling or rescue skills, and you definitely have a recipe for disaster.

Over the years all these problems have existed and continue to exist. The best we can do is get the best info out there and take the marketers to task (I guess that’s a pun) when they misrepresent the activity. However, you won’t stop such marketing, no matter what you do. This is not limited to sea kayaking. The glut of information in today’s world encompasses as much (or more) BS as truth, and so it really is up to the individual to do their homework and use some intelligence and common sense to sift the wheat from the chaff (as I said already). Here’s a little something for everyone who takes up any activity:

If it’s depicted as being too easy to be true, it’s not true.

This is doubly important for activities like kayaking or mountain climbing or skiing or anything involving risk.


Doug Lloyd February 25, 2014 at 6:16 pm

I see the lips that still move on the gurus of sea kayaking over the last thirty years and the same noise coming out. Doesn’t matter what the particular perspective or prejudice is, there is a uniqueness that defines that individual’s philosophy. And there will be found many within that encampment supporting the tribe and spokesperson. Some of those individuals are no longer with us. When Hutchy came over here to Noth America, he brought his own ideologies, some representative of the BCU, some perhaps not endorsed. Many of us just starting out sea kayaking laughed off the nonsensical parts and took to heart the information that analytically made sense to adopt. So too with Dowds. I always tried to take what he said as purposely being a bit overstated precisely because he was in a heartfelt manner trying to counter some of the nonsense being promulgated at the time and he truly was concerned about freedom and keeping regulations at bay. I have spent time with these men and all are good men and love life and this sport. There is much more that unites than brings disunity. But they are strong personalities. Even Eric’s perspectives were unique, acquired pursuing a more active engagement of paddling coastal conflict zones where high energy dynamics exist. Hardly something applicable broadly. Guys like Lee Moyer had again an entirely different perspective emphasizing seamanship, navigational adroitness and keen awareness of tide and current factors. No deep blue paddling emphasis. That wasn’t his bag.

So what about the regular paddling bloke? Well, most of us just took our ques from all these varying perspectives putting together a philosophy that incorporated those principals and priorities we felt binding to our own style of paddling. No one I paddle with does not recognize the importance of immersion apparel, nor the fact it only buys you time and can give one a false sense of security. It is a psychological balancing act . But stand on the corner and preach it? No. Others can do that. Good gear, communication equipment, tested skill sets, experience gained incrementally, etc: These are reasonable notions and realities. If a Tsunami Ranger or deep water paddler or rec boat bloke wants to make fun of any one them fine. If someone is overemphasizing the importance of a marine radio or hears a paddler saying he can take any risk wanted and just call for help when things go south, well then the criticism is deserved.

Locally, there are a contingent of paddlers going back to the light paddling attire, high skill set orientation of yesterday. I am not going to sanction that for me, but who am I to wax critical about it? Most of us know about risk homeostasis. It was comical to read Dowd’s comments above like it was some kind of revelation. Old news bro. I am with Carl and Moulton. By default cold water paddling upon any capricious body of water or one prone to tidal turbulence, all things being equal, should be done with immersion apparel in mind. One can then make choices further to the levels of risk and possible outcome, and live with the consequences. As do their families and loved ones. As does the sport as a whole if cumulatively agencies see trends that do not amuse them. No one is saying we are there yet. I just refuse to accept everything that comes out of the mouth of any one individual in this sport. Lull, Cunningham, et al, have been traditionally, a little more balanced. That’s all most of us really want.


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