If you combine scouting the open coast with an analysis of each person’s capabilities, what have you got? Risk assessment—a key safety element of every sea kayaking endeavor, especially on the exposed coast, which by its nature is fraught with danger. And while we want to be exposed to some risk, as that is where fun and learning occur, we don’t want to be unprepared for it.
My essay on scouting details how to do that essential task, so check it out. Today, I’ll focus on the other main factor of risk assessment—a comprehensive evaluation of each kayaker’s ability to participate in the risk levels revealed by scouting. One aspect of a kayaker’s pre-embarkation preparation is equipment, starting with the boat. Assuming your boat is appropriate for the activity at hand, go over your checklist to make sure your boat is shipshape. See that the hull integrity is good, and the hatch covers are properly sealed, deck lines are secured, flotation bags are inflated, rudders and other hardware are operating correctly, gear is watertight and properly stowed, and the like.
Check your paddles for cracks and chips. Be sure your clothing (PFD, drysuit, wetsuit, helmet, etc.) is adequate for the conditions. A good way to ensure your clothing is okay is to put everything on and jump in the water. Read my essay on testing your clothing and personal gear before kayaking. Also make sure you brought your ancillary gear such as rescue items, GPS, VHF radio, water, food, etc. Again, go down the list and check each item off.
Next, evaluate each person’s skill level. Does each kayaker have what it takes to safely paddle in surf, rocks, rough water, wind, fog, caves—whatever your scouting revealed? For instance, does each person have a powerful stroke? How about bracing and rolling skills? Recovery and rescue proficiency? Special skills needed for the conditions such as surfing or landing on rocks? Auxiliary skills such as navigation and first aid?
Then check out each person’s physical state. Of course everyone should know about everyone else’s long-term injuries and illnesses long before going to the seashore, but new things can crop up at the last second. What if someone hurt her back taking boats off the car? What if someone had a fever the day before, or is hungry, or on new meds, and so forth?
The last and hardest part is assessing the mental health of each person on the outing. Oftentimes people are unaware or in denial of their emotional and mental states. So after checking yourself to see if you are experiencing fear or anxiety or anger or doubt or confusion, ask the other participants how they feel. Look at each person to make sure they all look cool, calm, and collected.
Risk assessment should be done as a team, before getting on the water, regardless of who is the official leader. This is especially important in a class, tour, or outing with newcomers, where everyone doesn’t know their paddling mates very well. Even Tsunami Rangers, who have been paddling together for decades, quickly check each other out before committing to the water. You never know who might have failed to properly close his hatches or have forgotten to bring a paddle. It happens. In fact, we have messed up on hatch closing which caused us to end a week-long tour early, and we once left all the paddles in the front yard—which made us have to go for a hike instead of a paddle.
If anyone is not ready with their equipment, skills, or physical or mental states, then it may be possible to fix it or adjust to it. If someone forgot a paddle, perhaps a buddy has a spare. If someone lacks skill to land in surf, make a group decision to assist that person as a team when the time comes. If someone has a hurt knee, carry his boat. If a person has a gut feeling that something is wrong or is afraid to do the activity, ask her to describe her feelings and get to the bottom of it. Perhaps reassurance is all that is needed to make her feel better. Then go out and have fun.
But what if you can’t reasonably fix or adjust to a problem? What if a doofus drops his boat off the car and the kayak splits in half down the middle, and no one has a spare boat that is right for that guy? How about someone who is a good roller but a poor swimmer and is facing 8-foot surf at a river mouth for the first time? What if a bloke gets a bad case of the runs? What if a so-called surf expert takes one look at the inviting surf and complex rock garden you were going to paddle in that day and snivels, “I’m not going in there! No! NO! N-O-O-O-O!!!”
There is always risk associated with kayaking on the open coast, but what if your assessment reveals insurmountable risk as in the above paragraph? It’s time to go to Plan B. You have several options available. The person(s) not able to undertake the risk can stay on the beach and watch (a very good and underutilized choice). You may be able to break up your group into pods; one pod does the more dangerous stuff, and other pods partake in safer activities. Or, you can simply go to another place that’s within an acceptable risk level that day.
These are easy solutions, but sometimes momentum stymies good judgment and propels people into dangerous situations. This is why, when I teach an open coast class, we NEVER RUSH to the water and launch. We always slow down and scout using the Sea Conditions Rating System (SCRS) and couple that with a current assessment of our readiness individually and as a group. At the end of the day, students evaluate the class and often someone reports that time was “wasted” by spending an hour scouting and assessing. I can live with that criticism, and I’m not going to change our procedure, no matter how tedious it seems to eager beavers compelled to get on the water as fast as possible.
It’s true that one cannot foresee or prepare for every risk imaginable, but risk assessment can pinpoint probable events and help you manage them so they don’t become preventable calamities. Extra time spent in assessment at the beginning of the outing will result in a safer, more fun day on the water.
Did I leave anything out that’s important in Risk Assessment? Please relate your procedure for analyzing risk when sea kayaking. I’ll be happy to answer any questions or discuss anything in this essay. I’d also love it if you shared your “assessment” stories. It’s easy, just post your comment below the essay.