by Will Nordby
– Photo illustration by Will Nordby-
The recent sinking of the Costa Concordia brought to mind a subject that has special relevance to those traveling on the sea: the survival instinct. When the cruise ship grounded, the captain, Francesco Schettino, chose to leave before all the passengers were accounted for or, at least, until the situation was judged hopeless. He was roundly criticized by veteran captains for not honoring the unwritten rule of the sea that the captain stay with the ship to direct rescue efforts. What Captain Schettino apparently didn’t know was how he would react in a crisis on the sea. One can only wonder if there was a failure in his training or if he deluded himself about his competency. Why would a captain of a large cruise ship, with more than 4,200 passengers aboard, deviate from his established route to pass close to the island of Giglio so a crew member could “give a shout out” to his village? Instead, a reef gave a “shout out” to the captain. The sea always lies in wait for a stupid mariner. His failure should give all of us who kayak pause for thought and reflection. In a single kayak, we are captain, crew, and passenger. As such, we are responsible for all those identities. How well do we know how we will confront a crisis and the inevitable panic? The survival instinct is not enough if not accompanied by logic and forced calm.
A recent kayak fatality in my area points up the fact that survival instinct alone can be deadly. Two friends decided to paddle out one evening to take pictures of a moonrise. It was reported that the victim’s kayak tipped and filled with water. From this you would be led to believe that the kayak upset itself. Obviously, the victim lost his balance and capsized and came out of his kayak. Did the kayak have bulkheads? No information. If the kayakers couldn’t get the water out then it seems they didn’t have pumps with them or the kayak didn’t have bulkheads. So now what? The friend told the victim to leave his flooded kayak and grab onto the stern of his kayak and he would paddle to shore. A strong ebbing tide hindered the effort. Perhaps sensing he could swim to shore, the victim let go of his friend’s kayak and took off his paddle jacket and PFD and began swimming. The friend, seeing this, immediately took off his own PFD and threw it to the victim and told him he would go for help. As the friend paddled away, the victim let go of the PFD and attempted to swim ashore. Although the survival instinct was urging him on, logic was absent as the 50 degree water began sapping his strength and clear thinking. Despite the victim being young and athletic, there was no way he was going to swim across the fast moving tide. Had he kept the PFD, there would have been a good chance he would have made it to shore if he had swum with the tide at an angle. When the victim’s friend returned from shore, after having called 911, and looked for him, the victim had vanished. His body was never found.
The kayak incident illustrates bad planning and a lack of rescue skills. The thought of going out in the evening and taking pictures of a rising moon seemed like a fun thing to do. It may have been that a land based mentality rather than a water based mentality was in play here. Mistakes made on water can quickly escalate out of control. It didn’t help that it was dark making it hard to see. But, more importantly, the darkness contributed to a feeling of isolation when coupled with the victim’s panic and fatigue in the swiftly moving cold water. The victim’s survival instinct was simply overwhelmed mentally and physically.
It seems reasonable to assume each of us has experienced a situation while kayaking that exceeded our skills and tolerance for stress. I certainly have. Several years ago, when my kayaking skills were at a low level, I was on a week outing along the northwest coast of Vancouver Island with three other people. Our first day route would take us from the put-in at the head of an inlet then out around a small headland and then into another inlet for our campsite. Everything went well until we reached the headland. The wind picked up and a short steep chop developed. Our group stayed together but the rough water was a concern. There was still a mile of open water before the next inlet. Soon whitecaps formed and were hitting us broadside since we had to paddle parallel to the coast. I had not experienced these conditions before and I was becoming concerned not only for myself but the rest of the group. I had thoughts I might capsize since the wind could grow stronger and create larger waves. The shoreline was studded with large boulders along the entire headland and spray was shooting up from the crashing waves.
We were now halfway past the headland and the rough water and wind held steady. However, my concern had grown since I had time to think about my situation and was very uncomfortable. There was no quick out. I did not want to be in this rough water and knew things could get ugly fast. Also, I was uncertain about how the group would function in a rescue situation. In short, my confidence had evaporated and I was definitely feeling bolts of panic. I did not speak out because no one else had. Only my pride kept my voice in check. I wasn’t about to yell out in fear because the thought of being labeled a wimp was greater than my panic as silly as that sounds. Strangely, the sight of my fellow paddlers plugging along helped to quell the uncontrollable feeling of being overwhelmed.
It is hard to know how long my conflicted emotions lasted but it seemed forever. I had never felt this degree of urgency to be away from the situation I was in. Fear and reason battled for control. Little by little, I realized I was making progress not only against the turbulent seas but also the turmoil within. Having regained my confidence, I realized I had learned something about myself in the process. In the face of uncertainty, I was able to maintain control, however shaky. When, at last, our group entered the calmer waters around the headland, I felt a boundless euphoria in my accomplishment. Of course, I never let on to the others in the group the panic I had experienced. But, I had a feeling they had their own personal doubts.
Away from kayaking, and other risky adventures, I find myself drawn to crime documentaries as a source for examples of the survival instinct factor. One particular program caught my attention because it involved a nurse who had been attacked in her home by a hammer wielding male assailant. The narration revealed the nurse had taken self defense training. At first, this information struck me as odd. Here I was looking at a pleasant middle-aged woman who was dedicated to care giving. Why would this gentle woman be concerned with self defense since she spent her working hours in a hospital. Then it dawned on me. Of course, her work places her with people strung out on drugs or those who are mentally ill. These people can suddenly turn aggressive and it is essential that a nurse be able to defend herself.
As the story unfolded, the nurse was being hit in the head and upper body by this strange man in her home. She warded off the blows as best she could while trying to reason with the attacker to stop. He didn’t. At this point, the nurse knew it was a matter of life or death and her survival instinct kicked into overdrive aided by her training in self defense and anatomy. She did not panic but remained focused and, despite her injuries, became the aggressor and got her attacker into a choke hold. Her application of it was swift, efficient, and deadly. It was against all of her principles and ethics but it was a matter of saving a life—her own. Unlike the kayak victim, the nurse was mentally prepared for a crisis through her disciplined training. There seems to be little doubt that the male attacker had the perception that it would be an easy kill for him against a defenseless woman. He could not guess that he was up against a trained and disciplined professional whose survival instinct was superior to his.
The survival instinct burrows to the core of one’s being. How well will you react in a crisis–alone and with others? You will never know until the crisis happens. It is real, it is now and it can’t be changed. For those of us involved with kayaking, it is a question which must be answered. The cruise captain, the kayak victim, myself, and the nurse all found the answer. What will it be for you? As the Ancients counseled anyone going forth: “There be dragons.” What they were saying was that one had to be prepared for the unexpected both externally and internally—the survival instinct may not be enough.