“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.
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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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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