Sea Kayaking and Risk Homeostasis

by Nancy Soares on April 7, 2014

By John Dowd

Editor’s note: John Dowd has been sea kayaking since 1961. He is the author of “Sea Kayaking”, a manual for long distance touring. Dowd is also the founding editor and past part owner of Sea Kayaker Magazine and author of a series of marine adventure books for young adults. He is the founding member of TASK (Trade Association for Sea Kayaking) and founder of Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Center as well as the co-producer of a sea kayak video series (free on YouTube). Click on this  link (one link will get you all three) to check out the videos – they’re great! In Episode 1 at 51:10 there is some cool footage of Eric and the Rangers mixing it up in rock gardens.

Is it risky? Yes, but he's dressed appropriately.

Is it risky? Yes, but he’s dressed appropriately. Gath helmet: check. Stohlquist kevlar PFD: check. Heat Wave custom wetsuit: check. Neoprene gloves and booties: check.

Risk homeostasis according to the analysis of Gerald J.S. Wilde is an idea still debated amongst academics that build and lose reputations on such things. It is significant to sea kayaking because it offers explanations to some otherwise puzzling phenomena, for example the lack of a noticeable rise in mortality from the thousands of rec boats sold with no buoyancy or spray skirts. We in the trade fully expected the bodies to come washing ashore as big box stores started selling $249 packages. Years later we are still waiting. This would not have been a surprise to Wilde.

A kayaker who wears a wetsuit, body armor, and a protective helmet is more likely to paddle stormy rock gardens than that same paddler when wearing a bathing suit in a rec boat. The point is that everyone makes such adjustments based upon the perceived risk, and the accuracy of these assessments affects what they do. Their adroitness may be improved by education and experience but the target level of risk is the key and it is constant.

In the Mediterannean in June we dressed like this.

When we’re touring in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sardinia in June we dress like this. Pictured: Barbara Kossy

Therefore, addressing the cold-water debate a paddler in a full wetsuit will be more inclined to take cold water risk than someone without; thus the actual risk is held to levels acceptable for both individuals. People buy into the advice of others when it comes to assessing acceptable risk so long as that advice does not conflict with their experience. This may explain why a minority of paddlers adhere to the “always dress for the water” concept. They are in fact doing a risk/benefit analysis and opting to come up with their own compromise: usually a light (comfortable) farmer John and paddling jacket combo that will improve their reaction time for re-entering their boat should their roll fail, but in no way could be considered dressing for prolonged periods of immersion.

In the Pacific off the coast of Northern California we dressed like this.

When we’re rock gardening in the Pacific off the coast of Northern California we dress like this. Pictured: Mark Boyd, Jeff Laxier, and Michael Dedman.

The point that Wilde makes is that accident outcomes are unlikely to improve until individuals reduce the amount of risk they are willing to accept. This may occur naturally as the person matures or has children or has a “near death” experience that causes them to reduce the risk they are willing to take. It may also explain the perception of youth as accident-prone. It is not that they lack dexterity or an understanding of risk so much as they are willing to accept a higher level of risk than their parents or grandparents.

Southern Oregon in July on Carberry Creek, paddling backwards. Current: minimal. Air temp: 90F; water temp: 68F. Water depth: I can walk out and I'm wearing booties. Should I be wearing a helmet and elbow pads too? I thought about it and accepted the risk.

Southern Oregon in July on Carberry Creek. Current: fast. Air temp: 90F; water temp: 58F. Water depth: I can walk out and I’m wearing booties. Should I be wearing a helmet and elbow pads? I thought about it and accepted the risk.

Humans learn very early that water is dangerous and cold water is undesirable without ever needing to understand the science. Total landlubbers are capable of making this judgment; indeed landlubbers often have a heightened fear of water. Those who designate sea kayaking as an extreme sport underestimate the savvy of the general public while (not coincidentally) elevating their own status. Indeed it seems that just as often it is the self-proclaimed experts who find themselves in trouble, calling on the coast guard for help (again?) on the state of the art electronic device that they carried to reduce their risk. It has often been noted that those who have insurance tend to take that into account when assessing risk; thus paradoxically insurance (read also safety gear) tends to lead to more risky actions.

Acceptable risk, baby!

Acceptable risk, baby! Pictured: Nancy Soares. Photo by Cate Hawthorne.

Maybe there exist appropriate statistics for kayak deaths during the past thirty years. If so I am unaware of them but I would bet a Schermuly flare and a nose clip that the fatalities per person-hours on the water have been and will remain a constant and show no significant difference between “novice” and “expert”. At this stage that is pure speculation but parallel examples exist in many other fields. Wikipedia has some useful examples from Wilde’s work that show the way we change our behavior so our perception of acceptable risk remains the same. The key word there is perception. The more informed one is, the more likely this perception is in fact the level of risk we are targeting.

This does not mean we should not wear wetsuits or PFDs or carry flares, VHF radios, etc. To the contrary, it means that we can do more challenging trips and still stay within our target zone of personally acceptable risk.

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Soares April 7, 2014 at 7:37 am

Thanks, John, for your contribution to our website. It’s great to have you aboard. I haven’t done any research on this topic but I have thought about it a lot and quite a few of my own experiences lend credence to the premise. I had a friend who offered to be a kayaking buddy a couple of years ago. I took her out on a local lake since she was new to kayaking. She did reasonably well paddling but had trouble getting in and out of the boats. She also confided that she’d once had a traumatic experience swimming in surf. Long story short, she ended up bailing on me. This was probably a good thing because since it turned out she had a healthy fear of the sea it was likely that had I taken her out on the ocean she might have freaked (see ) and things could have got gnarly. She self-selected out, and it probably made sense for her to do so.


Doug Lloyd April 7, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Nicely distilled perspective. Many of us thought mayham was going to ensue with the rec kayak explosion which did not occurr given the number sold versus number of tragic outcomes. Inflatable beach toys seem worse. Risk is everywhere. I geared up for lumpy winter water one day, maxed out with gear and immersion apparel and then slipped on the ramp on the slippery sloping low-tide seaweed and sustained a painful tail bone injury. While opinionated kayaker can be a pain in the butt at times, it is good to have these perspectives about risk to mull over and help us think through our response to risk in non dogmatic ways. Dowds always comes through challenging our perseptions. In a good way!


Carl White April 7, 2014 at 4:39 pm

I read John Dowd’s synopsis of risk homeostasis as it may relate to sea kayaking with great interest. A question came immediately to mind: what would risk homeostasis predict would be the ratio of sea kayak wetsuit/drysuit wearers to the population of those not wearing such attire, in an overall population of cold-water capsize fatalities? Would there be more dead wetsuit/drysuits wearers in that population? Fewer? Equal numbers? A concept as universal and powerful as risk homeostasis should easily provide an answer. What is it? And is there a parallel with PFD use?

The problem I have with risk homeostasis as an “explanation” of anything in sea kayaking is that it substitutes a deus ex machina, an inexorable “invisible hand” for the difficult responsibility of putting accurate information into the hands and minds of people entering this activity. A much older and stronger concept is “monkey see, monkey do”. If a novice sees and reads and absorbs that the wearing of a sprayskirt and a PFD is an integral part of sea kayaking, and that those all around at the launch site are so attired, then that’s what they too will wear. Ditto with cold-water dress, and I mean wetsuits and drysuits.

I’m pretty sure John doesn’t intend this, but the effect of quoting risk homeostasis lends a note of passivity and false inevitability to the cold water situation–“it’s just the way things are”. John tells us that humans learn very early that water is dangerous and cold water is undesirable, and that total landlubbers are capable of making this judgment. He may be right to rely upon this supposed “savvy” to keep the swelling numbers of rec boat buyers safe for a while (but wait until the level of false confidence among that population fully matures–there are things that one really needs to know in order to paddle open water safely), but he knows that there really is no substitute for an aggressive effort to educate people about the cold water immersion threat, and by example, to lead. Lead, and they will follow. It was in this failure to educate about the cold water hazard and to lead that TASK and company most poorly served the community. Appeals to risk homeostasis explanations are not effective here.


Doug Lloyd April 8, 2014 at 10:21 am

Poor edits on my little screen…I meant I can be a pain in the butt, not other paddlers. But on this risk homeostasis issue as relates to sea kayaking, I think John isn’t too far off the mark. Is he providing us with a big yawn on the issue in the context of cold water risk management with his perspective. Perhaps. I forget the history here. But he isn’t too far off how just about every paddler here on the coast feels about it if asked. A big yawn. Yes, wear immersion apparel. Like duh. Can we talk about something else? That’s what you would here if you came here Carl. And those who choose to dress lighter? They already have had the concept of cold water immersion explained and make an choice, unwise as it may seem to many of us, so it is on them. Do we take more risks because we were immersion gear? Yes and no. Setting out to sea in a diminutive craft on cold water already is a risk undertaking. Wearing immersion gear is immediately a risk homeostasis proposal. Well for as long as I have know John he has advocated safety lies within the brain of the paddler and I appreciate his message over the years in a sea of germain dogma, BCU hype, gear-centric hyperbole and regulation heavy perps preponderance in NA society. John’s first book on sea kayaking was the defacto diffinitive work on the importance of seamanship which is interestingly your mantra.


Carl White April 8, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Doug, here’s my take: John Dowd, Derek Hutchinson, TASK et al did a magnificent job in their manuals pointing out to wannabe sea kayakers that they needed to know all about the marine environment–weather shore, lee shore, fetch, ebb over incoming waves, wind over tide, sea state, danger of powerful offshore winds, wearing PFDs and sprayskirts, having decklines, you name it. No complaints from me–none. But all of this (or 95% of it) is to keep sea kayakers from capsizing in cold water. The two big dangers facing sea kayakers (or most any kayakers) are impact (minor) and immersion in cold water (The Big One). Here is where the ball got dropped in an alarming, weird way. Everybody else involved in close-to-the-water sport–surfers, jet skiers, whitewater paddlers, windsurfers–were routinely wearing wetsuits/drysuits. Newcomers picked up the habit from the get-go. There is thus no rational explanation for the failure to explicitly endorse the wearing of wetsuits/drysuits by sea kayakers as the standard response to a cold-water situation–we are left with either just the personal biases of the gurus, or because of some arcane legal reason nobody has ever expressed, why there was never this endorsement. Instead, wannabe sea kayakers were left to figure out just what constituted a legitimate “challenging condition” to justify wearing the gear.

Here is a direct, easy question for the recent devotees of risk homeostasis as some kind of “answer” or “explanation” or “guide” to our thinking about cold water attire: If the goal was to reduce cold water immersion fatalities and hospitalizations, what should have been the mechanism(s) that the community, and especially the Industry, should have put into place? In Adventure Kayak, John Dowd told us that “Sea kayaking in North America was planned and developed by a very small group of enthusiasts and businesspeople”. The current enthusiasm for risk homeostasis comes across as a way of finessing, of sidestepping responsibility for bad decisions that were made right at the inception by the gurus and marketers. But I’d be interested, even now, in a risk homeostasis-based plan of action to properly prepare newbies for safe kayaking on cold water.


John Dowd April 8, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Carl I think you might be asking the wrong questions. Risk homeostatis does not produce a plan for anything and it is not part of an industry plot to sidestep responsibility. It is simply a mechanism of human nature. It is the way we do things. The best you can do as a kayaking teacher is what you are doing, which is to educate people about risk- all risk. I think we all do that, then people make their choices. My question to you is what are you promising with your dress for the water preoccupation? How much survival time do you offer in 48 degree water and what dress exactly is required. Are these requirements reasonable?

Dr Duncan Murray (a fit forty-ish man of about 180lbs) did a cold water perasonal test in these conditions. He wore a quarter inch farmer john, booties and pile top with a waterprood paddling jacket. By most standards he would have been considered dressed for the water. In seven minutes of immersion he had become incapicatided by the cold (hands stopped functioning). These are the risks we face. Understanding these risks is the best you can offer to students. People then make their choices based on their best information and the level of risk individuals find acceptable is what I understand Wilde calls risk homeostasis.


Carl White April 9, 2014 at 7:02 am

John, I understand completely that risk homeostasis is alleged to be a mechanism of human nature, and is an hypothesis with many critics. I also affirm that it is not a plot to sidestep responsibility–that would be a harsh assessment indeed. But it does make it easier for those who chose not to explicitly espouse the wearing of wetsuits/drysuits as the response to the challenge of cold water to look back and say “well, no matter what we might have said or done, there are just going to be so-and-so many cold water fatalities, and that’s the way it is–it’s just human nature, and the inexorable hand of risk homeostasis.” The TASK injunctions to “dress for immersion”, to “avoid hypothermia”, to “dress appropriately”, and not follow that up with “wear a wetsuit or drysuit–it’s what all the other cold-water aquanauts: surfers, jet skiers, windsurfers, whitewater paddlers–routinely wear”, constitutes something that needs an explanation that your recent epiphany regarding risk homeostasis just won’t satisfy. You did an excellent job, with your peers, about educating newcomers about risk–but not all risk, not the biggest risk, which all of the other risk education was meant to help the newbie avoid, at best, or survive, at worst.

On risk homeostasis itself: it may turn out to be a perfectly valid explanation of behavioral phenomena in many fields, but I find that Wilde’s primary automobile example does not necessarily demonstrate risk homeostasis, and, even if it did, there are profound differences between automobile use and sea kayaking that may make the concept completely invalid for the latter. This is not the place to enlarge upon this, but the fact that automobile driving is subject to license requirements of basic, universal, testable knowledge and skill, that the substrate is relatively uniform, relatively unchanging (compared with open water) and is specifically designed for powered vehicular travel, that the required driving skillset is quite limited and is often exercised with only partial attention, and that the populations involved are vastly larger than the sea kayaking population, etc., etc., may mask the much more granular nature of the sea kayaking experience and may obscure the critical role that setting the right example and transmitting the right information plays in determining how people prepare for an open-water trip in a narrow, tippy watercraft. Given time, I may attempt my own, larger critique of risk homeostasis, but, for now, let’s speculate on a thought experiment wherein every sea kayaker has been thoroughly indoctrinated from the start that wetsuits/drysuits are an integral, habitual, reflexive response to cold-water paddling, and see virtually all their peers so attired at the launch site, and another scenario wherein people have been told to “avoid hypothermia” without wetsuits/drysuits being mentioned, but instead are given a lot of fine information about “layering for kayakers”: avoid cotton, wear polypro, etc.

Regarding what to wear, check out


Nancy Soares April 9, 2014 at 7:42 am

It seems to me that “monkey see monkey do” is in fact risk homeostasis in action. If you go down to the beach in my neck of the woods the only people you see in the water will be wearing wetsuits. On a really hot day there may be a few people playing in surf in bathing suits but they’re usually only ankle-deep. Even on a warm day, within seconds your feet go numb. Who wants to swim?

The local surfers and kayakers are outfitted with wetsuits and drysuits. Surfing and kayaking wouldn’t be much fun if they weren’t. Actually, surfing and kayaking wouldn’t be possible. People who don’t dress for immersion are not in kayaks but boats with engines. And they’re usually the ones who tip over and have a problem. I think the bigger issue is that newer kayakers don’t expect to tip over and end up in the water. That’s where education begins. Just like you don’t learn to walk without falling down, you don’t learn to kayak without falling in. A good teacher will instruct students that they WILL end up in the water at one time or another, and that’s what you prepare for. As Moulton says in his Golden Rules, prepare for the worst that can happen. If teachers aren’t getting that across, they’re not doing their job. When I learned to kayak the first thing Eric made me do was fall out of my boat and get back in over and over about a hundred times. First on flat water in the harbor, then in surf. I think the longest swim I ever did was about 45 minutes It was a rough day, I was in a double with a friend, and we couldn’t stay upright. We spent about an hour or so out by Mushroom Rock, most of that time in the water. In my wetsuit I never got cold. Ever. Because I was comfortable and I’m a good rough water swimmer it was actually fun. Perceived risk was low. My biggest worry was sharks.


Doug Lloyd April 9, 2014 at 8:44 am

I started sea kayaking in 1980. All my mentors, all of the literature and every instructor I had drilled into us that cold water kills, dress for immersion, and hypothermia can get you even on shore. I attended numerous kayak symposiums many by TASK and cold water awareness was everywhere. Derek Hutchinson was the only one saying to dress as a well healed hill climber as opposed to full-on immersion gear though he did qualify that to some degree. Lee Moyer emphasized hazard avoidance and as well as Dowds, suggested narrow kayaks were riskier/tippier so you actually better be prepared! Eric of course was right out there on the edge covering all aspects of risk and the practical ways to deal with it. I forget the Matt Broze take on it but boy, did I take his float outrigger message to heart as far as methods to get back in your boat quickly as functionality soon waned in cold water. My main mentor, Fred Potter was an ex west coast deep sea fisher and he drilled into us that cold water equals death. And that kayaking was a swimming sport. He did not need to go on about immersion apparel in and fanatical manner. What to wear was bloody obvious.


Carl White April 9, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Doug, did all of those excellent mentors tell you directly and explicitly to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit as the response to the fact that cold water kills, to dress for immersion, to avoid hypothermia? That is the key question. If they did, you were a lucky man–your mentors realized that the TASK silence on this matter was indefensible. Somebody (at least back then) coming into sea kayaking as a total novice would not have a clue as to how to dress for immersion or when to dress for immersion–to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit–if they had only the manuals (John’s and Derek’s, say) or TASK literature as their guide. Lots about layering, but a specific, direct statement that a wetsuit or a drysuit is what cold-water aquanauts routinely wear? Chuck Sutherland, Moulton Avery, Brian Price, Stan Chladek, other East Coast and Great Lakes people were voices in the wilderness, but they didn’t write the books or control the Industry. There was ANorAK, though, and I repeat my offer to send a copy of the ANorAK Wetsuit Papers to anybody who emails me their address. I’ll include relevant Atlantic Coastal Kayaker letter exchanges with a former TASK President, and also the 1984 TASK Guide to Sea Kayaking, Before You Go. This wonderful little pamphlet tells us to bring/wear “clothing suitable for the conditions” and reminds us to “dress appropriately” for cold water/hypothermia. The words wetsuit or drysuit never appear.

Besides memories, hopes and dreams, there is an actual record here, going back decades, that documents the TASK failure to realistically address the cold water danger. I realize that people want to move on, but the aftereffects of those decades of Industry/Guru failure to deal with this issue remain with us today. Since risk homeostasis seems to be providing John with a powerful new insight into sea kayaking safety and target group behavior, perhaps he can give us the benefit of some suggestions about how to reduce the fatality rate among kayakers not clad in wetsuits or drysuits by getting more of them into that “appropriate dress”.


John Lull April 9, 2014 at 7:08 pm

First of all, thanks John for the article. I’ll have to think about the homeostasis concept a little more before commenting on it, but I think there’s some truth to it.

On the cold water immersion issue, evidently I was never really exposed to the TASK silence on whether or not to dress for the water. Nor did such a message get through to me after reading both of the excellent books by Derek Hutchison & John Dowd, as different as they were. Yeah, I saw the ‘dress like a well-turned out hill walker’ thing in Derek’s book and I immediately dismissed it in terms of paddling out here on the Pacific Ocean. I just assumed he was talking about paddling somewhere else and if not, then it just wasn’t the way I’d approach it. It didn’t negate all the excellent advice he gave on other topics.

What I did hear over and over again from most sources was ‘dress for the water.’ As Nancy says, here on the west coast no one would question that (well, almost no one–read on). That was sort of a given. There is so much more to seamanship and navigating a kayak out on the sea! Learning how to read the conditions, how to paddle with good technique, in control, how to react to various situations, how to perform various rescue techniques, how to use currents, to ride waves, to handle the wind, to navigate, deal with boat traffic, deal with breaking waves & surf & rock gardens, and more, was what I focused on. I already had the wetsuit; bought a nice custom-fit, comfortable farmer john at Heat Wave and that took care of it. I spent most of my time learning all that other important stuff.

Hey, I just saw on the news tonight that just yesterday a guy swam from the Farallon Islands to SF, about 28 miles of rough, open, cold ocean, in a bathing suit!!! He put some kind of grease on him to help stay warm. How does that fit in to this whole thing?


John Dowd April 9, 2014 at 10:33 pm

Carl, reading this stuff makes me think we have entered a time warp. FYI TASK is long dead. When it was alive its members included manufacturers of wetsuits and drysuits. There was never a conspiracy to ignore the risk posed by cold water. The problem seems to be that your pet idea of always dressing for water conditions didn’t catch on with people who considered that they were unlikely to capsize their kayak (as different from white water paddlers, Tsunami rangers or surfers who are constantly in the water). People inside and outside TASK considered your ideas and decided a good compromise for touring kayakers was a farmer John, a paddling jacket and a quick re-entry method. That was the point of my asking you if you are advocating full wetsuits for sea kayakers and for offering the experience of Dr Murray in cold water.
If you are proposing touring paddlers accept wearing full wetsuits or enough underclothing with their drysuit to survive for hours(?) in cold water you are simply not going to get support for your idea even though cold water is obviously dangerous. That is where understanding risk homeostasis becomes relevant to this discussion.


John Lull April 10, 2014 at 8:23 am

I’m a kayak surfer, Tsunami Ranger, whitewater paddler, and touring sea kayaker, and I’ve never ever worn a full wetsuit or drysuit. I’ve done just fine with a farmer john wetsuit and paddling jacket (sometimes a dry top) in all of those activities. To be honest, I’ve never seen a whitewater paddler in a full wetsuit, but then I paddle rivers in the summertime. I don’t think Carl is saying sea kayakers should always wear FULL wetsuits (are you Carl?). The only reason I’d ever wear a full wetsuit is if I paddled an open top kayak where you are continually exposed to the cold water, but I always paddle closed deck boats.

On the one hand I agree with those who say always dress for the water (I said it too, in my book, and I stand by it). However, there is such a thing as risk assessment. I wouldn’t even consider paddling out in the tide rips at the Golden Gate or in ocean rock gardens without a wetsuit (my farmer john), but I have paddled in a calm cold-water mountain lake in 80 degree weather wearing a bathing suit. I ‘know’ I’m not going to capsize in such conditions, but even if I did and failed to roll and failed to re-enter the kayak and lost the boat, I knew I could swim to shore, since I had already spent a couple of hours swimming around in the same lake. Risk assessment.

I’m a fan of safety equipment, including wetsuits, drysuits, etc. But that’s only part of it. Paddling skills, experience, judgment, seamanship, and knowledge of the marine environment in which you’re paddling are what is most important to safety on the water. Without those skills, the ‘safety equipment’ is only good for giving you a false sense of security. I’d far rather paddle naked out on a rough, cold sea with those skills in hand than paddle in a full wetsuit or drysuit without those skills. Ok, maybe with a paddle jacket…:)

Going back to that guy who swam 28 miles of open sea in bathing suit, I’ll resist the temptation to call him a lunatic because he is an experienced cold-water marathon swimmer, he had a support boat alongside, and he had the training and knew what he was doing. The boat was going to pull him out at the first sign of a Great White Shark (never mind the fact that those sharks attack, unseen from below, and take a huge bite that will allow their prey to bleed to death). I’d venture to say 99.9% of the population would never consider doing such a thing. The other side of that are all the people who get swept out to sea in a rip current and drown when wading in the surf. That also just happened yesterday at Ocean Beach in SF.

I think all of what I just wrote somehow fits into the risk homeostasis hypothesis.


Doug Lloyd April 10, 2014 at 9:44 am

Carl, if newbies are your primary concern then the issues are so broad and as pointed out, a newbie donning immersion gear and heading out with a false sense of security is a scary proposition. My memory tends to be selective but I can’t for the life of me remember anything industry related here on the West Coast where there wasn’t due emphasis on immersion apparel commensurate with conditions. John Dowds I understood in his big Kleppers not wanting to wear a neoprene straight jacket but he certainly sold the requisite gear in his store with Bea. My biggest issue as a newbie was buying boat, accessories and having enough for good immersion apparel into budget. I held off some more challenging paddling realizing I was not ready and not geared up. I took more on once I could afford a custom wetsuit farmer john. Off the rack did not fit. So, suit on, more risk. Risk homeostasis? I do remember back east coast ways always hearing about Spring thaw, sunny days, freezing water temps, and dead, capsized newbies. It seemed like an annual occurrence. I applaud all you folks who pushed the cold water kills message. Dowds, et al, owe you a heart thanks for redressing (pardon the pun) any imbalance perceived or otherwise. Can we move on at some point here? The pendulum has swung toward well-geared up paddlers these days. One wouldn’t show up and not be harassed at one of our club paddles if one were lacking suitable attire, PFD, spare paddle, etc etc etc. and there is so much more gear nowadays, fuzzy rubber, neo half shorts, the list goes on.


Nancy Soares April 10, 2014 at 2:20 pm

I keep thinking about risk homeostasis and I keep seeing examples of what I believe is r.h. at work. I’m glad Lull brought up the people who get swept away by sneaker waves and rip currents. Those are the real cold water casualties where we live, and they happen fairly often. It’s usually people who either get swept off the rocks, jetty, or beach, or they go in the water to “save” a family member or dog. (Ironically, the dog usually survives.) No one is going to wear a wetsuit for a day at the beach unless they plan on doing a lot of swimming (in fact, I gave Eric’s old wetsuit to his brother for that very purpose). But every beach goer makes choices on the beach: how close they get to the water, how deep they go in, how far they throw the ball for Fido, how drunk they get, how much attention they pay to their kids playing near the waterline, etc. Usually their choices result in a nice day at the beach. But every once in a while someone dies. Sometimes these incidents result in multiple deaths. I don’t have statistics, but I’d bet that most years the numbers of people who die are pretty much the same. Risk homeostasis at work?

Because of the huge landslide in WA that just killed a bunch of people, I think about where we choose to build our houses. Again, here in the West, there’s a lot of shaky ground (yeah, I know). Plus the whole wildfire thing. All my life I’ve known about building on old slides, under cliffs, next to rivers and creeks, on faults, and out in the middle of a manzanita/madrone forest. All bad ideas. Yet people still build in these places and people still buy the houses. Some people look at a house by a creek or river and say “Isn’t it pretty?” I say, “Flood zone.” And every so often the slide slides, the fault slips, the river floods, the forest goes up in flames and people die and houses are lost every year. Some years more than others but it would be interesting to see if the numbers remain fairly even. Risk homeostasis again?

And then I think about the dojo. Sometimes we place bets on how long a newbie is going to stay on the mat. A girl came in just last week and one of the guys was going around saying, “Three weeks”. Martial arts is tough and we’re a pretty hard core dojo. Very few people make it past the first few months, fewer make it to a colored belt, and the number of students who make black belt is tiny. There also seems to be a kind of cut off rate at the first black belt – some people make it that far but then they stop. The number of martial artists who make it to second, third, and fourth degree on up is miniscule. I’ve heard the number one in a thousand bruited about as the number of students who make first degree black belt. And I would say that number remains fairly constant. The higher your rank the more intense your practice and the more injuries you experience. Risk homeostasis?


John Dowd April 10, 2014 at 7:02 pm

Carl I checked your link on what you suggest we wear to deal with kayaking in cold water. It was not clear to me what your target time for cold water survival is or what you suggest we wear to satisfy your cold water safety institute. Just what do you suggest a touring kayaker wear when paddling on 48 degree water on a warm spring day?


Carl White April 11, 2014 at 4:58 pm

John, that touring kayaker should wear just what I wore yesterday on the 44-degree waters of Lake Nockamixon in Pennsylvania. The sun shone in a cloudless sky, as a SW 6-8 knot breeze blew up the long axis of the lake. It was 65 degrees in the parking lot at the launch site. Great day! I wore an NRS Farmer John, booties, and a full-sleeve SEDA wetsuit jacket over the Farmer John. I didn’t wear what N.R. wore on an identical warm and breezy day in early March 2002 on NJ’s Round Valley Reservoir, as he launched his new kayak onto the 42-degree water from a weather shore launch site. N.R. wore a splash top over a sweatshirt, jeans, and sandals. Found the kayak and later the body on the lee shore early the next morning. He never got the word about the danger cold water presents to the paddler of a narrow, tippy kayak.

The personal experiences that John L. and Doug relate are just that–personal anecdotes of how they each acquired their knowledge of how to deal with cold water–they knew that the John Dowds and Derek Hutchinsons of sea kayaking gurudom didn’t really need to spell out to those reading their guides as sources of accurate information, that cold water paddlers needed to be told that wetsuits and drysuits were what cold water aquanauts wore–a wink and a nod to “dress appropriately” would do just fine. It certainly wasn’t their fault if some thought that “layering for the sea” would pass muster as proper “dress for immersion” attire. Or that wetsuits and drysuits were appropriate for only challenging conditions.

Now that I’ve stated exactly what I wore on Lake Nockamixon, John D. is free to poke all sorts of holes in my choice of gear–how can he resist the temptation?–no helmet maybe, no gloves? whatever. But I wasn’t dressed like that notorious hill-walker, and I wasn’t sitting on my wetsuit (Lord knows how that would have been, attempting to struggle into it in the water after the capsize–John, What Were You Thinking?) It remains true that dead kayakers continue to be found overwhelmingly to not be dressed in wetsuits or drysuits–what were they thinking?

In case anybody missed them, Sea Kayaker Magazine published most excellent and, I dare say, revolutionary articles on Cold Shock, the first back in the Spring 1991, written by Moulton Avery, the second in February 2008, written by Chris Brooks. Maybe, if you’ve read them, you should read them again. They may have changed more minds about cold water safety even than risk homeostasis.


Doug Lloyd April 11, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Carl, the notion to dress for the water temp as opposed to the air temp is a notion constantly needing application for real world paddling. Around my neck of the woods there are abundant semi sheltered venues for enjoying easy kayaking adventures and relaxed standards, but, we have tidal currents that can really mess up those easy sea states. This catches many here by surprise: paddlers are swept away, capsize in the turbulence and glad in nicely layered gear not rated for immersion, succumb to swimming failure and cold-induced panic and confusion. Donning a dry suite just was too much to fathom at the behest but by the time it dawned on the individual the the dress for water maxim was appropriate, it is often too late. More so for solo paddlers. Was that the fault of the lack of immersion apparel or the solo aspect? How can you or John or anyone give an absolute definitive answer. My mentor Fred Potter wore a 6 to 8 mil farmer John. Said it was his insurance. No winking there. We thought he was nuts and stuck to our 3 to 4 mil thicknesses. He thought we were unsafe. I can’t imagine what he would have thought of John sitting on his suit. I used wool for many years on and off and have swum in it and did survive okay. Synthetics not so much (British Javelin gear). But I was condition to cold water. No cold shock there. On a super windy day though, wow, it is so much worse an land-based exposure. I for one am not disagreeing with you on things.

I was so very happy when Moulton’s work showed up in the context of SK publishing. But please don’t make a cult out of it. It was good, timely advice and well represented these days. Others were shouting from the roof tops long before however. You need a boat, a body, a paddle, a spray skirt where appropriate, and a brain. Pretty much everything else is choice. I met a paddler off Cape Flattery once in boisterous waters; another one coming in from The outside of the island John and Bea live on. Neither had and immersion gear on or even under bum. I was annoyed at such safety imprudence. I mentioned it the second time, the one off Tofino and the guy replied back that he didn’t want immersion apparel, that he would just take more chances. He was heading in after a calm morning. I was headed out with a plethora of gear to challenge the afternoon sea state.


Nancy Soares April 11, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Doug, your story would seem to be another example of risk homeostasis. The paddler you spoke to knows there’s danger, but instead of preparing for it by wearing immersion gear he prepares against it by not wearing the gear he believes will lead him into more risky behavior. Consequently he dressed for calm water and came in when things started to get rough. On the other hand you geared up for rough conditions and went out for the very reason that things were getting as you say boisterous. Each of you had a plan, addressed perceived risk, and behaved accordingly.


Doug Lloyd April 11, 2014 at 6:45 pm

Carl, the notion to dress for the water temp as opposed to the air temp is a notion constantly needing application for real world paddling. Around my neck of the woods there are abundant semi sheltered venues for enjoying easy kayaking adventures and relaxed standards, but, we have tidal currents that can really mess up those easy sea states. This catches many here by surprise: paddlers are swept away, capsize in the turbulence and glad in nicely layered gear not rated for immersion, succumb to swimming failure and cold-induced panic and confusion. Donning a dry suite just was too much to fathom at the behest but by the time it dawned on the individual the the dress for water maxim was appropriate, it is often too late. More so for solo paddlers. Was that the fault of the lack of immersion apparel or the solo aspect? How can you or John or anyone give an absolute definitive answer. My mentor Fred Potter wore a 6 to 8 mil farmer John. Said it was his insurance. No winking there. We thought he was nuts and stuck to our 3 to 4 mil thicknesses. He thought we were unsafe. I can’t imagine what he would have thought of John sitting on his suit. I used wool for many years on and off and have swum in it and did survive okay. Synthetics not so much (British Javelin gear). But I was condition to cold water. No cold shock there. On a super windy day though, wow, it is so much worse an land-based exposure. I for one am not disagreeing with you on things.


Doug Lloyd April 11, 2014 at 6:47 pm

I was so very happy when Moulton’s work showed up in the context of SK publishing. But please don’t make a cult out of it. It was good, timely advice and well represented these days. Others were shouting from the roof tops long before however. You need a boat, a body, a paddle, a spray skirt where appropriate, and a brain. Pretty much everything else is choice. I met a paddler off Cape Flattery once in boisterous waters; another one coming in from The outside of the island John and Bea live on. Neither had and immersion gear on or even under bum. I was annoyed at such safety imprudence. I mentioned it the second time, the one off Tofino and the guy replied back that he didn’t want immersion apparel, that he would just take more chances. He was heading in after a calm morning. I was headed out with a plethora of gear to challenge the afternoon sea state.


John Dowd April 11, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Thanks Carl. Let’s just say that is not how I would choose to dress unless the boat was extremly tippy and unfamiliar and the conditions dodgy. It makes my point that we all choose the level of risk we are comfortable with. And yes it is pretty constant. In my case it is not thru ignorance of the risk of cold water that I might paddle in just a FJ and layered jacket – or even fell walking clothing as you say Derek chooses. It is just that in over fifty years of paddling, the number of times I have unintentionally capsized my sea kayak, other than in surf, can be counted on one hand (almost entirely when I was learning). Given that, I would have judged the gear you wore to be excessive (in my case) and I would opt for a greater level of comfort. We are not dealing with absolutes here, just with risk assessment and choice. Thinking!
What makes me uncomfortable about your position is the dogmatic nature of what you advocate. Because I dont share your doubts about being able to re-enter my boat quickly in the statistically remote chance that I should find myself swimming, I resent the pressure to dress as you do or feel obliged to advocate it to others other than in a manner that matches the particular situation.
Doug makes the point that it might be time to move on from this tiresome cold water debate. The paddling community appears to have done so. I agree.


Carl White April 12, 2014 at 7:17 am

I agree with John’s notion to wrap up this discussion. I’ll finish off by asserting my belief that I may be the only person here who actually understands Wilde’s concept of risk homeostasis, having carefully read his paper. It remains a hypothesis to be confirmed by the evidence–his automobile example is not compelling, and the jump to sea kayaking is a very long one, whether RH is real or not. In his paper, Wilde states: “It follows that the basic strategy of injury prevention should be to reduce the level of risk that people are willing to accept.” Let’s assume that RH is valid. The most important thing that new kayakers should possess is a full understanding of the risk that a cold water capsize presents, that such is the overriding danger to them, and that to “dress for immersion” or to “dress appropriately” or to dress to “avoid hypothermia (and now Cold Shock)” is to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit. Cold water is itself the challenge. Then the target population can establish an accurate assessment of the risk that cold water kayaking presents, and RH can works its will, and the chips can fall where they may. Darwinian Natural Selection can then take over. But the key is to properly inform that novice public right from the get-go. This, the manuals of Dowd and Hutchinson, and the various utterances and instrumentalities of TASK have totally failed to do over the decades–the perception of the risk, the actual risk, and how best to deal with it–has been minimized, underreported, understressed–so that we do not/did not have an appropriately informed kayaking population. The current much greater usage of wetsuits/drysuits did not occur BECAUSE of the efforts of Dowd, Hutchinson, and TASK, but rather DESPITE their indifference. It has been non-Industry, often East Coast and Great Lakes paddlers who could not understand what they were (not) hearing from the West Coast and Anglo gurus and TASK who, with the strong help of Chris Cunningham’s Sea Kayaker Magazine (and Eric Soares’ ringing endorsement), broke through the TASK wall of silence and made “dressing for immersion” mean Wear a Wetsuit/Drysuit. This is what is meant by “reducing the level of risk that people are willing to accept.” This is how RH can be used to positively effect change in sea kayaking.

My theory: the West Coast and Anglo sea kayaking gurus, with the notable exception of John Ramwell, did not like wearing wetsuits or drysuits; didn’t think they needed to because they were experienced kayakers of excellent skills and judgment; hated the idea. They also postulated that the ordinary folk, families, women, children they wanted out there in sea kayaks (or any kind of kayaks) would also hate wetsuits or drysuits (they would hate learning to roll, too, according to John), so let’s just finesse the whole thing–warn people vaguely about cold water but not tell them, other than to “dress appropriately”, that wetsuits/drysuits were what everybody else close to the water wore. So now, when RH comes along, these same gurus can seek shelter behind the inexorable workings of RH to exonerate their previous silence–“See? In automobiles, according to Wilde, no matter what they tried in order to reduce accidents, the rate stays the same–In sea kayaking, we told them about cold water, but they just won’t listen. Don’t blame us.”

Sorry, just not buying it.


John Dowd April 12, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Astonishing …


John Lull April 12, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Carl wrote: “My theory: the West Coast and Anglo sea kayaking gurus, with the notable exception of John Ramwell, did not like wearing wetsuits or drysuits; didn’t think they needed to because they were experienced kayakers of excellent skills and judgment; hated the idea.”

Now I have to strongly disagree with that overly-general statement for a start. As Nancy & I have pointed out a couple of times here already, very few, if any, paddlers on the West coast where we paddle (Calif & Oregon) venture out on the sea without wearing a wetsuit (Farmer John is fine) or drysuit. Who are all these “West coast and Anglo gurus” you speak of? You’ve lost me on that one.

My point regarding kayaking skills and seamanship seems to have gone totally by the wayside, so I’ll try it again. Carl, you seem to be saying that cold water is THE risk and THE challenge for sea kayakers. I would say it’s one risk, but wind, breaking waves, tide rips, wind, (did I mention wind?), are at least as important in terms of risk to the sea kayaker. For one thing, cold water will not cause a capsize. If you simply state that cold water is the big risk, so wear a wetsuit or drysuit, the implication is that’s all you need; if you capsize you’ll be fine since you have cold water gear on. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m quite sure you aren’t saying that skill level, self/group rescue, and extensive knowledge of the marine environment isn’t important, but it’s possible to overstate the ‘safety’ that a piece of equipment or clothing will provide. It takes skill to control your boat in the wind, to brace or roll as necessary, to navigate and read the conditions, and practice doing re-entries/rescues in real conditions so you can get out of that cold water and back in your boat, wetsuit or not. Those skills are the road to safe paddling.


Carl White April 12, 2014 at 4:52 pm

My remarks about the distaste with which West Coast and UK TASK/Industry boosters and manual writers viewed wetsuits and drysuits are very old news, as John Dowd is well aware. I first wrote about this in the August 1987 ANorAK; it then was republished in the ANorAK Wetsuit Papers in 1990. Same materials again in ANorAK, Jan/Feb 1995, then in Atlantic Coastal Kayaker, April 1995. John’s Sea Kayaker Magazine received this material as a matter of course. This is hardly astonishing. I am actually astonished that John claims now to be astonished. I named then John Dowd, Derek Hutchinson, Lee Moyer, Matt Broze, and Will Nordby, specifically, as either just not liking wetsuits/drysuits at all (DCH), not mentioning them at all (Will Nordby), or stating that people in the Northwest get along just fine without them (Lee Moyer), or that they are suitable only for those challenging conditions that presumably newcomers to sea kayaking will be able to identify immediately (Matt Broze). John, as we know, liked to sit on his wetsuit. It was John Dowd who told us that “Hypothermia or exposure, is probably responsible directly or indirectly for more sea kayaking deaths than all other factors combined”.

Cold water is THE risk and THE challenge for sea kayakers. Nobody is saying, or has ever said, that it is the only risk–that would be just plain silly–but it is surely Numero Uno, and is the endpoint against which all other survival strategies and skills are directed to avoid happening–Yes?? Name me a bigger risk for more paddlers. I will grant that Impact may be a greater risk than Immersion for some rock gardeners and for those who play in shipping channels, but, please, let’s be serious here. There are few who have written more about the need for sea kayakers to have a very firm grasp on the fundamentals of seamanship; the need to be the best-informed boaters on the water than I, as Doug Lloyd will testify. Check out my comments on the Storm Islands story in Sea Kayaker, August 2011, and Matt Broze’s odd reply. I also provided Chris Cunningham with the info he needed to confront Bart Allen Berry’s strange story of his “wholly unexpected” wind adventures on the Pacific out of Ensenada, Mexico, another Sea Kayaker wonder tale of lack of the most basic understanding of seamanship. My record here is rock-solid.

I here affirm that wetsuit/drysuit use is NOW much more common, especially among informed sea kayakers, than it was in the past, due to, as I’ve repeated over and over again, the bursting through the TASK/guru Wall of Indifference led by, among others, Chuck Sutherland, Moulton Avery, ANorAK, Atlantic Coastal Kayaker, Chris Brooks, Eric Soares, and Chris Cunningham. I repeat my offer to bring the past history of this whole issue alive for those who have somehow missed it or blocked it out of their minds, by sending interested parties copies of the relevant materials (including that infamous TASK brochure that never mentions wetsuits or drysuits). I begin to marvel at the lack of knowledge of this entire history of the cold water discussion on the West Coast; it’s as if a whole part of the history of sea kayaking has been just lost on the Pacific Coast……


John Lull April 12, 2014 at 6:38 pm

Carl, I’m not sure what you’re talking about regarding the West Coast. In fact I’m also astonished at such claims regarding West Coast paddlers. Eric lived on the West Coast, as does Chris Cunningham, and so do I. I clearly remember discussions many years ago, and for many years, about cold water and dressing for the water; every paddler I know and have paddled with over the years on the West Coast, far too many to list here, all wore wetsuits when paddling out on the ocean (not just in surf or rock gardens). What history are you talking about? I admit I never paid much attention to any petty squabbles in various club newsletters that might have been going on, but I sure was aware of the risks of cold water and the need for cold water protection, and that message was out there loud and clear, both in the industry (local kayak shops) and instructional programs here on the West Coast.

Over many years of kayak instruction, in every beginning class I ever taught or witnessed, the students were wearing a wetsuit. And once on the water, they all were trained to do various rescues, meaning they were IN the water. After that, no one had to keep telling them they needed cold water protection!

Sure, the ultimate likely cause of death in any sea kayaking tragedy would likely be hypothermia (again, common knowledge out here on the West Coast), but what leads up to someone ending up in the water for a significant length of time? A lot of mistakes, not having anything to do with wetsuits, can lead to that situation. What I’ve found lacking far more often with many sea kayakers is training, boat handling skills, navigation skills, and good judgement. These are all issues that need attention, as I’m sure you’d agree. And a lot of them are discussed in this blog.

I don’t understand your “West Coast” rant.


Doug Lloyd April 13, 2014 at 12:34 am

Risk homeostasis is a theory. It has it advocates and detractors. The detractors have good reason to doubt and question, have conducted and documented their own research, and there are many who support the notion that human behaviour is not modified to maintain a constant perception of risk. However, it seems like air bags and other safety improvements do save lives and reduce injury severity in automotive accident outcomes. I think immersion apparel has a similar corollary in sea kayaking. Dressing for the water temperature is a “best practice” application of risk management as a default habit. Moulton made this point better than previous attempts. I am aware of the history here on this coast regarding the various views on proscriptive immersion wear usage and do see an improvement in attitudes as gear got better and Gortext and other breathable proprietary products improved. I think Carl has his facts in alignment with things in general but overstates his case with fundamentalistic zeal, fails to differentiate the importance of vessel sub-classes, individual preferences, and perhaps overestimates his contribution to editorial direction and decisions; but, is and has been an important voice in the community in a broader scope of North American sea kayaking. I know several influential modern coaches and book writers who have moved to the Derek Hutchinson model of hill walker and I even found that annoying so I understand, appreciate and admire aspects of Carl’s nobel efforts to change the attitudes of those who he wishes were more inclined to equate safety with immersion apparel in a more proactive manner. Whether he can balance these conflicting ideas of personal freedom, choice, mitigating hyperthermia on hot days, having faith in the current generation of instructors and those involved in germaine schemes, and being able to fathom how things work around here on the multiverse west coast, I don’t know. I finish off here with a quote from the end of John’s little article in question: “this does not mean we should not wear wetsuits…”


Carl White April 13, 2014 at 7:19 am

John Lull, I clearly cannot make any more plain to you the history of early West Coast and Anglo waffling on the issue of wetsuits and drysuits. Yes, Eric Soares and Chris Cunningham were/are West Coasters, and, yes, they stood out like sore thumbs by vigorously defending (Eric) or actually publishing (Chris), Moulton Avery’s dynamite Cold Shock article in 1991. The nonsense that was published as Letters to the Editor in reply, belittling Moulton’s article, was almost all from West Coasters parroting the received wisdom from the local gurus and TASK (challenging conditions, etc.) I guess most of this history just passed you by, and I’d be happy to send you the materials I’ve quoted, to bring you up to speed. I am sorry to report, though, that a former ANorAK editor who used to be convinced of the efficacy of sea kayakers wearing wetsuits on cold water, then moved to the PNW, came under the sway of the gurus there, and wrote in his letter about the Cold Shock article, that kayakers could just avoid the need to wear such gear by just never capsizing(!). Yes, that was his reasoned response. The mind boggles. Mine did, anyway. I’m glad that your own personal experience has been always rich in wetsuit and drysuit usage and training and lore. If only everybody could say the same thing.

Doug, I’m going to stick by my notion that wetsuit/drysuit use should be taught as the natural, habitual response to a cold water situation, similar to PFD use, seat belt use, helmet use. Newcomers to sea kayaking will willingly don such attire when they are shown that the peer group they wish to join and to emulate habitually and automatically dons such gear. When it becomes a habit, you just do it. As an early SCUBA enthusiast, I had the Wetsuit Habit early on, so all the talk (much of it from Lee Moyer and DCH) about how horrible it all was, just never made any sense to me. Lead–LEAD!–and they will follow. TASK chose not to lead. Leadership is Monkey see, Monkey do, at its most fruitful. Later, when kayakers become fully up to speed on the many, many areas of seamanship, skills, training, hazards, judgement etc. that make for an experienced paddler, let them then and only then opt out of wearing the suits if they so choose, because they only then really do have the background to make a wise decision. I’ll bet that most who have developed The Habit will continue, as many do, to just keep wearing the gear. That’s the way it is around here.


John Lull April 13, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Well, I can only say that the history here in the SF Bay Area and in N. Calif shows solid support for wearing wetsuits. The Pacific Ocean here is cold, rough, often windy, and the surf is up year round. There has never been any real controversy or question about whether or not to wear wetsuits in this region! I’ve been here all my life, I was involved with Bay Area Sea Kayakers from the start in the mid ’80s (we had a term: “full battle regalia” for what to wear in the ocean), I’ve been teaching here since that time, and was involved with the sea kayak industry through California Canoe & Kayak.

So no, I do not need a history lesson for this part of the world. I don’t doubt your assertion that articles & letters to the editor of Sea Kayaker were written with a different viewpoint, but they didn’t originate on this part of the West Coast, or if they did the individual writer didn’t represent the paddling community here. Take a look at a map. You are denigrating a huge geographic area unfairly.

Maybe you should amend your “West Coast” term to “Pacific Northwest.” The Inland Passage is a different world from the open coast of Calif & Oregon.


Nancy Soares April 13, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Amen, brother.


Carl White April 13, 2014 at 4:26 pm

John, you are absolutely correct. California in general and in particular, has been much more outspoken and proactive in endorsing wetsuit and drysuit usage, much through the influence of people like Eric and the rest of the Rangers, BASK, and the legendary Steve Sinclair of Elk, CA. The much more open and exposed coast of California, as you point out, cries out for serious immersion protection gear, and the self-evident need for it overpowered any foot-dragging that may have come from farther north. In future, I’ll be happy to link California paddlers along with East Coast and Great Lakes kayakers in acting independently of TASK received wisdom in these matters. Point taken–thanks for bringing it to my attention.


John Lull April 13, 2014 at 8:12 pm

Thanks Carl!


John Dowd April 14, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Thanks for nothing Carl; just nausiating brown-nosing and back paddling. You bad-mouth entire regions and groups of people and for what reason? You suspect they do not agree with your extreme stand on a subject that faded as an issue twenty years ago. What I found astonishing was the level of rage and bitterness and your willful twisting of the subject under discussion to suit your world view. I really did not want to re-enter the discussion at that level but someone has to: Wilde’s point is that more safety gear will in itself not lead to less negative outcomes – just a higher level of activity because of the new safety equipment. For someone who claims to have read his ‘paper’ it is surprising that you missed his main point. It feels a bit like trying to have a discussion about evolution (still just a theory!) with a fundamentalist preacher.
I can understand that you and your like minded friends might have felt sidelined and left out of the sea kayaking conversation twen ty years ago. Truth is that you were and it was because of your manic presentation of a mostly solid idea (wearing protection for the water – a no brainer you might think). It was carried to the point of silliness however (full quarter inch wetsuit, nose clip attached during mild conditions? come on!). It looks to me that there is something much more emotional than wetsuits going on here: a need that sends you swinging from unjustifiable attack on whole groups of people you hardly know to groveling apologies. It would be nice if you would deal with these issues off line.


Carl White April 14, 2014 at 4:25 pm

John, I’m working on a critique of RH as it may apply (or not apply) to kayaking. Look for it fairly soon. Meanwhile, please try to regain control. This is the second time that you have erupted when presented with a narrative that differs from the one you have inside your head. If you re-read your latest post after you have stabilized, you will see that you will not wish to be remembered for it.

If you are still with us, I fully understand what your interpretation of Wilde’s view is, that more safety gear will in itself not lead to less negative outcomes. This may or may not be true for Wilde’s driving population–it is as yet unproven in that case–but its relevance to kayaking is itself the issue here. and that is the issue I mean to discuss. Please remain calm.


John Lull April 14, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Carl wrote:
“I fully understand what your interpretation of Wilde’s view is, that more safety gear will in itself not lead to less negative outcomes. This may or may not be true for Wilde’s driving population–it is as yet unproven in that case–but its relevance to kayaking is itself the issue here. and that is the issue I mean to discuss.”

I think this is an issue worth discussing. I’ll try to do it in a civil manner, hard as that can sometimes be. I’m willing to admit there is no absolute answer and I may be overstating it one way or the other, but here’s a proposition I would make:

Safety gear is not enough. In the worst case, it can lead to a false sense of security, especially in the hands of paddlers who have little or no training and experience. In the best case, safety gear is a BACKUP to the skills and experience essential to safe kayaking.

Take the paddle float rescue device, for example. How many paddlers buy this item, maybe try it once in calm water or in a beginning class, then stow it away in their kayak, confident that they’ll be able to pull it out perform a self-rescue when caught out in raging seas and gale-force wind after being separated from their companions? I would bet it’s a pretty high percentage.

That’s only one example, but every piece of safety equipment could be used as a similar example. I could go on and will if this stimulates any discussion.


Nancy Soares April 15, 2014 at 7:08 am

I definitely think safety gear can lead to a false sense of security. Certainly GPS has led plenty of people astray. I don’t know of any kayaking incidents off the top of my head, but people have died on Southern Oregon backroads because they blindly followed their GPS and didn’t use common sense. Or maps, which might have given them a clue about the nature of the roads they were about to travel on. People are fond of reminding everyone that Eric was in favor of immersion gear. But he was also a minimalist when it came to products. He disdained PFDs for 20 years because they made it difficult to re-enter our Tsunami kayaks and also made it difficult to dive under waves and swim. Because of the kind of kayaking he liked to do he saw PFDs as an actual hazard. And he had a point. I’d like to see a rational discussion of risk homeostasis but I think it would be really useful to get some numbers, if any are out there. Dowd began his post with these words: “We in the trade fully expected the bodies to come washing ashore as big box stores started selling $249 packages. Years later we are still waiting.” I would be very interested to see the number of kayakers say, 20 years, 10 years, and 1 year ago compared with the numbers of fatalities due to hypothermia and cold shock among kayakers. Are there more now, or less? Or has the number of fatalities relative to the number of kayakers on the water remained relatively the same? If no one’s tracking these stats, that in itself is suggestive.


Doug Lloyd April 15, 2014 at 8:31 am

Drysuits can be dangerous too: I have heard of them being torn and flooding. Then there was an incident where an instructor had left zipper open on a hot day, there was an all-in rescue and well, let’s just say the students were fending for themselves. I like my neoprene FJ. It isn’t so much safety gear as my habitual response to cold water here in Northwest. It is my attire, like wearing clothing to work!


Carl White April 15, 2014 at 11:04 am

In the following discussion, Risk Homeostasis will be called RH. for background, refer to Wilde, and to John Dowd’s previous posts here.

Part One

G.J.S. Wilde believes that RH is best observed and demonstrated in his driving behavior example. Wilde does not address, acknowledge, or even seem to recognize that driving is characterized by a common, base level of knowledge that is shared by all members of the driving population. We all know that just about everyone has spent years being driven in cars, observing cars (and accidents) in person and on TV, etc. before they ever begin to drive themselves. Prospective drivers must, additionally, study and practice and be tested on what they know before being granted a license. Driving is, itself, a relatively simple activity, performed in stable, enclosed vehicles on substrates that are built and maintained for that purpose. We are dealing here with a very large population that shares a common pool of tested information about driving, and who drive within a relatively controlled and circumscribed environment. I’ll note here, and repeat later, that kayaking presents an entirely different picture.

At the center of Wilde’s hypothesis is a diagram showing the feedback loop (the Homeostatic Mechanism) that Wilde believes operates to maintain a constant level of driving injuries. The loop is driven by the desire of drivers to equalize their “perceived risk” with their “target risk”. Wilde (and John Dowd) note that the target level of risk is “the controlling variable in the causation dynamic of the injury rate.” Wilde’s diagram, though, shows however that the assessment of both the target risk and the perceived risk are moderated by the drivers accessing data from outside the loop: “perceived costs and benefits of action alternatives” in the case of the target risk, and “perceptual skills” in the case of the perceived risk. Unstated by Wilde, but inherent in his example, is the shared common base level of knowledge of driving, and the familiarity wiht the relatively simple, stable environment within which driving occurs: that is the data base from which/by which the two risk assessments are modulated. Again, the situation in kayaking is far different, as follows:

There is no comparable shared common base level of knowledge about kayaking or its environment, certainly not on the part of newcomers entering the activity. Anyone who looks at kayaking message boards realizes that an alarming number of wannabe paddlers know absolutely nothing about what they are getting into. And for every such query posed, how many are never formulated? John Dowd tells us that everybody shares the notion that water is dangerous and cold water is undesirable; that “total landlubbers are capable of making this judgment.” Hmmm, maybe so, maybe not. The record of canoeing and kayaking accidents does not support this generalization.

Let’s return to the case of N.R.: we recall that he launched from a weather shore onto the 42-degree waters of Round Valley Reservoir. He was in his newly-purchased kayak, clad in a splash top over a sweatshirt, shorts, and sandals, on a warm, blustery March day. He headed offshore, exhilarated by the tailwind. The wind and waves grew, he tried to return to shore, broached, capsized, and “drowned” (undoubtedly cold shock). I conclude that N.R. knew nothing about the actual risk of leaving a weather shore during strong winds, about the actual risk of capsize, of cold water, of a growing fetch, of a big following sea, of broaching, of failure to “dress for immersion” (translation–Wear a Wetsuit or Drysuit). There was no base level of knowledge, and thus the RH feedback loop mechanism is rendered irrelevant and inoperative, as Perceived Risk, which here is wholly spurious, and Target Risk, which N.R. had no way of accurately assessing, met Actual Risk head-on.

Part Two to follow.


Carl White April 15, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Risk Homeostasis and Sea Kayaking, Part Two

Continuing, RH may–I repeat, may–be an operative mechanism within Wilde’s driving context and within similar contexts where there is this unacknowledged but shared common base level of information, and where the environment within which the activity occurs is relatively constrained. But kayaking, especially sea kayaking, is not like this at all. The kayaking population shares no incoming knowledge base; their levels of experience differ wildly, and the water substrate is both inherently hostile and is extremely varied and variable, subject to large and rapid change. In short, kayaking is a much more individualistic, granular experience in every regard than is driving, and notions of RH should be greeted with enormous skepticism here. Sure, there are enticing “parallels” and “explanations” offered up by RH enthusiasts. John Dowd tells us that “A kayaker who wears a wetsuit, body armor, and a protective helmet is more likely to paddle stormy rock gardens than that same paddler wearing a bathing suit in a rec boat.” Probably a profound truth, but with that lack of a shared body of kayaking knowledge, one can never be quite sure. Not sure RH is of much help here. John also uses RH to explain the lack of deaths among rec kayak users that he and those in the trade were expecting(!), but we’ll have to see about that over time.

Statistics. John bets that the rate of kayak deaths will remain a constant and show no significant difference between “novice” and “expert”. Again, we’ll see. The closest info we can get is are the USCG stats: For 2012, among all boater deaths, the amount of No Instruction Received is 73%. Kayak deaths: capsize 53%, fall overboard (sic) 16%, flooding/swamping 12%. Kayak deaths and injuries: hazardous waters 26%, operator inexperience 24%, unknown 14%, weather 5%. About equal numbers died with and without PFDs, which suggests cold shock or hypothermia to me. Unhappily the USCG has no wetsuit/drysuit usage stats. But parallel with John Dowd’s bet, I’ll wager with great confidence that the ratio of kayaker fatalities that are the direct result of a cold water capsize will continue to be at least 8 to 1 over other causes, and that these fatalities will be at least 8 to 1 found to be not wearing a wetsuit or drysuit.

In order to effectuate Wilde’s and John Dowd’s notion of reducing the level of risk that people are willing to accept in kayaking, we must take note of this lack of a shared common base level of information and correct it by providing this very diverse kayaking population with a core body of simple, effective truths about kayaking and powerful, efficacious habits–always wear your PFD, always wear your sprayskirt, always–on cold water–dress for immersion: Wear a Wetsuit or Drysuit. Remember that sea kayaking is marine boating using the most basic, primitive equipment and thus demands that we be the best-informed, most knowledgeable boaters on the water, etc., etc. as I have outlined in several places in preceding posts here. Let’s focus on spreading these attitudes far and wide by both exhortation and by example. And let’s not get sidetracked by the alleged “truths” offered by an appeal to RH as “explanations” of what is going on in kayaking. The passivity that RH seems to encourage in some will not help defend this activity from attempts to regulate or otherwise control kayaking. John Dowd and I are as one in fearing such an outcome, but we obviously fear very different specific sources of the threat……


John Lull April 16, 2014 at 9:21 am

Carl, you make some good points; however, one thing I think is lacking in this whole discussion so far is the need for instruction, training, and practice. You state:

“Let’s return to the case of N.R.: we recall that he launched from a weather shore onto the 42-degree waters of Round Valley Reservoir. He was in his newly-purchased kayak, clad in a splash top over a sweatshirt, shorts, and sandals, on a warm, blustery March day. He headed offshore, exhilarated by the tailwind. The wind and waves grew, he tried to return to shore, broached, capsized, and “drowned” (undoubtedly cold shock). I conclude that N.R. knew nothing about the actual risk of leaving a weather shore during strong winds, about the actual risk of capsize, of cold water, of a growing fetch, of a big following sea, of broaching, of failure to “dress for immersion” (translation–Wear a Wetsuit or Drysuit).”

I would also (and primarily) conclude that this paddler had no skills or training to even think about getting into a kayak. There is so much wrong, beyond the lack of cold water gear, with the scenario you describe that it’s hard to know where to start. Yes, I agree the message ‘dress for the water’ should be out there loud and clear, and I think it is. How about this as an even more important and primary message:

Get some instruction! Start with a beginning class and go from there. PRACTICE what you learn in the classes in controlled conditions. (I wish I could figure out how to bold or underline text here!)


Carl White April 16, 2014 at 10:08 am

John, I agree completely! I go farther and, whenever asked about kayaking, I tell people to buy and read 2-3-4 manuals about kayaking (or sea kayaking, specifically)–not just go on the internet and ask a bunch of total strangers whatever questions pop into one’s mind (people invariably get caught up in the “what kayak should I get?” syndrome early on, and waste a lot of time with that. I tell them that kayaking is not about the boat, it’s about what’s in your head). Poor N.R. never even had a clue from the get-go what was involved in kayaking, but it really wasn’t his fault, he wasn’t some sort of idiot–he just didn’t know that he didn’t know. People just don’t get–that is to say, the Trade, the Industry–has never really stressed that you’ve got to know a whole bunch of stuff in detail before you can safely make decisions about how, when, where to paddle, especially open water. Matt Broze came closest in his 1984 Sea Kayaking Safety brochure which he gave out to all purchasers of Mariner kayaks, and which I reprinted in ANorAK. I suggested that TASK throw away their pathetic Before You Go handout and replace it with Matt’s, with my usual beefing up of the wetsuit/drysuit message, but no response.

You’re right–the key is instruction, coupled with strong learning, book-learning if you like, about being “at sea”, out on open water, in wind and waves and tide, fetch, weather shore, etc., the whole package that sailors know and must know. Sea kayaking is not an activity for the masses–never was, never will be. Call me an elitist, if you like–I’ll reply that I am a realist.


Tony Moore April 30, 2014 at 8:51 am

This time of year in New England presents a unique situation as to just what to wear while sea kayaking…the air temperature may be quite warm, but the water temperature is still cold. If I’m just out there for the exercise, and close to shore with many bail-out opportunities, I may just wear a minimum-thickness wetsuit. However, if I’m doing, for example, a multi-mile crossing, across shipping channels (as I did a couple of days ago), I’ll wear something more significant, with hood and gloves also readily available…also I consider a VHF radio essential in this situation . If too warm, you can always roll, or simply splash yourself in the face with some water. Sometimes I’ll have a hat that I’ll dip in the water every now and then. But at the same time, I’m ready for a prolonged immersion. The principle is to be ready for the worst.


Doug Lloyd April 30, 2014 at 10:35 am

Here, as with other coastlines and large water bodies, we have various kayaks used for different purposes including fitness and race pursuits. For the minimally clad on cold water, a buddy system, weather eye, and communication devices are all prudent responses to the risk. Much of what Carl advocates is for the more classical sea kayaker but all parties must make provision for a worst case scenario. Interestingly we had a small boating cold water death off Texada Island last weekend and one of the overboard occupants survived and swam for six hours. Amazing survival story. Her partner was not so lucky. There was a lot of cold water wear discussion in the media but everyone agreed they should have heeded the small craft advisory. I like your assimilation of risk and reward and how you dress for the circumstances. I think John has always advocated that kayakers should be informed and make informed choices while being aware of the consequences. It is incumbent on the solo paddler to especially take to heart the cold water kills message, though sheer numbers of fellow paddles with you doesn’t always square with a safe outcome either. Eric had wanted me to do a piece on solo kayak adventurism a while ago. Maybe Nancie will entertain a something from me in the future. I miss Eric and his deft hand on the site here when things get heated, though it is still moderated very well


Jessica Matthews April 30, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Anyone who gets on the water should take safety precautions. Dressing and preparing for your trek should not detract from the fundamental rules of safety and planning whatever the location, sea or river. The situation can change at any moment it takes experience, organization and planning to deal with problems in the water. It is about managing and assessing risk.


Nancy Soares May 1, 2014 at 10:01 am

Nice to see a little flutter of activity again on this post. Tony, once again you demonstrate the safe and sane approach to the pressing question of What to Wear. As we demonstrated with the photos in this post, suitable attire changes with the situation and the plan. Doug, if you’d like to do a piece I’d welcome it. I’m interested in going solo myself so it would be timely and helpful. Jessica, thanks for reading and commenting. You bring up the same point Lull is always reminding us of: the situation can change at any moment. That’s particularly true when we’re kayaking. The ocean is notoriously unpredictable, and the prudent kayaker will take that into consideration.


John Lull May 1, 2014 at 6:53 pm

Speaking of paddling solo, just one minor comment (I’ll await Doug’s article, should he choose to do one, for more discussion). But one of my own personal “rules” when sea kayaking is to assume I’m paddling alone. Which is not at all to say ignore your fellow paddlers; on the contrary teamwork is a huge factor when paddling with a group or ‘team.’ I wrote an entire chapter on that topic in my book (it’s a huge topic). But the fact is, in really challenging conditions, you can easily be separated from the group in spite of all precautions taken to avoid that.

And once again, I’d stress the need for good paddling technique and other kayaking skills as the first line of defense, with equipment such as cold water gear, pumps, radios, paddle floats, etc, as a secondary line of defense. In other words, kayaking skill (stroke technique, balance, bracing, rolling, boat control, ability to handle rough water/wind, re-entry & rescue, etc) is of primary importance. Equipment does not trump or replace paddling skill.


Doug Lloyd May 1, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Funny thinking back over the years how I developed my approach to sea kayaking: it was Derek Hutchinson that brought your notion of skills first, equipment second John, into my modus operandi moving forward from those early years. It was John Dowds influence that brought balance with what I took from his manuals about the soft skills and decision making playing great importance.


Nancy Soares May 2, 2014 at 6:40 am

I like your rule about assuming you’re paddling alone, Lull. I’ll never forget one of the very first instructions Eric gave me when he introduced me to kayaking: “You’re on your own!” He wanted me to have that mentality. He even assured me that he would not risk his own safety to rescue me. The only time I ever got into trouble is the one time I failed to do exactly what he said. That’s the value of having a good mentor. It’s true that being in a group can give the illusion of safety in numbers. In kayaking, however, large groups can actually be counterproductive. We all know entire groups who’ve foundered when conditions changed suddenly, and how fast things can go downhill once they start.


John Lull May 3, 2014 at 11:24 am

Hey Nancy, well of course in reality, Eric would definitely have risked his safety to rescue you! But he didn’t want you thinking that he, or anyone, would always be there to the rescue because there are situations where that might not be possible and it’s a mentality that fosters a false sense of security. It also can encourage reckless behavior when you assume you’ll be rescued no matter what.


Nancy Soares May 4, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Exactly. But if he’d ever had to risk his safety for me he would have bitched me out well and good once we all got back safe and sound. If he saw me as a liability he wouldn’t have let me play. That “don’t make anyone have to rescue me” mentality will serve me well as a solo paddler.


Paula Audette December 9, 2014 at 11:18 pm

Common sense is more important than lots of safety requirements. The rules are there to make you aware of the risks and possible safeguards, but I dearly loathe those city dwellers who would make the wild world of nature another street in New York City. I kayak, both whitewater and sea kayaking, because of the elemental freedom I feel, and that comes from an accepted, acknowledged and embraced risk.

I tend to be a solo paddler and a solo hiker here in the Pacific Northwest. I believe that I am extremely cautious and risk-adverse, but those who do not engage in such activities might describe it as daring and scary.

I should note that I am a 63 year old woman. I’ve built my first kayak from a kit when I was 14, and have been paddling a canoe or kayak since I was 9. And yes, I’ve almost died once or twice, but it was always from bad decision-making, not from the essential conditions, equipment or intangibles. The risk comes when I screw up.


Nancy Soares December 10, 2014 at 10:08 am

Hey Paulette, thanks so much for joining this conversation. I love hearing about people, especially women because there’s still this perception of us as the “weaker” sex, kayaking solo. Since Eric died I’ve only been out solo a couple of times (I’d never kayaked solo before in 16 years) and I was acutely conscious of the inherent danger of what I was doing. But I didn’t go out to push any limits, just to see what it felt like. It was fine. I crashed a few times, as usual, but I self-rescued easily and I had a good time.

I absolutely agree with you on the common sense thing. I think there’s a problem because landlubbers and newbies often have none. It’s something you develop over a lifetime of wilderness experience, and the oceanic environment is clearly wilderness, something I think is often forgotten. Embracing risk is also important. At some point you have to accept that what you’re doing is risky but you’re okay with that. And as you suggest, there’s a perception gap: what you think is risky and what someone without your outdoor experience thinks is risky are two completely different things.

Great to hear from you! Thanks again for your comment.


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