June 9, 2016
Recently there seems to be a lot of internet posting and articles about kayak safety and many in the sea kayak community being overtly safety conscious. I understand every individual is entitled to their opinion on safety and can choose to take as much risk as they wish, if willing to accept the outcome of those decisions. But if individuals are making safety decisions without proper education then they might be putting themselves at risk unknowingly. Personally I believe that following proper safety standards is paramount in reducing the risk of injury or fatality while on the water. We all live and paddle in different environments that present different safety concerns. Being a paddler in the Pacific Northwest where strong currents, high winds and cold water plays a major role in deciding my level of preparedness. I try my best to be ready for immersion and properly informed of the days tides and weather.
As a commercial kayak tour operator on San Juan Island I feel a strong responsibility to be overtly safety conscious. From proper training to proper kayak dry paddle attire, I want my staff completely prepared for any situation. I am always shocked when I encounter outfitters with guides not dressed for weather or conditions. Working on a rocky coastline I would never allow my staff or guest to roam around barefooted. If a kayak were to capsize off a rocky point and guests end up on the rock their feet can be severely injured. Many of the days here on the water are overcast, cool and the water is always around 48F. Simply heading out as a leader in flip-flops and a tank top should be against all common sense. Some of the more gross negligent behavior I have encountered are guests not wearing personal flotation (PFD’s) or spray skirts to prevent water swamping the cockpit of the kayaks. Any commercial outfitter telling guests that PFD’s are optional should be avoided. It is our responsibility as a commercial outfitter to keep you safe.
Many old school operators will tout their time in business or even say they have a “perfect safety record”. This is all a matter of how your define the safety standards. Accidents happen and will happen, but it is how your guide responds to an accident that makes the difference. Capsizing a kayak on a commercial kayak tour is possible and does happen. But being with an operator that follows the minimal safety standards can put guests at risk and the guide may even be at risk if not trained properly. But you will hear the same old excuses, ‘I have been doing this for years and I am still alive”, “Nothing can happen because we use the most stable kayaks”.
All of this falls in line with the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Below are a few short rules as it might apply to a kayaker.
“Many kayakers never take a kayaking course, because everything seems so easy. The main problem is that you’re setting yourself up to experience the Dunning-Kruger effect. Just read the four points below about the D-K, and I shouldn’t need to say more.”
2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.
When choosing a commercial kayak tour keep a few things in mind. Always pay attention to images on marketing cards and websites. Images provide more information on the second look. See if the images seem to follow common sense protocols such as all kayakers wearing life vest or do the guides seem properly dressed for the environment. These are true red flags when selecting a reputable outfitter. If for any reason you raise an eyebrow and question anything you see on a tour operators website from photos to text, call and ask. You should always feel comfortable and respected for asking questions.
My goal in writing this article is to help separate personal kayakers from commercial kayaking standards. As an individual I feel, if properly educated of the dangers, you can decide on the level of risk you are willing take. But I strongly feel as a commercial kayak tour operator the highest level of safety and training must be adhere’ed to. When you are responsible for someones safety and they have put you in charge of that task, safety should be priority one.
Joining a kayak tour should be a fun experience, but you never know what might happen once you are in mother natures world. Being with a properly trained and well prepared kayak guide can make the difference in your overall enjoyment and safety.