27 April 2010

SAFETY: choosing your paddling companions.

I choose to sea kayak in the company of other paddlers.
I believe that with the right companions the experience is enhanced and the safety on the water is increased.
Some of my paddling buddies are friends while others are just trusted people.
While I do lead trips for the Club (or participate on trips led by others) where the skill level and the seamanship can be rather basic, those trips are usually brief and not demanding.
Easy day trips are safe occasions to asses one's ability and character.
Put in at Cleveland (c)
A few years ago I learned that I should never take a paddler on an extended trip if they have not paddled with me on a simple paddle first.
On one occasion the visiting paddler from USA (that I have not met before) assured me that she had paddled for years in demanding conditions and she was a very proficient sea kayaker.
Fooled by her assurance I agreed to have her on a multi day trip.
It became evident right from the start that this person was no expert, actually quite a beginner.
I would have escorted her back to the shore and sent her home except she had gotten a ride with somebody else (she didn't have a car herself).
Fortunately for her the rest of the group agreed to slow the pace to a crawl and eventually tow her for the rest of the weekend (conditions and locale were very easy).
Lesson learned: don't believe what a paddler says about his/her ability, assess them on a low grade day trip first.
roll me over..

On a different occasion the situation was way more serious.
An interstate visiting kayaker joined a Club group paddle along a shore with surf landings.
Silvio Testa, an experienced local kayaker, was the leader of the trip.
The visitor was a friend of another Club member who did not participate in the trip.
The Club member vouched for the visitor's ability.
While this visitor certainly displayed the skills needed for the surf, he did not understand seamanship.
His character lead him to bully the group and take over the leadership which resulted in Silvio almost drowning.
With his commanding authoritarian voice he egged the group away from the leader (with the pretext that we were running out of daylight) and abandoned him alone on the beach.
The second-in-charge did not have the spirit to salvage the situation and simply agreed to abandon Silvio.
Unknown to us, while scouting for a camp spot, Silvio got dumped on the shore when trying to launch and rejoin the rest of the group.
For some reason he could not wet exit and nearly came to grief.
Silvio admitted that was real luck that he didn't drown.
If we were present at the mishap, one of us could have surfed in and offered assistance.
Needless to say that this visitor got an tongue lashing about his behaviour and incredibly, his behaviour, did not improve the following day.
The group was however wiser now and ignored him.
Needless to say he was no longer invited on Club trips.
From that incident I learned: there is only one leader and he/she calls the shots, know your paddling companions well before committing to a demanding/long trip.

On my trips to the Whitsundays (2 weeks+) I select the participants very carefully.
Late landing (c)
While the skill level required is a given, I put emphasis on group dynamics, objective of the paddlers and ability to perform under pressure.
I have read one too many accounts of trips in the same area that deviated wildly from the plan because the paddling group was not suitable (skill wise or conflicting personality).
On the account of one well known sea kayaker's trip to Hinchinbrook Island, he admitted that despite having paddled with the participants before, he believed half of them had a skill level unsuitable for the extended trip that he led for the two weeks.
The short time he spent paddling with them prior to the trip was obviously not sufficient to judge their ability/spirit for a long trip.

It puzzles me now why my Club has suddenly changed the policy and has decided to allow inexperienced paddlers (with Club outings) to join any grade trips of any duration.
The rules have now been changed to allow a visitor to join any trip, of any skill level (even very demanding ones) and of any length.
In confidence, I have been informed that one of the members of the Club's newly formed Safety Committee (a highly experienced Sea Kayak Instructor) is strongly opposed to this new foolish decision.
I have made my inexperienced fellow Committee Members aware of the dangers but obviously my view didn't dissuade them.
While we all make mistakes, I try to minimize mine so they don't escalate to a situation of real danger.
Learning from other experienced paddlers has always been my priority: there is no need to have first hand bad experiences to understand that something is just too risky.
Whitehaven sunset (c)


  1. Hi Damiano,
    I just took a look at the new QSKC visitor policy and it is essentially very similar to ours here in Tas.It states visitors may come on any grade trip at the leaders discretion. That seems reasonable to me...The important point is that it is at the leader's discretion. Exactly the same applies to our club members, the leader decides who comes.


  2. Geoff, you are lucky that your club is not affiliated with Australian Canoeing and you have the liberty to make your own rules, as you please.
    However, my experience has taught me that I should allow on demanding trips only paddlers that I personally know well enough.
    Hey, there must be something in the water up here in Queensland to cause all this "trouble" :-)
    Your weather and conditions must weed out the punters...

  3. Damiano.
    Unless I have misread the Visitor Policy it actually states that it is intended for people that wish to try Sea Kayaking without the financial commitment of joining the club beforehand.
    These paddlers ( with no prior skills )are allowed on any grade trip ???
    Must be a misprint !!!


  4. Ken, don't you start it now too!
    Do you realize that questioning QSKC authority could lead to your dismissal from the Club?
    You better be careful, they have you earmarked...

  5. The part of that story that upset me the most was someone being left behind, and the group being okay with it. That to me is unforgivable. I am glad it turned out okay, and you have to take the lessons from it - there are lessons in everything- but not appropriate behavior on many peoples parts.


  6. PO, I agree with you.
    The Club follows procedures where a pod paddles together as a unit, not as a group of individuals that happens to paddle together, or not.
    The problem occurred because of the visitor being a bully, him not knowing Club procedures, the leader being perceived as experienced and the second-in-charge failing to overrule the visitor and instead just simply complying to his will.
    The group technically has to follow the decisions of the second-in-charge, unless his/her directions are irrational.
    In retrospect I should have questioned the decision to leave the leader on the beach, alone.


Thank you for taking the time to comment.
Because of spam received from unwanted manufacturers/retailers all comments are now moderated. Allow a few days for your comment to appear when the operators of GnarlyDog News are on safari.