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Kayak Dave’s Opinion of the Proposed Changes to MA Boating Safety Laws

Posted by on October 26, 2012

My recent post entitled “Understanding the MA Boating Safety Laws That Apply to Kayakers” sparked a lot of discussion and debate in the ranks of the KayakDave.com kayaking instructors. In reviewing my original post I came to the conclusion that I tried to do too much by attempting to include my reaction to some of the proposed legislation. Therefore, I removed those comments from the original post and re-published it as a point-of-fact article on how the laws are written and what they require of kayakers. I would now like to take the opportunity to revisit my opinion of the proposed changes to the MA boating safety laws in a more detailed and thoughtful way.

In response to “An Act Relative to Kayak Safety”:

This proposed legislation has three parts aimed to improve safety standards in the kayak instruction industry: 1) to clear up the language in the lifejacket laws, 2) to require that kayaking instructors complete CPR, first aid, ACA kayaking instructor, and basic water rescue training, and 3) to require instructors to have beginner kayakers demonstrate a wet exit before paddling in the case where spray skirts will be used as a part of the lesson. The bill is sponsored by Representative William Straus of Mattapoisett and Representative Corey Atkins of Concord.

Read the proposed law here: http://www.malegislature.gov/Bills/187/House/H00664

It’s always a good idea to consider the circumstances that lead to the proposal of new legislation. In this case the call to action was driven by a particularly tragic accident. According to the New Bedford Standard Times, the major advocate for this legislation is Diane Beauvais whose husband, Robert Beauvais, passed away during a basic sea kayaking class held in Fairhaven, MA on May 26th, 2001. A full report of the incident written by expert kayaker Charles Southerland and later published in Sea Kayaker Magazine indicates that Mr. Beauvais capsized during a skills session, panicked when the spray skirt that he was wearing held him upside down in the cold water, and later succumbed to asphyxiation secondary to his drowning incident. Mrs. Beauvais considered that her husband’s tragic and untimely death may have been prevented had he been given the opportunity to practice the wet exit procedure prior to heading out on the water. This act was proposed based on her plea and includes other legislation aimed to improve safety in the kayak instruction industry. It has been endorsed by the MA House of Representatives but remains off of the books at the time that this post was written.

First, I don’t feel that it’s my place to comment on whether or not I think that this tragedy could have been prevented nor will I criticize the instructors for how they handled this challenging situation on the water that day. My purpose is to evaluate the proposed legislation as objectively as possible from the viewpoint of the kayaking instructor.

The first few sections of the act seem harmless enough as they relate to clearing up the language in the life jacket laws already on the books. However, the portions of this act requiring specific kayaking instructor credentials and specific safety instruction are highly debatable. My issue is that it doesn’t seem like the petitioners have good sense of the safety standards across the kayak instruction industry and are attempting to enact blanket “safety” legislation based on an extreme and isolated incident without considering the potential impact on the industry.

I’ve been in the kayak instruction business for over 10 years and I’ve always been expected to have up-to-date first aid and CPR training required by my insurance and employers. It makes sense that this sort of basic safety training should be required of anyone in an “outdoor education” role. That’s why it stands as an industry standard and is taken very seriously by outdoor professionals. We don’t need a law to remind us of that.

The real sticking point for me is to require instructors to complete an ACA instructor certification program in order to “qualify” them as a kayaking instructor under the law. First, why arbitrarily select the ACA training program as the “gold standard” and not one of the many other respected programs (e.g. BCU, employer-specific preseason training)? Second, does requiring the completion of a formal instructor certification program really improve safety on the water?

I chose to pursue my ACA instructor certification after working for two years in the industry as a way to advance in my company and to legitimize myself as a free-lance kayaking instructor. I feel as though this training broadened my perspective on instruction principles but it was my years of experience on the water that taught me what to watch out for and how to handle the situations that kayak instructors are faced with. My ACA instructor course focused on the standards of how to teach various aspects of kayaking but didn’t cover anything related to handling emergency situations that may arise on the water. These procedures were reviewed by my employer at the beginning of each season during a dedicated and required workshop for all of the company instructors.

Furthermore, many of my colleagues are seasoned instructors who have simply never taken or had the opportunity to complete this expensive certification process. Does not having the ACA stamp of approval make them less qualified as an instructor than I am or their classes less safe to participate in than mine are? My answer to this question is a resounding NO. The point is that consumers (not the government) should take the responsibility to investigate the instructors that they plan to hire and decide if they’re qualified based on their experience, credentials, and reputation.

The portion of the act requiring specific safety instruction given on the part of the instructor at the beginning of a kayaking class is also debatable. From my perspective, safety briefings given at the beginning of a kayaking class are an industry standard and should remain that way. I’ve never put a class, beginner or otherwise, on the water without first personally fitting life jackets to each individual, walking the entire group through the steps of a wet exit, and providing the opportunity for my participants to ask any safety-related questions.

Also, it’s my policy not to require beginners to demonstrate a wet exit at the beginning of class because a) people get anxious about it and b) it leaves them soaking wet for the remainder of the class. To mitigate this risk I disallow the use of spray skirts during my beginner classes. This “no spray skirt” policy jibes with the suggestion of Sea Kayaker Magazine author Charles Southerland who testified as an expert witness in the Beauvais lawsuit that instructors should consider not allowing beginners who are inexperienced in the wet-exit to wear spray skirts. I’m glad to see that this expert suggestion made it into the proposed legislation. As written, the law has a clause that waives the required wet exit training in the case where spray skirts are not used.

However, other instructors are willing to take the risks of their beginners wearing spray skirts. Are there ways to make this “wet-exit first” provision work for them? Yes, but it wouldn’t be without an impact. For example, lessons would have to be scheduled in such a way that participants could change clothes after their wet-exit training thus taking time away from instruction. Lessons would have to take place in locations conducive to this type of exercise (where changing facilities and a beach with waist-deep water exists) which may be limiting for some outfitters. Furthermore, I’d imagine that enrollment would suffer as it’s my experience that many beginners don’t like the idea of being required to participate in a wet exit even when the opportunity to do so in a controlled setting is offered to them.

I feel as though passing the provisions requiring specific instructor certifications and “wet-exit first” training would set a dangerous precedent in which the government steps in to dictate exactly how something should be done for the sake of “increasing safety” regardless of its greater impact on the industry and those who work in it. These impacts could include decreased enrollment, loss of revenue for outfitters, and loss of work for experienced kayaking instructors who would become “unqualified” under the law. In my experience, I’ve found the safety standards within the kayak instruction industry to be quite high already. This is especially true with respect to life jacket policies, pre-trip safety briefings (including the discussion of wet-exit procedures), and mandatory instructor training at the outfitter level. If anything, policies regarding the use of spray skirts with beginner paddlers should be revisited within the industry. I’d advocate for policies along the lines of Southerland’s recommendations that instructors disallow the use of spray skirts until the participant is able to demonstrate a successful wet exit in controlled conditions. I believe that our industry is more than capable of maintaining these high safety standards and adapting without the government getting involved.

The accident that led to this proposed legislation was tragic and my thoughts go out to the Beauvais family. Whether or not these rules make it into the law is yet to be seen. However,  the discussion that is has incited within the kayak instruction community has probably already had a positive impact on safety and this in itself should be considered a success for everyone!

In response to “An Act Relative to the Safe Operation of Kayaks in Navigable Waters”:

This proposed legislation is aimed to improve the visibility of kayakers operating in navigable waters to other boaters by a) requiring kayakers to display a white light at night and b) requiring kayakers to display an orange flag on a six-foot pole during the day. The bill is sponsored by Representative Sarah Peake of Provincetown and Representative Corey Atkins of Concord.

Read the proposed law here: http://www.malegislature.gov/Bills/187/House/H00652

I support the provisions of this petition that will require kayakers to display a light while operating at night. Most other craft are required to display running lights at night and it makes sense that kayaks should be required to as well. The provision that requires a kayaker to display an orange flag on a six-foot-tall pole for the sake of increasing visibility is ridiculous. Could you honestly imagine kayaking with a six-foot long pole attached to your back deck? Even a light-weight pole could have a negative effect on the handling of the kayak. More importantly, the pole could get in the way during while re-entering the kayak from the water leading to longer exposure and rescue times.

There are a lot of things that make kayaks visible on the water including: kayak color, PFD color, and (most importantly) the paddling motion. The bottom line is that kayakers should make attempts to be visible for the sake of their safety and other boats should be on the lookout for kayaks. A small orange flag is not going to solve the problem of a sub-population of kayakers and boaters not looking out for each other on the water!

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I hope the opinions presented in this post re-invigorate discussion in the kayaking community about these pieces of proposed legislation as they sit on the desks of Beacon Hill. Remember, safety is the responsibility of everyone who ventures out onto the water. Ultimately, a law that tells you to wear a PFD or to make yourself visible to other boaters will not keep you safe if you fail to take action and heed the caution that the law projects!

Happy and Safe Paddling!

-Kayak Dave

 

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