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Boreal Alvik’s Counterpoint on “An Act Relative to Kayak Safety”

Posted by on November 4, 2012

Between 1971 and 1979, the long running television program “60Minutes” had a segment that appeared towards the end of each episode that was entitled “Point/Counterpoint” in which two somewhat contentious dyed in the wool Conservative and Liberal commentators would take opposite sides of the same issue ranging from Vietnam, to the proper way to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, to the role of the EPA. So, in that same time honored tradition, I am offering the “Counterpoint” argument relating to Kayak Dave’s “Point” argument posted on “An Act Relative to Kayak Safety”.

A number of years have passed since the tragic death of a husband and father in Buzzards Bay that led to the legislation submitted by Struas and Atkins. It is no longer an academic exercise of hypothetical situations when you knew the person the legislation was crafted around.  I have not forgotten his personable manner and easy to like demeanor. I often think of him when I have had the occasion to paddle along that same stretch of coastline. I can only imagine the pain his family must experience every spring on that first sunny day when the air temperature is warm enough to make you think that winter is behind you and you simply long to be outdoors. I also remember the thoughtful perspective of a highly respected seakayak instructor, Charles Sutherland. In the litigious world in which we live; we will leave it at that. I encourage readers to take the time to read Charles Sutherland’s online article in SeaKayaker magazine from December of 2004.

KayakDave’s post adopts the “Point argument” when he states: “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.”

Here are three “Counterpoint” thoughts on the issue. The first thought involves the “reasonable person standard” which essentially poses the question: “How would a reasonable person act under the same or similar circumstances”. The second involves the question of having sufficient knowledge to make an informed decision. The third is that perhaps there is a role for government to offer benchmark standards, such as minimal industry standards for mine safety. Of course, we all know how well that has turned out but that is another story entirely.

I acknowledge the role of individuals making informed choices to knowingly engage in an activity or to choose to pass on performing a suggested activity such as Wet Exists. Kayak Dave and I have had several conversation about how many novices avoid practicing wet exists because they are fearful of the unknown, may not be fully comfortable being in the water and/or are simply fearful of being entrapped.

When it comes to a person wanting to explore the sport of kayaking, would a reasonable person feel compelled to investigate their kayak instructor’s resume and certifications, to research the kayak instruction/tour company’s approach to adult learning styles?  Should that same person be sufficiently knowledgeable of seasonal New England water temperatures? Should they have an awareness of the difference between Cold Shock and Hypothermia? Should they investigate the differences between roto-molded plastic kayaks and composite kayaks? Should that person feel secure that a standard of practice is more than the consensus of a group of like-minded enthusiasts or should they have an innate faith that a less passionate group of agency bureaucrats have evaluated “best practice”  safety protocols?  The answers are more complex than they may initially appear.

In the final analysis, do any of us ever know all there is to know about an issue before we make a decision? The answer is obviously, No. We would be immobilized from making any decision.

The “Counterpoint Argument” being offered is that it is not reasonable for a person to research every new activity before engaging in it, nor should individuals possess a sufficient level of knowledge to make an informed decision on a specific activity before engaging in that activity for the first time. Nor is it comforting to place your trust in a set of legislative guidelines that set the standard at the bare minimum of what is acceptable and even if you do accept that premise; does that constitute an informed decision?

I have heard some instructors over the years state that to practice Wet Exits at the beginning of the day would make participants have to wear wet clothing that will be uncomfortable chilly for the remainder of the day. Those instructors continue on about how being wet and cold makes it harder to attend to the lesson being offered. Good point, yet my response is to have participants bring a change of clothes that they can change into after the wet exist practice module.

Yes, I have heard that doing that will take time away from what you want to accomplish over the course of the day and that there are rarely any convenient locations for people to change clothes with privacy.  My answer is to select a location where changing is a possibility.

The inherent problem with practicing wet exits at the end of the day is that novices are understandably more physically tense and anxious earlier in the day and subsequently are more likely to capsize while trying out a new skill, such as performing a stern rudder as a turning stroke.

I have also heard instructors say that the wet exist module could be done as the last activity of the day and that it is also not practical as people would have to drive home in wet uncomfortable clothes.

I have also had the privilege of having worked with an instructor who at the beginning of the day talks about how to wet exit, properly fits individuals to their PFDs and kayaks, personally demonstrate the wet exist; then offers the opportunity for participants to practice it in a safe and supervised environment, with the instructor standing beside them for reassurance and support. Wet exit are practiced without spray skirts to simplify the acquisition of a new skill. The focus is greatly simplified to foster skill acquisition and to reduce the risk of the novice panicking.

For me, this is the preferred method as it provides not only a visual experience of someone doing it and the 1 to 1 instructor supervision needed; but it also offers a community of support, since you are part of a small group. Each time you see another participant successfully execute the wet exit and experience how attentive the instructor was; your comfort and willingness to do something new increases. Of course, the option of passing on the experience is always discussed in a non-judgmental manner and is always allowed. An instructor may offer the wet exit practice to someone who initially passed on it; later in the day when they may be feeling a bit more comfortable with this new activity. This must also be offered in a non-judgmental and accepting way as it being simply an option upon which the individual can Pass.

Now you have heard the Point and the Counterpoint. Both sides have pros and cons embedded within each argument. The whole intent of these two arguments is to encourage discussion and not to imply that the Truth resides in only one argument. So, what is your argument in favor and against the legislation?

…B.Alvik

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