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Staying Out of Deep Trouble

by Dan Lewis

One of the reasons that sea kayaking appeals so much is that almost anybody can do it. I've taken friends' kids out for a little tool around the bay, and I've taken out folks well into their seventies. I believe that ocean paddling provides an opportunity for everyone to get out there and re-connect with Nature.

With some basic skills training, and sound judgement, people of many different abilities can enjoy paddling in their own style. For some, this might be relaxing, poking around sheltered bays, and checking out the marine life, for others, this might be the adrenalin rush of surfing through an ocean rock garden. It's important to recognise and understand your own style, so you can articulate it to others, and find people who want to enjoy paddling in the same way you do.

When paddling styles are not compatible, a compromise needs to be reached. If the folks you paddle with refuse to stop pushing you beyond your limits, find someone else to paddle with-likewise, if they are constantly holding you back. Sometimes a trade-off needs to be made, for example if the other party is your spouse, and you like to spend time camping with them, even though they don't like white-knuckle paddling.

A key here is to make commitments, and to keep them. Over time, Bonny and I realised that in order for her to feel safe paddling with me, we had to agree to always stay together, no matter how frustrated we might be. Now, we always paddle side-by side, about one boat length apart, so we can carry on a conversation in calm conditions, or at least hear each other when paddling in winter gales.

When we look at incidents that happen in the sport of sea kayaking, we tend to focus on equipment, paddling conditions, and hard skills. We often fail to consider the group dynamics which may have played a role in the situation. Maybe the couple was having a big argument that morning, or the person really didn't feel comfortable going, but didn't want to ruin everyone's day by holding the group back.

In our courses, we teach consensus decision making. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe it fully here. Basically, it means that when discussing trip plans, everyone's voice is heard. The group jointly arrives at a plan that everyone feels comfortable with.

Typically, the strongest voices in the group are the keeners, those who feel up to a given challenge, and ready to go. But the most important voice to hear is actually the dissenting voice, the one which quietly says, "I don't think I will be able to cope if the wind picks up as forecast", or, "I'm feeling bagged today, so I just don't think I will be able to make this crossing". Most often, this person simply remains silent.

Of course, no one wants to ruin a trip by expressing doubts. At the same time, if someone doesn't feel comfortable, it would be best to figure that out, and change plans. This way, you never get into the desperate situations that call for using any of the rescues that we practice. By all means practice rescues until you're blue in the face, but don't actually put yourself in situations where you need to use them!

It's really important to have a group agreement that it is safe to say "I'm afraid" (or tired, or injured). If anyone actually finds the courage to admit they don't want to go, their feelings must be respected, and the group must cheerfully alter plans to make that person feel safe again. Chances are, if one person in the group is having doubts, they're not the only one. If someone actually speaks up, you will often notice the relief on other people's faces, as the concerns they dared not utter are voiced.

This simple method of consensus decision making, with an atmosphere where it's okay to be honest about your fears and concerns, and with a solid respect for "no means no", can help prevent accidents from occurring. No one need be scared away from a fun sport that has so much to offer such a wide range of people.