Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Incident Report

In this day and age it seems impossible to have something interesting happen in the kayak world without it showing up on Facebook, getting discussed in forums, or even video appearing on the local news. And the news people aren't the only ones to sensationalize things - even your everyday paddler likes to talk about how crazy and extreme everything is. Then the internet outrage machine wants to pile on with their opinion - normally that someone did something wrong. Everyone has an opinion, it's easy to cast judgment, and the other guy is always in the wrong.

Debriefing incidents when things go wrong is one of the most valuable ways to learn and improve as a kayaker. But the essence of the process, the part that makes it worth it, is the time spent listening to those who were there and understanding exactly what happened and the steps along the way that lead to the final outcome. Looking at a single picture and claiming to have all the answers is a ridiculous way to go about it and does the opposite - it clouds the reality and teaches nothing.

Here in California we recently had dramatic headlines: 54 Kayakers Rescued from Tomales Bay! Breaching Humpback Whale Lands on Kayakers! Big enough headlines to grab the public's attention. And kayakers (of all levels) rush in to comment, both defending kayakers in general and attacking those who created such a visible spectacle. Neither does much good.

I wasn't involved in either incident. But I do know there are lots of ways they could have gone down. My experience as a kayaker and instructor tells me this. I've known incredibly competent and skillful kayakers to end up in really bad situations through very small errors in judgment. I've seen wildlife create havoc through no fault of the people involved. Every situation is complicated and has several sides and viewpoints, and the truth is a vague concept in the best of circumstances.

But I've seen folks calling the kayakers in both incidents morons, rookies, fools, criminals, and worse. I've heard lots of folks saying kayakers shouldn't be out there - regardless of the fact that hundreds and thousands of kayakers have done the same trips with no problem, regardless of the fact that at the time of both incidents other kayakers were around and even came to the rescue. There have been lots of opinions from folks with very few facts. What I haven't seen or heard much is careful analysis, history and background, or a detailed recounting from those involved.

Yes, it is illegal to approach within 100 yds of marine life. But the marine life apparently doesn't know that rule and they very often approach kayakers. Whales move much faster than we do, they often move long distances while underwater and out of site, and yet for all the many decades of kayakers watching whales in many places throughout the world this is the first time I've heard of contact - and it was only a glancing blow. Scary, but so far a one-of-a-kind situation.

And taking large groups out at night can be challenging, but once again it's something that's been done time and time again without a problem. Conditions can change rapidly and forecasts are often wrong. Those 54 kayakers who were 'rescued' were simply given boat rides from the island where they safely landed back to shore. Maybe mistakes in judgment were made, but I sure don't have enough information to say that.

I really don't like the easy judgment and criticism that flies so freely about the internet. I hate to see it being applied to the world of kayaking - especially from kayakers themselves. Let's all think a little before we respond. Consider the possibilities and maybe even give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We could all probably learn a thing or two from these incidents, but we have to try a little harder.

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