Our Obsession With Safety

Kayak touring is a very safe sport.  Canadian and US coast guard statistics, and studies by the American Canoe Association (ACA) support this statement.  By safe we mean, that in comparison to other water based activities, kayak touring has fewer and less severe accidents. There are five ‘T’s” present in most accidents: tequila, twenties, testosterone, tattoos, and toothless.  There are at least three important factors that contribute to our collective safety:

  • Kayakers wear PFDs
  • Kayakers don’t drink and paddle
  • Kayakers are male and female, and over the age of 25

In other words, we don’t exhibit the 5 “T’s”.

As a community, we have embraced the importance of safety.  In fact, many outsiders actually joke about the intense devotion to safety of many sea kayakers; this devotion, it is argued, is out of proportion to the real risks, and as a result borders on obsessive.

We wear our PFD’s, avoid alcohol on the water, buy our immersion gear, and practice our rescue skills.  There is no doubt this has contributed to the high level of safety our community has achieved.  This is not to say that kayak touring has no risks. Reviews of incidents and accidents from community publications, safety reviews, SAR personnel, and anecdotal reports highlight some common patterns that have contributed significantly to incidents and accidents.

  • Lack of local knowledge (especially about local hazards). E.g. currents around headlands or gap winds.
  • Travel into areas of higher risk without increasing safety. E.g. traveling around headlands or through surf without tightening group communication, reviewing safety protocols or donning safety equipment.
  • Many, if not most, incidents happen in or around the campsite. E.g. strains or breaks because of stumbles on logs or rocks or burns and small wounds from the kitchen.
  • The most dangerous part of a trip is driving to and from the launch site.
  • Intra-group conflict

Obviously, we should continue with our rescue practices and training with our rescue equipment.  In addition, we should learn from the hard lessons of others.  It is easy to feel safe inside a dry suit with a high float PFD, flares, and a VHF radio strapped to our body.  The reality is, though, that this equipment doesn’t keep us out of trouble.  Proper planning, local knowledge, communication, leadership, and good judgement (based on thoughtful reflection of previous experiences) do.  Peer groups planning trips should not only review basic skills and check and practice with safety equipment but also ensure these other, less tangible skills and resources are in place.

In the messy reality of an incident this planning and practice will prove invaluable.