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Sea Kayak Safety


Practitioners of SEA KAYAKING are a bunch of safety-conscious hoopy froods.  We sass this because sea kayakers always talk about safety. For example, “You just posted that video of the place I paddle. The video only showed calm water, but it gets crazy there. You should have introduced the video with a 15 minute safety talk about the dangers of paddling there when it gets crazy.” Sea kayakers have conversations that stretch out into 100s of comments about how one advertisement showing calm water might lead someone to buy a recreational kayak and go paddling in 10-foot waves. They debate the merits of self-rescues and then they debate them again. Sea kayakers come up with lists and talk about the perfect kayak ditch kit or the perfect tow rope or where to store a spare paddle, which is a piece of safety gear often talked about and discussed in length. Sea kayakers take classes about safety and rescue and in the spring each year sea kayak clubs practice rescues. When sea kayakers are bored paddling, they jump in the water to practice a rescue or do a roll. Sea kayakers philosophize about what’s their safety burdens as experienced paddlers. Sea kayakers probably talk about and read about and argue about sea kayaking safety more than they actually paddle. And don’t get a sea kayaker who paddles on cold water started about paddling on cold water.

I’m a sea kayaker and do this, too.

There’s one conversation that seems to hang out there. It usually starts when an image shows a potentially risky activity with a ambiguously safety depiction without comment. For example, it shows sea kayakers on known cold water in calm conditions and you can’t tell whether or not the paddlers are wearing wetsuits (there’s a difference when an advertisement makes a danger seem like no big deal — that’s a bad idea). The conversation discusses the responsibility of those involved in advertisement and how they depict the sport. It can head into direction of guiding and whether or not such and such guiding company is safe. But, it usually devolves into a conversation about the risky things that entry-level sea kayakers do, because they don’t know better and whether or not the ad is causing them to do those risky things. Suggestions are made about safety stickers or pamphlets being put into all kayaks sold or signs or some kind of license to pilot a kayak. The conversation then turns the corner on what the industry and individual sea kayakers should do about it. Some people argue that experienced sea kayakers who see a newbie about to head off into risky conditions, should intervene. Some argue that sea kayakers need to get off their high horse. Go to any paddling forum or social media group and there will be at least one conversation that echos this. No one ever volunteers to join a kayak advocacy group and devote his or her free time to educating the public.

Basically, it’s the worry that newbies won’t paddle safely and they’ll die. The conversation is about “we” sea kayakers and what “we” are going to do about it. Just like some magically “we” appears when “we” talk about safety. When in reality, those saying “we” almost never actually DO anything about it.

I’ve participated in this “same” safety conversations at least a dozen times over the years.  At least a dozen times the conversation eventually ends and no one changes his or her mind. But, while having this conversation at the GLSKS a couple of years ago, we were talking about how safety conscious sea kayakers are and then we started talking about all the stupid risks that we’ve seen unaware people take in kayaks and then we talked about how vast majority of those folks don’t die.

Lots of newbie kayakers do lots of things that I wouldn’t do as an experienced kayaker, but they live. It makes you wonder about all the safety training. Of course, people die, too. It can end up being experienced kayakers or newbies. Then there’s an activity that looks risky, but we may not understand the paddler’s skill level or planning that went into it.

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There really isn’t an answer that I’ve been able to discern from all these conversations, but I’ve come to personal conclusions. Some of these conclusions come about because I’m a photographer and writer who writes about sea kayaking and photographs sea kayaking on dangerous cold water. I photograph scenes in which the paddlers are dressed appropriately, but sometimes you can’t really tell. Here are my conclusion this week. But, it’s a complicated issue, so my conclusions could easily change next.

  • Showing a picture of or a video of an activity that depicts a dangerous area as an easy, calm place to paddle doesn’t spur people to head out on their own in dangerous conditions.
  • I’m not responsible for the actions of others who see my pictures.
  • People that are going to head out on their own are going to head out on their own regardless of what I say, so I just don’t say anymore.
  • When people are ready to learn, they’ll seek out instruction.
  • People that don’t know there is instruction benefit when they learn that instruction is available.
  • I’ll do something in the appropriate venue. For example, I teach sea kayak safety to the club I’m involved with for free and I write plenty about sea kayak safety here.
  • Cold water kills and no matter how you explain it to people, they don’t believe it.
  • Putting a sign up at every kayak launch spot that says cold water kills wear a wetsuit or drysuit doesn’t stop people who are going to head out without from heading out without (we have these signs in Minnesota) even when they know better.
  • Dunning-Krugger is too big of a force in many people first taking up kayaking.

My biggest personal conclusion is:

  • It’s not my burden unless I’m guiding, teaching or lecturing to worry about all the other kayakers in the world who may be doing something unsafely or who may want to do something unsafely after seeing one of my photos. Even if they suffer from Dunning-Krugger, it’s on them and not on me.
  • I’m not going to worry about it anymore. Not my issue. Life is too short to worry about it. I’m going to paddle my own paddle. I’m going to help those that want help and not worry about the rest.

Do you have any personal conclusions about the safety-when-it-comes-to-newbies issue in sea kayaking?


  • Brilliant article. As you say, most people don’t die. And if we consider the main risks on any given day, they wouldn’t be mediated by equipment. Safety equipment and training are mostly a way of taking money from people. I have been guilty of this myself in the past, on an industrial scale. You can take a boy to water, but you can’t make him think.

  • Loved the article. My buddy and I came to kayaking from Scuba Diving. He was a rescue diver and Divemaster. As a result, we actually felt the safety aspect of most kayak activities was under appreciated. We both take safety VERY seriously and discovered we seemed to be extreme even by Sea Kayaker standards. But we are used to working in conditions under life-support where death is not that far away. I am now an ACA instructor. But I became an instructor primarily so that when I offered up safety advice, people might actually be willing to listen. When I was still learning, I nearly died on a stretch of river touted as a “safe bypass” that wasn’t. Even before becoming a kayak instructor, my partner and I often found ourselves as the only ones in a group actually carrying throw ropes, extra paddles, first aid kits, etc. Unfortunately, we have had to use these a lot, despite living in a temperate, mostly flat water state. Now, I actually have a system. When paddling with folks I first offer gentle advice on how to paddle so it does not hurt. When that works, they are usually willing to listen to me about safety. I always end up talking to at least one paddler on every outing. Sometimes they even come back to take a class–but they all end up taking safety a little more seriously.

  • Early in my kayaking career, I dumped into 40 degree water, 1/2 mile from shore, in a 1/4 inch shorty. Harbor patrol pulled me out, shivering violently. This spurred me to pursue training. I’m not sure that anything short of near disaster would have convinced me to take that step.

  • A couple of points:

    A). “As the twig is bent…….” Almost from its inception, the founding gurus of sea kayaking scrupulously avoided explicitly endorsing the wearing of wetsuits and drysuits as the appropriate gear for the cold water paddler. Why? Because they personally just didn’t like them, or decided they were such good paddlers that they didn’t need them. This set the pattern for years to follow–a failure to understand that newcomers to an activity strive to emulate their leaders and peers in both behavior and apparel. Human nature. Before Chris Cunningham took over editorship from John Dowd, Sea Kayaker Magazine set the tone from the first issue, where the front cover illustration showed two happy PNW sea kayakers paddling over cavorting sea lions– said paddlers without PFDs or sprayskirts, and wearing only shirtsleeves. I was lucky. When I started sea kayaking in the mid-1980s, I was tutored by Chuck Sutherland, and saw everybody at the launch site fully equipped and dressed for cold water. Paddler See, Paddler Do. As new paddlers joined our group, little needed to be said; people saw how we dressed and comported ourselves, and thought, “this is how sea kayaking is done–this is the way I too will do it”. But the pernicious effect of this early decision by TASK and its gurus to not fully address the cold water threat lingers on even today.

    What could happen? Back in the late 1950s, I took up SCUBA. No rules, no regulations, just go to the dive shop, fill your tank and go. I gave it up due to pressure from school, family, work. Years later I thought about going back. Rules, regulations, certification. Leaving aside real safety/danger issues, SCUBA appeared to be problematic enough to generate rigorous and pervasive self-regulation and certification by the groups within the activity. Since almost nobody wants this in sea kayaking, it behooves us to continuously set high and highly-visible standards and examples of dress and behavior, especially on cold and open water, so that potential wannabes look and think “I want to do this, so I’ll look and dress like them!”, or, instead, and just as good, “if that’s sea kayaking, then I’ll try bowling.”

    Finally, as mostly a lone wolf paddler myself–maybe two-thirds solo–I personally feel zero interest in bringing new people into sea kayaking; in”growing the sport”. Sea kayaking is most definitely not suitable as a mass-participation activity, as is neither SCUBA or, say, caving (did that too). It is best suited to a “natural constituency” of outdoors people who are drawn to it and find it peculiarly fulfilling, and have the necessary judgement to pursue it safely through a respect for seamanship and the full understanding of the marine environment that sea kayaking demands.

    • That’s why I photograph scenes in which the paddlers are dressed appropriately, but sometimes you can’t really tell. For example, someone has on a wetsuit, but they have a t-shirt on over it on a warm sunny day. Not my issue to explain every single time the safety issues involved.

      I don’t believe for a second that what happened in SCUBA will ever happen in kayaking, although you see it in some places that rent gear. They require certifications, awards or assessments before they rent.

  • Very good article, and I agree with 99% of it but I disagree with one statement: “No one ever volunteers to join a kayak advocacy group and devote his or her free time to educating the public”.
    Not quite true – Paddle Canada has teamed with AdventureSmart and National Search & Rescue to train volunteers to offer Paddlesmart clinics to their communities. Paddlesmart is all about general paddling safety – we offer some general advice and tips on how to make paddling safer & more enjoyable and try to increase awareness of the environment – tides, currents, cold water, etc. as well as leave no trace ethics.
    A lot of outdoor or paddling clubs do the same in one way or another. Personally I see no harm in offering to educate the public and perhaps a little more awareness will result in a greater appreciation of our waters.

    • I think you need to read that line within the context of the paragraph in which is was written instead of taking it out of context and applying it to the entire world. :) I meant those people participating in Internet conversations who liberally use the word “we” as in “what are we going to do about it?” They never do anything about it. If they did, they’d be volunteering instead of asking about what “we” should do about it.

      I agree with you in that there is nothing wrong in offering to educate the public and I do. That’s part of my conclusions.

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