Every now and then I read an article on the Internet that makes me go, “Oh, that’s an interesting approach to sea kayaking.” One such article is by travel writer Bruce Kirkby. It’s called In a kayak, there are some danger signs you can’t ignore. In it he describes how he sets out on a three-week kayaking trip on a committing coastline with a kayak that he’s never used before. On day one he finds out that his kayak leaks so much that he has to end the trip. It takes good judgment and self control to end a “dream” trip, but that’s not the part of the article that made me go, “Oh, that’s an interesting approach to sea kayak.” It’s the comments.
In the comments, a bunch of “sea kayakers” jump on Kirkby, call him inexperienced and take apart his approach to kayaking by calling it irresponsible, incorrect, full of poor planning, foolhardy and that he was just plain stupid. A commenter naming himself “NeoEgolitarian” even wonders, “How is Bruce Kirkby still alive?!?” It turns out that the joke is on the “sea kayakers” because Kirkby is actually an experienced sea kayaker who writes humorous self-deprecating travel articles to a lay audience. His experience includes expeditions to “Greenland’s East Coast (40 days) and a complete traverse of Borneo’s north coast (60 days).” And, he was a sea kayaking and rafting guide. In other words, he’s experienced and accomplished.
The Commenters Lash Out!
I don’t want to pick apart the comments one-by-one, but seriously, it’s so easy to read them and think, “Most of these ‘sea kayakers’ haven’t been on a big expedition” or just “Seriously?” Well, seriously:
- The one that sticks out the most is “Don’t go on a trip in a kayak you haven’t tested.” There goes rentals, there goes sponsorship where the company ships the boat ahead. In fact, the logical extension of this thought is this, if you don’t know how a boat will work on an expedition, don’t take it. Well, if you haven’t taken that kayak on an expedition how do you know it will work? You don’t. If it doesn’t, you deal with it. Is that ideal? No, but stuff like that happens. If you’re in this situation, i.e. no boat for a trip, before the trip you get advice, you do research and planning and then you bite the bullet and order the boat. It usually works out. In this case, shipping and what not caused the boat to get there late. I remember a recent article in Sea Kayaker Magazine where a paddler did the exact same thing as Kirkby. He picked up the boat just before the expedition and didn’t try it. He realized that the boat wasn’t going to work because it was sitting too low in the water with his gear, so he dumped half his food. He was celebrated, because he finished the trip. I know a guy that built a Greenland-style skin-on-frame kayak to paddle around Lake Superior. At the start of the trip, it started sinking. He called it quits, bought a new plastic kayak and completed the trip. He’s now making a movie about the trip, and sea kayakers will celebrate him as a hero. Whereas Kirby is called a fool, probably because he used good judgment and quit the trip. On a personal note, I picked up a new kayak before a 20-day expedition once. I actually paddled it 20 or 30 times before the trip and while on the trip, I had stuff go wrong with it. Guess what? It happens. Additionally, I’ve seen sit-on-top (SOT) touring boats designed for expeditions. They usually include knee straps so you can roll the boat (see below), but I’ve never seen one that leaks to the extent that Kirkby’s did. Typically on rotomolded boats, the part that is going to leak is the bulkheads, especially the foam ones. SOT expedition boats don’t have bulkheads, because there is no need — the inside of a SOT should be watertight. The leak points are typically the hatches. But, I’ve never seen a SOT touring kayak leak like this, and I used to sell them. He got a defective kayak, which sucks. He never tells us the exact defect, but I suspect it’s a cracked hull or something below waterline. Although off my rant, here’s a good reason to pick a composite boat for a trip, because you pull over, dry your stuff out, fix the crack with a fiberglass repair kit and go on paddling. Now I’ll return to my rant. If Kirkby had figured out how to fix this problem, went on with the trip and wrote a book about it, I’d guess that most of the same commenters would be praising him for how self-sufficient he was on the trip. He’d be a hero.
- F Lutzen says, “The idea of entering rough waters in a sit-on-top kayak is so idiotic I don’t even know where to begin.” Lutzen probably never heard of the Tsunami Rangers.
- Maximilian Widmaier tells us that kayaks are for rolling because that’s what the Greenlanders designed them for. I don’t even know how to address this, except by saying kayaks were designed for hunting. I consider rolling a skill that kayakers should learn (Kirkby never tells us if he can roll, but if he guided sea kayaking there’s a good chance that he can). Then Lutzen tells us that if you accept the “Greenland attitude”, you will never come out of your boat, because you will always roll. This is just completely untrue. The only truth is how many days you had between swims. Everyone swims.
- Commenter “p.a.l.” tells us “There’s enough warning signs there to worry any experienced kayaker,” because in part “gear not all in dry bags.” Kirkby is writing for a lay audience and not a sea kayaking audience. We don’t know specifically that his gear wasn’t in dry bags, we just know “Everything inside – clothes, food, gear, books – was floating in water.” It’s an economical choice of words to explain what was inside the hatches without having to explain to a lay audience what a dry bag is. Newspaper columnists have word limits, and I know from writing for them that it’s hard to stay under those word counts. Sometimes you sacrifice details because you have to.
- I could go on about the weather FORECAST may not be the current weather or even relevant for the shoreline that you’re on. I could mention that knowing enough to hop eddies seems like something a skilled person would do when a tide is creating rough water. I could mention that a raft guide probably knows about “haystacks” and “rollers” more than many sea kayakers. I could go on.
So, how did we get to this point in the sea kayaking community?
Whenever you read a sea kayaking incident report on the Internet or even a small story where something went wrong, you can expect to see loads of comments from “sea kayakers” telling the author how stupid he is, how he’s going to give sea kayaking a bad name and how he should be dead. When I think about this, it just doesn’t seem all that healthy. How did the sea kayaking community get here? I have a few ideas:
- The letters to the editors of paddling magazines have given a voice to criticism, mostly healthy. Most are well-written with poignant arguments. In many cases, the author can respond. And, because the original article was written for sea kayakers, we probably have most of the details required to write a well-written letter to the editor that makes good sense. I suspect that many of the readers take these letters to heart and think that because they’re published in a national magazine, that they are the norm of how you’re suppose to respond to something that goes wrong without ever thinking that an article, blog or forum post might not include all of the relevant details like it would in a paddling magazine.
- It’s the Internet and people will jump all over you for anything, and there’s a subset of “sea kayakers” that like to do this sort of Internet trolling.
- There’s an interesting culture of safety in sea kayaking. “Serious” sea kayakers take safety seriously, and they should. As instructors we teach rescues all the time, the magazines are full of rescues and there are loads of video about rescues. I think that despite all the safety training, risk management and judgment get ignored, and because risk management and judgment get ignored safety becomes a dogmatic mantra where catch phrases replace thought. For example, Lutzen tells us “The idea of entering rough waters in a sit-on-top kayak is so idiotic I don’t even know where to begin.” He obviously doesn’t have the experience with SOTs to be able to make the judgment about how risky they are. Instead, he just repeats an oft repeated mantra that a SOT can’t be used in the way the Kirkby wants to use it.
- Kayakers want to think that they’re experts and that they have the experience to make judgments about others. I think that there’s a bit of labeling going on. Everyone wants to be the “advanced” paddler and not the “beginner.” I think there’s a little Dunning-Kruger going on here. I think the key to staving off the dreaded D-K is to always know that you don’t always know. You can always learn more, and that things might not be as things seem at first glance.
How do we fix this problem? It’s simple: ask questions before repeating the mantra.
At any rate, the best part of this entire situation is that I’ve found new interesting books to read. Bruce Kirkby has written two books. He wrote Sand Dance: By Camel Across Arabia’s Great Southern Desert in 10 day! That’s pretty mind blowing for an aspiring novelist. It tells his story of traveling 1,200 km by camel across Arabia’s great southern desert. I can’t wait to read it. His other book, The Dolphin’s Tooth: A Decade in Search of Adventure, tells the story of adventures that Kirkby has had over a 14 year time span.