ArticlesTent Bound

When the Kayaking Community Goes Wrong

sea kayak rescues

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.

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  • Fantastic article. For all those reasons above is the #1 reason why I can’t ever visit any of the canoe or kayak forums. Way to many “experts” shooting their mouth off.


    David J.

  • Great Article Bryan.

    As David I never bother reading paddling forums anymore. Its usually a magnet for plain vile people. I’ve attempted to never scroll down through the comments on news sites like
    …suddenly your looking at the most negative gross stuff you’ll ever read…and I somehow cant look away. I tend to stick to places that only allow people to log in with facebook…and check to see if the profile is real. Surprisingly enough everyone is then civil. Imagine that!

  • So sad that comments become ugly. As with aircraft accidents, if you weren’t in the cockpit I can guarantee you don’t have all the pertinent information regardless of how extensive the article/media coverage. One shouldn’t make judgments unless involved in the situation. We can all learn regardless of experience level. Thanks Bryan.

  • SO true Bryan! Another relatively new phenomenon is posting unbelievably cruel comments when someone dies, especially a young person, who may have been acting a little crazy. Didn’t we ALL when we were young? It’s called the developing brain.

    Anyway, great article. I am sick of the internet because of this. And, I rarely go to paddling message boards because of this. Ego + anonymity=stupidity.

  • Good piece Bryan.
    I have to admit that I do follow the forums, a bit…and I will chip in at times. I do find it fascinating to watch how a post can deteriorate – some science thing going on in my head about that….I still can’t figure out how an opinion about symmetrical canoes can warrant 100+ responses. I am guilty of carping on a person or two but that is usually when they’ve asked for advice and then just ignored it.

    I don’t read much of anything about canoeing or kayaking (other than this blog) – mostly because there is nothing new other than stuff about new gear.

    Closer to your piece, I do foolish and idiotic stuff all the time. For instance -I paddle my canoe solo, I don’t own a cell phone, Spot or VHF, I dress in wool and paddle in cold water (I dress for post-immersion), I don’t carry a GPS. My canoe is not sleek and fast, I use my own handmade long blade paddles instead of a bent-blade, I haven’t practiced self recovery in a long time, and the list goes on. But like Kirby and most others that go into the wilds and stay alive at it, I carry a huge load of “chickenshit” in my roll top ego bag. Mistakes are part of the game, and possibly the most important part of the game.
    Getting to the top of the mountain means absolutely nothing if you die on the descent.

  • Bryan, it is this same aggressive attacking behavior on forums that made me very hesitant to blog and to ever publish any kayak books. It is an unfortunately vocal minority that make up the majority of the noise and spoil it for the rest of us. I had to develop a very thick skin, but still they get to me some days. I am glad that there are folks like you who keep going and brave the wrath. As I told someone recently I make no claim to be an expert, I am an experienced learner, and I like to share what and how I learn.

  • P.S Bryan I don’t like your haircut. A kayaker requires mullets to be real pros. you suck.

  • Great piece Bryan. It’s sometimes hard to run the gauntlet between safety and poseur safety nazi. May we always error on the side of safety. Without risk there is no joy.

  • This trend is not just present in the kayaking community, it exists throughout all internet forums. It’s partly a function of technology that allows quick, easy and anonymous postings. I have a long running interst in Middle Eastern politics and culture – you should see the comments there -yeesh!!

    The vast majority of blog readers are decent thoughtful people. The best thing to do is soldier on and never forget that psuedo Latinate motto illegtimi non carborundrum.

    • That’s true. It’s pretty much everywhere, but I think with sea kayaking, it’s almost silly.

  • I’m an outdoors/travel writer, and write outdoor stories for a Michigan newspaper. There are always lots of bone head comments made about the stories by people who never use their real names. I’m an old times newspaper guy, and lament that we don’t follow the old rules: If you sent a letter to the editor, which comments posted really are, you’re required to use your real name and where you live. The Internet has led to the lowering of civil standards of behavior.

    — Jeff Counts, author of The Paddler’s Guide to Michigan

  • THANK YOU!! Awesome article and soo true! I tried doing the forum thing but it got to be too much. Now i go on anonymously just to keep up on whats knew in regards to gear and thats it. I did log on the forum just now because someone posted up your article and i just had to respond, couldn’t resist!

  • “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.”

    And this is the problem with the media today. That, and sometimes it seems details are excluded to rile up the reader and sell more newspapers.

    Contrast this article and the comments it received from some in the kayaking community vs. a recent incident at a west coast kayak symposium; most of the comments I’ve seen come out of that were positive, constructive and contemplative. The difference in that circumstance was the time those involved took to recap as many details as they could, which allows the rest of us to learn from their experience.

    Perhaps if Kirby’s original article didn’t omit the details, the response would have been different. The problem is, many people take what is written in (mainstream) media as gospel. I see this as an example of the inevitible end of traditional (printed) media; why should there be limits on the number of words in a digital article? (Even though the comments came on their web article in this case, wasn’t it a reproduction of their print article?)

    Of course, trolls are trolls, and some people get their jollies by acting like internet tough-guys. Most of them hang out on popular sites (such as the G&M, cbc,, etc.) because they have a broader “audience” willing to feed them. Just ignore them.

    P.S. Re: paddling forums; I’ve found a very positive (and active) online community that has so far been free of “experts” shooting their mouths off, so they do exist.

    • When you contrast Kirby’s article and the responses that he received with the surf disaster and its comments, I think you prove my point. The surf disaster article was written with the kayak community in mind and included all the relevant detail so others in the kayaking community could have all the information needed before commenting. It was written as a full-blown incident report (My gut tells me that there’s a little hero worship going on there as well). Kirby’s article didn’t have the same goal. It was written as a tough-in-cheek, poke-fun-at-self travel article for a non-kayaking audience. It even featured a punchline. To attempt to hold Kirby’s article to the standard of an incident report is just silly.

      It’s not Kirby’s problem that those that commented took the media as “gospel.” The problem is that the commenters couldn’t distinguish between a tough-in-cheek, poke-fun-at-self travel article and an incident report. And that’s the problem that I want to fix (See my first point under “So, how did we get to this point in the sea kayaking community?”).

      I think the difference in our opinions — and correct me if I’m wrong — is, you think the burden should be on the author and I think the burden should be on the reader.

    • JimmyJ wrote:
      “P.S. Re: paddling forums; I’ve found a very positive (and active) online community that has so far been free of “experts” shooting their mouths off, so they do exist.”

      Please, do tell.

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