Safety-shaming says, “Say it ain’t so.” The Coach’s eye says, “You messed up.”

The Freemans kayak on Lake Superior.

There are several Facebook paddling groups that I find enjoyable and both approach safety in two different ways. The approaches couldn’t be more polarized. One group focuses on safety and understands safety. The other group rallies against safety. Two recent posts demonstrate the difference. In one group, a respectful safety conversation was had after someone posted about safety. In the other, people railed against the original poster and eventually the post was deleted by an admin.

The Post in the Pro Kayak Safety Group

Screenshot of a photo taken by Chris Burkard. He sells prints of this shot.

The first post was in Inland Seas, Kayaking the Great Lakes from one of the most experienced kayakers in North America and he posted a photo taken by Chris Burkard of a kayaker on calm water and asked, “What was the kayaker doing wrong?”

The responses were:

  • Not dressed for immersion/no wetsuit or drysuit
  • Wearing Parka
  • Wearing backpack instead of life vest
    • Backpacks are a search and rescue no-no
  • Paddling alone
  • Rudder on glassy water is a boat control red flag
  • Snow line in the mountains and color of water indicate glacial silt therefore cold water
  • Knitted hat on
  • Only a foam paddle float for safety combined with no immersion wear equals a red flag
  • As an advertisement it could cause someone to go out and buy a kayak and put themselves into the same risk
  • No spare paddle
  • The ACA/we teach “Avoid paddling alone”
  • Skirt not around coaming — commenter admitted he couldn’t tell for sure
  • Not enough torso rotation
  • Wrong exit location with the paddle
  • An inexperienced person might do this if they saw the ad
  • Not in a canoe

At the time I wrote (because I’m a smartass), “Considering this was shot for an advertisement and took place near the shore on completely calm water, I don’t see any real actual concerns other than if he doesn’t have immersion gear on, which we don’t know, he could die if he somehow falls out of his kayak in completely calm conditions and plunges into cold water. In other words, low probability and high consequence, but only if the water is actually cold and he isn’t dressed properly, which we can’t tell.”

Side note: If you’re going to post a picture and ask people to comment on the safety mistakes make sure that the readers know it is an exercise. But, if you just see a picture on the Internets showing unsafe practices, it’s probably best to ignore it and not post on that photo. Things go better that way.

While I find value in these types of posts, I do believe that there is a hyper-critical culture of safety in sea kayaking. I’ve written about that before in my Sea Kayak Safety article. I’ve also wondered about what is our burden as more experienced kayakers. And I’ve written about when the kayak community goes wrong on safety. I’ve also written about people that want to control safety so that everyone is safe even when they themselves don’t understand the risks. You can read my response to a first descent in Namby Pamby, a Kayaker and Minnehaha Falls.

But, just because there is a hyper-critical culture of safety in sea kayaking, it doesn’t mean that safety should be ignored. And it doesn’t mean that proponents of sea kayaking safety should be told to shut up because they are “safety-shaming” or “chastis[ing] for someone else’s safety standards” or “criticizing.”

And in a kayaking group, when someone posts something about safety, it shouldn’t be deleted even if some people disagree with safety. By doing so, the admins fall into a trap of blissful ignorance and bow down to those folks that don’t see safety as important. This conversation usually involves people who don’t wear lifejackets and freak out when someone says they wear a lifevest all the time.

Which brings us to the second post that eventually was deleted.

The Safety Post that Was Deleted

2016-05-26 12_32_39-Screenshot_20160524-123012 - Windows Photo ViewerOver at the Church of the Double Bladed Paddle, a kayaker affected by the death of a local kayaker wrote that he would be enforcing a rule that if you wanted to paddle with him, you’d have to wear a lifevest.

That’s sensible advice. There is nothing controversial about it. And, it is something I insist on as well.

His post was deleted, because it was considered too controversial. Before the post was deleted, one commenter said that it was “safety-shaming” to post about lifejackets.

Safety isn’t something that someone should be ashamed about nor is it controversial. Using safe and proven safety practices saves lives. And wearing a lifevest is a safe and proven practice.

Here are the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention’s article, “Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts.

Failure to Wear Life Jackets: In 2010, the U.S. Coast Guard received reports for 4,604 boating incidents; 3,153 boaters were reported injured, and 672 died. Most (72%) boating deaths that occurred during 2010 were caused by drowning, with 88% of victims not wearing life jackets.

Here are a few samples of comments that were posted. Names obscured.

In many of the anti-lifejacket comments, it was easy to see a sort of Dunning-Kruger effect. As explained in my article, 22 Ways to Improve Your Kayaking Skills Forever, Dunning-Kruger is:

Many kayakers never take a kayaking course, because everything seems so easy. The main problem is that you’re setting yourself up to experience the Dunning-Kruger effect. Just read the four points below about the D-K, and I shouldn’t need to say more.

1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

In the thread, many didn’t recognize the danger that they were putting themselves in by not wearing one. For example, the poster who said that she paddles Class 2 rivers without a vest is putting herself into a situation with current and rocks. During a capsize, she could easily get hurt in a Class 2 rapid and not be able to stay afloat without the help of a vest. And there are other scenarios on a river that could happen and you wouldn’t want to be without a vest. Luckily for paddlers, the probabilities are low enough that it doesn’t happen often — even though the consequences are high, i.e. death.

What Happens When Admins Delete Posts About Safety

The response from the two different groups is significant. In one group, other than my smartass remark, the safety post was taken seriously and discussed seriously. In the other group, many people objected about someone who wanted people to wear lifejackets because someone died, and it was eventually deleted. Ideally, the admins in the second group would have address the situation differently. Instead of deleting a post about lifejacket safety, the admins could have turned the situation around and put an end to those actions that were making the post into a controversy that wasn’t controversial. They could make a rule that users need to be respectful. If they don’t agree with a post on lifejacket safety, then they should refrain from commenting on it.

Here are the group’s rules:

2016-05-28 08_12_32-S-updated


The problem with groups deleting safety posts is that it becomes a de facto endorsement of the other side’s opinion. And, in kayaking or any other watersport, safety is of the utmost importance because kayaking takes place in an environment that once entered could kill you. Having rules that mute the talk of safety could increase the likelihood of accidents and hinder the transfer of important knowledge, especially for those participants new to the sport or those suffering from Dunning-Kruger. It also encourages one side to show further disrespect of the other across the entire paddling community. That isn’t healthy. If there’s a problem, it isn’t because of the topic; it’s because of the participants. The rules should reflect that by banning disrespectful behavior and encouraging good conversations.

I enjoy the Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle. I hope that they revise their rules to encourage respect, instead of disencouraging conversations about lifejackets. In the meantime, if I want to engage in a respectful conversation about safety, I’m heading over to Inland Seas, Kayaking the Great Lakes.


Note: After I posted this article, Cat Severson, one on the group’s two admins, and I had a phone conversation. She said, that deleting posts is not meant as a judgement; it’s only meant to keep the group in a peaceful state. With nearly 15,000 members, it’s difficult to moderate threads that get out-of-hand. Deleting a safety thread shouldn’t be taken as any sort of judgement or reflect her position. It’s just about keeping the peace.

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  • I stand 100% on the side of encouraging life jacket wear. I can’t agree with any argument that comments recommending it be excluded. If you (unnamed person) choose not to wear your life jacket, that’s your choice, but in my opinion, that should be the silent voice that does not incite others to take this unnecessary risk.

    This decision (PFD wear) is the single most significantly low-hanging fruit we can make in paddling in terms of life-and-death safety. Yes, we spend a lot of time talking about safety. A lot of us are paddling educators and/or more experienced paddlers that others look up to; like it or not. It’s a popular trend to “teach the controversy”, but as in many of these cases, the proverbial jury is in on this one.

  • Thanks for a considered post Bryan. I agree with you that most people should wear pfd’s and that this is a crucial safety consideration, closely followed by being appropriately dressed for immersion. However, I’m moved to comment that the reason the COTDBP have decided to delete certain posts and comments is because of the attitude of many “safety activists”. These people respond to every photo that offends them by shouting about their (probably correct) view of safety. An analogy would be to walk up to someone smoking a cigarette and shout “You gotta quit smoking, man!” in their face repeatedly until they punch you. A better strategy imho might be to delete the shouty person, not the posts, but that’s their call.

    • I agree with that “safety activist” approach being unproductive, Bill.

      However, the problem at the COTDBP resides in the unbalanced reaction to the posting and commenting from the two sides.

      When a photo or statement is posted showing no PFD – often trumpeting the decision not to partake of a known safety option – and someone mentions the potential safety risks, the person’s *comment* is deleted, but the original photo or statement is allowed to remain.

      When a photo or statement is posted endorsing or discussing the impact of a safety practice – “my friend died because he wasn’t wearing a PFD and I’m always going to wear one now” – the non-PFD wearers declare that the post is offensive to them *and the entire post is removed*.

      That difference in approach very clearly demonstrates the dramatically unbalanced approach that the admins there take. It also prevents the opportunity for respectful discussion of opinions and options.

      The appropriate and balanced approach would be to remove disrespectful or unproductive comments from either type of post, but equally embrace and encourage the different perspectives. And that is exactly what I understand Bryan to be advocating for in this post.

  • There are many times when having some type of life preservation device at hand but not worn makes some sense. Examples of these times might include travelling on a large cruise liner or flying over water in an airplane. This is because in each instance there is a supposition that should an emergency indeed occur, there will be ample time to don one’s PFD, gather other required gear and prepare for the inevitable. When an emergency occurs involving a kayak, canoe or SUP, one generally does not have the time to plan for the emergency or don appropriate gear as the event is instantaneous. This is why a PFD should be worn at all times when engaging in paddle sports. By the way, have you ever tried to put on a PFD while free floating in the water? My gymnastics skills are simply not that good.

    Any online group owner has the discretion to set their own rules as to what is or isn’t published as MeetUp group leaders have the discretion to determine PFD usage rules for their events (within the law). Group members disagreeing with how a group is run surely have the opportunity to vote with their mouse or feet and click or walk away. I have.

  • Hi, Just thought I would share a little history with you. I am a original Church member, from 15 plus years ago, before Facebook. Part of our name comes from when my husband would roll over Sunday morning, and ask, “When are Cass and you are going to Church”? I am also a mother of two. Two years ago, I shared a photo of my two daughters playing on my kayak on dry ground. I received threats and harassment for allowing them to pretend to kayak without PFD, that walked the line to cyber bullying/stalking. I was threatened with a report to child protective services, for letting them play in a dry boat. As I raised them right, I assume they also had pretend PFD, to go with their pretend water. This is one of many examples of why our pro-safety church is also anti-safety bullying. Two very different ideas. Casle and Cat are volunteers and the only way they can have a real life (and still paddle) is to nip this stuff in the bud. They have literally tried everything else. In my offline life, I am my daughters personal safety helicopter. It’s exhausting. I can not presume to do it for everyone else on the internet. I admire what you are trying to do here, but I think if you paddled a few weeks in Casle and Cat’s kayak, you would understand their stance.

  • Your description of the Dunning-Kruger effect is eye-opening. If enough people took a stance on the side of kayak safety instead of sweeping it under the rug, maybe the safety-first message would be more widely accepted.

  • Thank you Brian. David, Naturally Superior Adventures, Lake Superior

  • Hi Bryan,
    I, support the use of life jackets immnesely. Many of us overrate ourselves as an expert, in operating kayaks. To operate a kayak, even a simple tandem kayak , its we who should get a training under expert, who will teach the minutest skills in handling kayak. Its really an eye opening article for those who think themseleves to be expert without any training. Thanks for sharing.

  • National Center for Cold Water Safety
    Note: I’m re-posting my comment from the discussion on our Facebook page.

    Bryan Hansel is a very experienced and competent paddler with high instructor credentials, and he’s done a fine job of highlighting this issue. I strongly agree with his position on the editorial squelching of safety comments.

    The case that he highlights is a perfect example of censorship hiding behind a threadbare screen of “maintaining the peace”. Anyone who thinks that’s a neutral position is simply deluding themselves.

    Note To Moderators: Safety censorship isn’t neutral – it’s anti-safety, and when the issue in question is as fundamental as PFD use, there’s simply no excuse for it. It’s no different than censoring an advocate of seat belt use in automobiles.

    Yes, it’s an individual choice, and people are free to make stupid choices – moderators of blogs with thousands of followers, however, should hold themselves to a higher standard.

    For the record: I won’t paddle with a group unless everyone is wearing a PFD – a position I’ve held since the early 1970’s. They’re welcome to go out, of course; I just won’t be going with them because I don’t want to paddle with anyone who makes a point of blatently ignoring safety.
    Moulton Avery

  • Thanks Bryan for your effort against stupid choices , stupid admins. that will never fess up. I agree with Jeremy that their dramatically unbalanced approach is dangerous . Peace and wear your PFD. Mum

  • Please wear you PFD.. but how about taking it one step further… ICE your PFD. Take a magic marker and add your In Case of Emergency information inside your PFD. We may be paddling with friends, but we really don’t know they well enough to know WHO to call if needed. It will also help in situations where rescue professionals are involved. Or get one of the id bracelets.

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