Reflections from the Cockpit
"Is it safe?"
September 2003

Over the past week there have been countless e-mails going back and forth amongst the southern California kayak club members due to an unfortunate fatal shark attack on swimmer in the central California waters (my sincere condolences to the family). In addition there were reports of two juvenile great white sharks hanging around the surfers around San Onofre beach which is a popular surfing spot. The number of e-mails and the topics of discussion show there are a great deal of concern within the paddling ranks. I am sure it doesn’t help that "Jaws" has been playing on the TV for the last week too. It appears all this energy on this topic comes down to concern for personal safety.

I have a one-hour lecture that focuses on safety, risk and adventure. As I read all the concerns raised by the kayakers I thought of my lecture and paddling on the ocean. It inspired me to reflect on some key points and perspectives.
Let me begin by defining some terms from my Webster’s dictionary next to my computer.

Safe: free from harm or risk.
Risk: 1- possibility of loss or injury. 2- expose to hazard or danger.
Adventure: an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.

By the definitions presented above I believe safe does not exist anywhere in sea kayaking. For that matter, I don’t believe safe exists anywhere in life. I prefer to use the term "acceptable level of risk." The key phrase is "acceptable level." Everyone has his or her own acceptable level of risk. That level is constantly changing. How much we are willing to risk is based upon many factors. Two of the main factors are experience and self-confidence. I have had different days on the water where I had to choose if I would play in the rock gardens. Even though the water conditions seemed identical, my self-confidence was different. One day I did it and the other day I didn’t. The higher my self-confidence the more risks I am willing to take and the better I perform. Lower self-confidence means less risk taking and usually poorer performance. My point is your acceptable level of risk is a personal designation. It changes from day to day and moment to moment. It differs from person to person.

Why do you kayak? Each of us has our own list for answering this question. My list includes peace & quiet, scenery, alone time, exercise, teaching and of course adventures. I have to admit adventure is a high priority for me. The degree of adventure varies with the degree of potential risk. Regardless of the level of risk, I am always aware that there is risk every time I get into my kayak. This awareness keeps me alert and gives me a greater sense of being alive. It is so easy to loose ourselves in our daily routines. Even though I have established routines for getting ready, no matter how many times I get into my kayak it is never routine. One of the lures of sea kayaking is the adventure. If there were no risks, there would be no adventure. Therefore, being in the kayak would not be the same for me.
I have also found that the illusion of being safe many times lulls the individual into a false sense of security. All to often I see people stop thinking because they were told it was safe. Then something occurs and they get injured and they start complaining "you said it was safe." It is very sad that so many have chosen not to take responsibility for their actions and choose to blame others in our current society.

An important point to keep in mind is, just because is not safe it doesn’t automatically mean you will get hurt. It is the potential of loss or injury that eliminates safe as a guaranteed commodity. It is amazing how awareness changes when there is threat of risk or danger. I doubt many would kayak if there were 100% certainty they would get injured when they went out on the water.

How much of an adventure and how much risk you are willing to expose yourself to is another discussion. As mentioned earlier, our ability to face risk is based upon many considerations. How to weigh risks and make a quality decision is a three-hour lecture I will share sometime in the future. I often call the lecture "learning good judgment" in case you see it at a symposium where I am teaching and want to drop in for a listen.

This recent shark attack has all kinds of statistics and odds flying back and forth. The discussions have raised the level of awareness of potential risks when on the ocean. There are numerous discussions on colors of kayaks and patterns of colors being cited. Reliable information is important when making decisions so I don’t knock research and it’s findings. However, it all comes down to the day I plan to get into my kayak. Before I get in I ask myself, "am I willing to go out onto the water today knowing the risks involved?" If I am up to facing those risks, regardless of their severity, then I go on my paddle. If I am not, then I really shouldn’t be out there. If and when I return to shore will I find out if my decision was a good one according to my values.

Knowing the risks involved is critical in making a sound decision. Therefore, I encourage all of you to learn as much as you can and exercise your thinking caps when you go kayaking. Then you can decide if the potential risk is worth the adventure.

Is it safe? I hope not!


Wayne Horodowich


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