Reflections from the Cockpit January 2008
"Looking Back To See ahead"

While I was flying back east to see my mom for the holidays, the in flight movie was Ratatouille.  In the movie the rat is talking with the dead chef and the chef says, “If you keep looking behind (into the past), you cannot see ahead (the future.)” 

I understand the intent behind the quote. If you only spend your time living in the past, how can you move ahead? However, I believe some misinterpret this quote to mean, don’t look behind, and only look ahead.  I feel you need a balance between the past and the future instead of an either/or philosophy.

My experiential education training has taught me the value of reflection. Reflection is more than just looking behind; it includes processing the lessons learned from our past experiences.  Those who navigate, know you need to know where you are before you can plot your course to where you are going. Part of knowing where you are is processing the information around you in addition to how you got there.  As this New Year begins, I want to review some of the events of 2007 in order to have a more rewarding 2008.

There were a number of kayaking deaths and incidents in 2007. One of those deaths was a friend.  When I read about these accidents, I usually shook my head and said, “Why would someone put themselves into that position?”  I still am amazed when I read, “kayaker drowns and was not wearing a PFD.”  Another common one is, “Paddlers lost or in trouble due to high winds.”

Most of these tragedies could have been prevented, by wearing a PFD, checking weather reports, practicing recovery skills and dressing for immersion.  Unfortunately this is NOT a new revelation in the world of sea kayaking. These basic safety concepts are at the core of quality instruction. How can this sport move ahead if its participants still aren’t learning from the past?

As I look back at this last year, with my lumbar pillow behind me, I have to focus on the word “back.” I have had back spasms before in my life.  My back “went out” for the first time in my mid-thirties. I felt paralyzed by the pain resulting from the pressure on the nerve. Over the years I have had a number of these lower back spasms.  I have an orthopedic chair at home and I exercise regularly.  My last episode (April 2007) was a result of bending over to tie my stern line to the rear bumper of my car before driving off from an all day clinic I just finished teaching. After being laid up for two weeks and no relief from my chiropractor, I went to see my orthopedist. After reading my MRI he eased my fears of having a herniated disk.  He said, “you do not have a herniated disk, you have four herniated disks.”  I like his sense of humor. The four herniated disks were not a result of this one incident.  They were a result of not maintaining a healthy back over the years. It is amazing how our bodies can adapt, even if we are damaged internally.

 After great discussion and a couple of months of therapy, I have learned even more about the back.  I tell you this story, because of the latest research and opinions of kayaking and the back.  Sitting puts a lot of strain on the lower back. Proper back support is essential. We all know that kayak seats are not the best.  In addition, there are preventative exercises and routines you can do to help the back. A full-length article can be written about the back and kayaking. In brief, I recommend you check the Internet for “Core Strengthening” exercises.  I also recommend you think about basic yoga classes and check into McKenzie Back Exercises.  If you are on an all day paddle, it is highly recommended to get some stretching time on shore, if possible, a few times during the day. I am not a physician and I am not suggesting everyone has the same back problems. However, there is good information on the Internet that can help those who would like to maintain a healthy back. Trust me, the few minutes a day of exercise can make a world of difference and minimize the possibility of back injury.

As a side note, I think it is important to spend some time each day paddling backwards to help maintain some balance in our trunk and arm muscles.  Good muscle balance is also helpful to your back.

Another good example of looking behind, is the reminder to look back at the beach from which you launch to be sure you can recognize it from the water when you return. Remember to pick out some land features that will not be affected by the changing tide.  I frequently turn my kayak around when I am on a trip so I can see what I will be seeing upon my return. I personally know of at least six examples where a kayaker passed their launching beach because they did not recognize it.  They were in such a hurry to paddle off at the beginning of the day, they did not think about their return.

When I look at the advancement of equipment in sea kayaking, I am glad to say manufacturers have tried to improve equipment by adding certain safety features. One of those features was installing bulkheads. Learning from past accidents moved the industry forward to have two bulkheads on sea kayaks. However, I am sorry to see that some manufacturers in the industry have moved to eliminating some bulkheads for cost reasons. Adequate floatation is important in a kayak. If a bulkhead is going to be eliminated, then the manufacturer needs to include an adequate float bag and attachment point for the bag in the kayak.  It should not be an accessory.  Adequate floatation is parallel to seat belts on cars. Once the standard is set it should not be reversed due to price point.

One of the great pleasures I have in looking back is learning from the history of kayaking.  What were the origins of our sport and the techniques we use? Are the needs of the past still the present needs? Are some techniques or equipment outmoded? In the other direction, have we lost some valuable lessons from the far past? The only way you find out is to look into the past and try to get a clear understanding as to the needs of the past, which created our equipment and techniques. Then you can evaluate why you do what you do, in order to see if your equipment and/or techniques need to move ahead.

I believe in taking risks, trying new things and moving ahead. I have been known to charge ahead without thinking things through. When I learned to slow down and take the time to reflect upon my past actions, my decisions and actions had better results. Learning from my past and the past of others, has helped me move farther ahead, than if I just charged ahead as I did when I was younger.

Another way of putting it is, “I feel real stupid when I make the same mistake twice.” I feel just as dumb when I repeat a mistake made by someone else. Why not use your past to your advantage? After all, we are the sum total of all of our past experiences. Use the resources you have within you to make 2008 your best paddling year.

Hadley and I, and of us at USK wish you a healthy and adventure filled 2008.


Wayne Horodowich


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