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How to make better decisions before paddling

Paddle sports generally are a very safe, fun, relaxing and enjoyable activity. The majority of people can pick up basic techniques and methods to navigate the waterways rather quickly.  Kayaking, however can be dangerous, and the dangers increase without taking simple precautions.

There are techniques which are used to reduce hazards and make the journey on the water safer to the paddler. Risk management is an important tool used to make better decisions, and to have a safer outcome. In our day to day living, we all do some form of risk management. This can be as simple as not sticking a fork into an electrical outlet or slowing down for a yellow light. These are cause and effect actions which have a result.

Taking risks is a normal process we use to learn – the try, try, try again until we get it right, method. In some situations, this is a perfectly acceptable method, as we learn from our mistakes. In the sport of kayaking, there are certain risks we are willing to accept (such as falling into the water), and some which we really want to avoid (drowning).

As individual paddlers – we are responsible for our own actions, as well as the consequences of our decisions. However poor decisions which lead to negative outcomes, now involve others into your decision-making process. When paddling with others – decisions should be made as a group, and have a unanimous understanding and agreement.  Accidents do happen on the water; some are minor and some result in death.

How does one get started with a risk management? As kayakers, we have a general understanding of what we wish do – paddle that stretch of water, have fun, and once done, return back home. That is the simplified version how it should happen. Much like taking a camping trip, there is planning involved to ensure a good time – mapping the route to the destination, packing for the weather, bringing items needed for the camp, and getting that perfect camp site.

Proper planning for the time on the water starts with identity of the body of water and what hidden/potential problems may be encountered. The water isn’t the only item which should be taken in account. Personal health, health of others, the gear used, the variety of paddle skill levels, and paddle clothing are just some of the items which should be considered.

Once these items have been identified, assess these to see if they could cause some harm or problem with the paddle trip. Be honest with yourself, and if paddling with others, have an open and frank conversation about hesitations folks may have. An example of this would be if there were a low head dam in the river: Are we going to go over, or around? If around, where do we get out to portage.

Mitigate the known issues and control how it will impact the time on the water. Know how you will respond to the incident, should it happen. Basically, have a Plan B (and C). It can be as simple as ensuring all the paddlers are wearing appropriate paddle clothing, should they capsize. Or communicating with others what safety gear is packed within the kayak (should a backup item be required). Once mastered, this becomes second nature, and easy to manage.

Finally, once these three have been identified and communicated, review any actions which were taken. Is there a need to revise the actions or avoid the problem for the next time?

Taking a moment to reflect on all the possibilities of the types of hazards both on and off the water, and trying to answer the what-if’s, can be exasperating. Not only do you have to understand the route, the paddler abilities, the medical condition of others, the type of water, traffic on the water, emergency location take-outs, but also what happens if YOU are the one who needs the assistance?

Attempting to create a plan of action for any and all the possibilities, can be quite the challenge. Personally, my preferred method is understanding and evaluating the known problems, and foreseeable issues at hand.  If conditions would go beyond my safety threshold – there is no paddling. For example, if I know I will be paddling with a group of folks who have never sat in a kayak before; the paddle environment will be free of obstructions, power boats, and strong current, while having a favorable weather forecast. The idea is to have situational awareness of risks, but NOT need to implement the actions.

Risks don’t have to be intimidating, they should be respected and understood. Implemented into your next paddle destination will not only enhance your trip, but may just save your life.



For the Paddler within….