Sea Kayak Adventure: Experience Vs Consequence

Updated: Oct 20



I’ve been thinking much lately about how our level of experience can impact (pun) the potential of ugly consequence – namely broken boats and bodies. As open water paddlers, we all have a bit of adrenaline junky in us and it’s worth having a think on the fluid nature (pun #2) of sanity and safety inherent in this sport.


Renowned boat builder, designer and action-figure paddler, Saint Nick, and I were discussing this and he shared a fascinating factoid he had read. Turns out that in the world of outdoor adventure sports, the populations most likely to put themselves in a bullseye are the least and most experienced. The prior due to not knowing what they don’t know and the latter due to complacency. Surprisingly, at least to me, if true, modest to advanced intermediate paddlers are safest.


A more than common enough example of a less seasoned paddler in for trouble is the classic early season recreational boat kayaker, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, playing the mouth of a normally lazy river swollen with spring run off. A perfect example of an experienced paddler writing a story with a sad ending is, hilariously enough, me. I recently had a go at a feature that I had passed less than 15 minutes before, with the cautionary statement to others in the super strong group, “I wouldn’t try that”. When the water finally receded, I was upside down, still in my boat, wedged in between rocks a full 5′ above the water line. While I was intact and my boat minimally banged up, that is, by definition, maliciously complacent. I should have listened to me.


Those of us attracted to rough water play are, at least to some degree, drawn in by the “adventure” ( = risk ) aspect of participating in an adventure sport. Lots of us are turned on by the challenges and potential for consequence in a way that is mostly lacking in our day-to-day experience. Its part of the reason that we lean into kayaking so hard. A higher level of difficulty with greater potential for a spanking can equate to a fuller sense of accomplishment.


The key to pushing boundaries while keeping things safe is by building knowledge (about our capacity, the environment, technique, incident management, etc..) and continuously reflecting on this knowledge before, during and after paddling to build experience. There will be a number of Water God coaches that I’ve worked with over the years that’ll have a good laugh at my expense for diving into developmental nomenclature but, if the shoe fits… What I’m preaching here is painfully obvious but worthy of frequent and intentional deployment. A passive approach to active water play can easily result in a crappy outcome, be it a mishap or simply lack of improvement.


What is and isn’t prudent is always a moving target. A new paddler will be at risk on a mill pond if they don’t know how to wet exit. A seasoned big water player can get their butt handed to them even in venues they have hit hard for years by not respecting ever changing conditions – again, complacency. I frequently see, while working with clients, features that seem insane in the morning, given some solid coaching and time to experiment, are good for long leash fun-time by the same afternoon.


For me, keeping things acceptably safe & sane while still challenging boils down to this: Never get into a situation you don’t have an exit strategy for. Getting back to my earlier example of me vs terra firma, while I tried out a wave that looked a tad sketchy but did not do so without some forethought: The group I was with were all accomplished paddlers (and rescuers), we were within a 5 minute paddle of a road, I was in a plastic bash boat (Delphin – my favorite), had on a helmet, watched the action through a number of wave sets, had another paddler standing close by, knew to turn my hull, not my body, into the rocks before impact, etc… One could argue that had I really done my homework, I would not have ended up so high and dry but that is a false assumption. If we only hit features that we know we will master, how do we learn and push our capacity/boundaries? We celebrate our successes but can only learn through our failures – right?


Sounds like a Hallmark card, but it’s true. You can’t own a set of skills without knowing when and how they work, which requires finding out when and how they don’t.

I often find safety discussions can be preachy and a big yawn. Hoping I’m not guilty of either here or during events. Saint Nick has been quoted on cracking wise by saying “Most paddlers are looking for adventure. Gerry is looking for violence”. Funny guy but, to put it in perspective, I proudly point out that by adhering to the process described above, in my years of active water play and instruction, I have yet to suffer a broken boat or body – mine or a client’s. That’s right folks, not even a single holed boat. Risk and fun go hand-in-hand in adventure sport but that should not equate to damage done.


Sea Sherpa Kayak LLC specializes in coaching kayakers of all levels of experience in the black arts of open water paddling. While located in the Connecticut/Rhode Island area, which enjoys fantastic tide race, surf and rock gardening options, we often do events in far flung, exotics waters including the Pacific Northwest, Baja, California, Tybee Island and most often, the spectacular coast of Maine. We offer group classes, privates and custom events. Contact us at Sea Sherpa Kayak LLC and sign up for our newsletter, or connect with us on Facebook


Posted in Safety/Leadership and tagged Maine Kayaking, rough water kayaking, sea kayak technique, technique

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