Sometimes a minor, barely noticeable detail in the gear may cause a creeping and potentially big problem. Taking good care of your gear helps, but eventually something mysterious will put you in a bad position. That is when skills and preparedness is needed for action on the upper limits of a paddlers comfort zone.
Written by Jöns Aschan, 16 nov 2014
Last week I was asked by Eva-Lotta Backman to join a paddle to the remote skerrie of Morgonlandet between Hangö and Rosala, an unsheltered crossing of 11km. With the southwestern wind of 7 m/s and 4 centigrade it was to be a lightly demanding paddle with almost no landing spots. A paddle where, if weather changes might get much more difficult and you could potentially have to revise your return plans. I chose to pack a few extra things like, more water, a tarp and a sleepingbag with me just in case a longer stay would turn necessary. Since I posess a number of kayaks – choosing the proper one was one of the issues to think of. One concern was not to overdress but still dress for immersion. A good layer of clothing under the drysuit. Also a good tight spraydeck to keep a dry cockpit as occational waves are likely to break across my lap.
Small things, very minor things in fact may become the cause of a major hazard. Last weekend the national paddling association organized a workshop intended to increase safety awareness within paddling clubs. The discussions were broad and good. The lead question presented by Benjamin Donner was: You the instructor - a risk or resource?
One key message from the question is: As we introduce new skills and experience we also expand our comfort zone. Hence we feel comfortable in more demanding situations. Big risks become minor risks, and we are prepared go where we would not before. This is likely to happen progressively in all areas of our life until experiences or a physical limitation, ultimately a fatal accident stops us or slows us down from moving further on the risk ladder or into exploring the unknown. We pay for a new experience with taking some risk, while at the same time trying to minimize risk. By reading weather forecasts and the sky we can avoid the risk of rain or nasty wind, and dress properly. By honing our balancing, rescue or wave handling skills we manage more demanding conditions than before. Through discussions, observation and storytelling we also raise awareness without being there and experiencing the situation first hand. We make ourselves prepared.
As an instructor by profession my role is the safety police. I need to maintain a level of alertness towards all paddlers, constantly assessing, while raising awareness of the inherent risks people take by joining a tour. Raising awareness may be through example (less so), through describing incident mechanisms and by storytelling. Paddlers own experiences are most educating. Acceptable risks need to materialize for true progression. What follows the materialized risk need to be clearly within my and the groups abilities to sort out. I can think of a situation where my judgement went wrong. I was not reading right a persons ability to confront an unexpected capsize. That capsize probably went way over her comfort zone, where most people would have been fine with the following rescue. For me it is a relief to paddle in the company of known and skilled persons where I do not worry about their actions. I can assume they are aware of the risks they are taking, and I am within my comfort zone. But things may change because of minor things. Things that were difficult to anticipate.
A person may have joined a club for the social aspect, but also as a way to manage risk. Paddling with experienced paddlers may give that extra sense of safety needed to be able to enjoy the sport. I have learnt through my dear paddling friends over the years that experience and paddling years are not equal to risk asessment ability and even less equal to ability to sort out situations or lead a group safely.
How well is a person able to assess another persons skills? I would claim that the first of responsibilities lies with assessing whom you get to join, not with assessing who you are going to join. If you as a tour leader make the wrong assumptions the joining company may have overly big expectations on what a superhero you are with all the ropes, whistles, vhf's, fancy gear and rambo knifes, not to mention the stars and stripes you carry on your sleeves. Club members may think that you can take them safely to the moon if you wish to. And perhaps you could. But would you? What stops you? When do you decide to revise your spaceflight plan.
Back to the last week paddle towards southwest, 13km off mainland Hangö. We agreed on a rendevous in Ekenäs. The recorded wind at Russarö was 13m/s, almost double up. The paddle would be manageable but not quite that enjoyable as with less wind. We did paddle off, leaving ourselves with the alternative plan of turning back and rounding Russarö instead. That might be great fun and more manageable in case things do not go as planned. As the tour progressed I noticed that with the prevailing wave direction my strong-tracking kayak shifted the course in a way I was not used to. For me it meant I used some extra energy to keep the kayak on course, until I relaxed the on direction. Let it shift, the next or third wave shifts it back. We paddled on.
Initially we had wind from 120 degrees behind us and waves from 45 degrees in front. The wind direction was not quite favorable, especially for the return paddle in a combination of a schedule and a short day. Roundabout playing at Knyllrorna we decided to turn towards the south point of Russarö instead, thus avoiding a long paddle pack with the wind against us.
On the return occasional waves washed over my spray deck. We had been paddling with an easy speed. I wanted to occasionally speed up to let the water splash more abound the bow. Eventually I suspected I had a leak somewhere in my kayak. I was getting water in my cockpit. Already at Knyllrorna I had used my pump to remove a small amount of water. That did not worry me. But now the water amount was bigger. I increased my speed towards Tomaslandet with a possible landing spot. I wanted to find out the amount of water, assuming the leak was somewhere around the spray deck or the day hatch. I had not used this kayak for a while, and not the spray deck either in demanding conditions. Now I had parts of my kayak occasionally submerged by waves. It was years since last time for that kayak.
We landed on Tomaslandet. The highest level of water was in the cockpit, less so in the day hatch, and minor in the rear hatch. The front compartment was dry. I did not understand or analyze the source of the leak then. I should have. But perhaps the cold wind was to blame. I wanted to get out of the wind and have a bite on my meal. It turned out to be cold on land despite some wind shelter. To get warm both of us wanted to get going past the slippery rocks and into the shelter of the kayak. The southeast and east side of Russarö turned out to be a real washing machine. The waves had no consistency in their direction. Just big piles of water going up and down, mostly approaching from left or right. I would quickly feel how water was building up again in my kayak. My balance was compromised as a progressively heavier kayak was twisting left and right. An otherwise enjoyable twisting sea turned progressively nastier to me. After 500 meter I felt a need to pump. Opening the spray deck was not an option in those seas. My spray deck was equipped with a tube for safe pumping in the seas – but I was thinking water would be filling up quickly again, and I would not be able to pump the day hatch. A kilometer later there would be shelter. I could land and empty again, which I did.
During the Saturday of kayak risk management discussions it was apparent that reported incidents to the association were very few. Not even cases with casualties were reported. It is hard to improve on things without official knowledge. Reports would benefit all clubs and the Finnish paddling community as a whole. Even a regular one pager with reflections on the tour would help raise awareness of processes to improve. The one pager facilitates thinking and reflection no matter how well the tour went. Top successes would likewise be recorded for others to follow. Is there a shimmer of shame, of loosing credentials if close encounters are reported. Are we prepared to take the risk of admitting our failures for the sake of sharing cases and improving the safety of the community.
Russarö harbor is still a forbidden landing spot, as well as the rest of the island. I admit I broke rules while I claim I had to for safety. 3 kilometers later I was able to pump again. This time trough the tube in the deck, using shelter from Gustavsvärn and support from my paddling companion.
Well back home I took a closer look at my spray deck. It was apparent that the spray deck had been cut by something. A small hole the length of a quarter of an inch. That hole was not where they usually appear, but where a pouch around the waist is formed. Each wave filled up the pouch and water poured in until emptied and the next shower of water. East of Russarö almost all waves filled up.
I know from experience that in a club setting some members are careless and do not understand the risks they are exposing other members to. It may be hairline cracks in hulls or other broken gear similar to my spray deck problem. Perhaps somebody closed the car door in a hurry, leaving the my spray deck in between and almost sinking me. Or a kayak slipped onto the floor where my spray deck happened to be before seated in the clubhouse racks. Processes, locations, storage facilities, constructions of racks and docks may fix the problem but without analysis we might not notice the true source of incidents.
Reporting incidents is key to corrective actions and fatality avoidance. My favorite concept towards corrective actions is Root Cause Analysis. There are many processes, to name one, the so called fish-bone. We want to remove the causal factors that may have contributed and find the factor, which if fixed would prevent the same event from occurring again. By root cause analysis we want to find a way to fix. It is not always easy. Is the root cause for water in the kayak a hole in the spray deck, closable doors in cars handling, too weak materials? Look at how equipment, process, people, materials, environment, management interact and cause the incident that we want to prevent from occurring again. Not even the best of the best can solve an instant situation, that may have developed over time, but that was not anticipated and prepared for at some level.