Thursday, August 26, 2010
When it hits the fan - experienced paddlers in trouble
In my very short coaching career I''m at the stage of conscious incompetence. I know how much I don't know, especially after working with and watching Ben Lawry and Steve Scherrer up in Grand Marais. The extent of my kayaking non-knowledge is vast. Yet, like most coaches I'm pretty certain I know a thing or two and am more than happy to offer suggestions to beginners and paddlers that are working on a skill that I'm marginally proficient with. When it comes to other coaches and more experienced paddlers however, I keep my mouth shut, even if I see techniques that have changed or been upgraded, such as no longer watching the paddle when performing sweep strokes. Nowhere is this reticence more apparent than when a bunch of experienced paddlers, especially people who are so familiar with one another that they know each others preferences in everything from tent sites to choice of adult beverage, get together for a paddle. We pretty much throw our gear in the boat and go. This is not always a good thing and can bite a person in the ass, usually quickly and painfully.
Derrick had a recent post where he stated that, "As coaches,we’re all learning. Coaches are not “experts” and they are not “Gurus”. Coaches are simply folks who help you travel along the same path they’ve traveled themselves". The title of the post was 'Bad example'. At our Tuesday night skill session, we heard about two of our most experienced instructors in the club running into "carnage" on Devils Island in the Apostles over the weekend. It was somewhat sheepishly explained that gear was lost, boats were cracked, and a boat had to be swam out of trouble in some big breaking swells off the rocky north shore of Devils after an unusually early northeast blow. The real eye opener was a post that I read on Axel Schoever's blog, Travels with Paddles, (a blog that has been linked on this site for awhile) about a near disaster in the Netherlands two months ago. The incident report was just made available in english and should be required reading for all of us. To summarize, a group of extremely competent (we're talking some BCU level 5 instructor trainers here) went out to practice some rescues and hit conditions well beyond what they had expected. The party became separated, a couple capsized and had to wet exit, and the Royal Netherlands Lifeboat Institution had to launch boats to complete the rescue.
Like most situations when the feces hits the fan, there is much to be learned. Axel and his paddling companions have carefully and thoughfully analyzed and documented what went right and what went wrong on that day in June. They were brutally honest about their shortcomings yet their collective experience prevented the situation from becoming worse, a combination of training, experience, and a fair amount of luck. One of the most telling comments addressed the dynamics of the group. "We are of the opinion that this incident could happen only because we were amongst trip leaders. The feeling of responsibility that is normally ingrained in us being trip leaders was completely lacking on that Sunday being with a group of friends. We feel responsible for participants on our trips but did not feel responsible for one another on that Sunday. It's quite shocking to come to that conclusion".
Its an honest and humbling assessment of the incident, one that we should all read, study, and lodge in our memory banks. I applaud Axel and his buddies for taking the time and effort to analyze and break down what happened that Sunday so we all can learn from it. I've got a bunch of friends, three of them insructors, that are heading north for the classic Lake Superior Silver Islet to Rossport trip tomorrow. I hope they have time to read and react to Axels report. It's the kind of wake up call we need every so often when we start feeling complacent and bulletproof. We sometimes need a reminder that no matter how skilled and confident we are, the lake (and the sea) is indeed the boss.