June 2008

Buy a boat, get a class.

There has been quite a lot of concern about kayak safety this spring. I think that it is more than what we usually see at the turn of the new paddling season. Why is this? Is it because we are getting more new kayakers on the waters than ever before? Is it because we hear of more incidents and fatalities related to kayaking than ever before? Or is it that experienced kayakers are more worried about the well being of everyone on the water than ever before?

I have to believe that it is all of the above. But still I think that it is more than that. It is something even deeper. Something that we maybe can’t quite put our fingers on so easily. Something that I am going to call for now our society group safety consciousness. Here is how I explain it.

As a society, in general, we abhor incidents. We want to be safe in everything that we do. It is everywhere. I was using the restroom of one of my favorite local fast food joints the other day, and saw on the wall a poster of how important food safety is. That made sense to me. Everyone washes their hands before cooking or eating, right? It was so obvious that I had to think about why I was even noticing this sign. Then it clicked. Everything we do today has a recommended way of playing it safe. We all wear seatbelts when driving. We all wear bike helmets when biking. We all get tetanus shots when we step on a rusty nail. We all back up our work data before it gets lost. We all wear PFDs when we go paddling. Oh…..well it worked well up until the last one at least. So where did I go wrong?

Well all those other things, before the PFD wearing made sense. So much sense that I would not even question someone who said: “Buckle up, we’re off.”, or “Here’s your bike helmet, let’s go riding.”, or “You better see a doctor about that cut.”, or “Did you back up all your hard work?”. Why is this second nature? Because it has been in front of me for so long, so many times, again and again and again, that it is of no surprise. It is second nature to all of us to take all these actions for granted. It has been repeated enough to all of us that you could say we have a collective safety conscious idea that these things are right. Get it?

But how did all this repetition start? Let’s look at the Food Safety idea. We all know that contaminated foods can make you sick. We all want our own food to be free of germs. We wash at home before cooking. We use clean utensils to prepare our meals. We expect that others would do the same. We even demand that others respect this same principle so much so that we remind people everywhere to wash well before preparing food. I can honestly say that I have seen that sign so often, heard those words so often that if I see someone leaving any restroom having avoided washing, I am uncomfortable knowing that they are going out into the world unsafe.

Food Safety Poster in the Restroom

So why doesn’t this apply to people wearing their PFDs on the water? Why is it that the number one cause for water sport injuries is simply the neglect of wearing a PFD? If we can all worry about not washing, shouldn’t we be able to worry about drowning? Well maybe it is not yet in our society’s group safety consciousness to want to be safe on the water. Maybe we have not all heard how we need to play it safe on the water. Maybe we just do not know. Maybe we all have to see just how to be safe again and again and again. Where do we start?

Here are some ideas.

Buy a boat and get a class. Wouldn’t this be great? For every kayak bought, the dealer spent 30 minutes with you explaining the importance of safety on the water. How better to reach people at their prime moment.

How about if every public launch displayed a safety message? If a poster could be placed in every bathroom, then one can be placed at every launch. How about at every kayak dealer, and every rental facility? How about a sticker on every kayaker’s shuttle vehicle? How about a cute brochure promoting safety handed to everyone looking at kayaks in the store, or at a demo day, or at a kayaking exposition? How about if other concerned kayakers just repeatedly mentioned their concern to their buddies or even to strangers out on the water. If we all say it and hear it enough, wouldn’t it become second nature? Wouldn’t it make sense if we really understood and really took it to heart? Would we then add it to the collective group consciousness of everyone who paddles?

Perhaps, but what should be said? Isn’t there a lot about on-water safety that could be said? PFDs, flares, hydration, hyperthermia, hyperthermia, pulled muscles, jelly fish, rocks, big boats, waves, wind, thunder, currents, tides, ….oh my!

Yes there is a lot to think about on the water. It can be a dangerous place. Yes we want every newcomer to the sport of kayaking to start thinking safety, but it does not have to be overbearing. Look at the Food Safety Task Force; they explained it thoroughly in 8 words: “Use Soap.”, “Wash for 20 seconds.”, “Rinse.”, “Dry.”.

Maybe we can do something similar. How about “Wear your PFD.”, “Make Yourself Visible.”, “Dress for the Weather and the Water.”, “Plan Your Trip.”. That explains a lot. That can be said is a casual conversation with another paddler. That could be placed on a safety poster. I could even hear that coming from the lips of a concerned mother. Listen…”Jimmy, are you going paddling again? Remember to wear your PFD; let those big boats see you; dress well; and take everything you need! Just like that poster says at the boathouse!” Well, it would be a good start.

CPA Kayak Safety Poster to be seen Everywhere

Why do I bring this up now? We are on the cusp of a change in the paddling community. It is seriously being considered amongst the coastal safety authorities and the paddling associations whether stronger regulations need to be enforced upon manually propelled craft. It may soon be a regulation that everyone who wishes to paddle their kayak need to complete a safety course. It is being decided if this is the only way to make everyone aware of the need for on-water safety. Would this be the best way of making everyone safer while out paddling? I don’t think I can answer that. But I do know that however it is achieved, we do need to reach everyone. And we have to do it again and again and again. We need to make all paddlers aware of the safety plan. We need to make everyone accept the idea, to take it to heart, and to make it another piece of our society’s safety consciousness.

You can help. You can tell your dealer that you want them to explain the safety of the sport before you buy your kayak. You can recommend that they tell anyone getting interested in the sport. You can help organizations who have invested in paddling safety material to get it spread to the community. And you can mention to your fellow paddlers that safety first is our priority. All of us. Because as a society, we abhor incidents. However it is achieved we will reduce paddling accidents and we will make the sport safer for everyone. We will even eventually think as casually about wearing our PFD as we do about washing before dinner. But how we achieve this will be up to all of us.

Help spread the word now, and do it again and again and again.

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