Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Leader Never Falls: Shifts in Risk Perception

When you are on a 14 to 16 km crossing there isn't all that much to look at from the cockpit of a sea kayak, and, focusing too closely on your destination serves only to make the distance you need to travel before you reach land seem further. The easiest thing to do is to paddle as efficiently as you can and then, conditions permitting, allow your mind to wander. Paddling out to Rattlesnake Island in light winds, with our sails up, apart from the usual discomfit I feel at having to lean my boat to one side when using the sail in a beam wind, my mind was wandering freely. 

 Rattlesnake Island in the distance from Toomulla
I thought about how much I had enjoyed paddling with our Cairns friends. As any outdoor adventurer will tell you, sharing adventures with friends, both new and old, makes even the most mundane trips special. But, I also thought about how much faster and smoother a small group of two, or perhaps three at most can travel. Doug and I were up at 4.30 am and on the road by 5.00 am. Deciding on a launch location, unloading gear and boats, and packing to leave was quick, efficient and did not require long discussions to make everyone happy. That kind of speed and flexibility is hard to achieve with a bigger group, not impossible, but often overwhelmingly difficult.

It's interesting as well how our risk tolerance shifts. When Doug and I first started sea kayaking in Queensland the 12 km crossing from Gould Island to Coolah Island in the southern Family Group filled us with apprehension and required careful planning to ensure we had a period of calm winds. Now, we tossed off a 14 km crossing with winds forecast in the 15 to 20 knot range without any qualms. In fact, if the winds turned out to be less than forecast we would be grumbling about not getting sufficient push in the sails. The academics involved in accident prevention have a term for this (although I can't remember what it is). Essentially, so the theory goes, as new innovations are introduced to reduce risk (like air bags in cars), people increase their risk taking behaviour to compensate for the increased safety of the activity and accident statistics remain static. 

 Doug on the sand spit on Herald Island
Long crossings seem a lot like multi-pitch rock climbing to me. As you near the end of your lead, with your rack of gear looking frightfully scanty and searching for a spot to build a belay, there is a feeling of being all alone. Somewhere, perhaps 50 metres below, your partner is paying out rope and will hold you if you fall, but, they can't help you find the route, make the right moves, plug in more gear, or build a belay. You are on your own for all those things. Your partner is there, but, at the same time, not really present. Crossing to Rattlesnake Island felt much the same way. Doug was paddling off to my side, perhaps 60 metres away. Were I to capsize, he could provide assistance to get me back in my boat, but, it would take him some time to notice I was missing, to turn around, and find me among the wind waves. In the sort of chaotic conditions in which a capsize is likely although your partner may be a scant 60 metres away, there is really only so much they can do for you. 

 Herald Island sunset
That night, as we sat on Herald Island watching the sun set, Doug likened sea kayaking in north Queensland to sport climbing. Falling on sport climbs (if they are sensibly bolted) is relatively safe. Injuries are rare, and most often result from climber error (like getting off route, or having the rope around your leg). You can climb right near, or even past your limit with relative confidence that the worst that will happen is a drop onto the rope. In northern Queensland, with the Great Barrier Reef blocking major ocean swells, the warm water, and predictable currents, capsizing doesn't seem that much worse than falling off a sport climb. Capsizing off the coast of Canada, however, with icy cold waters that cause fatal hypothermia in minutes, is a bit like falling off an ice climb – and we all know that when climbing frozen waterfalls “the leader doesn't fall.”

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