Spring has arrived here. Daffodils are blooming, the cherry trees are filling out with pink blossoms, and the kayakers who have not been paddling since last fall are heading to the beaches. While I welcome the return of the red-breasted robin, I worry about the return of the cotton-clad kayaker.
I was at a launching ramp on Puget Sound last week and saw a woman paddling ashore. She was wearing a tank top and cargo pants. There wasn’t a PFD on her or on deck. She had no spray skirt. I watched as she carried her kayak to her car and left. And I said nothing.
I brought this up a while ago in an editorial (Sea Kayaker magazine, April 2004) and asked our readers what experienced kayakers can do for those who are evidently unaware of the risks they might be taking.
A few people responded noting they or their kayak clubs had struggled with the same dilemma between doing nothing and intruding upon a stranger, but no one had a solution. I’ve heard a few stories of ill-prepared kayakers being turned away from the water for being unprepared for the conditions, but the incidents involved organized outings where a group leader had the authority to send a poorly prepared kayaker home.
The only exception I know of occurred in La Push, Washington, a popular surfing spot. A Pacific storm had delivered some good waves, but the tide was high and the backwash of water had pulled a lot of driftwood off the beach. With logs churning in the break it was a dangerous time to paddle. A few kayakers in whitewater kayaks went out and one of them had a run-in with a log. He was wearing a helmet but the collision left him dazed long after he came ashore. Matt Broze was one of the several kayakers who had decided to stay ashore. When a helmetless paddler with a sea kayak headed for the water, Matt approached him and talked about the dangerous conditions. The kayaker was at first reluctant to take Matt’s advice to stay ashore, but eventually backed down.
At La Push, the risks were evident, and the fact that another kayaker had nearly been knocked out helped convince the novice that it would be best to stay ashore. In the more sheltered water of Puget Sound, on a sunny day in spring, it’s hard to imagine what could go wrong. You can’t appreciate how cold the water is until you’re in it. So lots of paddlers go out without much concern for the risk.
Washington State law requires motorcyclists to wear helmets. It wasn’t always so, and I wonder what exchanges may have occurred between those who wore helmets and those who didn’t. Did well-meaning Gold Wing riders find it awkward to express their concerns to bikers wearing frayed denim vests and sitting on hard-tailed Harleys? It’s hard to picture, but the law has made encounters like that unnecessary.
And maybe that’s how the system here works. We preserve liberties when we can and put laws on the books when those liberties work against the common good or claim lives.
Countless kayakers have taken to the water from the beach here. A few of them have wound up in the water and have been fished out by other boaters, but as far as I know they’ve all come back. That’s as it should be. If you know of something we can do to make sure it stays that way I’d like to hear from you.
You are welcome to post your comments and suggestions on our forum by clicking here. If we find an effective way of bringing novices to safer paddling practices we’ll share it with our readers and the greater sea kayaking community.