Paddling Symposiums and Risk Management - A Few Thoughts

Friday, 04 November 2011

Surf Clinic Beach Talk

An incident happened recently at the latest Lumpy Waters Sea Kayaking Symposium in Pacific City, Oregon. You can read the very detailed first person account by one of the session leaders, Mark Whitaker here. Lumpy Waters is one of an increasing number of intermediate to advanced sea kayaking training events sprouting up all over the country. Participants are hungry for this type of training event where they can work on their skills in wind, wave and current with great talented coaches. With this type of event comes the potential for greater exposure to risk and incident.  

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The incident at the Lumpy Water event took place during a sea kayak surfing clinic at Netart’s Bay in Oregon. Out of 4 instructors and 12 students (16 total kayakers) nine people ended up swimming in an ebb tide near a swift river mouth. There were larger then expected waves due to the tide and river conditions compiled with the larger than anticipated swell from the open ocean. Gear and boats were pulled out to sea. These conditions resulted in multiple local rescue services being involved in the retrieval of one member of the class.

Determining the cause of any incident can be tricky. That’s because there are always lots of pieces to the puzzle making it difficult to find the smoking gun. In this case it looks like communication, the need, or feeling to rush to get the session started, and lack of local knowledge were some (but not all) of contributing factors in this case.

The incident at the Lumpy Waters Symposium reminded me of three other incidents that have happened over the past couple of years (thankfully nothing big) and got me thinking about risk management and organization specifically at symposiums.

I feel that that when it comes to risk management, organizers and instructors at symposiums sometimes treat it differently than if they were teaching courses on their own. For example, when preparing for a course, the instructor(s) will spend a lot of time making sure every element of the day is planned. Everything from teaching locations, lesson plans, participant’s medical information, to risk management, are all carefully organized.

On the other hand, symposiums are sometimes quite different in a couple different ways. Showing up at these events I have often been paired up with instructors whom I met for the first time 10 minutes before with a quick conversation that starts with, “What do you want to do?” Instructors might also be out of town guests with very little local knowledge of the area. Finally, I rarely know if my participants have any medical conditions as I never get to see medical forms as I would usually during registration of a course.

Normally, those issues haven’t mattered much because within the last 30 years, symposiums have taken place on sheltered water. These training events aimed specifically to teach beginner or budding intermediate paddlers. If you are only playing around on the local pond teaching beginners, do you really need a lesson plan or an extensive risk management plan for one hour clinics? They are good to have, but the consequences are really not very high.

Symposiums across North America and the UK have changed considerably over the past 4-5 years. For the first time, organized events are targeting intermediate/advanced paddlers with a strong focus on rough water paddling. My concern is that some organizers (and some instructors) are still thinking and planning out logistics as if the participants were still introductory level paddlers on the back pond in calm conditions.

With that in mind, here are a couple of ideas planners might want to consider when organizing an event that includes rough water or conditions with medium-high consequences for participants. They are in no particular order:

Local Knowledge is Key
Local knowledge is super critical when dealing with any type of current, surf zone or point break. When planning your locations, talk to somebody who can give you honest advice of the best places to go for intermediate paddlers. If the wind isn’t blowing in the right direction where do you go next?

Breaking for Lunch

Get Phone Numbers
If your event has a remote meeting location, make sure that instructors can reach anybody who is driving by cell phone. That way if students don’t show up or the meeting location changes then everybody can still be reached.

Logistically, cell phone numbers are easy information to acquire if you work it into your registration process. Just make sure you add it to the session participant list for the instructors benefit.

At the Lumpy Waters Symposium it’s mentioned that once everybody took off in their cars, it was next to impossible to change locations as they were not able to reach some people.

Slow Things Down
The start of a symposium clinic always feels like a runaway train. Everybody races down the road to the meeting location, grabs their gear and runs straight to the water. You would never do that on a course or with your buddies so why do symposiums always have that rushed feeling? It’s understandable to want to give participant’s their money’s worth. We often want to give everyone an unforgettable day on the water. But what participants are also paying for is someone who understands the risks and plans accordingly, don’t be rushed into skipping that key insight.

Slow things down and make sure everybody (both staff and students) are all on the same page. Everybody have their gear? What about first aid and rescue options? It all needs to be discussed.

If you are responsible for the event schedule, consider extending the session length. That will leave plenty of breathing room for your staff. It also has the added benefit that if you had to change locations due to an unforeseen reason, you still have time to put on a decent clinic after the switch.

Also, if participants are driving to a location, make sure you plan enough time to actually get there. Remember that if it takes 20 minutes for you to drive there, it takes 40 minutes for strangers to first get lost, then finally arrive.

Get Instructors to Meet
When organizing, figure out some type of way to get instructors to meet either online before the event or at the very start of the symposium. Encourage them to work out lesson plans and safety equipment before the symposium starts. It will make a difference on the water for sure.

The lack of developing a solid lesson plan for the clinic is probably the most common mistake I see at symposiums. I’m not completely sure why but it might because it’s often a group of strangers teaching together for the first time and nobody wants to be the heavy handed one demanding that they follow their plan only.

The thing to remember is that you might be the superstar flown in to teach a clinic and you have taught it a hundred times before. That doesn’t mean that the rest of your team have. You need to make sure that everybody is on the same page and knows exactly what is going on. This will allow them to provide suggestions and changes based on local conditions or participant needs.

Beach Launch

Take time to observe the conditions from shore
Before anyone unstraps a boat from the car, and suits up tell everyone to walk down to the beach observe the conditions, then come back to tell you something they noticed about the environment. Do a bit of guided discovery around this activity. How high were the waves? Were there any rip currents at the beach? What was the tide doing? Is there a larger than normal set that comes in at unusual intervals? Make that part of your risk assessment before leaving shore.

Observe participants while getting ready.
Do they seem capable? Do they seem rushed or nervous?

Ask yourself, “does it look like any participants underestimated the risks or overestimated their skills?”

Start small and do a warm up exercise
Don’t introduce the students to a risky environment all at once if possible. Warm them up on flat water and then introduce them to more and more challenging water, and see where shit breaks.

Risk Assessment, Risk Assessment, Risk Assessment,
Continue to do this each time the difficulty ratchets up a notch.

Continue to communicate with participants and fellow instructors about the conditions, and how everyone is coping. If it is too much, you have to retreat and regroup.


- Special thanks to Keith Wikle and Conor Mihell for their help putting this article together.

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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