As a seed to our new blog site, I have posted the editorial from our most recent issue, June, 2012.:
Despite the thousands of images of happy families cheerily paddling across calm and pristine water, we must always be aware that danger and disaster are constant companions of kayakers, be they lake or ocean paddlers, neophyte or expert. A moment’s miscalculation, minutes or even seconds of lapsed awareness, can cause a pleasant excursion to end in extreme discomfort, injury, or even death.
The causes are manifold. A botched roll, an unexpected change in the weather, a miscalculation of a group’s capabilities, forgetting an essential piece of equipment can all lead to disaster. And once the calamity occurs, survivors often find that their private sorrow becomes a public debate, their actions generating a ruthless spate of reportage, analysis, criticism, and even mockery. The degree of publicity, once limited to the reach of local media, has spread widely with the ever-increasing use of the world-wide web. People can now join debates on accidents and disasters that take place on the other side of the world, within hours or minutes, or even as the event is occurring.
The burden this communicative ability places on the families and friends of victims must be extreme. We have all seen and deplored the reporter thrusting a microphone in the face of family and friends who are still shocked and horrified at their tragedy. How much harsher must it feel when discussion continues long after the tragedy, and starts to condemn the victim for hisown death or injury. How much is too much probing? Where do the rights of the survivors for privacy supercede the public’s right to know, the journalist’s mandate to inform, and the expert’s responsibility to educate?
These questions have come up many times in many places, and there does not seem to be any agreement on them. We came across the debate again during research into a recent kayaking death off the coast of Scarborough, Maine. We will follow the story as it developed over a few weeks to illustrate how information spreads and how it ended. More info is in the Safety department of this issue.
The story at first was fairly bare-bone. On April 14, 2012, the body of a man, late returning from a kayaking trip, had been found after an extended search a half-mile offshore. He was face up, wearing a wet suit and a PFD. His kayak was found in the surf at a local beach. He was an experienced kayaker. The story was posted on line on the local paper’s website. Despite the paucity of information, comments immediately began to be posted, some inane, some speculative, and some very defensive. The latter were mostly from family and friends asking for discussion to end. Others were from people angered by the commentary and speculation as to cause of death. While none of the commentary struck us as derogatory, many did criticize the dead man for injudicious behavior.
Later articles began to paint a very different picture. The victim had just recently purchased his boat and had only kayaking once before. This was his first ocean trip. The kayak was ocean-capable, but the man was paddling solo to an exposed island nearly a mile and a third out. When he started, visibility was very good, air temperature was in the 50s and winds were low. The water was extremely cold, in the low 40s. He reached the island around 10:43 in the morning.It is not known when he left. He was reported missing in the late afternoon, and his body was found around 7 P.M. The light winds had risen to 17 mph, gusting to 20 or 25 mph (from different weather channels) in the afternoon and the calm seas had risen into two to four foot swells, becoming ever rougher as the day progressed, a common situation in the area. His wet suit provided only minimal protection against cold under the circumstances. According to newspaper reports, his death was later attributed to accidental drowning.
It is fairly clear that the boater in question had tried to prepare himself according to his knowledge, but that his knowledge and therefore his preparation were inadequate. He did tell people where he was going and when he was expecting to return. He called a friend from a sandbar to tell him to expect him to dinner. On a poignant note, he even posted pictures to his Facebook page once he reached his destination celebrating his paddle. Even so, he went poorly prepared and engaged in needlessly reckless behavior with an almost arrogant disregard for the dangers and for the risks to which he was putting himself and thus his family and friends. A friend was quoted after his death as saying his behavior indicated a positive capacity, a tendency to “jump in with both feet.” Is a cautious assessment of risk an indication of lugubrious gingerliness, of too much circumspection? A disregard for danger is often seen as a dashing and positive attribute, but a person who maximizes a concern for safety can have as much fun, while being more likely to return in one piece. We have personally driven to the emergency room with people who leaped before they looked.
Once a person dies under public circumstances, his death becomes public property. If the death is caused by the activities of the victim, it can be certain that all aspects of the death will be discussed in public forums.
We in the kayaking community know that every accidental kayaking death can be a matter for seemingly endless speculation and theorizing. With the advent of newspaper pages posted on the web with the public able to post comments, the debate has expanded into the larger community. This can be very painful to family and friends who choose to visit such sites.
The commentary on this person’s death ranged from the idiotic (“A kayak has no business on the ocean!”) to the desperate (“Please stop the commentary. This man was a friend.”) And yet those who admire a friend’s derring-do have to be prepared for the burden of his accidental maiming or death. All of us who engage in activities that can be dangerous have to be prepared for disaster, and one way to prepare is to analyze disasters that occur. Unfortunately, the very public nature of the discussion allows both brainless blather as well as reasoned assessment. Even the blather can be useful, as it demonstrates one way in which the non-participating public views a person’s sport. This discussion will and must go on, and cannot be considered “disrespectful” (from another comment). The lessons learned from the mistakes of one man can save the lives of many others, and those who have friends killed taking risks, as we have, must be prepared for the burden of public commentary.