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Latest commentary on "victim blaming"


I've seen some online cruel and crude comments about paddling fatalities as referenced in the article. Negativity stinks and reflects poorly on the character of those making them, but you can't take the hurt back should family or friends of the deceased see such remarks.

I am surprised, however, by the following statement in the article:

"At that point a minor error occurred. Although the group as a whole had three VHF radios and four cell phones, the only communication device that Ellison and Ambrahms had was Ellison’s cell phone, which was in a storage compartment on his ski."

Minor error? More like a major error on the premise that if you don't have it on you, you don't have it and in the case referenced, Ellison most likely would have been saved had that cell phone been readily available. He wouldn't have been left alone in the water while his partner paddled for help.

Oddly, not once in any lesson I've taken or symposium I've attended has the importance of carrying crucial gear on you been mentioned. That was learned from reading the "Deep Trouble" books, which I was encouraged to do by the Pnet community. I'm still grateful for that advice.


  • It is good to learn from others mistakes, to share our experiences. Not knowing isn't an unusual thing, and I suspect we have all been there before. Most of us can and have made mistakes. Build on our knowledge, and pass it on. I think constructive analysis accomplishes more than destructive blaming. I told you so is about our own ego. Panic isn't conducive to reason, and some folks will panic. Training helps to keep us calm when we have every reason to panic. We are human not infallible or perfect.

  • There's a big difference between someone experienced and prepared making a mistake, and someone going out completely unprepared, unaware, and uninterested in doing anything about it.

  • I suspect the big difference you are referring to is survivablity. Yet very experienced and skilled individuals do make fatal mistakes. Considering how many inexperienced people are on the water it would seem the majority survive their mistakes. This is not to say it isn’t better to be knowledgeable and skilled . However regardless of our experience a fatal mistake is a final mistake. Both hubris and ignorance can be fatal. Risk taking by experienced paddlers does kill some of them. I believe I read somewhere that those with the knowledge of the risk but feel their skill is lacking tend to avoid the risk. While the very skilled feel prepared and are more willing to take the risk. The ignorant don’t know the risk and get into trouble. I don’t see where blame provides more benefit than a thoughtful analysis of what went wrong, but then I am not a lawyer seeking damages. That I believe is where the value of blame resides. Take the duck boat sinking as an example.

  • edited November 9

    "Victim blaming", for some, is a way to distance oneself from the possibility that a fatal mishap can happen to anyone. "Oh, if that guy, had done so and so, had such and such with him...." "Ain't gonna happen to me 'cause I am smarter and am ready and equipped to handle all contingencies..."

    Victim blaming is one way of mentally coping with the possibility/fear of death. Of course, one can also take a empathic route... "There go I by the grace of..."


    PS. I learned this weekend that one of my childhood friends lost his son to a car accident. His son was the same age as my younger son. His son was in New Zealand, on vacation, with his friend. His friend was driving the car and also passed yesterday at the hospital. My own son came back last fall from the effort to retake Mosul, Iraq. Who can know... one son came back from war. Another die on a vacation of a lifetime.... "By the grace of...."

  • I agree with the article by Avery. I said something similar on the thread when discussing the recent tragedy where the mother was the only survivor.

    I also agree with Rookie about having what you need on you. But then I am a sea kayaker not a surf ski racer. Ellison was tethered to his ski so felt the phone was safely at hand. The tether broke and the ski blew away. Many sea kayakers feel a tether is an entanglement danger so don’t use one. So more likely to feel a need to have gear attached to them.

    If you notice in the article’s photo of Avery he uses a tether to his kayak. Neither a phone or VHF prevent separation from the boat. This may be why the phone in the boat was considered a minor mistake. I am inclined to think a short tether like Avery is shown with is wise in windy conditions.

  • Oops! The photo in the article is cropped...My Mistake...thankfully not fatal!! Blame me if you must. I won't shoot myself to escape the guilt. Here is the complete photo which I was familiar with already as I posted it in a discussion on using a boat tether.

  • @sing said:

    So glad he returned home. He has my thanks for his service. Thankful for the grace as well.

  • edited November 9

    Reading the article above, I am not sure I disagree with the characterization of the author.
    Take a look at the things they did right - had a plan if separated, had a paddler on hand to try and rescue Ellison. The latter may matter more here than for regular sea kayaks. It is my impression that bringing a paddler in via another ski is a more fundamental thing than in regular sea kayaks. I could be wrong of course.

    The failure was not that they did not have precautions, but that events eviscerated their initial precautions and they lacked additional layers. But you could hear stories from a ton of paddlers where the same events occurred and those precautions were enough.

    First layer was obvious, Ellison was tethered to his ski. That failed. Second layer - Elison could be towed in by his companion. That failed.

    So the third layer would have been a third paddler, the fourth a device with a locator button on Ellison's person or the person of his companion. In that case he could have had Ellison hang onto his boat and hit his own rescue signal.

    I paddle solo in Maine so I go out with at least two layers of precaution. Layer number is the conditions - I paddle in pretty milk toast conditions by myself compared to what I will go out in with company. And when solo I use a kayak that is slow and unexciting but has ridiculously forgiving stability in the worst stuff I could get caught in and will give me a roll if I screw up the last half.. Jim's old Romany. After that comes clothing, self-rescue skills and devices.

    These guys were paddling together so they took some latitude with conditions - so would I. They tried to anticipate but were overwhelmed by events. You have to be cognizant of the difference between careless lack of preparation and a good effort that wasn't enough. Ma Nature has lessons waiting for all of us if we are in the wrong place at the right time for the lesson.

  • @Castoff- have you considered using a quick release where your tether attaches to your PFD?
    It can sometimes be AS (or more) important to get free from the boat as it it to stay tethered to it (learned from decades of short-handed offshore sailing).

  • edited November 9

    I haven't used a tether yet. But yes I have considered a quick release. I wouldn't use it in surf or rivers. It would be an open water in windy conditions precaution. Yes solo sailors use tethers and need to be able to get back in the boat and not dragged along side.

  • @castoff said:
    If you notice in the article’s photo of Avery he uses a tether to his kayak. Neither a phone or VHF prevent separation from the boat. This may be why the phone in the boat was considered a minor mistake. I am inclined to think a short tether like Avery is shown with is wise in windy conditions.

    Avery also has a phone attached to his PFD in that photo.

  • Yes I am in total agreement with you about attaching to the PFD. I carry a phone and VHF, but a PLB or EPRIB or Spot would be a good alternative as cell phones and VHFs have limitations of range and cell tower locations. I wasn’t being critical I was suggesting that the tether that failed may be why a phone with the boat was considered a minor mistake. Of course it was a bad decision given that the tether failed and there wasn’t another means of communication I think Celia’s layers of protection is on point, and the more the better.

  • I am not a big fan of trusting my life to velcro or a quick release. That being said, these were all solid, experienced paddlers. Anyone can nitpick, but by and large, they were generally well-equipped. Terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to all of them.

  • Every now and then, it seems that a quick change in conditions pops up and if one takes notice, it can serve well as a reminder that you can't allow yourself to become complacent, or overconfident. I was lucky that my reminder was manageable, but it still took a few good decisions to keep it all from going very badly.

    Last month, we were still having some very summer-like weather and I went for a nice relaxed paddle on a very flat water day with no thought at all about having to deal with what I got myself into. I won't go into all the specifics, but the wind came up very fast and I had a crossing to make to get back to my launch site. At first it was just a mater of sprinting across a bit of a rough patch and I thought I would be home free. The rough patch was rougher than I thought it would be, but I made it without a problem. At this point I decided it might be a good idea to go ashore on this island and reassess my situation. I thought maybe things would be somewhat less troublesome as I would be paddling straight into the waves instead of having them on my beam. Part of the way, I would have the island as a security blanket, but then I would have to leave the island and head across another short stretch that I thought would probably be somewhat less than what I had just come from. Wrong again; it got even rougher. but with the launch site in sight, I could relax and enjoy the last few miles.

    I like to think that next time, I will be just a bit more cautious about how quickly conditions can change. Some might think I'm nuts, but I am so happy that I was by myself and didn't have to be concerned about how someone else was doing.

  • I just have one thing to say. A cell phone is a very BAD choice for communication. I cant imagine trying to make a call while in the water in big waves. I assume if you have a cell it must be waterproof one. I bet MOST are not. One of those cases would work assuming you can make a call while in the case, But those cases make it bigger so it cant be kept on the person (bad idea) . . Spend a few bucks get a VHF or PLB. Sure casual kayaker, a cell is better than nothing but still.

    Communication is your one way out of a bad situation, using the least reliable communication device is asking for trouble.

    I cant believe that guy committed suicide over it.

  • I know 2 of the guys on the fateful lake milleacs trip, though neither who died. Both are 2 of the best paddlers ive ever met and the tragedy has left a lasting impact on the twin cities surf ski group. Since the SS community is very small the loss was felt very closely by everyone, sadly, his partner most acutely.

    Minimalism (sometimes to a fault) is fairly well ingrained in the surfski community from what I have seen. I have paddled surfski for the last couple years and although I only deem myself 'moderately prepared' for true worst case scenarios, I am by far the most prepared of the groups i have seen. Most of the time, others do not have immersion protection gear, signaling devices, or more. I'd say a leash and a phone is more or less SOP. Its basically expected that 1- you wear a leash and will not get separated from your boat and 2- you will remount and keep going. beyond that, not many people have plan C, D, E, and F ready to go.

    These articles are timely and have reminded me to spend a few bucks on some more safety gear for this winter. Although the pacific should only get into the mid-upper 50's this winter, that's clearly enough to kill before you're rescued. Although I have been told I have a lot of protection on by most people I paddle with (mostly just a 4/3 full wetsuit for 60+* water), I figure if you cant survive a night floating around you're toast.

    My personal take away is that I do not have enough emergency signaling gear physically attached to my PFD which I intend to fix. As the article says they had a decent plan and preparation, but Plans A, B, and C failed. No plan D meant Death in this case.

    I love the author's statement of "you never hear about overly prepared people being rescued". Its more or less true. When you're really, overly prepared for anything, you typically dig yourself out of the shit and learn from the experience instead of ending up in a rescue report or morgue.

  • Wasn't referring to your comments, @castoff, but rather pointing out the presence of that cell phone on his PFD in the photo. If it's important enough to have it on him, why state stashing it in a hatch was just a "minor" mistake? That's crazy since the paddler died because the only way to send an emergency call was in the hatch of his boat - which was blown away. A mention that it should have been accessible certainly wouldn't be blaming the victim, which is what the article is all about, but a constructive comment that could benefit others.

    I have to respectfully disagree with Celia's layers of protection analysis of the event. I think we're individually responsible for our own safety whether we're paddling solo or in a group and because of that, the second layer should have been the ability to send out an emergency communication. Weather and water are not always predictable.

    @dc9mm. I have an iPhone 7 Plus in a LifeProof waterproof case. I can easily carry it on me. There are also a number of armbands made specifically for cell phones. I often see runners wearing them. You are absolutely correct about the VHF and PLB. Ocean Signal makes a tiny PLB that weighs four ounces and has a 7-year battery life. Mine lives in my PFD pocket and in the winter, moved to my parka.

  • edited November 9

    @Rookie Are you saying self-rescue skills are less important than a signaling device? Remember it is a hierarchy, not something where one precludes the other. My thought is that no one should out there solo without self-rescue skills including a roll on at least one side. And a Cowboy and/or paddle float option. These skills don't go away when paddling in a group.

    While I tend to have my own signaling device, in the above case it may have worked to keep the smallest group to three paddlers which would have increased the likelihood that someone had a device on their body. There is a rule about that which of course paddling solo I violate, but it is a good one. On the sea never less than three be.

    I do apply the rule of three as needed because until you have tried to rescue a truly panicked guy at a fighting weight of 130 pounds yourself, you won't understand how bad it can be. If I am out with just one other paddler who does not have a roll or at least decent start on one, I tend to limit the adventurous quality of the paddle. It is more likely that they will panic in a capsize and/or lose hold of their boat, hence becoming a problem that it'll take two paddlers to solve. If there are three paddlers with at least one other person proficient in assisted rescues and able to tow, we can handle larger problems. If everyone is dressed for immersion, we have the luxury of time to handle those problems.

    Additional risk is additional paddlers. Reason I have only actually made the paddle out to Eastern Egg a few times in over 15 years is that Jim and I would never do it with less than 4, preferably 5 paddlers with a majority have some serious wet work time. And an entire day of easy conditions. Latter is why the trip has been called at the stop-and-check point nearly as many times as successful trips. I have seen paddlers make other decisions and get away with it. Doesn't mean I will do it.

    And why I put clothing higher - in chillier water the signaling device won't get anyone there before hypothermia kicks in. One reason our old paddling group was such a boon for Kokatat. No one was allowed to paddle with us past October unless they had a dry suit.

  • @Celia said:
    @Rookie Are you saying self-rescue skills are less important than a signaling device?

    Oh heavens no, absolutely not. Self-rescue is such a critical skill it's taught in the ACA L1 class. Your second layer that failed was the attempt to tow Ellison. Had either had access to communications gear, they could have called for help and Ellison's partner would have stayed with him. I haven't read the full accident report so don't know the details, but do think stashing your cell phone or radio inside a hatch is a major misjudgment, not a minor one.

    My take is that I'm responsible for my own safety, no one else, whether solo or in a group. That means not only being able to get back into my boat on my own, but carrying some form of communications gear ON me. Quoting from an article by Bryan Hansel: "You are on your own out there. You need to own that thought." I do.

  • At the morbidity and mortality
    conference every week,
    the hospital's learned minds
    from bad outcomes do seek,

    answers to those best laid plans
    where life has proved aloof,
    As one doc says, "Many are dying here
    to touch on half the truth."

  • edited November 10

    Risk assessment and management should be a constant when paddling. For me that is even part of the appeal. The first and foremost goal should be coming home in one piece. So examining with a critical eye the "mistakes" of others can help with that goal. Being sensitive to others (family members, surviving group members, rescuers) is important as well. I haven't met anyone yet that thought they were going to be the one that was going to end up dead.

    I like to think I have my own healthy sense of adventure and enjoy a few surprises but I firmly believe regardless of what environment you play in, you need to maintain control. Wearing a pfd, dressing for water temps, and picking environments friendly to your skillset and fitness level go a long way toward avoiding trouble. As someone that has limited experience with open water ( I'm more a ww guy) I find the whole premise of having to depend on a SAT phone or other device for rescue to be a bit discerning. Others may find my own whitewater addiction and the associated risks to be a bit troubling for them. We all get to make up our own rules, and can be verydifferent from each other in that regard.

    If all that is standing between me and my own survival is some sort of emergency signalling device then clearly I'm no longer in control of my own destiny. I simply don't want to put myself in that situation or environment to begin with. I have made the phone call for help (a group member became lost) and it ended well but definately calling violated my own sense of self reliance, a small price to pay, for someone's safety. One final thought, nobody buys insurance because they want to use it but sure is nice to have when stuff happens.

  • The buddy system is a layer of protection recognized in many differing activities such as deep sea diving. When we paddle solo it is a layer of protection we give up. Relying on yourself doesn’t negate the buddy system advantage. The best buddies to rely on are those that have the skills to take care of themselves. However even less skilled buddies can prove valuable if you are incapacitated for some reason. Say a sturgeon going airborne on the Suwannee River knocks you out and you capsize. Your skills, preparation, or signaling device have little value, but an inexperienced buddy could save your life. Folks have been killed by sturgeon and carp. It’s not unheard of. The thing is crap happens, and no matter how prepared we are there can be situations beyond our control. I think everyone here recognizes this. What remains is the level of risk we are willing to live or die with.

  • @MCImes said:

    Minimalism (sometimes to a fault) is fairly well ingrained in the surfski community from what I have seen.

    So true. The difference between the two camps (sea kayakers and surfski) is astonishing--polar opposites on the topic.

  • @castoff said:
    Folks have been killed by sturgeon and carp. It’s not unheard of. The thing is crap happens, and no matter how prepared we are there can be situations beyond our control.

    Or is it carp that happens? Apparently.

    [Not intended to diminish the rest of your comments]

  • edited November 10

    :D Carpe pun: Seize the Pun

  • Unfortunately I am kind of on the side of victim/ group blaming. What struck me in the article by Avery is that the victim is characterized as a very experienced paddler, but he could not keep up with the group and could not paddle straight in the high winds and waves. His leash broke at the velcro (I've only seem this happen with very cheap leashes.) When he capsized he let go of the boat in high winds. His friend did not immediately go after the ski. He was unable to have his friend tow him. The cell phone was safely packed away in the boat. not secured to him. Had he ever swam in high waves and wind as practice? S__t happens but it's more likely to someone who is in conditions above their ability. Paddling with a highly competent group gives a lot of paddlers a false sense of security. My feeling is if the group was willing to take him out in high winds and waves, they needed to stick together or take him into shore. That is what the best experienced paddlers would have done. BUT If things go south you have to be able to save your self. I don't go in for the post mortem victim blaming posts, but when new paddlers are reading this stuff they need to realize that it was not the leash or the farmer john that did this guy in. And paddling with the "the best most experienced paddlers" maybe more hazardous than paddling with some 60 year old women intermediates who may exercise more caution and responsibility. SYOTW

  • It took me years to realize that group paddles may be much more dangerous than solo outings. If you are out with others you may well need extra "layers of protection" that protect everyone else or someone else's problem/mistake could well put YOU in danger. I've had several memorable experiences where group paddles exposed me to serious dangers that would not have existed on solo paddles.

  • I lean rather more against blaming/shaming and more towards an analysis of the incident. The semi-annual report that Charlie Wallbridge does for American Whitewater is a good example of this. He tries to provide accurate details and some root cause analysis. His reports tend to be respectful to those involved- in some cases rather more than I would be. (Case in point - the report from a western river where two 'gentleman' put in to a river in inappropriate craft above a class III - IV section. The survivor was later arrested for Drunk and Disorderly at the local Dairy Queen.) I believe that the Sea Kayaker magazine reports were similar and perhaps more detailed

    One the group vs. solo, in my case I tend to be very conservative when solo. I'll mostly be on familiar local rivers or lakes (Lansing Michigan area). Given that I'm more often with a group it stands to reason that some of my sketchier moments have been when with a group. In most cases, helping someone out.

  • edited November 11

    To add to my thoughts above, as others said above group paddles have some risks that are unique being in a group. One of our most important lessons learned was when I and my husband got into a spot with ridiculously high winds and a three person rescue and having to land on the opposite shore and hitch a ride back to our cars near the mouth of the Naragasett River. We later found out there are many such stories about that area.

    We got away with it, suffering no more than getting razzed by the two locals who took us back to our cars and a chilled swimmer who, thanks to being in a drysuit was handled by hot tea and a cag once on land. And having three boats available to get the swimmer, their kayak and all sets of paddles landed.

    My husband and I should have applied our knowledge from Maine and refused to do that crossing. The signs were there by 9:30am and by ourselves we would not have gone for it. But the two others were sure of things being OK and had more training and paddle time than us. So we went along with them.

    Lesson learned, even if we weren't sitting on hot shot training compared to others in the group, my husband and I were way better at assessing the situation in the realm of ocean conditions than the others were. We never made that mistake again.

    This caution has resulted in being labeled a wuss. One of my faves here was some years ago when when we tried to head out to a nearby island with a friend, on a day that NOAA had a failure reporting marine weather. Turns out winds were being clocked at 40 mph plus. North Shore Paddlers remembers this July 4 weekend, they had their annual gathering in Popham and conditions trashed the bulk of the paddling plans. I called our paddle a short distance from the mouth of our sheltered cove, said it was no go conditions. We came back into the Cove and spent a short bit discovering fun facts about how that much wind affects rolls and static braces.

    Our friend insisted we should have gone and and were giving in too easily. Interestingly, one of the same people whose advice we had followed a few years earlier in the Naragansett incident. So I was fine with saying no..

  • I was an aircraft accident investigator in the Air Force. An investigation summary will state causes for that accident. It might be mechanical, it might be procedural, and/or it might be operator, i.e. pilot error. It's a sobering business and the goal was to remain as unemotional as possible in the process and find the cause(s) of the accident in order to prevent that accident from occurring again. Listing an accident as operator error would always rile up family, friends, squadron members, or aircraft specific community but the best among us screw up. It happens. Don't look at operator error factors as an accusation of personal failing but as an acknowledgement of human failing. Humans screw up despite our best planning. As humans, we will, in fact, screw up again. All of us have our "there but for the grace of God" stories where a near disaster was narrowly averted. So, by studying mistakes of others, we might be able to avoid those errors or at least minimize the magnitude of the error.

  • To err is human. To make the same error repeatedly is good reason to avoid paddling with the person who does so.

  • @Celia said:

    This caution has resulted in being labeled a wuss.

    That's so, so wrong! Isn't there some saying to the effect that it's better to be on land wishing to be on the water, than to be on the water wising you were on land?

    I'm a big believer in always trusting your instincts.

  • edited November 12

    shit happens. I will still paddle. I will still portage. My risks qualify as "wuss", someone mentioned that risk factor earlier. It was windchill 9F, but the wind was only stirring up 1 footers at best. 11/9. Tuilik time, .
    to iterate 'shit happens' . My bride got diagnosed with early onset ALZ 2 years ago now. Sweet Child of God.
    So when I see someone expire from "Enjoyment Problems" I'm kind of numb, darkly. They might be the lucky ones.

  • I'm so sorry, Paatit

  • I too am sorry for you both.

  • Mortality too often uses rotten scales Paatit. Not easy to find our spot on them. I am sorry for the loss of your companion in this way.

  • The problem is two fold. A. We always seem to blame......and blame someone or thing else.
    B. We get too personal and emotional . You can survive with hurt feelings.

  • My old paddling club, Chesapeake Paddlers Association, made this video after hearing about the surfski incident. Hope it is helpful.

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