When is an emergency and emergency?

I was just looking for viewpoints on when exactly does an emergency become one.

  1. When do u bust into your flares to start a fire if stranded?
  2. When do you call Coast Guard for help?
  3. When does a capsize become more than a capsize?
  4. When do you cross that line from a ‘tough’ paddle to a ‘life struggle’?
  5. When do you say no to clients?

    I have my own line of beleif for each of these questions. I hope that some other paddlers can add more to it. Thanks in advance.

When you are the only one to say no
Groups are a source of support resources and strength but there have been times when no one could say no.

When an entire group pressures one to go, whew, I managed to convince people to just wait 20 minutes to let the lightning pass and 10 minutes later we watched multiple strikes hit right where we would have rounded the point.

Before you think it is
It’s an emergency before you panic. When anyone feels out of his or her depth (pun intended) it’s time to stop and re-assess the situation. Water doesn’t suffer fools for long.

When The “Gut” Kicks In…

– Last Updated: Mar-11-05 2:52 PM EST –

and tells you things are getting towards FUBAR stage, without some good thinking and decisive action.


PS. The GUT is really a quick assessment that is based on a combination of knowledge and past experiences. The more knowledge and experience, the quicker and more accurate the gut is. Nevertheless, if the gut is saying something, it's not to be ignored because the voice is not unfounded usually.

Thinking about what else can go wrong
I don’t have a good general answer, but I do think that it’s important when things start going wrong to assess how much worse they can get and whether your efforts to fix the problem might leave you worse off. I guess it’s a matter of thinking about the “opportunity costs” of what you’re doing. Example: if you’re in the water close to shore, it may be pretty easy to summon help, but if you think you can solve your own problem and decide not to yell for help, and if the wind and/or current is offshore, you may drift far enough to lose that opportunity to get help by the time you decide that what you’re doing isn’t working. When the adrenaline’s pumping, it’s easy to get tunnel vision, but that can be dangerous and should be resisted. (Famous last words.)

Here’s An Example…

I was involved in another rescue in open waters while touring when two folks went over in 3’ foot chops and near 20 knot winds. But, not once during that whole time, did I feel we were in an “emergency.” The whole thing felt in control and nothing in my “gut” was screaming as much as it did in the above incident.


Don’t be gunshy
Years ago, a Columbian airliner was assigned a holding pattern while trying to get into JFK. Unbelievably, they ran out of fuel and crashed in White Plains New York, killing all aboard. All they had to do was declare an emergency and they would have been cleared right in. It is believed they were afraid of the repercussions of declaring an emergency (it would be discovered that they did not plan for enough fuel). Too many people die trying not to look stupid. Cliff

It’s an emergency when…
problems start to cascade one after another. For example, someone capsizes. others attempt to help him/her back into the boat, but unsuccessfully due to conditions. Then you notice the “rescue” (victim plus boat plus rescuers) is drifting en-masse into a cliff. Then an attempt at towing them out and away from the cliffs is unsuccessful for whatever reason…etc etc etc. All the contingencies and backups seem to fail. The trick is to sense this before it gets out of control, by what Sing called “gut”. This only comes from experience, for which there is no substitute.



– Last Updated: Mar-11-05 3:33 PM EST –

Good example and well-handled. Unfortunately, I can't say my own judgment has always been as good. The primary incident I was thinking of was one where I'd pretty much screwed up by the numbers and came closer than I ever have to getting on the radio and asking the Coast Guard to bail me out. I held off and was able to get out of it under my own power, but I'm still not sure I made the right decision. It was in many ways a routine situation, but I was pushing the limits, and if anything else had gone wrong (broken leash, drowned radio, exhaustion), I would have been in very deep kim chee.

Number/nature of options
When you have more than one option and plenty of time to get out of it - it’s a situation to be dealt with - but not an emergency (yet).

When you’re down to one option, and/or have a very limited time window, and/or are weighing/playing the odds by choosing between very limited and/or less than optimal options - it’s time to call for help.

Obviously - what constitutes these variables is quite different for each paddler based on skill, equipment, and venue.

The time to call for help is usually one or two decisions before most do.

Short answer: When things feel “iffy.”

That hesitant or slightly confused feeling is usually your gut trying to override your Ego. Ego is mental - gut is physical. In physical risk situations, go with gut.

Thanks for asking that
I have struggled with that myself. Men sometimes have a hard time calling for help. Hell, we can’t even ask for directions! Maybe we should paddle with females and we can just let them handle this part. They are never ashamed to ask for directions or help.

What emergency?
“Hell, we can’t even ask for directions! Maybe we should paddle with females and we can just let them handle this part. They are never ashamed to ask for directions or help.”

But “they” might not have left dry land in the first place! (which may be a good thing)

Analyzing “Emergency”
As in chess, it helps to be able to see your next move in advance. If you encounter a situation of distress, it is not necessarily an emergency if you have a plan of action to address it. For example: You fall out of your boat, but it is not necessarily an emergency if you can re-enter. In fact, experience will help an individual develop an entire chain of contingency plans. Big wave = brace-> roll-> wet exit -> reentry and roll -> paddle float -> etc. Between each stage of that chain, you have your OODA loops (observe, orient, decide, act) running and telling you what to do next, so the sequence will vary depending on the individual and their experiences. Obviously, different people will have different chains of different lengths: Beginners will have shorter chains that run slower, and experienced peoples will have longer chains that run faster. Subsequently, an emergency occurs at different points for different people.

For a newbie, capsizing alone in the ocean may be an instant emergency situation. They have virtually no reaction chain to move down, and they find themselves instantly in mortal peril. Because they don’t have the skills or knowledge to make a proper decision and act on it, they are effectively stuck on notch one of their chain. If they are cool headed, they will able to observe and orient themselves. If they are lucky, they will be able to make a good decision with which to act on, and get him/herself back on board. Maybe. The alternative is that they panic or make a poor decision, and subsequently find themselves more fodder in Davy Jones’ locker.

For an experienced paddler, capsizing alone in the ocean presents very little risk without compounded hazards. Since they have a long chain of reactions to draw from, they know exactly what to do when they capsize. In fact, given enough experience, they have probably predicted what is about to happen (i.e. capsize) and are already setting up for their first roll attempt. Because the experienced paddler has developed his skills and knowledge, he has more relevant and preprogrammed knowledge to run through his OODA loop. He reacts quicker and more appropriately.

Of course, no one is immune to an emergency. Take the same experienced paddler and give him a heart attack on a paddle 3 miles off shore. Or take something like X15’s example: Surf yakker blows three roll attempts, has to wet exit, and is now about to be pounded on a cliff, reef, rock, whatever.

Emergencies happen when one has no wherewithal to address their distress. They can happen anywhere, any time, and to anyone. You can arm yourself with knowledge that puts emergencies more at bay, but you cannot immunize yourself against them entirely. The single most important piece of knowledge you need to deal with an emergency is learning how to acknowledge an emergency. You need to learn how to say to yourself “I do not know what to do, I am in danger, I need help.”

For me, I consider a situation an emergency when I hear that phrase in my head, “I don’t know what to do.” I consider another in an emergency when I can look at them and say “They don’t know what to do, they need help.”

is/ is not
an emergency is when you are in or rapidly moving towards being in danger of losing life or limb.

An emergency is not being 20 minutes late for the take out, it is not getting a little tired or behind schedule and asking the coast guard to pick you up because its getting late and you have a meeting to go to (something similar happens in the white mountains every year). An emergency is not running out of beer (close but not quite). I think you get the idea.

I am not a guide

– Last Updated: Mar-12-05 2:15 PM EST –

but I have co-lead a trip or two. Here is my current take.

1 Use a flare to start a fire? I almost always have better stuff with me than that. I would start a fire if needed for warmth and if I had to use a flare I would. I would not really know how. Lots of stormproof matches in my boat though but I am not packing an on the body susvival kit perhaps I should.

2 I would call the CG if life or vessel wer in danger. Things like paddler goes unconsciousness after a fall on an island, hypothermia,, looking at a three mile paddle with a person on the back deck of my explorer with any breaking action, etc.

3 a little bit when you swim, a lot when you get cold. or go over in the surf zone, if you spend five minutes in the water, if racks present a danger etc.

4 hard to say, in the end is float or croak so...
The sea will drown a paddler at any time with no malice. I guess fear and pain are prime determinants of how bad things really are. Injury, Losing boats, needing assistance from someone outside your group these things are also indicators of big time struggle.

5 On trips there are very clear pre-agreed criteria as to conditions and skill levels . Those criteria are written in stone but with some local knowledge a trip in milder conditions (meeting the original criteria)is often an option. Being a volunteer I have only the participants happiness and my reputation and at stake.

When thing get out of control
I had an incident were I fell in the water hit my head on a rock a blood was pouring down all over myself. Things were out of control and I called for help. Good thing I did. My point is when you cannot control the situation yourself. True emergencies happens very fast and you have no control of the outcome without outside help.

Just my .02 FishHawk

The reason I used the example
of the flare was it was used in our kayak association newsletter as an example of two paddlers who went out to do a 20km day paddle. Along the coast they were paddling the weather came up and surprised them and they were forced ashore at the closest beach. With the rain and driving winds that were to come up , starting a fire would seem to be difficult, at best. So, while on the beach they entered the conversation of how to start a fire to help them warm up, when one reached into his dayhatch and pulled out one of his flares…what to do?

I really enjoy getting other examples of this type of a situation. Thanks for all the responses

Calling Coast Guard
If your gut feelings tell you that things COULD get out of control if something else goes wrong, call the Coast Guard.

Advise them of your situation and location. Tell them that the situation is under control now, but that you would like to keep in touch every 30 minutes, or whatever. Sort of like an emergency float plan. Don’t forget to give them an all clear when you’ve got the situation well in hand.

The CG can also issue a request for assistance from other boats in your area. This would especially be true for situations that are not emergencies, but are problems.

Thanks for reminding us
you can always put out a securite call and see what they want to do. Mayday is of course another matter.

Securité and other options
IIRC, securité is generally alerts to navigational hazards, rather than calls for assistance.

The point where you “think” you “might” be encountering trouble is tricky. I would probably request a switch and answer for any boat in the area capable of assisting, just to let them know what’s up and better describe your location. As kayakers, we’re pretty much down in the water, and if the situation turns to the point you need to issue a pan pan, or god forbid a mayday, it may be hard to manage to give good audible information. It would help to have another vessel capable of relaying detailed location and information. Plus, it would help in the event a mayday relay is required.

I’d call pan pan if I required assistance but could hold it together until it got their. I’d call mayday if I was in need of immediate help, lest my life be lost. This is no shocker as it’s basically exactly what the standard says, but what’s interesting is that some of the qualifications change in a kayak. For example, in a more autonomous vessel like a power boat, if someone falls very ill and requires assistance, they would probably issue a pan pan medico. In a kayak or a surf ski, the onset of debilitating illness could be a mayday situation real fast as our crafts require such intimate involvement to manage seas. If you’re blacking out in a sailboat, you can pretty much float until help arrives. In a kayak, unless you have partners that can manage you and heavy seas, if you black out there is a good chance you’ll capsize and drown:(