Why such a difference between paddlers

Just an observation:

After reading through all the posts on one of the recent topics here, it’s really highlighted the varying perspectives between many from different groups of paddlers when it comes to safety.

It strikes me as almost remarkable that we are all part of the same family, and I can’t help but wonder why there is such a striking difference.

  1. Newbies
  2. Sea Kayakers
  3. Surfski and High Performance

I have at one time or another been a member of all three of these categories.
As a newbie, I was painfully unaware of dangers and safety concerns involved with paddling. I didn’t realize that my wide rec boat without bulkheads could become such a liability in rough water or exposed ocean, had no idea just how dangerous cold water could be, much less how to dress appropriately for immersion, underestimated my visibility to other boat traffic, and was generally oblivious to other concerns. Needless to say, several close calls have been a great teacher over the years.

Sea Kayakers–having spent a fair amount of time sea kayaking and absorbing information through various mediums, I have picked up an intense level of fixation from upper level sea kayakers on the danger involved. There seems to be a heavy emphasis in this sport on rescues, conditional information and overcoming situational concerns.

Surfskiers and High Performance–By contrast, surf skiers seem to almost never be overwhelmingly concerned with safety issues, despite going way out on incredibly tippy boats in conditions that are occasionally totally bananas, often with nothing more than a speedo and a smile.

Aside from the newbie not having enough information, what accounts for such a stark contrast with otherwise very similar boats?

You forgot canoes for starters if you want to talk about the diverse perspectives. No mystery to me that the different groups would have different agendas. Some people want to putter around in a local pond, and that to him is kayaking. Rock gardening has little to do with the activities of someone who wants to do touring. Some people just want a light, fast kayak for fitness paddling. For some it’s just a way to improve fishing.
The basic concept behind the boat style is all any of these people have in common a lot of the time.

It isn’t the boats. It is how they are used and what people have done.

My husband and I had no idea of what a poor choice we made in our first transition kayaks until we got driven to the shore of an island in a surprise squall offshore in Maine and were thanking our lucky stars we had kept the boats upright long enough to land. We were stuck there about three hours and had a heck of a list of what we needed to get by the time we were able to leave. One of them was better boats and better skills. And a good weather radio and better clothing… etc.

Someone who has never paddled except in quiet ponds would obviously not have had this experience.

People who do surf have had ample opportunity to find out all the ways you can get really hurt if you don’t have skills and a good boat. I disagree that they have no regard for safety. But they are generally better paddlers than the ones who don’t spend time in that environment.

I don’t quite understand the part of your post about sea kayakers. If you have spent time in that situation, the only way you would not have had the opportunity to realize you were under prepared was if the salt water is flat coves and you stay near shore. Anyone who has gone significantly offshore has generally been spanked.

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Climate and water conditions of the paddler’s area make an obvious difference in risk level.

Same for the type of land and undersurface around—sandy or rocky?

How much powerboat and jet ski traffic? Huge ships? Tugs towing barges?

What safety infrastructures exist nearby, such as Coast Guard presence or not, cell phone reception, road access etc etc?

What is the prevailing general attitude towards water—seafaring culture or not?

CAN THE PADDLER SWIM AND TREAD WATER? I have never heard of a nonswimmer taking up surfskiing. Have you? But I was shocked at how many other paddlers don’t know how to swim.

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One way to look at this is the 4 Stages of Learning:

Unconscious Incompetence — You don’t know what you don’t know
Conscious Incompetence — You become aware of what you don’t know
Conscious Competence — You know and you consciously make the corrections
Unconscious Competence — This is essentially mastery. You’re not conscious but you’re doing the proper things

The Newbies listed by the original poster are definitely in the Unconscious Incompetence stage.

The Sea Kayakers and Surfskiers and high performance, based on the OPs description, definitely fall in one of the later categories. Though I have seen a lot of variation in skills and knowledge in sea kayakers and surf skiers, including ones who would fall in the unconscious incompetence category.

Surf skiers likely enter at above unconscious incompetence. People don’t go to big box store and buy a ski. Most are brought in through friends, who immediately inform about tippiness. If not, the boat immediately informs the paddler about tippiness. You’ve moved quickly to one of the consious stages.


Celia is right about this part. The fixation on the dangers, rescue, rolling and all the other dangerous sounding things is preparedness. Just like the conditional information. Conditions will dictate if you go out, how you go out.
Without fixating on what can go wrong and what to do about it, you would be careless to be out from shore. The difference between someone’s last paddle and the most fun day paddling can literally be practicing rescue skills.


Well said. If one intends to be–or may end up–in circumstances beyond an easy swim back to safety, there really is no credible substitute for the intentional accumulation of knowledge, understanding, judgment, and skills. Some of what I say to others these days falls in the “do as I say, not as I’ve done” category, but at the same time, I still wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had, even in my “stupid moments” (plenty to recall, and perhaps some yet to be experienced). Ultimately, each of us learns in our own ways, in spite of the efforts and good intentions of those who likely do know better at any given point along our personal learning curves.

For sea paddlers and rapid river runners especially, along with all other skills and good practices, I always emphasize that learning to roll is something we should be doing as early as possible, rather than thinking of it as only an “advanced” skill – to be learned “sometime later”. Not only can it be fun to learn and to practice, it is truly a “life saver” on, or perhaps even beyond the level of a PFD. Especially for someone like myself, who, more often than not, enjoys solo paddling in ocean conditions.

Finally, always respect the water, the conditions that are, or may become, and don’t be resistant to learning from the wisdom of others – regardless of how they themselves may have acquired it along their own paths.

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I think small water breeds complacency. That’s how it was for me. When I was on smaller Minnesota lakes and rivers, the perceived danger was low, even in cold water because the water body was (relatively) small and calm.
When you see a raging body of water like an ocean, sea, or raging whitewater, it is easy to comprehend the power and danger of the water. You can literally feel the thundering boom in the air and the ground shake when big ocean swell crashes.
I did not take cold water safety seriously until I started paddling on long island sound, the largest body of water for me at the time. It was easy to see it would be unsafe without cold immersion gear.

I think a lot of people probably fall into a similar category. Imagine if a species of kitten was highly venemous. hundreds of people would die because the appearance does not match the danger. Vs a Croc or viper, they look intimidating and people rightfully give them plenty of space. Same with cold but placid water. It looks innocent, but is not.

A lot is cultural too -
Canoe racers - not concerned at all with cold water. We regularly would go out with ice bergs in the spring with nothing more than rainboots and a rain jacket in pro boats. It was just understood - No idiots, no tipping over. Period.
Sea kayakers - gear gear gear safety safety. Probably from the old days when kayakers were regularly alone and tens or hundreds of miles away from help. I mean the inuits invented kayaking in the far north (right?). On a seal hunt if you didnt roll successfully, you died. And maybe your kids did too. Now days rec boats have opened up kayaking to much less dedicated paddlers.
Surfski - I am now a full time surfskiier paddling in the biggest, nastiest conditions i can find in a skinny boat (17.7"). I rarely swim and can remount quickly in any conditions, but have matured enough that I over prepare, mostly so my wife isnt a widow. Most other skiiers look at me like im over prepared in a wetsuit and PFD in the 60* SoCal ocean, but i know when stuff goes wrong i’ll survive.

To the Conscious Competence theroy, It seems the majority of accidents occur at Level 1 (dont know what you dont know). Level 2 and 3 have relatively few accidents, then level 4 again has a few because of complacency or multiple failures of judgement or gear combining

When I first started looking at this board one of the things that both impressed and interested me about it was that there was such a difference between paddlers - and that is among GOOD paddlers. And SAFE paddlers, given the risks inherent in our chosen areas of paddling. This paddling thing is a many-faceted gem. I guess that’s to be expected, people have been traveling about on water for quite some time now. Paddle power could be reasonably expected to be the most ancient method of propulsion of all. On rivers large and rivers small, between lakes, marshes, bayous, coasts and open oceans. People have been paddling them all for a long long time. And they all call for different skill sets.

I’m an upper Mississippi R. midwestern paddler who has done a fair amount of Boundary Waters and Northern Ontario paddling. The perspective of folks who did white water exclusively, or the racers, the freestyle paddlers, the sea kayakers was new to me and interesting. There was a guy here who’s local club surfed the Bay of Fundy and did crossings, timed to the tides, to off-shore islands in fog across miles of open water. That’s quite a navigational challenge, among other things. That’s just not a BWCA skill, and its not something that anyone in our local club here would be competent at. I was impressed.
Most BWCA paddlers portage any rapids that are very tricky because the loss of camping stuff in remote areas isn’t a risk worth taking for a bit of thrill, so many BWCA paddlers aren’t white water wizards. So, similarly, I am impressed by the audacity and skills of white water paddlers.

But BWCA folks have developed skills that those who paddle white water or do ocean crossings in fog may not practice much. BWCA paddlers have developed some habits and skills for packing and have some techniques for carrying that sea kayakers and white water paddlers often never develop. I once was invited to go on a trip with a white water guy who wanted someone along who was in the habit of tent camping… which I’d always thought of as an integral part of paddling. (Or maybe paddling is one of many camping skills?) Heck, considering that tradition, we’d consider the voyageurs themselves to be pretty experienced and skilled paddlers, right? They lived their entire lives by the paddle… Even if most of them couldn’t swim? Didn’t run rapids? Surf rock gardens? Navigate by tide charts or stars?

And then racing skills are a whole 'nuther thing. So is free style. How about those south sea islanders who have some knowledge of how to paddle open canoes for days out of sight of land, navigating by stars and currents… that’s a paddling skill set to admire greatly even if we don’t practice it. And those African and South American natives paddlers who pole and paddle dug-outs upstream in rapids… And, sure, surfing coastal waters and running tidal races.

In the end, I think we’re all the end product of the waters we paddle. We grow up doing one thing and continue growing by venturing into new areas. Personally I’m now going to faster, rockier waters than I used to, but I doubt I’ll ever be a master white water paddler. I’m 68. That’s a bit late to be starting out at such a major undertaking. And it would really help to live within five hours of some white water if that’s the goal. I’m pretty happy striving for consistent competence in CL 2. But even there - “western” CL 2 is a different game and skill set from what we do around here and in the Eastern Mountains. And different paddlers may excel at one or the other.

Since we’ve again come around to safety as the difference between paddlers we most want to focus on… I recall I once (long ago) took aviation ground school (and ran out of money for in-air time). The instructor pointed out that rank beginners weren’t the ones most likely to have accidents. Accidents were more likely after several hundred hours of experience. I believe that applies to learning to practice any potentially dangerous skill. A rank beginner is a bit scarred and is more careful because of it. After a while complacency sets in. That is long before reliable safely reactions are ingrained. That period between comfort in the activity and practiced instinctive skill is the riskiest time. It can go on for quite a while - in fact one never knows exactly where it ends… But I think it applies to becoming a practitioner of any potentially dangerous activity - be it flying, driving, roofing, mountain climbing, paddling, whatever.

Why such a difference between paddlers? We’ve all arrived at different shores by different paths. Why on earth wouldn’t there be?.


Oh, I just hate it when someone is willing to post with such nuance. :wink: I am so much more used to those PNet posters who write - “I am right; you’re wrong. You deserve a Darwin.”



Yup - the risk management strategies that you need are based on the risks that you face, so there will be different strategies for different disciplines. Understanding where you are on the competency model that Peter-CA posted is important because it provides the baseline for your skill level. Beyond that, you still need to be able to identify, analyze and come up with a strategies for dealing with risk based on the trips you do and your skill level. Some thoughts on that here:

At the end of the day, it is all about personal responsibility - no one is responsible for my safety except me.

I like the diversity of this forum. My own interests are pretty broad but often there is some ww involved. Even if I’m a newbie in a particular paddle discipline (sea kayaking, racing, stand up paddle boarding) you can bet I’m still going to be doing my own risk assessment based on what I’ve learned from other experiences. I often show up with the wrong tool (boat) for the job (environment). All I can say is “hey, I’m still here, ready for a bit of adventure”. I know enough to know that big open bodies of water would require me to seek guidance from others. It’s all good so long as you’re not making a call to the authorities, and yes, I’ve had to make that call on behalf of others.

As a teenager my initial canoeing was in the Boundary Waters in the mid 1950s. We returned there for many years and then I moved away from Minnesota and ceased canoeing. We were beyond clueless and, starting as teenagers, were able to stay that way for a good while.

In contrast, my first exposure to sea kayaking was in a university course on Vancouver Island when I was in my mid 60s. The instructors were very competent, one even being a contemporary and friend of John Dowd and Brian Henry. Safety became quite important to me from that training and eventually from my own experience. I only purchased a kayak (a ‘proper’ sea kayak) after several such courses. Now I am less than one year away from turning 80 and practice self and assisted rescues as well as rolling … and it’s all fun, unless you don’t dress for cold water immersion.


Most people that call themselves paddlers never get past the conscious incompetence of being a newb. My favorite first answer to what kind of boat to buy is to buy one that is still a little advanced for you. If they look at me funny I understand that paddling is just a form of recreation for them. If they ask why, they might wish to progress to being a Paddler.

The best way to advance, in anything, is to join a community to help you along. That allows for reinforcement of the things that community holds dear. Those things vary according to the particular pursuit and the dangers of the region.

Those differences are what make paddlers different. There are myriad small differences, not just three or four categories.

“It strikes me as almost remarkable that we are all part of the same family, and I can’t help but wonder why there is such a striking difference.”

Not me. Look at real families. Raised in the same environment, supposedly with the same genes, and you get the funny one, the religious one, the profane one, the drunk.

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Pretty solid point; so true.

One example to kind of highlight the difference happened to me shortly after I started on a surfski.

I pulled up to an inlet to go for a paddle about the same time a sea kayaker pulled in behind me.
I grabbed my boat, tossed it in the water and took off.

I was out for about 45 minutes or so and when I returned he was just getting the boat in the water.
He had laid out all kinds of gear and just loaded his boat down with bilge pumps, extra paddles, etc. I think he even had a VHF radio.
I didn’t really think much about it at the time because I assumed he was going on an expedition, but what really struck me was that I went to eat and on my return about an hour later he was just then getting out of the water.

If I had to take a guess about the difference I’d lean towards a different perspective of the water.
Maybe one tends to see the water as a playground or a sport and the other more of an adventure.
Of course, these are all just generalizations.

I believe your general characterizations of each group is not just. I’m not sure what the purpose of your post is.

Sure, we’ve all probably known people who take forever to get ready. Also, others who can pack up an expedition kayak camp and be on the water in half an hour.

These are both extreme examples, not typical of most paddlers.

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Peter-CA I really like your response to this inquiry. I am lucky to have survived the early stages of this evolution in skill development.

Of course, there are variations. I generally allow 30 minutes from when I drive in to when I am padding off, with a full set of gear as you describe (including dry suit which takes some time to get in to). That time also allows a few minutes of saying hi to others (if on group paddle) and hitting the john.

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