The argument for safety

Excerpt from Canoeing South Africa’s newsletter…

“Some surfski paddlers maintain that “we” are killing the sport with the new safety measures.

I need to point out that the safety measures were introduced and agreed on by the surfski paddlers themselves.

All of the paddlers elect a chairman of their club. They then elect a union chairman and a discipline chairman. These chairmen and committee members then agree on what rules and regulations should be imposed.

There exists a perception that these rules are “handed down” by CSA or Barry Lewin, or whoever the poor chop is who put his hand up to help. This is not the case.

If paddlers don’t like the rules they should work through the system and get them changed.

However, as you very well know, very few people ever put their hands up to contribute. It is easier to stand on the sideline and criticize. Some will continue to disagree, even after the majority have voted against their viewpoint.

That being said. Let’s look at what people are actually complaining about.

Firstly, the issue of PFD’s – There are a number of issues that we may have managed to negotiate with SAMSA. PFD’s were definitely not one of them. When we made PFD’s compulsory for canoe races, and then ski races, there was a huge outcry. Nowadays 99% of paddlers just wear them without complaining. They have become second nature.

Secondly, a leash – when the wind is howling. Who on earth would want to be out there without one. They are just common sense. The skis of today are ridiculously light. It hardly takes a 10 knot wind to blow one away from you if you fall off.

Thirdly, brightly coloured clothes and a brightly coloured PFD – You have to wear a PFD and clothes in any case. What is the huge imposition of making them brightly coloured? We have had a lot of feedback from helicopter pilots who have been called to look for ski paddlers. They maintain that they could hardly see a ski and a paddler until they almost landed on their heads. They informed us that a brightly coloured craft and kit makes a huge difference.

Fourthly, some bright stickers on your deck – How on earth does this adversely affect your paddling enjoyment? Put them on. Paddle like normal. Embrace them. Make up a funky shape.

So, the only real contentious issue should be having to have a tracking device during an open ocean race – I can’t see the problem here. In the past, you needed to have a cell phone on you in any case. What is the difference if you have a tracking App on the cell phone? There are a number of really good waterproof pouches on the market. There should be no risk to a smart phone. There are a myriad of tracking apps. They are simple and easy to use.

The surfski landscape changed when the prerequisite of having a SPA fell away. The problem was compounded when many paddlers were introduced, and brought up, on a diet of DUC and Emmarentia dam type conditions. The popularity of the sport went through the roof, and everybody was ecstatic. We had races with over 400 paddlers. We were the leading surfski nation in the world.

We had created a disaster that was waiting for a place to happen.

The type of person who takes up paddling is adventurous by nature. Most would be quite happy to “push the envelope” when it comes to taking on a challenge, like conditions that they are not 100% comfortable with. The “spark of fear” that you refer to. There have been some very close calls, but we have been extremely lucky not to have lost anyone until Mark Feather.

When a paddler gets into trouble out at sea, his problem suddenly becomes somebody else’s, as well. In a race, it becomes the race organisers problem. In a training paddle, it becomes the friends and families problem, plus the emergency services that need to be scrambled.

When, one day, one of these complaining paddlers gets into trouble, he will be wishing he had a phone on him, with a chance of contacting someone. He will wish that the helicopter that flew so close to where he was floating had seen him. He will wish that someone would be able to track where he was. He will wish that he had been tied to his ski, so that he did not have to try to swim kilometres back to the land. His wife will wish that he had been wearing a PFD so that the body could be found. He will wish that, when a rescue boat passes a few metres from him and he is too exhausted to talk, that he had a whistle that he could blow.
It is ironic that most of the paddlers who are complaining about the rules are married with children. One would think that they would want to do whatever is in their power to make their sport safer.

I am just an administrator. I get no vote in this process. If the move to scrap these safety rules is successful, I will abide by the decision not to enforce them. I, personally will still take every precaution that I can.

One thing I can tell you, is that you will have great difficulty in finding people to organise races without them.

It would be an interesting exercise to find out whether any of the paddlers who are complaining about these new rules have ever organised a race before. Especially a race in challenging conditions. Waiting at the end, with paddlers unaccounted for, and anxious family members asking questions, is not an enviable position to be in.

I know that it seems absurd to enforce these rules in the balmy conditions that we have been experiencing of late, even if we are having an “open ocean” race. However, we cannot make these rules applicable on a selective basis. The poor race organisers will be open to massive abuse if one allows and another does not.

I agree that paddler education would be of huge additional benefit. My answer to this is “by who”. We battle to get people to stand for any form of administrative roll in the sport. Who is going to be responsible for the “paddler education” portfolio?”

Apologies to the non ski paddlers for the diatribe. The contents, however, have relevance to decisions that are taken in many of the spheres of the sport. Fortunately, we live in a democracy. If you don’t like something, vote it out. If the vote goes against you, live with it.

Those who live near the Maarntain will have experienced what a proper downpour is over the last couple of days. Hopefully the Berg River will have become more than the trickle that is has been over the past few weeks of winter. Just in time for the WC K1 champs which is going to be held this weekend from Gouda to Bridgetown (the town where there is no bridge)

And, on the other side of the boerewors curtain, paddlers migrate from the Klip river to Homestead Lake (home of the 2014 SA Marathon Champs) in order to take part in the 21km “ERK Flat”. This race title, though, is a misnomer. In all the years I lived in JHB, the race was never “flat”. It was invariably held in waves that the Hawaiians would be proud of, with 40 knot winds, and a chill factor with a lot of minuses in front of it. They breed them tough up there. With any luck, history might be made, and a balmy winters day will greet the hard core who pitch.