As dangerous as a visit to my mother-in-law

Charlotte Gannet in kayak followed by Basking shark in South Uist, Outer Hebrides

Charlotte Gannet followed by a Basking shark in South Uist, Outer Hebrides.

‘Are you sane?’ she asks when we tell her we will round the Mull of Kintyre the next day. We are not surprised by the question, ‘Is that not dangerous?’ It is regularly asked when we arrive somewhere with our kayaks. People and especially my mother-in-law, think that we risk our lives when we go out on the ocean with our kayaks. The perception is that that we are adrenaline junkies involved in extreme sports and having a deathwish. But is it so dangerous compared to some of the more accepted hobbies? In this blog post, we will put the dangerous reputation of sea kayaking into perspective.

So first of all, to put the risks in perspective, we need a measurement to compare different events in our life. Luckily for us a Stanford professor, Ronald A. Howard created a tool in the 1970s [2]. He introduced the micromort – a one-in-a-million chance of acute death. This equals the same chance as tossing a coin and getting 20 heads in a row.

Then we need some solid statistics and a good sample size. The Netherlands is too small as a country, and not many kayakers die while practising the sport. For a good sample size, it’s easier to look at a large country and with the statistics freely available. America seemed to fit the bill. The American Canoe Association keep a well-stocked site with all the statistics we need on one page.

In 2014, the USA has 13 million kayakers [1], which are participating in the sport. On average they made 8.1 trips. Unfortunately, about 75 of them died during their trips. So to calculate the micromort for a kayak trip we divide the number of fatalities by the number of trips. The total number of trips in the US is 13 x 8.1 = 105 million, with 75 fatalities. So a day of paddling will add 0.71 micromorts of risk to your life.

For sea kayakers, the statistics become even better. According to Plyler [3], sea kayakers account for around 5% of the total paddle sports deaths. So if we take the 167 paddle sports fatalities of 2016, only nine would have died while paddling on the sea. According to the 2015 special report on paddlesports [1] 2.9 million people were participating in tour/sea kayaking and had an average of 8.1 outings. Which makes a day off sea kayaking about 0.4 micromorts per trip.

So what does that mean? Is sea kayaking an extreme sport? Let’s start with a high-risk sport, climbing Mt. Everest is 37,932 micromorts. That is about 150 years of kayaking. Skydiving, with 10 micromorts is still not close to sea kayaking. Scuba diving in the UK is also 10 micromorts. But The British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) shows that training and preparation can help in limiting the risks. Their training has the emphasis on rescue training very early in the programme. Limiting the risk per dive to 5 micromorts.

Dark goat skull in a window with a brighty lit landscape in the background, in Ensay, Outer Hebrides

Vanitas, still life on Ensay

Sea kayaking is a very safe sport as long as you are properly trained and equipped. Sea kayaking has its dangers, drowning and hypothermia – falling into the cold water when not wearing a wetsuit or a personal flotation device are the biggest killers. Not capsizing means training for a solid kayak technic and knowing your environment. Understanding the weather patterns and tidal currents are necessary not to end up in wind and wave conditions beyond your limits.
We experienced only one capsize in 600 days at sea, and that was caused by inattentiveness influenced by the use of an antibiotic. The only thing that got hurt was an ego but the problem was quickly solved by a partner rescue.

To get back to the comparison, more acceptable sports, for example running a marathon is 7 micromorts and according to some statistics riding a bicycle is more dangerous than a day of paddling.

From time to time, my mother-in-law shudders with fear at the idea of us paddling on the ocean. So when she expressed her unhappiness I told her jokingly “If you don’t like us doing dangerous stuff, I won’t drive the highway between you and me. I believe that’s more dangerous than kayaking in Scotland”. If we drive to her by car, it takes about 290 km, which calculates to 0.81 micromorts, a little bit more than a day of kayaking. Funny enough, it is much more acceptable that Charlotte’s brothers ride on a motorcycle. But when her brother rides his motorbike, just to wish Charlotte a happy birthday, he adds 33 micromorts of risk to its life, that is more than our whole holiday combined!

Tell us, are you surprised and how “dangerous” is your life?

Alexander Gannet

[1] 2015 Special Report on Paddlesport
http://www.americancanoe.org/resource/resmgr/General-documents/OIF_PaddlesportsResearch_201.pdf

[2] Ronald A. Howard (1989) International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care
Microrisks for Medical Decision Analysis

[3] Jennifer L. Plyler, Ph.D. American Whitewater, March/April 2001
American Whitewater Boating Non-motorized human powered Boating
Safety Report: 1995-1998,

The lazy way to calculate a micromort: http://rorystolzenberg.github.io/micromort-calculator/

All other statistics from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromort

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Alexander’s boat

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It was the most dreich of dreich days. In the fifty shades of rain common to Scotland, this rain curtain had droplets thicker than mist but with the same density of mist. Weather to stay in the tent for a day.

‘Hello, good morning.’ We hear someone say.

Alexander opened up the tent. Outside our tent stands a friendly old man, a teenaged boy and an energetic dog.

‘I saw your tent yesterday evening, but it was already late. I thought it was better to greet you this morning.’ the old man starts.

We get out of the tent in full rain gear and start chatting. The old man, not wearing any rain gear and also called Alexander, told us how he took over the fishing shack and boat from his elder brother. Fishing for lobster to supplement his pension. At times he will fish for Pollock and bring some of the catch to the elderly in the community up the road. The twelve-year-old boy is helping him, just to have some entertainment in the summer holiday.

‘Are you going out today, fishing for the lobsters?’ I ask.

‘Yes, there are a few pods in the bay that need emptying but the tide is going out and I’ve got to fix the boat. The engine is not running great.’ He answered.

‘I love to see how it works, can we join you on your boat, this afternoon?’ I ask expectantly. ‘Och aye, if I get the old girl fixed.’ He said, pointing to the boat.

Patiently we wait in the shack, the boat is apparently not easily fixed. Time enough to make some good pictures of Alexander’s boat. The boat lies on its side most of the afternoon, waiting for high water. Just when we expect that it will not happen and start planning dinner, the old Alexander is ready to go out.

It is great, we haul some creels like a real fisherman at work on a lobster boat. Four of the lobster and two crabs are kept aside, they are missing some legs or claws.

‘They are dinner.’ The old Alexander decides. The rest of the lobsters are stored in the holding cages close to the shack.

We return after 22.00 o’clock. Back in the shack, Alexander cooks the lobsters and the crabs. We are provided with an old rusty hammer and two lobsters each. We crack this luxurious food on the dirty wooden floor. The funny thing is that Alexander does not join in this lobsters eating feast. He prefers his dinner with white bread and baked beans. We end the evening at midnight with a wee dram of whisky.

It was a great day, meeting people, learn something new, share a meal in the most dreadful weather ever.

As a tribute to this lovely elderly chap, my younger Alexander made a watercolour of his boat.

Charlotte Gannet

Silence is a troublemaker

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‘Our thinking is like a boat on the water, pushed along by the waves and influenced by the wind.’

Hazrat Inayat Khan

And what happens to our thinking when the boat is on the water but there is no wind nor waves and only silence?

What does it do to your mind if this happens at the start of the trip, scorching sunshine and a temperature of 30 degrees? Yes, this does happen in Scotland! Blue skies, no wind, no waves.

My thoughts go haywire in the boat! I’m towing all the work I did not get round to do before the holiday, in a plastic inflatable boat behind my kayak. My boss is staring stern at me, like a figurehead on the bow of my boat. There are colleagues hanging on my paddle whispering things to me that slipped through my fingers. And I’ve got students clinging on at the back of the kayak. Some whining, others crying or looking seriously displeased. All blunders and mistakes of the school year pop up like seals next to my boat scaring me half to death each time they emerge.

Kayaking is a hazardous buzziness in fair weather, silence is a troublemaker in my head.

In windforce 4 or 5, with a bit more waves, the occupants of my boat cannot hold on in these conditions. I’m way too busy to pay them much attention, let alone rescue them!

My boss will be bashed from the bow of the boat and one by one my colleagues can not longer hold on to my paddle. My students stick around for just a bit longer, they need windforce 6 to wash off the back of the boat.

The sturdy imaginary inflatable boat lingers around until week three of the journey. It needs to be punctured on some rugged rocks. As I don’t want the plastic thing to litter the beach, I stow it deep in a recycling bin. #befantasticpickupsomeplastic, as my contribution to clean oceans!

With the weather fronts coming from the ocean, also the silence drifts slowly in from the south-west. With every paddle stroke I make, life and thoughts slow down. The vast nature around me nurtures my soul. Silence becomes bliss.

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Do you regognise this thought proces during the holiday’s? How do you cope with annoying thoughts hanging around like a cloud of angry midgies. Leave me a comment.