Reflections From The Cockpit April 2009
Need To Know?

In February, prior to an evening lecture, I had the pleasure to go on an afternoon paddle with a few members of the hosting club.  This was the first time I ever paddled with three of the four kayakers.  The planned route would take two to three hours as we paddled a figure eight around two islands. The majority of the trip was close to the two islands. It was a sunny day with a minor current with a light breeze on the west side of the islands. Over all I would rate the trip as a fairly low risk paddle. It turned out to be just what I expected, which was a wonderful day on the water viewing scenery, making new friends and solving the problems of the world.

Since I didn’t know three of these paddlers I felt I needed to know some details before we got onto the water. I asked, “Are there any medical concerns I need to know in case there is a problem? If yes, what are they and do you have any medications that need to be administered? If yes, where are they, how much do you take?” After the group spoke up I shared my relevant medical history.

This little exchange led to a brief discussion regarding what you should know about your paddling partners. A few in the group said they had never thought to ask that question prior to other group trips. At the evening lecture I asked how many of the audience asks about medical concerns when they go out paddling with others. Most of the heads were shaking no.

As a professional instructor/guide this type of inquiry is not only standard I would have to say it is mandatory if you want to be proactive with respect to incidents. On this particular day I was not the leader. In fact, the paddler that organized the day trip asked if I wanted to lead. I gave an emphatic NO! I said, “ I am here today to be a follower. I am just along for the ride.” I said it with a smile, because I know in my mind that everyone on a trip has a responsibility to each other and we are all leaders and followers when on a trip. Even though I wasn’t the designated trip leader I wanted to know about the groups medical concerns because if something did happen I may be the one dealing with the problem.

When one paddles with others, there is a list of items I think the others in the group should know about each other. However, we must also keep in mind there are certain topics that may be very personal and an individual may not want to share. Medical problems are on that sensitive list. I freely admit I have an ongoing philosophical battle between personal freedom and the rights of the group. If there is a problem with a group member that could adversely affect the group, should the group know that information before it becomes a problem? As a group member I make my decision to be part of a group based upon the information I know about the group and the planned trip. If information is being withheld, how can I make an informed decision?

If I have a heart condition (i.e. Angina) that is under control, should I be required to tell everyone in the group? Is it sufficient for me to tell two close friends, who are on the trip, what to do instead of the whole group? (This remedy only works if those friends are ALWAYS with you.) What if I was going out to play in some rock gardens with other gung-ho paddlers and none of them knew I was unfortunately diagnosed as HIV positive (or Hepatitis B positive, which is more common)? Since scrapes and cuts are common in rock garden play, I could be exposing another paddlers if they tried to help me after I was cut. If I were unconscious, I would not be able to tell them to keep away. Even though current protocol for any person providing first-aid is to use gloves to treat open wounds, when you have one paddler rescuing another to get them back in their kayak or to get them to shore, putting on gloves is not usually an option. There could be two individuals working together, both with minor open wounds, with water and body fluids passing between them.

I can make up numerous examples that would make the argument that everyone in the group should know all relevant facts about the others in the group, that could affect their personal safety and well being. However, let’s look at the point of view of the privacy of the individual who has a medical problem.

I can see if one has a certain medical condition and they do not want to share it with their paddling group out of fear of prejudice.  Imagine not being invited on trips because folks are concerned for your health. Even though you think you can handle the conditions and the itinerary, there may be others who think you cannot. In such a case you may become an outsider to your paddling group. Do medical concerns change your perception when evaluating the ability of another? If you say yes, then you can see why individuals may not be willing to share their medical history. I think that ego, vanity, fear of prejudice and denial are some of the main reasons why we choose not to share personal information with others. In an ideal world it would be nice if others respected your judgment with respect to your ability to handle the conditions outlined for the trip.

However, with respect to my last statement, how many times have you experienced paddlers on your trip that shouldn’t have been there due to inadequate skill levels? If misjudging ones skill level is a common cause for difficulties on tours, then how do we address the added factor of medical concerns when examining self-evaluation? I am not advocating that paddlers with medical concerns be excluded from trips. I do believe that the skill level and the level of conditioning needed for the trip match those who undertake that trip. The topic of self-evaluation is not the focus of this article even though it is an important part of this discussion.

My friend Robin, who is one of my paddling partners, just called and asked what I was writing about. When I told him he said, “Why would I want to paddle with people who would not want to paddle with me?” He said that with respect to the prejudice that can come from people knowing a paddler’s medical history. I told him philosophically I wouldn’t want to paddle with those who didn’t want to paddle with me. However, many kayaking groups are geographically determined. Perhaps there is only one paddling group in your area and you are concerned in how they treat you.

Here are some thoughts for your consideration on self-evaluation. You and the group you paddle with are getting older every day. I started kayaking in my early thirties and in June of 2009 I will be fifty-nine. I painfully admit I am no longer working on all thrusters. I become more aware of my limits every day. I do my best when I self-evaluate and I hope my friends will inform me when I become delusional with respect to my abilities.  I raise this issue because over time our skills will decline. There may come a time when we should no longer get in our kayaks. With that in mind we all need to learn how to separate our desire to go on a particular trip from our current ability to do the trip. Even though my brain says I can still ride those big waves when I competed in surf kayaking, my body tells my brain, “You will have to do it without me.” Your responsibility to the group is being honest with yourself when it comes to whether you can do a particular trip.  Sooner or later that day will come for all of us when we can no longer do that advertised trip.

If you strongly believe in not sharing information, let’s explore possible outcomes. If I have a heart condition and I choose not to tell anyone, am I the only one at risk? If I have an attack on the trip, aren’t I the only one who will suffer the consequences? This is where we get to define consequences. If the definition is dieing from a heart attack, then I maybe the only one who suffers the consequences. I say “maybe,” because what if my dieing caused so much stress in another, they too had a heart attack? If we define consequences as the physical and emotional affect on the group to deal with me having a heart attack, then I do affect the group and possibly put the group at risk. The physical risks can include getting my dead body to a take out point. Maybe the group has to get my dead body back into my kayak first before they tow it to shore.  The environmental conditions and paddling location when I died will be factors in assigning risk levels for those who have to deal with my dead body. These extra exertions and physical strains will certainly affect one or more in the group.

We have not even discussed the psychological affects on the group. These concerns are real. One does not go out on a typical kayak tour to deal with death. I have personally witnessed the aftermath of death on a trip. Fortunately the death was not part of my group, but my group was nearby. The affect on our group was real. We were in a tropical paradise and now the group was faced with the reality that there was a dead body down the beach waiting for a helicopter to take it away. We had numerous discussions about the death and the feelings it caused our group.

The serious consequences were to the group who saw their friend fall off a cliff and land on the beach right in front of their eyes. The issues they had to deal with included: fear, grief, panic, guilt, shock, sleeplessness, fatigue and numerous other feelings.  My co-leader Don and I spent a lot of time helping the other group deal with the tragedy. Just getting the group to eat and stick to a routine was difficult. When corresponding with the trip leader from the other group, months later, we heard a number of the group had to go to counseling from that experience. It is easy to see that anything that happens to the group can have a positive or negative affect on the group. Therefore it is difficult to say individual freedoms will not affect the group.


The issue of what to share with your paddling partners is not an easy one. I cannot tell you what to do because there the answer depends upon your values. I can tell you what I would want as a paddler from a group perspective and a private perspective.

From my right to privacy and personal freedom hat I say, what I do is my business and my health concerns are for my ears only. I also know that if I don’t want to deal with the so-called rights of others, then I should be paddling alone.

However, once I decide to join a group I feel I have numerous responsibilities to the group. I can list those responsibilities by realizing what I want to know about others, how I want to be treated and what I want from the trip. Once I can list what I want, I can use that same list to inform the other group members about me so they can make their own informed decisions.

In order for me to make an informed decision about participating in a group trip I need to know the following:

Expected skill level needed for the trip
Expected conditions
Worst-case conditions
Skill levels of others
Medical concerns of others
Equipment of others
Trip goals of others
Group norms (staying together, wearing PFD’s, dressing for immersion, drug & alcohol use, group work responsibilities)
Who is leading (if anyone)?
Emergency plans
Emergency decision-making protocol

If I have the above listed information, I feel I can make an informed decision with respect to joining this trip. This is also the information I am willing to share to be part of the group.

If the trip risks increase due to certain individuals in the group, you have the right to raise the question for the entire group to address. Since it is usually not common for a group to tell someone they cannot come along, it becomes the responsibility of each group member to decide if they want to be part of this particular group. If you feel the risks are too great, due to certain paddlers in the group, you can try to get them off of the trip. The other alternative is you can choose not to put yourself into that situation and not go on the trip.  For those who love the win-win scenario, you can change elements of the trip where those questionable paddlers are no longer out of their league. However, that change may not be the trip you were originally hoping to take.

As a side note, there is other information that is important to know about the group before you leave shore, which could be helpful in an emergency.

Where do you keep your car keys?
Which car is your?
Emergency contact person(s)
Group communication equipment (radios, cell phones, signaling devices, GPS devices)
Group emergency equipment (first aid, tow ropes, paddle floats, pumps, stirrups)

So the next time you plan to go out on a group paddle you should have a list of things that you need to know so you can make an informed decision about joining that trip. You also must be willing to share that same information for the overall good of the group. My goal in writing this article is to get you thinking about sharing information with others if you plan to paddle in a group.

Wayne Horodowich


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