Reflections from the Cockpit March 2005
"Victim or Victim Behavior?"

I often find myself challenged to find the appropriate name for the kayaker who wet exits and ends up in the water. I have used swimmer, paddler in the water, rescuee, capsizee, squirmin' hatch blower (I think I picked that one up from the Tsunami Rangers) and I have used victim on occasion. However, I usually cringe when I use the word victim. Victim has very specific connotations in my mind. My trusty Webster’s dictionary defines victim as the following: one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions (i.e.: cancer, auto crash, murder, etc.) In all of my years of kayaking I have had very few victims in the water that fit the dictionary definition. However, I have had numerous able bodied swimmers who were very capable of being helpful in their own recovery, but acted like victims because they were not very helpful in their own recovery.

As a side note, I also shy away from the term rescue when possible, because that also implies the person in the water is in need of assistance. My Webster defines rescue as, “Free from confinement, danger or evil.” As a result of my experience and teaching philosophy, I only use the term rescue when there is an emergency or serious injury. If there is a simple capsize and the swimmer is dressed for immersion, then "capsize recovery" is the phrase I use when exploring ways to get the swimmer back into their kayak. I believe training proper attitude along with the actual skills is very important. If we are properly trained and outfitted, it is less likely we will have an emergency and a capsize would be no big deal.

After observing many different instructors over the years I believe a significant number of them are instilling a victim type behavior as a result of their training. It is common for the swimmer to be trained to be passive and stay by their kayak and just wait for help to arrive. It is also common to then have them stay out of the way (for their own safety) while their partner does all the work. While there are sound arguments for this approach, I want to offer some ideas for your consideration.

Let’s look at ways the swimmer can be aggressive and helpful in a capsize recovery. First I would like to see the person in the water practice yelling, calling, using a whistle and waving their arm to attract help after they wet exit. In addition they should also mimic getting to their signal kit. Even if the paddler in the water is going to do a solo recovery it is important for them to make contact with the group so the group doesn’t get too far away. This way you can have someone nearby in case the situation changes and you do need assistance if your solo recovery efforts fail. You don’t want to find out you need extra help after the group gets away from you.

If you want an assist with your recovery, then you need to help yourself while you are being helped. The swimmer should be swimming their kayak (bow first) toward their helper. This let’s the helper know which end is the bow. Rear bulkheaded kayaks usually have less drag when pulled bow first. The swimming action also generates some body heat, which is usually helpful (depending on water temperature and your immersion clothing.) In addition, you can help get the bow of the kayak next to the cockpit of your helper instead of totally depending on the helper’s maneuvering skills. Remember that reducing your immersion time is important.

If you and the helper decide to drain the water before you re-enter your kayak you can either stay out of the way, (which is usually standard practice) or you can help lift the kayak to your partner and help support it while it is draining. You can also stabilize your partner’s kayak while they do the draining. You and the assisting kayaker will decide these options.

When it comes time for you to re-enter your kayak you should be telling your helper which way you like to re-enter and see if they can stabilize your kayak accordingly. Not everyone likes re-entering their kayak the same way, so dialog between the two parties is important. Once back in the kayak you should be specific with your partner as to how long you wish for them to stabilize your kayak.

If you are trained to just sit and wait for help you may not fit the definition of victim, but you are exhibiting victim behavior. After a capsize the paddler in the water should be actively pursuing a course of action that will get them back in his or her kayak with their kayak and their attitude sea worthy again. You should have solo options and assisted options (if fellow kayakers are near) in your recovery repertoire if you wish to keep from becoming a victim.

Another thought about victim behavior is never leaving you open to becoming a victim. The more self-reliant you are, the more control you have over your destiny. A simple point to illustrate this is, when you decide to give up your paddle in an assisted recovery. When to turn over your paddler to the one assisting you, is NOT a universal rule. Some teach to give it up early so you can have hands free while you are in the water. If you follow that logic, then the assisting paddler now has two paddles to deal with as they try to help you and possibly manipulate your kayak if they perform a draining procedure. The assisting paddler is more reliable if they have two hands free.

I teach my students to hold on to their paddles while they are in the water in case they ever get separated from the kayaks. This way they have the paddle use for a paddle swim. It may seem like a small point, but they are not leaving themselves open to being as dependent on the assisting kayaker. They only hand over their paddle right before they are ready to re-enter their kayak.

This same thought goes for being towed. If you are being towed, because you are slow, then you can still paddle while being towed. The only time not to paddle when being towed is when you are not capable to paddle. Otherwise you should still be proactive in getting to your destination even if you are on a towline.

Victim behavior also creeps into decision making when on guided trips. I have seen great laziness in participants when it comes to thinking. There are certain responsibilities that guides have, but one of those jobs is NOT thinking for the participant. I believe participants should be asking more questions of their guides rather than blindly following. If you don’t, one day you may blindly follow a novice guide into a bad situation. “I thought the guide knew what he or she was doing” is not going to provide you with much comfort when you and the group are fighting 25 mph head winds, because you assumed the guide listened to the marine forecast.

I once heard, “Kayaking is a solo sport that should never be done alone.” I personally believe it is fine to paddle alone if you are prepared. However, one of the messages in this quote is, kayaking is a solo sport, which means you need to be self-reliant. If you are not, then you are opening the door to victim behavior. When you are out paddling or practicing capsize recovery techniques, try to be proactive in your behavior whenever possible. I leave it to you to decide if the familiar quote, “Good things come to those who wait”, is really true from your life experience. I have found good things happen more often to those who have taken part to make it happen.


Wayne Horodowich


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