Friday, August 01, 2008

The Blind Men And The Elephant-Sized Kayak Event

Strange week on the local kayak forum...

You know the City of Water Day I'd mentioned here a couple of times, the one Sebago clubmate Shari reviewed on the Sebago blog?

Well, I was actually surprised when I got back into town on Sunday & there really wasn't any chatter on the list about it.

Finally, Erik (of the Long Island City Boathouse and Nature Calendar) posted an enthusiastic thank-you to Carter at the Waterfront Alliance and Ray Fusco, a local paddlesport organizer who Carter had brought in to help with the safety & logistics coordination of the paddling segment of the event.

Now, that's not a job I would have wanted! This was huge - groups of paddlers paddling from as far north as Yonkers, and as far south as my own club, all converging on an dock that's snuggled into one corner of a 4-way intersection of busy shipping channels - the Buttermilk Channel (east side of Gov's I), the Anchorage Channel (the main channel running up the Upper Harbor), the East River (running out to Long Island Sound) and the Hudson (up to Albany). The Staten Island Ferry runs through there, and zillions of smaller ferries & sightseeing boats, and freighters and barges and tugs, oh my! The currents are strong, their confluence between Gov's I & Manhattan can get extremely bouncy...I was never crazy about crossing that area back when I was guiding, you really had to keep your eyes open, keep your group together & gogogogo!!!!

When I first heard about the City of Water idea...I have to say that I thought of that, and a Governor's Island flotilla that happened a few years ago where a cold front (forecasted) blasted through in the middle of the event & all sorts of heck broke loose, and I walked into that spring planning meeting quite skeptical, mind full of ways this could end up being a total mess... But I listened to Ray & Carter's safety plans & y'know, they'd thought of pretty the same set of possible problems, and assuming participants accepted them, the proposed safety measures really seemed to cover most of the easily foreseeable ways in which things could go wrong. I walked out a lot less skeptical than I walked in.

That, btw, was why I felt like such a jerk when I asked Ray & Carter to please ignore all their careful preparations & let me sneak in even though I missed the deadline. If they hadn't shown such advance care, I wouldn't have wanted anything to do with it!

Anyways...long story short (this is supposed to be a quick lunchtime post & I sort of digressed) - Erik posted a thank-you - and suddenly everybody...

Np, it wasn't EVERYBODY - but a few people who've been involved in the local kayak organizations for years & years - some WAY longer than me - started venting their frustration with the security measures. Preregistration, waivers, and especially the security boats that oversaw the crossings.

Not surprising. Kayakers have an image problem in NY Harbor. It's probably about 10% deserved. Why do I say that? Because I'd bet that by now, about 90% of the regular local kayaking is being done by people who have at least a few clues, or by newbies under the direct supervision of people who have more than a few clues.

It's not fair that the rest of us get tarred with the same brush, but unfortunately, it's the nitwit 10%, bobbing cheerfully down the middle of the channel or something, that get noticed - the airwaves around their head may be turning blue with anti-kayak imprecations, they'd never hear though. "VHF? Heck, traded mine in for a sweet DVD player right when they first came out. Oooh, listen to the tugboat toot, hi tugboat!"

So the perception of kayaks as being toys & kayakers as being incompetent GRATES. No doubt about that. I think that what happened with this event was that a number of people felt that the various requirement were an over-nanny-fication of the event. Took it a bit personally - especially the Coast Guard requested safety boats, which people felt were a totally unnecessary bit of overkill.

I don't know, it's tough. I don't feel like I need a safety boat for an average tour that I might be guiding where there's a 1-to-4 guide ratio (Sebago's standard). I REALLY don't need a safety boat with people I paddle with for recreation. But there have been situations I've been in where I was very very happy to have a motorboat get involved (one rescue in a non-organized group paddle where conditions turned bad, and a couple of swim escort situations). I actually thought that for an event this big, having a few safety boats was a good idea. Things can get weird, people can get excited about an event like this & maybe the excitement overrides caution a bit, people override their second thoughts, or don't have 'em in the first place...not quite mob psychology, but a similar letting-go of your senses of personal responsibility in the face of the anticipated fun & excitement of being part of this really big festive celebration.

When you maybe have that, and then suddenly reality say "Ahem...", and maybe people are suddenly in over their heads - well, that's when I'd think that you might just look at that safety boat like the cavalry riding to the rescue.

But I kept that more or less to myself, until I happened, in the middle of the "we don't need safety boats", to wander over to Tugster & reading what appeared to be a very different take on the day.

It wasn't very specific but it's pretty clear that at some point, at least one of the safety boats was NOT overkill...

Seems what we had was B-Mates. Blind Men And The Elephant Syndrome. I think another thing that's easy to forget in a multi-group event of that size & complexity is that no individual group's experience is The Experience. The people who were objecting? All pretty veteran paddlers & rowers, leaders of the human-powered boating community, and all, as they were correctly pointing out, quite capable of getting their groups to Gov's I without help. And that's what they did, and they saw plenty of other paddlers arriving & maybe just figured that that was the whole story.

Well, it wasn't.

A reference to whatever happened finally did get posted. In fact it sounds like maybe there were a couple of instances where the precautions totally paid off. Again, no detail - but what I found fascinating was how quiet things suddenly got with the introduction of the concept that maybe not all the groups involved were operating with the same level of care as those who'd felt like the presence of the safety boats were not just superfluous, but somehow condescending.

Too bad, in a way. Be nice if everyone was as responsible as 90% of the local paddlers try to be.

Oy. So much for quick post...

That's why I started blogging, I guess.

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