Another safety rant

Posted by Ken Campbell June 28, 2009 3 Comments 661 views

I spent most of the day yesterday on the paddleboard. Up one side of Commencement Bay and down the other, a beautiful summer Saturday, with hundreds of people walking the waterfront. At Owen Beach, two little girls were swimming in the water – really swimming and not just splashing about – their delight completely canceling out any thoughts of cold water. The air temperature, even at 10 AM, was approaching 80 degrees. Hypothermia wasn’t an option.

Which is why the kayakers looked so ridiculous. Not 100 yards from where the bikini-clad grade schoolers were diving and laughing in the clear water, a group of sea kayakers were getting ready for a trip. If you didn’t know any better, you might think they were gearing up for an expedition in the Chukchi Sea or some kind of antarctic survival episode. All dressed in wetsuits and drysuits, with waterproof boots and gloves… one goober was even wearing a helmet. Really? A helmet? In Commencement Bay? For what? And do any of you realize how stupid you look?

I understand that the water is cold and that prolonged immersion can be fatal. I get the concept of safety and how every precaution taken is potentially a valuable part of keeping yourself alive in the event that everything goes south. I have a drysuit and I wear it.

In the winter. When I’m by myself. If I’m solo on the open coast in December and the waves are double-overhead and there is snow on the driftlogs above the tide line. A drysuit is an amazing insurance policy, a difference-maker between life and death when the elements are against you. On an 80 degree day in Commencement Bay, where the only ripples on the water are coming from passing fishing boats, when there is no wind, and when I am paddling with a dozen other people who know how to assist me should I suddenly forget how to kayak… on these days, wearing a drysuit is not necessary.

But I can’t help thinking that there’s more to it than that. It’s more than just unnecessary… all this gear may actually be a hindrance to what brought me here in the first place. Part of why I go to the places I go and do the things I do is that I want to feel the environment that I am passing through. If the weather is inclement and cold, if the situation in which I find myself is dangerous and tenuous, I’ll use whatever gear I need to use to allow me to get to where I need to go. If, however, the conditions are comfortable, I want to feel that comfort. If I’m wearing barrier clothing to keep out the water, to keep out the sun, what am I doing here in the first place?

And don’t recite that old saw about dressing for the temperature of the water. Bull hockey. On an 80 degree day in Puget Sound, dressing for the water means a bikini – those girls had the right idea. I wore a pair of shorts, with my shirt tied around my waist, as I paddled past the intrepid kayakers. Imagine, if one of those walking Goretex commercials were to capsize and come out of his boat, how quickly he would be rescued and put back in. With the air temperature a’sizzling, it would be a matter of minutes before he’d be warm once more. And I bet he would feel refreshed, when all was said and done. Which is the whole point.

I want to feel the water. If it’s cold water, I will think of it as bracing, rather than perilous. I will use my common sense – it has seen me this far – and I will stay away from the herd. And if someone wearing a helmet comes paddling toward me in Puget Sound, I will turn and go in the opposite direction.

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