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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
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

No Comments

  1. All Exclusive Cruises on 17/02/2018 at 08:44

    Yes, the statistics are fantastic. I was surprised that canoeing was more dangerous than kayaking, although by just a fraction (70 fatalities, 70 million outings = 1 μmort/outing). But then if you go through carefully through the statistics, you see that canoeing is perceived as safer so people stop wearing their PFD. And the use of alcohol is a big factor, and so is being from Texas or Massachusetts. Minnesota has a positive correlation with safety, by the way.

    Thanks for your response, keep sailing.

  2. thecedarjournal on 17/02/2018 at 07:39

    Thanks for the stats! I will use them to retort my mother next time she tells me of another kayak death. We get people in MN each year that combine alcohol and paddling and end up making stupid fatal mistakes, my mother always makes sure to mention them. You are right most of us are at greater risk in a car.

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