Last Tuesday there was some diabolical weather forecast for the east coast. A massive east coast low working its way up the seabord combined with exceptionally high tides and a strong southerly swell to make for huge conditions. Forecast for seven to eight metre waves off of Sydney, and winds on Tuesday evening of up to 40 kts southerly.
I’d watched the spike come tracking in over a few days on seabreeze.com.au. Tuesday morning, clear and just a scudding breeze, and I decided to paddle in to work as usual, though I chose a euro blade.
My window at work looks northwest and I can see a bit of harbour between buildings, as well as flags standing up in the city tops in the other direction. As the afternoon drew on, the sky darkened to that familiar evil green and the trees bowed and thrashed as the winds bulleted between the buildings. But I was watching the Fort Denison quarter hourly wind log, and nothing was reaching above 20kts except the odd gust. As five pm approached I wandered out for a look: a fresh wind, but no whitecaps, just a curtain of grey rain. The green sky had moved off to the north. The crossing of White Bay is protected from southerlies by the land and the city buildings. I decided it was safe to paddle.
My manager asked me not to paddle, offering me a cabcharge. My mum called , convinced I would perish miserably. As I left, several other colleagues expressed concern. I had made an assessment of the risk , though, judging the conditions and my competence, and plugged on.
Duly kitted up, I strode up the carpark ramp, kayak on shoulder, to head off into the storm. Someone called out to stop. By this time I was a bit over being told not to paddle, so with a feeling of exasperation shading into irritation I stopped and let the bloke walk through the rain to join me.
“You paddling home in this?”
Well, I am if you buggers would let me get away before dark.
“The toughest commuter in Sydney. Can I take your picture?”
Why sure. Out comes the iPhone, cheesy grin, flash.
|pic: Adam Spencer|
That’s when I recognised him as Adam Spencer, presenter of the local ABC 702 brekkie show (the very show I used to produce back in the 90’s). I wasn’t sure, and he trundled off as if it was cold and raining, so I didn’t verify then.
At the wharf I observed the water and the non-existent boat traffic for five minutes and then had an uneventful crossing; a gusting crosswind, but nothing too extraordinary. I’ve certainly paddled home in much fouler weather. When I got home I dropped Adam a hesitant note asking if indeed it was him and if so could he say g’day to my former colleague Yuske Aso, who I worked with for years on those god-awful 5am starts. Adam texted back that he wanted to talk to me on air next day.
So next morning at 7.40 just before the 0745 News/AM junction (old habits die hard) I had a yarn with Adam on air (here), explaining that no I wasn’t a reckless moron, I had the combination of gear, skills and experience to make an informed decision about the risk, especially with the frequent weather tracking available. I pointed out that had I thought there was any realistic risk of taking up the water-police’s time I would not have set out.
It raised an interesting question, though. I was annoyed by all the naysayers who, frankly, were not competent to make a call on whether the commute was safe or foolhardy. Given they had no knowledge of my ability, my gear, the weather, they characteristics of that stretch of water, the pattern of shipping at that time of day, the actual local conditions or the recent history of the nearby wind monitoring, I thought their response to risk was less informed and ultimately less rational than mine. At least on that evening.
I’m not a great risk-taker, and I don’t do stuff that’s really worth writing home about, but it made me think about levels of risk and how one assess it. On the recent mountaineering trip in NZ I was, on occasion, very scared indeed, to the point of impaired ability to make judgements. That was a novel and fascinating experience. In retrospect!
It was obvious from the behaviour of the guide that to him, the situation was benign and completely in control. He could process a multitude of factors, including my ability and mental state, and as a result except for a few hours on the descent (when he became quiet and kept calling me Alan) he was chipper and cheerful, cracking jokes as he leapt from crag to crag over his cowering clients. Back then I realised that my anxiety was poorly calibrated against the reality, simply due to lack of skills and experience.
Extending that out, where is the point at which I become a naysayer, and would discourage an activity? Notwithstanding the hallowed principle that everyone can go to hell in the manner of their own choosing, there are a couple of activities that just strike me as too damn dangerous no matter how skilled or experienced the practitioner. Base jumping. Cave diving. Being a French mountain guide (1% per year, according to the Kiwis). The combination of extreme reliance on complex gear and highly variable environments with wafer-thin margins for error strikes me as tending strongly into a zone where one may wish to think twice.
But here’s the rub, based on my own puny experience: what is my basis for that opinion? Simply because a high mortality rate? For example, according to Wikipedia cave diving's reputation as a deadly sport is undeserved, with statistically fewer fatalities than open water diving because of the much higher barriers to participation. Without any expertise in the field, is it just prejudice and the catastrophist skew of the media?