The Circles of Defense

In the solo paddling post, I mentioned the Circles of Defense and how I modify them to minimize my risk when I’m out alone. I’ve had a few people ask for clarification of what I meant. Hopefully this explains it:

Think of your defenses and risk management tools as a Bull’s Eye. In the very center is you, your boat, and the gear that you personally carry. The next ring includes the people with whom you’re paddling, their boats, and their gear. The third ring is other water users in the immediate area, their boats, and their gear. Beyond that, in the fourth ring, is the Coast Guard or other, external assistance.

Whenever you encounter a need on the water, you will utilize one of these circles of defense to address it. The goal is to resolve the need as close to the center of the Bull’s Eye as possible.

You eat your own banana

For example, if you are hungry and eat a banana that was in your own day hatch, you addressed the need with the ‘Self’ circle of defense. Congratulations! You just scored a Bull’s Eye!

You eat your partner’s Cliff Bar

However, if you have already eaten your banana and are still hungry, you might have to eat one of your paddling partner’s Cliff Bars. That’s relying on another group member’s assistance, so you’ve moved to the ‘Group’ circle. That’s not a bad thing, especially considering that many groups carry shared equipment in order to eliminate duplication and reduce the carried load. You’ve still done well and have resolved the situation acceptably.

Oh, Captain, my Captain!

Now, though, imagine that you’re light headed and can’t get back to shore without some food. Everyone in your group is out of food, everyone is tired, and nobody has a tow rig to pull you back to the beach. What do you do? Luckily, you manage to flag down a chartered fishing boat. The captain offers your group a couple of sandwiches from his cooler, you thank him, and are able to make it home due to his generosity.

You’ve now gone outside both the ‘Self’ and ‘Group’ circles by relying on assistance from another local water user. While this is still a better option than the alternative, it’s also usually a sign of poor planning and poor risk management. What if that fishing boat had decided to go South this afternoon instead of North? Would there have been anyone else to offer you food? What would have happened if there hadn’t been?

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!

Unfortunately, that’s just how it played out. That fishing boat wasn’t there. Your entire group miscalculated the energy requirements for your trip and you’ve all bonked in the middle of a crossing. Each of you is suffering from low blood sugar and none of your party has the strength to make it back to the beach. Night is coming and one of your friends has diabetes and is becoming unresponsive.

You break into the fourth ring and call the Coast Guard on your VHF radio. While you may ultimately make it home alive and in one piece, this is a significant failure of risk management and decision making. Most situations that rely on this level of assistance are a result of errors in judgement and could have been avoided through increased awareness, training, and recognition of personal and group limitations.

You never want to be in this situation

The worst result is yet to come. What happens if your VHF radio’s batteries are dead and nobody else has a means to signal for help? The situation just left the circles entirely and you have nobody to help you at all. It’s hard to say what will happen, but the results are often tragic.

So how does this help you increase safety on the water? First, you might make each of the rings as big as possible. You can increase the ‘Self’ circle by getting proper training, paddling with a proper boat and equipment, and practicing your skills and decision making on a regular basis. Paddling with skilled paddlers in accessible areas close to other water users and emergency authorities and health care providers will increase each of the external rings, as well.

Solo paddling removes the Group Circle of Defense

In some cases, though, you might remove a ring entirely. When I paddle solo, the entire ‘Group’ circle disappears. Accepting that additional risk is, in my eyes, irresponsible without something to help mitigate the reduced resources. My solution is to inflate the ‘Self’ circle through diligent training, extensive pre-paddle planning, careful selection of equipment, and on-the-water evaluation of my progress.

I also add a new ring to the system by leaving a detailed float plan with a trusted friend or family member on land. If something goes wrong, all inner circles of defense fail, and I don’t return by a certain time, the person with the float plan will follow the included directions for contacting the authorities, communicating my emergency, and providing the details of my route and itinerary.

Mitigating the missing defense by improving and adding others

Every time you paddle, think about the Circles of Defense and how you can use them to maximize the resources available to you on the water. An investment in proper equipment and training by you and your paddling partners will dramatically increase the Self and Group portions of the system. The return on that investment can, literally, be life saving.

Credit: This concept was introduced to me in the early 90’s by one of my sea kayaking mentors and coaches, Dave Ide. I’ve carried this concept into many venues, including aviation and business, and it’s always proven to be easy to understand and apply. It’s my honor to share it with everyone who cares to learn about it. Please pass it on!


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