What is “acceptable risk”?

by Sherri ~ February 26th, 2011. Filed under: Paddling People, Paddling Safety, Sherri's Musings.

I’ve been wrestling with this question for many years ever since my brother died in a sky-diving accident leaving a wife and young daughter behind, and our parents with just one surviving child – me.  At the time, I was just starting to get more serious about my own sea kayaking activities, but I had a  husband and young son to consider, as well.

On another blog of mine, “Paddler’s Book Club”, I am reviewing the book, “Crossing the Ditch” by James Castrission about his successful attempt to kayak across the Tasman sea with partner, Justin Jones.  As part of my research for that blog, I read the book, “Solo” by Vicki McAuley in which she chronicles her husband’s tragically unsuccessful attempt to kayak across that same body of water.  When he died, Andrew McAuley left behind his wife and 3-year-old son, Finlay.  Both of these books about epic adventures to do multi-week crossings of a dangerous body of water certainly bring up the question of what exactly is “acceptable risk”.

It would be easy to dismiss Andrew McAuley’s actions in undertaking this challenge as being selfish and irresponsible given the pain that it has obviously inflicted on his grieving wife and the loss to his son.  Castrission and Jones, as well, had parents and siblings who were tormented by the strain of not knowing if their sons/brothers would return from their quest.  However, we all take a certain level of risk in our daily lives, some more than others.  Vicki McAuley brings up the point, near the end of her book, that we don’t seem to have any problem with parents taking on the role of police officer or fire fighter – careers which carry a high degree of risk.  While some would argue that police and fire fighters are taking on this risk for the good of society, there are those who would claim that adventurer’s like James Castrission, Justin Jones, and Andrew McAuley also serve a common good acting as an inspiration to reach farther and higher than we might otherwise.

I’m not sure if I totally agree with that argument, although I’m not sure that I totally disagree with it either.  As I said, it’s something I’ve been wrestling with for almost twenty years.  I certainly don’t believe that we can live our lives in total safety.  Life does not come with that kind of guarantee.  Nor do I want to live my life in a constant fear of the risks I take every day when I walk down the stairs or drive in my car.

So where do we draw that line that we call “acceptable risk”?


P.S.  On a related note, I would like to point out that in this day and age of social networking and the internet, the things we say can have a profoundly positive or negative effect on others.  As I was reading the book, “Solo”, I was surprised to come across the names “Derrick Mayoleth”, “Kayak Quixotica”, and “Silbs”.  Derrick is a fellow kayaker and the designer of this website as well as writing the blog, “Kayak Quixotica”.  His posts about Andrew McAuley in 2006 and 2007 were read by Andrew’s wife, Vicki, along with a response to one of the posts written by my very good friend, Dick “Silbs” Silberman.  In a very dark time, following the death of her husband, these encouraging words, written on the internet, were a comfort of sorts to Vicki McAuley.  Dick had no idea that his response had been included in the book until I told him earlier this week.  Sadly, not everyone was as thoughtful of Ms. McAuley’s feelings when commenting on the tragedy in other forums.

Regardless of how you feel about this issue, I would encourage you to consider your words carefully whenever you comment about any subject on the internet.  These are real people that we are talking about, with real families and real feelings.  Our world would be much nicer if we all tried to “treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.”

6 Responses to What is “acceptable risk”?

  1. Silbs

    Well said, and thanks for the shout out. I think of this more and more as I get up in years. Am I an unfair health risk to fellow paddlers? What if I finally have the “big one” while out there? Oh well, there are worst ways to go.

  2. Sherri

    You could just as easily have the “big one” going out for coffee or stressing over your next lecture. I’m more than happy to “take the risk” of having you paddle with me. : )

  3. Aussie

    I can really relate to your feelings on this one. I lost my own brother in an accident, and I’m acutely aware of just exactly what the effect would be on my parents if something similar were to happen to me, particularly after a bad car accident which came within a hair’s breadth of taking me too. Given that experience I feel like driving down the road to work every day is probably the most dangerous thing I do in my life. But I guess every additional risk we take adds to the odds that something will go wrong.

    I’m certainly not going to stop driving to work every day though, because I couldn’t live my life that way. And to a certain degree I look at having the freedom to participate in activities that may have an element of risk as being a part of the quality of my life. I don’t fly or do aerobatics or kayak because I feel I’m contributing anything to the world, or feel I’m being an inspiration to anyone. That’s what my day job is for. I do these things because of the joy they bring to my life. It’s entirely selfish and I can see that. So is it a matter of deciding how much selfishness I’m entitled to?

    I don’t have an answer for it either. It’s not an easy question, that’s for sure.

  4. John Browning

    Nice post Sherri. I never knew about your brother. There’s been some great articles written in Ocean Paddler about “risk” in the last few issues. I’ll see if I can remember to provide them to you. As to paddling with our elders, that’s a risk I will continue to take as well. Just be sure to check for the DNR braclet before starting CPR–which would be very difficult to do on the water in a sea kayak. So, if I die, I die.

  5. derrick

    Great post Sherri, It’s fair to say I heard all sides after Andrew’s accident. I have not seen the book yet. I’ve had a really hard time actually when it comes to re-living that accident. I watched the National Geographic special with friends when I was in Israel. We just sort of sat there in silence. We all take risks. We will all die. We don’t want to think about it of course. All I can say is that it is possible to commit suicide and live to be 100. I’m not sure that benefits anyone either.

  6. Jerome

    What a fekkin’ idiot he was. Leaving a wife and small child alone is and remains irresponsible.

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