Of change, challenge and risk.

My list of great, achieving New Zealanders includes Rob Hall, Peter Blake and Bruce McLaren. It also includes Ed Hillary, David Lewis, and Bert Munro. They all shared the understanding that personal challenge is the only way to live. They all accepted the risks that are an intrinsic part of that challenge. Though equally world-class in their spheres of endeavour, three survived to old-age, three did not. We salute them for their achievements, not their longevity. Challenge carries risk, personal challenge carries personal risk, and with outdoor pursuits that risk is ‘to life’.
Adults decide their own levels – one can tramp up a local hill, or attempt Everest barefoot. Canoe the harbour, or the Tasman. Mountain-bike downhill, or pedal the park. The only insult to an adult self is to refrain. As the song says, “If you can’t let yourself go, what are you saving yourself for?”
Adults all started somewhere though, and most learned their skills via instruction, at a time of life when their parents were still their legal guardians. Parental responsibility alone is an interesting animal. Some years ago, our twelve-year-old came running over to our liveaboard catamaran, beached on an island fifty nautical miles off the Queensland coast. A racing yacht was being delivered south, short-crewed. Could he go with them please, please, please…..?  We accepted the risk, and he disappeared into the sunset. Five hundred nautical miles south, he assisted with getting the vessel slipped for maintenance, climbed on a bus for seventeen hours, hitched a ride on a pearling-lugger, and arrived back three weeks later. That experience has clearly enriched his subsequent life, and was one of our better parental calls. What if he had fallen overboard, died in a bus crash, or gone missing en-route?  Well, we’ve already established that it was one of our better parental calls, and that call included the risks. Objectively, the sadness should be about having been the wrong side of the odds, not about suddenly deciding we’d made the wrong decision.
Whether the increasingly tabloid media would have seen it that way is doubtful. This is the first and only time that brave effort has been acknowledged in print – but imagine the acres of ink if it had come unstuck! The ‘Checkpoint’ interviews! Only staunch parents can weather the vultures at such a harrowing time, and the chances of objectivity being both spoken and reported, are slim-to-none.
What, then, of an Instructor?  Different again. First, (legal hair-splitting aside) is there a moral difference between professional and voluntary instructors? I argue ‘no’. Both are looked on as ‘expert’, by parent and youngster. Rightly so. Expertise, though, is gotten by degrees, and as we noted at the beginning, even expert experts can succumb to the odds, in a risk environment. We cannot expect 100% safety, and it cannot be offered.
The way of recent times – and it is the correct way – is ‘risk management’.  Many years ago, I was an involved party in a fatal outdoor accident, and not a week goes by that I don’t think ‘what if’. A modern risk-matrix may have identified that possibility, or (more likely) reduced the window of opportunity for it to happen. Even with the best procedures in place, though, compounding issues multiply risk at compounding rates. It is almost never just ‘A’, nor even when ‘A’ coincides with ‘B’, but if they are already happening when ‘C’ comes along……….  Outdoor safety failures often start with natural/physical deterioration forcing a series of reactive decisions. Sooner or later, everyone ends up going down that path further than ever before, into untrod, and sometimes uncharted territory.
I call the thinking required at that juncture ‘rolling decision-making’. It is akin to playing the best card in your hand, followed by the next best and the next, while attempting to rid yourself of the discards worst-first. It comes better with experience, but as a mentor pointed out recently, “you never stop learning”.  At the end of each season I do a personal debrief, and even at fifty-three, continue to see improvement in both skills and understanding. Notwithstanding, there were several ‘could do betters’, and three ‘mistakes’ this last year. Two of those came under the one heading, so I obviously have an area to address.
Why do we do it?  Surely not for the money, there is more to be made with less responsibility elsewhere. Jonathan Livingston Seagull (by Richard Bach) is the closest I’ve seen to the ‘why’ of it being captured in print, and well rewards a read by instructors at any level. Love of the sport, the outdoors and the lifestyle are common answers in younger instructors. Older ones may include ‘putting something back’ into an activity which has given them much.
I add something more. We are a selfish generation, and the outlook for the next is looking increasingly sub-par as a result.  They will need leadership and decision-making qualities several notches above current levels, and it is an honour to be involved in that process.
It is sad when people, particularly children, succumb to an accident, but it would be worse if we were all to be wrapped in cotton wool. Colin Quincey, who rowed solo from New Zealand to Australia in 1977, put it thus:
“The day that mankind ceases to have the courage, the determination, to cut the rope will be the saddest, most retrograde day of all our civilisation, and I sincerely hope that I’m not around if it occurs. We can only prevent it happening by allowing our young people access to the rope and giving them a knife if they want it”.
He could have added that instruction in the use of both items could only lead to improvement, and that it would be an equally sad and retrograde day for civilisation, if the repercussive bar was set too high for anyone to volunteer for the job.


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