Any paddler who has participated in an open ocean distance race involving crew changes knows the feeling of vulnerability when it comes to being in the water with nearby escort powerboats. Most boat captains do their best when it comes to safety procedures, but accidents can happen especially with rough conditions.
Fellow paddlers shudder to hear the details of what happened to Kauaiʻs Luke Evslin when he was inadvertently struck by his escort boat’s propeller when a wave pushed the boat over him after the first change off La’au Point during the 2011 Molokaʻi Hoe. Another life-threatening injury occurred last year during the annual Pailolo Challenge in the channel between Maui and Molokai. The focus here is on paddling injuries but other individuals struck in the water while swimming or diving have not been as lucky.
Ron Mizutani covered the subject in his “Currents” column in the February 15th edition of MidWeek. Ron, an experienced and enthusiastic paddler, predicted he would get a number of emails from opponents of propeller guards, and sure enough, that is exactly what has occurred. In his Midweek piece, Ron pointed out again the sobering statistics, i.e. “up to17 % of prop. injuries result in death and a similar number result in amputations.”
Hawaii lawmakers are considering again some kind of legislation regarding propeller guards, but as in the past, it appears the bills will not make the cut. State legislators are notoriously resistant to change even in the face of overwhelming evidence listening instead to minority vocal special interest groups. Issues from fluoridation to helmet laws go down time and time again even while other states step up to the plate and pass laws that have so many common sense benefits that it is difficult to imagine why they are dismissed here as being controversial in the first place.
While it is true that there is a long-standing resistance by the boating industry in general to propeller guards, nowadays the technology has improved and the cost has come down. Opponents like the State DLNR testimony this year bring up old arguments like decreased boat performance and navigational problems. Actually there are now companies like Prop Guard with injected plastic molded cage products that are not only easy to install but also better boats operation and increase propeller thrust.
Specifically what can be done to increase the safety of paddlers participating in distance events assuming there will be no legislation passed to require boats to install propeller guards? Molokaʻi Hoe race director Stan Dickson says that enforcement of such a requirement for escort boats would be difficult and not really a consideration for OHCRA unless it is a State law. Kauaiʻs Evslin feels that there is no doubt in his mind that his injuries would have been much less serious had a propeller guard been in place. Significant blunt injuries are certainly possible but nothing like the horrific feeling experienced by Evslin, who thought at first as though he was cut in half.
The race committees for both Molokaʻi Hoe and Na Wahine O Ke Kai could require certification for all escort boat drivers just as they do for other requirements for vessel length, radio and emergency equipment, and towing capability. Some boat captains are very experienced while others with limited race backgrounds even learn the technique required during the race when it comes to dropping and picking up paddlers. It certainly makes sense that it be mandatory for any escort boat captain to be certified by attending a course on safety procedures before they can obtain a race ID number. In addition, the race directors have the option, depending on conditions and number of crews, to extend the time limit before the first change to at least 45 minutes. The initial crew change period has the most risk with the chaos of escort boats descending on the canoes from the outside trying to locate their respective canoes. Some teams might even delay the first change to be longer to allow more time for the canoes to spread out as they pass Laʻau Point and disperse out into the channel.
Paddlers always have to accept some risks in these races, but at the same time everything possible needs to be done to minimize the potential problems. The idea is to always look at ways to improve our sport and not to take the easy way out and just accept the status quo. Thanks to Ron Mizutani and others who are looking for ways to make a difference!