Thursday, June 26, 2008

Common Adventurer

Lately I’ve been hearing more and more about the ‘Common Adventure Model” being used among kayaking clubs and groups, as they attempt to deal with liability issues. A large flatwater/seakayaking paddling group I’m a member of has recently adopted this concept. It is a controversial concept, much of it related to the fact that it's trips and events appear leaderless.

This is the group’s description on their web page:
“All participants in Kayak Flatwater Meetup trips do so as common adventurers. The group or its individual members may coordinate paddling trips but no one is considered leader of a trip. All participants take the responsibility for making their own decisions including, but not limited to, whether to participate on any particular water body or section, what equipment they use, the routes they may choose to paddle, whether their skill levels and abilities are appropriate for the activity or whether climate and water conditions are appropriate for their participation."
Personally, I'm not a total fan of the concept, but I am trying to learn about it and be more open minded. My first problem is the way the model is described above. I personally prefer the shorter description below, written by the author Ron Watters in his paper “The Common Adventure Model of Outdoor Programming: Philosophical Foundations, Definition and the Effect of Filtering”, which I feel leads to less miss-interpretation and controversy.
“A common adventure trip is two or more individuals working cooperatively for common goals, and sharing expenses, decision making, and responsibilities as equitably as possible”.
As far as liability issues are concerned, in theory one can argue that individuals of a group going on a trip and working toward common goals were in a legal sense a joint enterprise. Members of a joint enterprise are unable to recover damages from one another. I cannot speak to how well it works in practice.

It is worth reading the original article and a follow-up “Revisiting the Common Adventure Concept: An Annotated Review of the Literature, Misconceptions and Contemporary Perspectives”, By Ron Watters to really understand the concepts principals.

The author acknowledges that the model leaves considerable room in its interpretation and application. And he does state that “The idea that common adventure trips are leaderless is a misconception”. Though his definition of leader is different than the traditional trip leaders we are familiar with.

There is quite a bit of history of misinterpretation and misleading designations regarding the concept. It seems to have much of its historical evolution in its use among College Outdoor Programs, and Institutions. This is all related to liability, and the liability issues have continued to shape the concept over the years.

I think it is important to really stress that the concept was originally derived to address liability issues. It is not about how we can each best enjoy adventure in a group setting, which some seem to completely misunderstand.

Most kayak groups interests are about introducing, encouraging, and making available this great sport of paddling, which does have inherent dangers. I feel the there should be an ethical obligation to structure events and trips such that the safety of participants who do not have the experience and judgment (yet) to understand and protect themselves from the potential risk is addressed. You don’t know what you don’t know. Most groups play a role a huge role in educating members about how paddle, and do it both safely and with proper respect for the wilderness. On trips, this is usually a role taken on by a trip leader or guide, teaching skills to those with less experience and managing safety for the group. It is about guiding and/or leading, not about being "the boss" or being one's keeper. That said, I certainly believe all trips, regardless of the model, should incorporate the groups interests and include them as much as possible or as much as they are interested in the pre-planning and decision making.

To me, the common adventurer model appears to work much better when the experience level of all the participants is high. There, everyone has knowledge and practiced experience, and can safely and clearly understand and accept the risks. But this is not my experience of the make-up of club trips.

I also believe that there are some basic skills and equipment that is needed on any trip outdoors, including rescue and rescue equipment (tow belts, rescue stirrups, VHF, cell phone, charts and maps), first aid kits, basic repair kits, etc…. I don’t believe most trip participants have or routinely bring this equipment with them, and likely many don’t know how to use them. Someone has to take responsibility to provide these things, and it’s usually a trip leader.

Another problem I have with the model is that it appears to be very attractive to those members that eschew rules and have problems with leadership, bureaucracy and authority. I believe that an important part of safety management is in defining rules, and having policies and procedures, and guidelines for our trips. Remember a lot of my formal kayak training is in BCU, that should explain it all right there :).

Still liability issues are real and must be considered, and it is a huge problem. I’m just not yet convinced this model really addresses that for our group. Of more interest to a Kayak Club or group might be the article “Outdoor Action Guide to Developing a Safety Management Program for an Outdoor Organization”, by Rick Curtis. This article provide a short outline of the areas that should be evaluated in order to develop a comprehensive Safety Management Program for an organization. Though this is may all apply more directly to a formal club than the looser internet/forum organization of my group.


Michael said...

Interesting post, Dawn. A 'leaderless' outing seems to be a good idea initially, but like you, I believe some leadership is advantageous. Traditionally Inuit followed people they looked up to as leaders, but it was understood that one did so at their own risk. They also didn't listen to any leader they didn't believe in making a organized groups very flexible and somewhat unstable.

Capt'n "O" Dark 30 & Super Boo said...

Outstanding post Dawn...

Goodness gracious... knocked the fun right out of group paddling experience for me...

Spiritwalker said...


Your post gave me food for thought. In January of 2008 I took over the Palm Beach Water Yaks meetup group that was pretty much a leaderless group. Since that time I have taken a lead roll in all our trips with a goal in providing a safe experience for all our members irregardless of their skill level. Creating a rating system for the various clubs trips we have, has helped our members determine if the trip is for them or not. We learn many of the things we know from either more experienced kayaker, an instructor or our own errors. The first two are better that the ladder. Leaderless groups don’t provide this and I feel can lead to the kayaker of these groups putting themselves in dangerous situations. I know other BCU members and instructor share my feeling concerning these types of groups. Instead of British Canoe Union it could mean By Common Understanding. I take pride in know that many of our members are safer and mature paddlers due to being part of a non-leaderless group.