What's A Current?

Narrawallee Beach

Narrawallee Beach

Whilst much of what I’ve written about so far is about risk management and working with teenagers in the outdoors, it gets way more complex when you add in the adult factor, especially when the adult factor has less awareness about the dangers of the outdoors than their own children.

This story goes back quite a few years. It started with a fishing trip and finished with a trip to hospital. This was also the last time I went fishing, not because of what happened, but I just don’t like fishing. It was the summer holidays and I was staying with my parents at their house near the beach, south of Sydney. It was a warm sunny day and a friend of mine called to see if I wanted to go fishing with him. As I had nothing else pressing on my agenda of sleep-ins and body boarding, I thought, why not?!

We headed down to Narrawallee Inlet, which is a beautiful estuary at the northern end of Narrawallee Beach. It’s a great spot for fishing, as you can stand next to the deeper channel on the rocks and safely fish without a boat. We positioned ourselves on the rock shelf on the corner of the channel as it turns, narrows and heads out to sea and cast our rods ready for the exciting wait until a fish decided to take a bite.

A Much Calmer Day At The Inlet - Rock Shelf To The Right, Buckley's Beach To The Left

A Much Calmer Day At The Inlet - Rock Shelf To The Right, Buckley's Beach To The Left

We’d been there for some time and didn’t really catch much, other than a leather jacket, which we threw back. It was late morning and we were both getting pretty hungry and so were about to head home for lunch, when we noticed something in the water. To explain how the inlet works, there’s a big body of water, a deep channel and a beach on the opposite side of the channel. Many people like to swim in the large body of water and float with the current in the inner channel, before it gets to the corner of the beach, speeds up and shoots out to sea. It’s a lot of fun to do on the inner channel inside the inlet… if you’re familiar with it!

Back to the fishing! We noticed four people, some distance away floating along in the current in the inner channel. As they drifted closer, we could see they were three young girls and one older man, who appeared not to be doing anything to get themselves out of the channel as they approached the corner where we were standing. They seemed to move faster and faster! Matt and I glanced at each other, knowing what each were thinking. ‘Oh Crap!’ They weren’t going to stop! The kids hit the corner and were swept effortlessly by the current into the main channel. Simultaneously, Matt and I dropped our fishing rods and started running along the rock shelf. I managed to get in line with one of the girls, whose little sister was a few metres in front. Luckily, she was washed up onto the beach. She stood up, was crying out for her sister and started running for the water again, about to jump back in. I held my hand up. ‘Stay there! Don’t go back in the water!’ I shouted firmly and kept running. The rock shelf curved away from me, and I now had no other option, than leap into the channel. I jumped in and went straight onto my back with my feet up in front of me, ready to fend off rocks. The strong current carried me along quickly. I aimed for the other girl and waited for the right moment. We were almost at the mouth of the inlet, when the young girl hit a small sandbar which had formed. This slowed her down just enough. I rolled over onto my front and swam as fast as I could directly for her. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body as I tore through the water. I reached out and managed to grab her by the shoulder. My feet hit the sandbar. I dug in and pulled her to shore. Out of breath and with my heart pounding through my chest, I turned to the other girl and gasped, ‘Are you ok?’

Glancing back I could see Matt dragging the man from the water, having already gotten the third girl out. I sighed with relief, knowing we’d been moments away from being swept out to sea.

With everyone safely back on land, but on two sides of the inlet, I walked the six and four year old sisters to a point where we could safely cross the water. To get the girls safely back to the other side, we had to walk some distance. I learned they were out with a family friend for the day. The rescued man was the father of the family friend who was also 6. Meeting up with Matt and the father there, I just stared at the guy and asked him what happened. He laughed and said, ‘The girls didn’t know what a current was. Ha! Ha! I guess they do now!’

I felt rage boiling up inside of me. This was my first experience of meeting a really stupid parent, like seriously stupid. One that shouldn’t be trusted with kids. I was about to blast him with a broadside usually reserved for misbehaving teens, when I looked down to see blood pooling in the water around Matt’s feet.

Turning my attention away from father of the year, I grabbed my towel wrapped it around Matt’s foot and applied pressure. There was blood everywhere and it was quickly seeping through the towel. ‘We need to get you to the hospital!’ I said. As it turned out, all this time, I’d been wearing my sneakers, but Matt had been wearing reef sandals. The rockshelf we’d run along had been covered in oysters and Matt’s feet had been sliced to pieces. Bundling him in the car, we dashed to Milton hospital and were seen quite quickly. After his feet were cleaned up, I could see the deep oyster filled slashes on his feet. The doctor dressed them and Matt’s one question was ‘Will I be ok to surf tomorrow?’

That was the last time I went fishing! Maybe next time, I’ll just go to the shop and grab some fish and chips!

Narrawallee Beach - Outdoor Education

Escape From The Cave!

Bungonia Caves - Barely Room To Crawl!

Bungonia Caves - Barely Room To Crawl!

What better way to freak out a bunch of teenagers than to take them into a cramped cave in which your chest is flat to the ground and the roof grazes your back. Then turn out the lights!

If this sounds like something you'd love to do, then Bungonia caves is the place to do it! Deep in the Southern Highlands and on the edge of the Shoalhaven Gorge, lies Bungonia National Park. It's an easily accessible area not too far from the Hume Highway. Here there's a stunning cluster of caves with a variety of challenges for all skill levels. Now even though I really enjoyed this experience, caving isn't really my thing, so I'm not going to give you any technical details about the caves themselves. If you're going to do this, make sure you have an experienced guide to lead you, as every cave is different and this presents its own set of risks and challenge.

However, for a simple explanation, caves are cramped and dark and this provides an excellent opportunity for some great experiential learning. The cave I mentioned at the start is quite a short one, literally tens of metres long. However, it can take your group ages to get out in total darkness!

This activity is a fantastic one for developing communication skills and teamwork. The fear factor that's added in with the total disorientation that comes with being in complete darkness, is the perfect way to test even the most confident of students (and teachers). Now this exercise isn't about messing with people's heads. It's about building a team that can communicate, work together and develop a cohesive plan minus one of their most important senses. You really don't understand total and utter darkness until you've been in a cave like this. Some kids totally freak out, but if you're leading the group, resist the temptation to just turn the lights back on. That's a last resort and defeats the whole point of the exercise.

Once everyone has crawled down into the cave with their lights on, there’s an area in which you can gather everyone together and brief them on the task. Once you're done, it's lights off! Time to work together to get out! Now you get to see the group dynamics either gel or implode and it happens really quickly. Robbed of their ability to see, basically someone needs to take charge and use their other senses to start leading people out. But it can't be reliant on one person. Everyone must do his part! That's why I love this activity, because it forces people to quickly accept or reject the team and the team leaders.

There’s no glimpse of light from anywhere. You can literally hold your hand in front of your face and you still won't see anything, no subtle movement, nothing! It feels weird!

After the initial excitement of being in total darkness is over, you can expect the stress level of the group to increase, and they suddenly realise you're not joking about getting out. This activity can bring a group together, in which case they're usually out in a fairly short amount of time. (Remember, it’s not that deep a cave). However, it can also tear a group apart with nobody wanting to take responsibility, poor communications and internal fears overwhelming students. This sort of experience is raw, challenging and can lead to some amazing learning outcomes.

No matter how long it takes your group to get out, the two most important elements of this activity for you are the pre-lights-out briefing and the post activity debrief. By carefully framing the activity and letting the students know this could be challenging, but they've got each other, then this can guide their purpose and focus their minds. In the debrief of the activity, let them run through how they felt and how they found the communication and team dynamics and let them know how you felt in there as well. Even though it's a safe activity, it can still be unnerving and make you feel uncomfortable too.

This activity is great for putting people right out of their comfort zones. However, we only ever grow in our lives when things are uncomfortable and by adapting to meet the challenge of that discomfort. By providing positive feedback for when the team pushes past their discomfort and grows, is ultimately the goal of this amazing experiential education activity. It’s well worth a trip to the Southern Highlands!

My Background In Risk Management

Risk Management

I realise that already countless people have switched off having read ‘Risk Management’ in the heading and are now watching a video of a fat cat sipping milk from a bowl. If you're still here however, well done for reading this far. I’ll avoid going off on my dolphin party tangent from my last article on risk. Instead this time I’ll jump right in!
 
Many people learn about risk management from a training course or a lifeless lecture by a lawyer telling you of all the dangers of everything, yet having no practical experience in the field themselves. They might put up an infographic for you to look at with some big red warning signs and after an hour or two you're now qualified in risk management. If you've had this experience, you're probably feeling uncomfortable about the whole process and looking for a much better approach. From the start, let me make something clear. Risk management is a cultural attitude within an organisation, not a check box compliance process. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain stupid and dangerous to those around them.
 
My first job in experiential education was with a private school, working at their outdoor education campus. It was here that risk management was instilled in me as being a natural part of absolutely everything we did. Not paranoid about risk, but very proactive. Before every activity, the team going on that trip would sit down and write out the risk management for it. There was no thought of simply printing out a generic risk management form that nobody bothered to read and everyone blindly signed it. This was an active discussion of the risks and hazards for that specific activity to ensure it was clear in our minds the risks and controls we needed to put in place to ensure a safe well-managed activity was run.
 
The value of this was immeasurable. On the one hand, you had a current and accountable risk management document for each and every activity, prepared by those who were directly responsible for the safe conduct of the activity. On the other hand, it was building and reinforcing a culture of active risk management. Risk was a regular, open and honest discussion amongst the staff, which kept everyone on the same page and held everyone accountable for the preparation, operation and decision making processes being used. It was never the case of ‘Oh don't worry, I know what I'm doing!’ or  ‘It's someone else's job to do that,’ as I’ve found in so many other organisations. It was a continuous proactive and dynamic process.
 
It's hard for me to understand why anybody wouldn't take this logical approach. Yet, as I said before, this was how I was educated, so I hadn't known it to be any other way, until I moved to another school and the difference was stark and concerning.
 
As a brief background note on the school I was working for originally, 18 months prior to my starting, there’d been a fatality on one of their overnight hikes. This tragic event sent shockwaves through the school and had dramatically and bluntly shaped much of the focus of the organisation moving forward. The devastating fallout from the fatality lingered for years, yet many important lessons were learnt from this experience.
 
Fast forwarding 17 years to today, there’s absolutely no reason why it should take a critical incident to change the culture within an organisation, yet sadly it often does because of a lack of real understanding of risk management and its effective usage. With many fatalities, serious injuries and near misses so well documented by the industry and the coroner, working through some of these cases together as a staff can be of great value in starting the process of cultural change towards the goal of proactive risk managers.
 
When you understand what you're aiming to achieve and how simple oversights can have massive repercussions, then it's much easier to develop the whole team to be working together and thinking along the same lines. The ultimate aim of a proactive risk management culture is to run safe and challenging activities, promote sound decision making and prevent major disruptive events (aka critical incident). There's no future in finding yourself in front of a coroner and your only defence being to say that you at least had all your paperwork in order. At this point, paperwork is quite worthless and purely academic, and you're going to look like a complete idiot and potentially liable, if not culpable.
 
Creating a culture of risk managers means that your paperwork, which is always required, is actually being put into action and that if anything adverse happens, everyone is equipped to respond swiftly and appropriately. However, you will also find that running an organisation with an embedded culture of risk management, will mean the potential of a significantly disruptive event occurring becomes increasingly unlikely.
 
The most important thing is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Get started today. Read some case studies that are closely aligned to what you're doing on your program and discuss them with your team. Build that culture of the proactive risk manager mindset into your organisation and ensure that you're running the best programs possible with the best framework possible to challenge and really push your students and at the same time ensuring their safety. 

San Diego... It Means A Whale's... Living At Seaworld!

Sea World San Diego - Excursion

This week, I’m taking a look at a combo of an awesome day out and the serious work that an organisation does to help protect our sea life! SeaWorld at San Diego is a great example of an industry leader that provides entertainment, but at the same time education and support for our marine creatures.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Sydney Aquarium and so it was great to experience what the US has to offer in terms of marine experiences. I was not disappointed, as SeaWorld had a fantastic array of creatures, hands on exhibits, shows and wild rides!

Beluga Whale!!!

Beluga Whale!!!

The shows that are on throughout the day help engage both young and old with a range of different sea creatures they’d never otherwise experience. Although watch out at the end of the dolphin show! If you’re intending to stay dry all day, probably best to stand back a bit! You’ve been warned! The other shows include the killer whales, sea lions and feedings for the whole range of sea creatures. Oh and of course my favourite, the Beluga whale (a white whale), which was totally awesome in the arctic section of the park. You also have the choice of optional extras to get up close and personal with a range of sea creatures, which for many could be a life changing moment. If you like the idea of getting kissed by a large water based mammal, then this might just be your thing! For kids who might have confidence issues, this could be a very rewarding experience.

Dolphin Show - Sea World San Diego

The work that SeaWorld does to help educate and inform people about our marine creatures is amazing. There’s a range of different programs which are conducted by the park that most visitors don’t see. However, it’s so important to the health of our seas and our marine creatures. For some more on the valuable work they do, check out: https://seaworldcares.com

Tons Of Rays!

Tons Of Rays!

If you want to get rid of the kids for a few days then, SeaWorld is also the place to do it! There’s a huge range of holiday, school and education camps available that combine the important education and environmental work the park does, with some great fun and entertainment. Best of all, they keep the kids overnight, so you can go and enjoy a night of fiery jazz flute in the social hotspots of San Diego! To see the full range of options check out the SeaWorld Camps page. (Sorry doesn’t have the places to be seen in SD on this page).

Just In Case…

Just In Case…

Ok so now about the rides! Let’s face it, even the most environmentally scientific minded amongst us just love the rides. My favourite was the Manta, on which I managed to get the front seat for! It was awesome!!! An adrenaline pumping ride which shot up, down and twisted all around, pinning me to my seat as it rocketed along. There’s a stack of other rides, some that will get you totally soaked and others which are moving just fast enough to put a smile on grandma’s face.
This makes for a wonderful mix of education, entertainment and thrill seeking fun, all of which is contributing to the vital work that SeaWorld Parks does for the environment.

SeaWorld has parks in San Diego, Orlando & San Antonia as well as a range of other associated parks and adventures for the whole family. It’s well worth a visit when planning your next US adventure.

https://seaworldparks.com

Sea World San Diego - Excursion

Why Can't We Jump Off This Cliff Backwards?

Outdoor Activities - Risk Management

This is one of the dumbest questions you can imagine, but it's something I get asked quite a lot. Always in a different way, but basically it's the same question each time. This is mainly something I experience with boys. Their level of risk taking behaviour far outweighs girls on outdoor activities. No matter what the activity, someone in the group wants to push the boundaries so far that it risks stepping right outside the safe parameters of the activity.

Why can't we go swimming here? Why do we have to wear PFDs? I can swim!!! Why can't we go to the terrain park? I can do a 20 foot jump no worries! I’ve done it before! Mr. Jones let’s us do it! Playing one teacher off another is a common methodology for kids.

This is a massive challenge with boys and for an inexperienced instructor can be a mine field. Junior instructors often find it a challenge to balance discipline and responsibility with relationship building with students. However, a wrong move with boys wanting to push the limits can mean a serious accident in the making.

I’ve seen these happen before and I’ve seen near misses, which I’ve managed to catch in time and it’s not because the students are trying to disobey. They just don’t understand the risk in what they’re doing. It’s so easy to get momentarily distracted and find you have a student at the top of an abseil ready to go and they’re missing a carabiner, helmet or they’re heading towards the cliff without being clipped into the safety anchor line.

Whilst you can’t change boys and their desire to risk everything, you can be and must be more vigilant when running activities with them. Boys respect strong boundaries and although they will still push this, pulling them up whenever they’re doing so, will reinforce your position as an instructor, as well as ensure the highest level of safety for any activity.

Boys will find any excuse to do something dangerous and stupid, you can be assured of that! However, as an instructor in an outdoor environment, you have the ability to role model positive and proactive risk management and mitigation behaviours for the boys. If they do something way out and you have to drag them back in, use this as part of a debriefing process. Link it to other real risks in their lives and demonstrate ways and reasons for avoiding risk and effectively managing it. Whilst they might not get it right away, as with any experiential education, it could help them later in life to avoid serious risk and danger to themselves and others.

Always remember, when dealing with boys, you have to be far more vigilant and ensure you look out for the dumbest and most dangerous thing possible, because they’re most likely going to be doing it!

Always Living On The Edge!

Always Living On The Edge!