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June 2014 Issue
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Being nice can be selfish

Self interest - wanting to win a race - is sometimes best served by helping others. Photo: Warren Bates

Mark Banham shares a few lessons in paddling culture and Dawkinsian altruism learned while paddling the length of the Clutha River.

We scribes do actually get out from behind the computer from time to time. When we do, it’s usually quite the educational experience.

That’s been the case for me lately. I’ve spent the last four days competing in the Wild Descent, a source-to-sea race down the Clutha River; some 261km of paddling in double-kayaks (or ‘divorce boats’) that ranges from white-knuckled white water to glassy cliff-lined gorges.

The conventional wisdom when it comes to this sort of competition is: nice guys finish last. If you want to do well, then you need to squeeze all of your life’s frustrations into a white-hot ball of rage and deliver it onto the water via the carbon fibre of your paddle blade.

But in this race I’ve found that quite the opposite is the case. The nicest guys tend to win. In fact, the overall winners of the race (for the second year running) Ian Huntsman and Wendy Riach came across more like coaches than competitors.

Okay, you could be cynical and say that perhaps Ian and Wendy were just playing the ideal Machiavellian Prince and Princess, smiling sweetly at the start line then ruthlessly crushing the competition when the time was right. But I think it’s a little bit more interesting than that.

I think paddling, like open water swimming, peloton cycling, speed skating and other hydrodynamic or aerodynamic sports touch on the altruistic ideas that people like Richard Dawkins wrote about.

In case you slept through biology class, Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ theory basically says in the animal kingdom, altruism comes down to genes selfishly doing what they do best: surviving.

That turns up in two ways: tit-for-tat behaviour and looking after the family. So, for example, prairie dogs will sound a warning call because the genes that predispose the animal to that sort of behaviour have a better survival rate. By sounding the alarm, the prairie dog is looking after other dogs that are likely to share those genes. Likewise, dogs will groom each other because they receive grooming in return; behaviour that improves both animals’ genes’ survival rate.  

Paradoxically, genes looking after their own interests create a wonderful world of altruism. As Dawkins puts it: ‘Selfish genes create to altruistic individuals.’

Paddling for 261km over four days down a river in a bunch of competing kayaks you see a lot of examples of it. Here are a few:

1 – The hare and fox

Two kayaks slip-streaming each other are faster than the same boats paddling alone. Three are faster still. So if you look over your shoulder to see a boat chasing you, and they’re not an immediate threat to your race ranking, it’s best to actually slow down and let them catch you.

2 – The amicable divorce boat

Double kayaks are known half-jokingly as ‘divorce boats’ for the tendency of their occupants to argue. And true enough from time to time you’d hear a teammate call for a sprint only to get the response “I’ve been sprinting for the last f****ing half-hour!”.

But among the more experienced teams, you’d notice a more considered tit-for-tat approach: one teammate would paddle hard, while the other stopped to eat, then the other paddler would reciprocate.

3 – The pigeon among the cats.

Thanks to the fortuitous hydrodynamics mentioned earlier, it’s generally possible for a slow kayak to keep up with a bunch of faster ones. However, that boat poses a risk to the fast boats around it. If the slow boat gets between two fast boats then slows down, the trailing fast boat may not be able to sprint past it to catch up with the pack.

As a result, fast bunches will typically try to shake off a slow boat.

4 – Anything you can do…

Of course, that strategy can be played backwards. If there’s only a couple of fast boats in a pack, then it might pay for one of the slower boats to get between them and deliberately slow down, allowing one to sprint clear of the pack.

The end result is a bunch that’s a little slower, but that’s less likely to progressively shed off the slow boats.

5 – If in doubt, be nice.

Although there are definitely times to put your own interests first (it is a race after all) you don’t want to become known as the team that doesn’t play nicely, lest you spend your race battling on alone. If in doubt, do as your mamma told you and play nice with the other kiddies!

So, what does all that mean for the non-paddling public? Well, these unwritten rules of the sport are usually just that – unwritten. They’re implied, insinuated and encouraged through paddling culture. It’s only after spending a bit of time immersed in that culture that you begin to see the logic behind it all.

I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to kayakers. Look around at any cultural norms and taboos and although it may seem a bit odd at first glance, there’s usually some pretty sound logic behind it.

From not throwing ropes down a cliff when people are climbing up it, to offering tired trampers cups of tea as they walk into a hut, to not eating with your left hand in Morocco – there’s generally some pretty sound logic underlying the culture.

Although it’s definitely good to push cultural boundaries – we’d still be burning witches otherwise – before you start breaking taboos, it’s probably a good idea to learn the logic behind them.