Perceived Risk, and Point of View

by B. N. Sullivan

Our blogger friend Sheila Beal posted an adventure story (with pictures and a short video) on her Go Visit Hawaii blog earlier today. In the story she told about a thrill ride she and her husband tried during a recent visit to Kauai. It's called a zip line.

Here's Sheila:
When we approached the first zip line, a 170-foot “bunny” line, I got butterflies in my stomach and that internal chicken was obnoxiously loud. Our guides did a great job of giving us safety pointers and telling us what to expect. So, with excited reluctance, I climbed to the platform, allowed John to hook my harness to the line. I watched him pull on the harnesses and double check the connection for safety. I asked again what I needed to do and John kindly explained it all to me again. I said a prayer, took a deep breath, and ran off the platform. It was fun and I survived.
Sheila's husband took his video camera along on his zip line ride, filming a blur of foliage during the short, fast trip -- accompanied by a clearly audible yell that is part Tarzan, and part terror.

I left a comment on the blog, saying you could never get me to do that! Sheila replied that she thinks we are the brave ones, because we dive. Well, I suppose it's all a matter of perspective.

Hang glider at Waimanalo, HawaiiThis exchange reminded Jerry and me of an experience we had years ago, when we were still living on Oahu. One day we gathered up our dive gear and went to an area near the eastern tip of the island to dive. We entered the water from an area near Makapu'u Beach, right across the road from Sea Life Park.

As we were preparing to enter the water, we saw several hang gliders wheeling around in the sky directly overhead. This is not an uncommon sight in that area, since one of the favored launch sites for hang gliders is Kamehame Ridge, directly behind Sea Life Park. We could see the edge of the launch platform at the top of the very steep, very high cliff, and it always made us shudder to see someone launch, hanging onto what looked like a very flimsy kite. We'd always look at each other, shake our heads, and say how crazy those hang glider pilots were.

Well, on this particular day, we saw one of the hang gliders come in for a landing on a grassy patch, just steps from where we were wading ashore at the end of our dive. We had never seen a hang glider up close, so we took off our heaviest gear, and -- still wearing our wetsuits -- walked over to have a look.

The hang glider pilot was just beginning to disassemble his rig as we approached. He looked our way and said hello. We struck up a conversation, asking him lots of questions about the glider, about what the ride felt like, and so on. He raved about the experience of hang gliding, and was barely short of rapturous about the views he saw, and the sheer joy he felt while soaring. He said, "If you are interested, why don't you come on up to the ridge some time and try it. Several of our club members can give tandem rides."

As I recall, we literally backed away a bit as we shook our heads and told the guy that we couldn't imagine jumping off a cliff on a hang glider. Too scary! This prompted him to tell us, at some length, all the reasons why the sport was not nearly so risky as most people believed. Again we demurred, but said we might hike up to the launch site one day to watch from that vantage point -- we just didn't want to "make the leap", as it were.

The hang glider pilot threw his head back and laughed. He said, "I saw the two of you swimming in toward shore while I was descending. Scuba diving -- now THAT's a risky sport!"

Of course, that prompted us to go on at some length about how scuba diving really was not all that risky, as long as you were properly trained, followed your training, kept your equipment well-maintained, and so on. The hang glider pilot kept interrupting us with questions like, what if you run out of air; what if you get bad air in your tank; what if you see a big shark; what if a boat runs you down just as you are surfacing? It seemed that no matter what we said, there was no way we could convince the hang glider pilot that scuba diving was a safe sport.

A clear case of 'never the twain shall meet'? Or maybe a version of 'one man's meat is another man's poison'? Pick your metaphor, but the point is the same. Perceived risk depends on your point of view, and that in turn probably depends on what you have learned, either formally through training, or from experience.

We both are good swimmers, and we always have felt comfortable in and under the water, even in conditions that are not optimal. But we still wouldn't jump off a cliff on a hang glider -- and we will leave the zip line adventures to Sheila and Andy!

About the photo: Taken by Jodi Cobb for National Geographic, it is titled "Hang Glider, Waimanalo, Hawaii, 2000." Given the location, and the recognizable islet in the photo, the hang glider likely launched from Kamehame Ridge. The photo is available as a computer wallpaper. Click on the photo above to visit the page where you can download it for free.

For more photos of hang gliders launching from Kamehame Ridge, visit this page at Tim's great photography website, Pa'iki'i Imagery.

UPDATE Feb. 3, 2009: This article is featured in the February 2009 Carnival of Aloha, a blog carnival with a Hawaii theme, hosted by Evelyn at Homespun Honolulu. Go and have a look!


  1. Isn't it fascinating when we discover that we're all "wired" differently?

    That was an interesting encounter with the hang glider that you shared. I'd be too scared to try hang gliding, too. Wonder if he would zip line? ;-)

  2. I like walking. Walking's good.
    In fact, ever since I got glasses at the age of 12, I don't swim very much, whereas I used to love it as a child. The vulnerabilty inherent in being simultaneously unshod and unseeing is too much!

  3. What if you used a zipline to launch your hang glider over the water and then dove into the ocean with your scuba gear on?

    Can we all agree that would be scary? ;-)

  4. Mahalo for the mention of my website.

    My hang gliding friends have similar conversations with the paragliders who also fly at Makapuu. As my father use to say "every one to his own taste,' said the old woman as she kissed the cow"


    PS Walking is good too. Just make sure you look both ways before crossing the street. ;-)

  5. @ Sheila - There's a large body of research in psychology that has to do with how people evaluate risk and make decisions. It is indeed interesting stuff.

    @ Lavenderbay - I know a number of divers who have prescription lenses ground into their masks so that they can avoid the very problem you mention.

    @ Andy - You have a vivid imagination! Somehow I don't think anyone would try what you suggest, but you never know...

    @ Tim - You are welcome. I love your photos and I'm happy to share them with readers of The Right Blue.

    And your point about walking certainly is a good one!


  6. I don't think I will ever jump off a mountain....rjs

  7. Personally, I think you're all crazy. LOL! To me one is just as dangerous as the other and I think it's cute that you guys are standing there trying to convince the other how safe it is.
    :-D Actually, I admire your sense of adventure but I take a step back, hands extended shaking my head. No thank you. :-D But I still love the pics. Still, I'd take scuba diving over jumping off a cliff.

  8. "Still, I'd take scuba diving over jumping off a cliff."

    See,2Sweet, I always knew you were a sensible woman!! :-D


  9. Actually, your not jumping off a cliff. Your launching from a cliff. ;-)


We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry