Communication Within Your Paddling Group [24]

By Jacqueline Windh

Incident 1.

A friend and I decided to go on a four-day paddling trip in Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She is a seasoned paddler, and has worked as a kayak guide on Clayoquot Sound for seven years. Two friends of hers had been asking her to take them out on a paddle, so we decided to take them along. These two guys were very fit, and used to living outdoors, but they had never paddled before. I would rank my friend as high in both experience and in local knowledge. (Clayoquot Sound is a meandering bay with many islands, so has strong tidal currents. Some areas are well protected from any swell, but other areas are open and exposed, with a pounding surf and absolutely no safe landings. There have been sea-kayaking accidents there in the past). I would rank myself moderate in experience, but I did not have any local knowledge. The two guys had no experience and no local knowledge. It seemed obvious to me that my friend would be in charge – she would have full right to make any decisions regarding paddling routes and conditions and safety. I would be “second-in-command”, with some input to decisions, and the two guys would have to live with our decisions. Although we did not discuss it, the two guys seemed happy with that.

On the last day of our trip, some decisions were made that I did not feel comfortable about. We left quite late in the day for a long, committed paddle along an exposed, surf-battered coast, and around a point where waves converged and interfered with one another. On top of that, one of the guys was sick, and the weather was poor – a 13 knot headwind was predicted for our first 10 km. By then, I had just resigned myself to keeping quiet, and going along with my friend’s decisions – after all, she was the one with the experience.

As I slogged away into that headwind, I started stewing about things…we could have left at least four hours earlier if we had been organized, and I wasn’t sure that the exposed route we had chosen was wisest, given the conditions and our sick companion. I started losing confidence in my friend’s judgement. When we finally rounded the point we had been aiming for, and conditions became a bit more conducive to speaking from the boats, I decided to discuss this her – to find out why she had made those decisions.

Her response: “The decisions I made!! What decisions? I didn’t make any decisions! I work as a guide for a living – I tell people what to do for my jop. Now I’m on vacation. When I go paddling with my friends, on my days off, I don’t want to do tell people what to do – I just want to have fun. I didn’t make the decisions – we all did!”

Incident 2.

An incident was mentioned by Nick Gill in Club magazine 22. After paddling around some rocks, a group of paddlers returned to a sheltered beach for lunch. However, one of them had decided to have a look in a little bay, where he ended up coming out of his boat in some nasty surf. A rip was carrying him out to sea, and he had become separated from his boat. Fortunately the other group members had noticed that he was missing, and had returned to look for him immediately. They arrived in time to collect him, his boat and other flotsam and to help him back in.

Incident 3.

The “Safety” article in a recent edition of Sea Kayaker relates an incident in which a paddler died (Fall 1994 issue, p. 46-48). Five paddlers were camped in Blackstone Bay, Alaska. On their first morning, three of them paddled up to the top of the bay, a distance of about 5 km, to look at the glacier. Late that afternoon, the other two paddlers set out to do the same short trip. The groups passed one another at about 5:00 pm, had a snack together, then split up. When the group of two reached the head of the bay, ice falling from the glacier badly injured one paddler and knocked him unconscious. His companion got him to shore, treated his injuries, and started slowly towing him (in his boat) back to the camp. She eventually got him back to camp at about 2:00 am, and she woke the other three people up. However, the injured person died a few hours later.

These three incidents share a common factor: a lack of communication amongst group members.

In the first incident, we did not communicate on leadership: whether or not we had a group leader, and if we did, who it was. The two guys and I assumed that my experienced friend was the leader. She, on the other hand, had no intention of acting as a kayak guide on her few summer days off!! Upon our return, she and I discussed the situation. I felt that, as a very experienced paddler taking inexperienced people out, she had no choice but to take on the leadership role to some degree. She said that she had not really considered that before, but realized once we had discussed it that, like it or not, in that situation some responsibility must be taken. I realized how important it is that these things are talked about before embarking on a trip.

In the second instance, a very simple bit of communication was missing: “Hey guys, I’m just going in there for a few minutes!”. That’s all.

In the third incident, again a simple bit of communication might have saved a life, such as: “We should be back by 8:00. If we’re not back by 8:30, come looking for us.” Amazingly, in Sea Kayaker’s analysis of the incident, they point out only that there is a safety advantage in travelling in groups of more than two people, and that it might be wise having a two-way VHF radio. I myself find it shocking that at 2:00 am the three companions could be asleep in their tents with no apparent concern for two members of their group, who had not returned from a short paddle.

My point in writing this article is not to say you should or shouldn’t do certain things – it’s that you should say certain things. I don’t think groups necessarily should or shouldn’t have a leader. That depends entirely on the make-up of each individual group, and on the nature of that particular trip. But I do think that it is important that the subject should be brought up. Everyone should know exactly what the terms are. Is there a “leader”? If yes, do they have full rights to make all decisions, or only decisions concerning safety? If there is no leader, does everyone then have equal right in making all decisions?

For a lot of us, we end up doing our trips with people we paddle a lot with, and we are very familiar with their attitudes and their skills. In cases like that, it might be awkward to assign one person as group leader. It might be more prudent to just set out some “group policies”. One, in my opinion, should be letting people know where you are going – if you want to check out a little cove, or if you head off somewhere and see that your companions are not following, tell them what you are doing! It is very disconcerting to be paddling with a group, then to notice that someone is missing. Looking for that person can also generate a dangerous situation, as a group suddenly, and without mutual agreement, splits up as different paddlers go left and right and behind that rock, looking for the missing person.

Another “group policy” that I think should be discussed is how far apart people should paddle. Obviously this varies with group size and paddling conditions. A small group in rough conditions might choose to stay within shouting distance of one another, which might be only 50 metres. On the other hand, a large group in moderate or good conditions might be able to spread out quite safely; before doing this they should discuss whether there is any policy about staying in pairs, and when and where they will reconvene. Some other “group policies” that people might want to discuss are surf landings (whether the entire group should meet together outside the break before the first paddler lands, in case anyone has reservations about that particular landing, or needs help retracting a rudder or stowing gear), and paddle signals to use for communication when people are outside shouting range.

Another thing to talk about in advance as a “group policy” is what to do if a group wants to split up in an emergency situation. In many cases it is safest to stay together – that way there is more help available if ever needed. But what do you do if you are out to sea and a sudden wind blows up – you know a good-sized swell is being generated and many potential landing sites will be a bit gnarly. Two group members are a bit tired or panicky and want to go back to where you launched from, and the other two members feel that that site will be closed-out and difficult to land at – they know of another site, further away but safer (they reckon). Should the group split up? I think a “group policy” should be made at the beginning of the trip, saying either “we stay together at all costs” or “its OK to split up”. Again, which option chosen will vary depending on the make-up of the group and the nature of the trip. If the first option is chosen, it will require either a group leader, or some sort of group decision-making policy, as it will probably require some group members going along with decisions made by others.

Another situation is when a group splits up under more amicable conditions – on a day allocated to day tripping, for example, two want to do a nice relaxing gentle paddle and two want to cover some distance and batter themselves a bit. Fine – but talk to one another!! Each group should know where the other is going, and when they expect to be back. I like to give two times: e.g. I expect to be back by 6:00, but don’t start worrying or searching unless I’m not back by 7:00.

When paddling with people you have not paddled much with, I think it is important for people to familiarize each other with their skills, and any limitations they might have due to their equipment. (Had we discussed this before the Pain and Suffering 60 km paddle last May, it would have saved Dirk Stuber a bit of embarassment – he got himself rescued on my behalf by the Coast Guard, thinking I was in trouble due to the strong headwinds). This can mean finding out how far they can paddle, whether they can (or will) fight a headwind, whether they are comfortable with surf landings, as well as making sure that they understand what kind of conditions might be encountered on the trip.

I know this is all pretty basic, and just common sense. But perhaps it is so basic that a lot of us overlook it (myself included!!). I just though by writing it down, we might all maybe pay a bit more attention to our group dynamics and communication skills. As basic as it all seems, simple communication amongst group members was not effective in the three incidents related above. In two of them, it would have saved a bit of angst – in the third, it might have saved a life.