To lead a group of paddlers on a day or weekend trip is one of the great thrills you can experience as others in the group put their faith in your skills and expertise. With this faith comes a responsibility. I have been paddling whitewater and sea kayaking for about 15 years now and in the last 5 years I have been leading trips regularly. Over time, I have learnt a lot (and am still learning) and it is only now that I really appreciate the dangerous nature of the sport which I love. Please don’t be fooled in thinking that sea kayaking is safe, I believe it is much more dangerous than white water kayaking as the dangers are better disguised (but that’s another article).
One of the reasons I paddle with a club, rather than by myself, is the safety margin that a group provides. But if you don’t stay together, or work together as a group, then you may as well save your money and not be a member of the club. Leading the group can be broken into two parts – One who co-ordinates all the land arrangements i.e. boat loans, carshuffles etc. – and on the water Trip Leader.
The on the water trip leader is normally the person in the group who has the most experience and has the ability to ensure that group works. Learning to lead trips is a similar evolutionary process to learning to kayak – you start out timidly and then slowly master the basics (paddling strokes, bracing, balance), before progressing to advanced skill like rolling.
The following It is not designed as a rule book, but as a list of things that I have found that I tend to do when I am leading trips so please use it as a guide only. Every one can lead trips and I hope this article will help you to take the next step and start leading trips
- The leader acquires some basic knowledge of the area, including likely hazards as well as exit points. There is nothing more disheartening than to be paddling along and waves start to break straight ahead on a bomborah you knew nothing about. Basic information can be gained from coastal maps and sea charts. Another good information source is the local fishing shop or co-op. Always identify possible landing sites that can be used if things don’t go as planned – before starting out – as it is nearly impossible to have a detailed look at a map in big seas
- The leader checks that people on the trip have the paddling ability to complete it safely. For people new to the club it is best to determine this well before the trip as it can be difficult to tell someone they can’t do the trip after a 5 am start and 4 hours of driving to the put in point. All trips that are advertised have a level grading and at the difficult end of the scale, it is vitally important to determine paddlers capability. If in any doubt about new paddlers’ abilities ask them to do an easier trip first to see how they perform.
Details of the trip and expected finish time should be left with someone responsible who can notify authorities if serious problems are encountered. This could be a partner or other member. Don’t forget to contact them after the trip! Spending an unplanned night on a beach (or river) is a common occurrence and, I believe, part of the adventure of paddling in remote areas, so this should be no cause for alarm. Callout time should be left with the responsible home person, but as a guide call out times are a day for overnight trips and 4hrs for daytrips.
If you have a portable marine radio, then a further precaution can be to notify the Coast Guard. But don’t rely on them as only limited details can be left and reception is not guaranteed.
- The leader checks that paddlers have the right clothing for safety. This is especially important for beginners. Buoyancy vest, correct fitting spraydeck, helmet or hat, secure footwear and appropriate clothing (i.e. thermal underwear, woollens, spray jacket, wetsuit) to stay warm in all anticipated conditions or the reverse for hot days, sunhat cream, spare water etc. Less experienced paddlers will often get colder than more experienced paddlers because they often timidly wait around while others play and explore, plus they tend to swim more often. Spare dry clothing should also be carried to increase warmth, or if a walk out is necessary. Beaches become very cold and windy places when you have to wait for a car shuffle. Most canoeing books detail appropriate clothing for paddling.
The leader checks that paddlers have the basic personal safety gear. Boats should be up to scratch with decklines front & rear, grabloops and positive buoyancy (i.e. bulkheads and waterproof hatches and/or foam or airbags), and whistle. Should any delays be encountered, spare clothing, basic shelter such as a large plastic bag or reflective foil blanket and food make waiting more enjoyable.
I never use to take basic survival gear on whitewater day or sea trip until about three years ago when I did a day trip on the Nymboida River. We were given some bad information about an access point that didn’t exist and spent a cold night sleeping by the river. I still laugh when I think of 12 hungry people dividing up a cherry ripe in 12 even portions as lunch on the second day. Since then I carry in my first aid kit (goes on every paddle) basic survival gear (thermal blanket, compass duck tape) and when I pack for a day trip, I always throw in extra food.
- The Leader ensures that group safety equipment is carried. Tow ropes, first aid kit, matches & metho, spare paddles, tarp, map and compass, watch, whistle. These are only really needed when you don’t have them! These items should be easily accessible for quick use.
- Check the weather. Nearly every accident report I have read, I find that the weather or change in weather had a part to play in the accident. CHECK the weather report each day before leaving and if required alter you trip accordingly (let the responsible home leader know)
- Before getting on the water the leader briefs the paddlers on what to expect on the trip and his/her decisions about safety should be respected. This is the most important part of trip planning. As the leader, you have done all the above planning and know of problems you are likely to encounter – but know one else in the group knows unless you communicate it to them. Also identify where the safety gear is and the front and last person.
On the Water
- The leader takes into account the slowest or least experienced paddler and then sets this pace for the group. Some people may need more time to adjust to the conditions and approach a tossing sea with a degree of trepidation (read fear!). It is important to allow people to paddle the conditions at their own pace, ensuring they are not pushed into paddling conditions that are bigger than they can handle, simply to follow other faster paddlers. It can be hard to keep the faster paddlers with the group but it needs to be explained to “speed demons” that If the paddle is advertised as a beginners trip, then everyone should be paddling at beginners pace and not at racing pace- Another way is to pair up a “speed demon” with a beginner and get them to teach basic skills to them.
The leader nominates a back person and keeps an eye out for him/her. The leader is normally in the lead and the last person (back person) is the second best paddler, then your other good paddlers spread throughout the group. The rest of the group keep within co-ee of the two. If any problems occur then help is close at hand. When conditions become bad, the distance between paddlers reduces, so as to maintain contact. If the distance reduces to a state where there is a possibility of collision, then it’s about time to think “should we be here”.
I have found that group size of 4-10 people is manageable, If there is more than this number of paddlers, then split into small individual groups with each group having a leader and backperson.
The leader ensures that no dangerous area like a gauntlet, tidal rip or surf break is run “blind”. Take at least 5 min to watch a “set” come through and see what is happening. It is easier to wait and see what is happening rather than trying to do a rescue. This is vital for when there is a big range of skills in the group. A plan of attack needs to be worked out and communicated to every one in the group. You would never paddle a grade 4-5 rapid without looking at it, but people don’t even pause to check out a nasty gauntlet or surf zone, when both can have the same level of danger! After a hard days paddle and the surf landing is all that is left between you and a cold beer, it is tempting to run things blind – But remember, the beer tastes horrible if you are doing fibreglass repairs at the same time!
Remember when you are a leader, it is because you have the most experience and skills. If you get in trouble who’s going to help you? Play it safe.
Last year while enjoying the sea caves at Jervis Bay, I went straight into a cave that I had been in many times before. I didn’t realise it at the time but the next set followed me in. A fair bit of scraping and bashing of the boat and me resulted, and I left that cave shaken but wiser.
When the group is running a difficult or dangerous gauntlet or beach landing /exit, the leader directs proceedings. This includes directing experienced paddlers to a safe “catching” positions, whether it is on the beach waiting to catch boats and swimmers or if it is a good paddler who is waiting in the lee of rocks so he can help if things go wrong. Photography or videos should be the third priority!
While most experienced paddlers love surfing and running gauntlets, beginners are afraid of these zones. By taking precautions it not only means that rescues can be done quickly and easily, but it also allows beginners to try more difficult situations knowing that if they make a mistake they will have help close at hand, Remember, swimming in the surf or in gauntlets is dangerous and even can be life threatening, so take precautions before the group is committed and always look after a swimmer first, then gear. If the surf is great you can always come back later.
If rescue is necessary, the leader directs this quickly and safely, mobilising other members of the group into swift action. It is important for rescues to be effected quickly and someone must take charge to ensure everyone knows what they should be doing. Communication is the key. Two good friends I know, owe their life to their paddling friends quick action after they became trapped under water and stopped breathing. Team work saved their lives.
Remember the whitewater rescue rule – when a person is underwater they will be of help for 30 seconds – after 2min you will need to resuscitate then up to 10 min when major brain damage has occurred. SO BE QUICK Hypothermia can be a problem when rescues occur for both the rescued person and the group if they have to wait around.
The leader keeps an eye on all members of the group and ensures they stay together as a group. On a trip to Montague Island I remember about 30? people charging down the beach and leaving for the 10km sea crossing. To this day I have no idea of how many people went on this trip, it might as well been an individual paddle not a club paddle. One paddler became very sea sick and required one paddler to support him while both paddlers were being towed. The scary part of this story was that over half the group didn’t know anything had gone wrong until they saw them land an hour latter. What would of happened if the sick paddler was the last in the group ? The point is that you paddle with a group to reduce the dangers.
It is very hard to keep track of a group bigger than 8-10, so when their are a lot of people, break up into smaller groups (target number is 6) with a leader and back person.
- The leader knows when to quit. Gauntlets and beach landings should not be paddled in the dark when there are non experienced paddlers as it is difficult to see and judge the waves & other hazards. In addition, if someone gets into trouble you just won’t see them. Night paddling has a whole new set of safety rules and is not for intermediate paddlers. If you want an idea of what it can be like, blindfold yourself (quick release) and do a surf landing. If sea conditions become such that it can no longer be paddled safely due to wind swell or chop, the party should take the quickest and safest method out of there including finding some where to land quickly, then either walk out or camp the night. Hopefully everyone has the necessary gear for this -. Unexpected walk outs or bivouacs are part of the fun and adventure of kayaking, if you are properly prepared!
- The leader also has the responsibility to direct someone to land and walk out (or turn back) if it becomes clear that they will be unable to complete the trip in safety. This is one of the hardest things you will have to do as a leader, but remember, the safety of the group is only as strong as it’s weakest link. Of course it is better to ascertain someone’s skill level well before they get on the water.
- The leader sets the example and helps with moving gear & boats. We are lucky in Australia and we always tend to land on sandy beaches. But when you land on rocks or boat ramps with boat, paddle & wobbly feet at the end of a long day you are more likely to slip on rocks (could mean a serious injury), A helping hand reduces the chances of injury, especially when people are cold and tired. Many hands make light work.
- The leader lets someone know the group is safe. As the leader has already let someone responsible know the details of the trip, he or she should give this person a call. The purpose of this is not just to gloat over what a great trip they missed (don’t hold back, though, still do this!) but rather, to simply let them know the trip finished safely.
This not an exhaustive list so if you have any additions or comments please submit these to the editor so we can continue our focus on safety.
This article is based on an article that Danny Davis wrote for SPLASH , the monthly journal of the River Canoe Club of NSW about safety aspects for white water paddling, my experiences, and other NSWSK club members experiences. If it has made you think or argue over any of the points, then I recommend that you buy or borrow a book on kayaking safety that you can find in your local kayak shop or better still attend a proficiency course. The safety principals for white water are the same for sea kayaking, just different challenges & methods of adaptation