Sea Kayaking As An Individual In A Group [39]

or Picking A Daisy to Make A Daisy Chain

By Sarah Adler

The following exploration is twofold. Clearly group leaders have to fulfill certain requirements, to be effective, as discussed extensively in Ross Winters’ informative article (Sea Kayaker July 1998). Apparently less well understood are the roles and responsibilities of individual paddlers to themselves and equally importantly to the group, when embarking on a trip with other people, be it with the NSWSKC or not. After all a club is only as good as its members.

Having found an avenue to meet people who share my interest in sea kayaking here in Australia, I have been struck by the apparent inability of many to act responsibly. Since I do not feel this is intentional it must be because people do not recognise the special qualities needed for paddling with companions safely on the sea.

In contemporary society, people are falsely lured into thinking they can control their environment and what is more they are fairly indestructible. In view of the recent introduction of waivers within the club, it is vital to acknowledge the fact that on a club event you as an individual have a responsibility to yourself, the leader and the rest of the group. This means you must be aware that your actions directly affect others.

Assuming at this point that paddlers know what to wear and take on a trip, depending on the actual trip planned, and about boat preparation, they have already fulfilled some of their responsibilities. It is the next step however that concerns me since the inherent nature of the sea clearly shows we cannot control it and it must be respected.

I often describe sea kayaking as one of my passions. I love the moods of the ocean and the space. To glimpse the majesty of nature in good company, where I may choose for a while to paddle alone without talking or whilst conversing, is something I treasure. Sea kayaking is a holistic way of nurturing my physical, spiritual and emotional well being and I find it an effective way of setting new challenges and then attaining them step by step.

I have done some solo trips and many group trips over the past 7 years. I enjoy being with others and agree that:

“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” (Ross Winters 1998).

Since a group by definition is more than one person there is a demand placed upon individuals to alter some part of their behaviour. If I paddle and behave in the same way on group trips as I do when journeying alone: It does not work.

I would suggest that this is where group dynamics in the NSWSKC at the moment are faltering most of the time.

Norm Sanders in his President’s report (July 1998) says;

“Like many sea kayakers I’m a bit of a loner. I enjoy the solitude of paddling … Strangely enough I also get a kick out of kayaking in company with others. I guess that’s why I’m in the NSWSKC.”

I would urge you at this point to consider why you choose to paddle with others in the hope that this may reveal some of the inherent responsibilities involved. Whether or not your answer in any way relates to the ‘safety margin ‘ it is up to you as an individual member of a group to acknowledge that: Your actions will affect the group effectiveness and safety.

The trip leader has a role to play here but so do individuals since they can add to or detract from even the most competent leader’s abilities. (As an aside I feel it is worth mentioning the idea that it is possible, indeed often desirable to lead a group from the centre or the rear and not just from the front. Having worked for a number of years leading groups I am able to alter my position according to the group’s needs at different times. I would also suggest that whether or not you choose to be leading groups on the ocean there is a lot of value which can come from exploring group dynamics. There are many excellent books on the subject).

Utilising the ocean as a medium it is imperative to be aware of the dangers that lurk there. The weather can change very quickly and contrary to weather reports. Even with extensive knowledge of the sea, which in reality is only possessed by a few people in the club, hypo/ hyperthermia are real risks, injury may occur, a paddler may become sea sick, gear may be damaged or lost and so on. These predicaments can be worked with effectively if a group is cohesive or may be magnified if the group becomes a number of selfish paddlers at sea. Strong words but after several trips recently where I observed an apparent lack of awareness or consideration for other club members I feel they are justified.

So what does it take to have a group which ‘ works’ as opposed to one that doesn’t?

By describing my experience on several paddles with the club I will illustrate how the behaviour of individuals actually detracts from my enjoyment and the group’s safety if they do not know how to function as a unit whilst sea kayaking. It is an assumption that adults will adhere to guidelines. It is false. However I strongly believe that the chances of people of any age doing what they have been asked to do increases if they understand why they are to do it. I suspect many people have not stopped to consider the differences between paddling as an individual alone and as an individual in a group.

At Currarong on ‘The Next Step’ weekend I rather apprehensively decided to take part in an early morning paddle. My uncertainty came from hearing rumours about the pace of club paddles. I knew I was fully able to complete the trip in terms of my ability. The scenery was potentially magnificent and the weather inviting yet for much of the journey I struggled to keep up with the pace, which meant that much of the pleasure of the paddle for me was lost.

I found myself rushing from point A to B. By the end, having passed through every imaginable emotion I felt a sense of anger as well as having strained my body physically. I was “left” to paddle at the back most of the way and on that occasion could not go any faster. Nor did I want to. For me part of the pleasure of kayaking is to be in the moment not chasing a goal. The “front” paddlers did not stop during the entire trip to let me catch up.

The pace of the group is set by the slowest person not the fastest.

Potentially the strain to my body made me paddle less effectively and in that way can be seen as having a detrimental impact on the group.

For those of you who do not know what it is like to paddle at full strength for a whole paddle and still be at the back I suggest that you try and envisage another aspect of your life where you may have found yourself in a similar situation -struggling. It is very demoralising and there is no need for it to happen. It is not encouraging to reach the group as a ‘tired’ paddler just as they finish their break and paddle off again. This can lead to exhaustion. There is plenty of evidence to show that eventually people give up.

Perhaps it would be helpful for those people who always paddle fast to challenge themselves to change their pace or stop and just ‘ be’ on the sea as opposed to needing to ‘do’? There is always a lot to appreciate…the colours of the ocean, clouds, rock formations, smells and so on. It may also be a golden opportunity to practice stroke refinement or to share a few useful tips with fellow paddlers. At the very least I suggest paddlers develop the habit of looking back at the rest of the group regularly to remind themselves they have a key role to play in the group’s safety. If the rear paddlers are mere specks on the horizon you need to wait. At the end of the day individual paddlers need to make a choice about how accountable they want to be for their own behaviour ,acknowledging that in a group it has a domino effect.

It is relevant to mention here a comment made to me by a male club member at my first weekend:

“Oh it is good to see a woman here. They don’t stay long.”

Whilst I do not believe that my discussion of group dynamics is solely a gender issue, it does have some relevance. If you are someone who enjoys a challenge but can only see that in terms of speed or high risk and cannot appreciate the perception of fear and what it is like to feel terrified then perhaps it is time to broaden your awareness? Talking to other women in the club these issues are already causing individuals to ‘give up’ and choose paddles of a lower grade than their abilities allow. Is this also the case for some of the male club members? It may explain the ever increasing numbers in the club but the relatively small percentage of active paddlers? I hope this article will go some way redressing the balance.

On an overnight paddle from Kioloa recently it was suggested that the group stay within 500 metres of each other. For much of the trip that did not happen. The group finished not as a group except in numbers, at different times and with several very irritated paddlers. In this case’ time’ seemed to be setting the pace or trying to. It does not work as a sole incentive where people with differing paddle speeds are involved, which is always the case. I agree time is a realistic constraint but would suggest it is better to leave earlier than rush the whole way.

Another point, which has arisen on a number of recent paddles, is the need for rendezvous points with the aim of regrouping. If the group is operating as a unit, such a notion is redundant and if the group is dispersed over a large area, as was the case paddling into Batemans Bay recently through a major shipping channel, motorised boats may think they have passed the group and then discover fragments of the party paddling elsewhere.

During a paddle to Tuross in June there was a capsize in calm conditions. It was not possible to work as a group effectively to get the person back in his kayak since some people were too far away to hear a whistle blow and therefore didn’t even know what had happened. If the group is spread over a large area the leader’s attention is naturally divided. Had the sea been rougher their assistance may have meant the difference between an epic and a minor incident. There was no wind and I have a very loud whistle. Maybe it would be a useful exercise to try out effective whistle distances on a future training weekend in order to see whether they have any safety value?

In order for trips to go ahead through the club, leaders are needed. I surmise that what will happen with time and with increased fears of litigation is that people will not come forward to lead if the risks are too high. It is up to each one of us as potentially responsible adults to be responsible and to show respect where it is due to ourselves and our fellow club members.

To conclude …

Paddling in a group, ironically, takes self awareness. Individuals must select appropriate paddles to do and be aware of what they can do to improve their paddling ability, but more importantly as a member of a group they must also take on board the points raised if it is to reach it’s full potential.

It takes many daisies to make a daisy chain just as it takes individual paddlers to make a group. Having a few people in one place does not guarantee they are working as a group unless communication is effective and the links of the chain are formed and maintained. Having a pile of daisies will not automatically form a chain!