Kayaking is so much fun!!! But it still is a potentially dangerous activity and should be treated as such. The fun and safety of a trip can be greatly enhanced by a really good trip leader and a good understanding by the rest of the group of just what that means.
Trip leadership can be a very rewarding task. Good prior planning will ensure that your trip runs smoothly, and you’ll want to lead another. Some groups can operate well without a leader, but it’s often more efficient to choose a leader and leave nothing to chance. Keep in mind that all tasks are not your responsibility–delegate planning, preparation, or chores to others, but make sure the job still gets done.
The first key to a well led trip is for the trip leader to be assertive and make clear that he/she is the leader. We aren’t talking about power trips here. But if something starts to go wrong on the water, the group must have the ability to make rapid and concrete decisions. You don’t want to argue about who the leader is during an emergency. Make that decision ahead of time.
For more involved trips, you might consider organizing a pretrip briefing. Have your group meet together to let them meet each other, see the intended route, and what specific gear, clothing, and skills might be needed. Plan whether you’ll eat group or individual meals in camp. Group members might find out they need a piece of gear or a little practice well before the trip. Without a pretrip briefing, someone may show up for the trip without an essential, and you would be faced with the extremely difficult decision: do you ask them to stay on shore, or go on the trip, with the added risk imposed by the missing gear/skill/clothing.
A good leader doesn’t do everything. Good leaders delegate and make everyone feel a shared responsibility for the safety of the group. For example, when crossing a shipping channel, a group must stay close together. A good leader will explicitly structure the group to make sure this happens by assigning a point, a sweep and two flanking paddlers. The group is then directed to stay inside these paddlers.
The trip leader makes sure the group is adequately prepared. Your group members should possess the needed skills and endurance for the trip. You are all safer paddling in a group, but each individual should paddle and prepare as if they had to paddle the route solo. Depending on the location, duration, and difficulty of the trip the trip leader should consider some or all of the following planning functions:
- Planning around the tides.
- Consulting the weather forecast.
- Navigation, where are we, where are we headed, where do we want to go?
- Planning the length of the trip based on participants’ experience level and average speed.
- Scouting the put in and take out points for parking, restrooms, cost, etc.
- Making camping reservations.
- Planning back out options if the weather should change.
- Deciding in advance what conditions would cause you to cancel the trip, or change the destination.
- Informing a responsible person of your intentions and planned return or check-in times.
As trip leader, it is your responsibility to plan a trip that fits the skills and interests of your group members. A trip that is too long and boring, or too difficult and challenging could scare your group away from kayaking (or from kayaking with you) ever again.
Before Getting in the Water
A good leader will:
- Listen to the weather radio for a last-minute update
- Go over the relevant charts with everyone. Point out potential hazards. Let the group know where they are going and what is expected of them.
- Check your group members for proper immersion clothing and properly- fitting PFD’s.
- Ask if everyone is feeling well today
- Ask if anyone is missing or forgot any gear (as a leader, it’s a good idea to bring your spare gear in your vehicle so you can loan it to the forgetful paddler)
- Help group members launch and make sure their spray skirts are correctly attached (grab loops out!!!)
It will make the trip much more enjoyable for everyone.
Communication is very difficult or even impossible once the group is on the water. A good trip leader will start every trip with a brief discussion of how the group will communicate on the water. Define the basic messages the group will use on the water. Some common WW signals are:
- One whistle blast to get attention, more than one to call for HELP.
- Point your paddle straight up in the air and wave it back and forth to call for help.
- “Point positive” with the paddle to move the group around hazards.
- Hold the paddle horizontal and in the air to tell the group to hold their positions.
- Hold the paddle vertical and in the air to tell the group to come together (i.e. to round-up).
For larger groups, ask another strong paddler to act as sweep paddler. If you’re leading from the front of the group, you’ll need the sweep to make sure nobody lags behind, or needs a rescue that you may not immediately see.
On The Water
During the trip, the Leader must watch closely for potential problems, such as:
- someone lagging behind
- someone racing far ahead
- increasing wind or wave activity
- unsafe practices
- other boat traffic
- behind or ahead of schedule
If you’re in the front of the group, and the back of the group is lagging farther and farther behind, have the faster paddlers slow down so the group can keep in closer proximity. It’s tempting to ask the slower paddlers to paddle faster to catch up to the front, but in reality, the only control you’ll have is to slow the speed demons. You might consider encouraging the group to practice towing skills. Harness the slower paddlers to the faster paddlers, and you’ll maintain a more consistent pace. Tell the slower paddlers they’re not being towed because they’re too slow, but because the other folks are too fast and not staying back with the group. The slower paddlers should not take a free ride and should even paddle while being towed.
You must have solid rescue and recovery skills. Group members may need to count on your solid recovery skills if their own bracing skills are not quite up to par. You should have an adequate repair kit, and emergency and signaling equipment.
Keep an eye out for people who might be feeling ill, muscle fatigue or sprains, or have equipment problems.
Trip leaders must be attentive to the needs and condition of other paddlers. You might be used to keeping track of your own well-being on most trips, but you’re now responsible to look out for the others on your trip. Even if you’re not leading the trip, keeping in shape, being alert, and being safe will be a lot of help to the trip leader.
Unless you’re being paid to lead the trip, relax your leadership position in camp. Individual meals and tents work best for groups who haven’t camped much together. Inevitably, there will be folks who don’t share camp chores, and expect to be waited on. First, don’t be that kind of person yourself. Second, if you have a person like that in camp, individual meals will ensure that their hunger is their own problem. Let them figure out how to eat. Third, don’t invite them next time.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.