Some thoughts on leading kayak trips
By Bryant Burkhardt
Having belonged to several paddling clubs over the years and paddled with many more, one issue that continually recurs is the reluctance of most paddlers to ‘lead’ a paddle. Plenty of people want to go on paddle outings that someone else initiates but the thought of taking on that responsibility themselves sends many competent kayakers running for the hills. And not just for club paddles – I’ve seen many groups of friends out for an afternoon paddle break down into disorganization, quarrels and worse. The role of a leader is often a necessary one but most people don’t realize how easy it can be and how little work it actually requires.
Let me draw a distinction here between leading a trip for a club or group versus leading people in a professional capacity. If you’re getting paid to lead a trip you have additional responsibilities, both technical and legal. And you will need advanced training (first aid, group management, etc.) to properly carry out your duties. But while a club paddle may have a ‘leader’ (or ‘host’ or ‘initiator’ or other similar term) who organizes the paddle it is still considered a joint adventure – everyone ultimately shares the responsibility on the trip. And it is important that everyone understands that so if you are the organizer make sure people are aware of their responsibilities as well as your own.
Leadership in organizing
Quite often the most important thing for a trip leader to do is to schedule a paddle. Pick a date, set a location and meeting time and let people know that it’s happening. After that many things often take care of themselves – people show up, they get themselves ready to paddle, they get themselves organized and they go. But sometimes people need a little help – they need directions, some info on how challenging the paddle will be, what gear will be necessary, what experience they should have, etc. The more info the trip leader provides up front the easier it will be for people to decide if the trip is for them and what they will need to bring. As a leader, spell out what you will be providing and what you will NOT be providing – will you keep the group together, will everyone paddle at their own pace, will people be responsible for their own navigation, do they need to RSVP, etc. Don’t be afraid to let people know you do not plan on holding their hand as they paddle across the channel – most paddlers are fine with that. As in so many other areas in life the key to a successful relationship between trip leader and trip participant is communication.
One question that often arises is whether or not a particular person is qualified for a particular outing. The best way to deal with the question is to allow each person to make their own choice – spell out what the possible conditions will be and what type of skills and experience you feel is necessary for the paddle and then remind them that they are responsible for themselves. If you feel someone is not ready for a trip you need to let them know. On any paddle you certainly have the right to decide who does and who does not get to paddle with you. If the paddle is an advanced one you should be strict on who you allow but if the paddle is in relatively protected waters with many bail out options then there isn’t a need to be that strict. The more inclusive you are the more successful the trip leading will be.
Leadership before launching
After everyone has arrived at the launch site it makes a huge difference if the entire group is brought together and five minutes are spent explaining the plan for the day and reinforcing the ground rules laid out when the trip was scheduled. Review basic safety procedures (and do a quick check to see who has brought what for safety gear); remind people of destinations (for breaks, lunch, takeout, etc); and let them know what your role will be as leader on the water (everyone follows you or everyone’s on their own). It’s also a good idea to do a quick review of communication on the water: paddle signals, radio channels, whatever you will be using. Getting everyone on the same page before you launch is easy and makes the day go much smoother.
Leadership on the water
Once the group is on the water you need to live up to your advanced billing. If you have said that everyone is on their own and you are just going to paddle to your destination then that is fine. But if you have said you will lead people and keep the group together then that is what you need to do. It doesn’t take much work to look after folks but it does take more awareness – you need to actually pay attention to where people are and how they are doing. Is someone lagging behind? Having trouble with the paddling conditions? Are there hazards that you are aware of but someone new to the location might not notice? The easiest way to handle this is to have a friendly conversation with folks and use that time to check in on their status and listen to what they have to say. But realize people often do not ask for help even when they need it – you need to observe as much as listen.
One common misperception of leadership is that the leader has to personally handle every situation that comes up themselves. That is simply not true and often not good leadership. A good leader delegates tasks to those who are most capable of performing them – this allows the leader to keep an eye on the big picture and the group as a whole. If someone needs rescuing there are probably several folks who can help out and whoever is closest is probably the best choice. If someone is tired (or sick or injured) and needs a tow then any strong paddler will do. If a paddler has the skill and interest to do a given trip then most likely (though not always) they will have the skills to help others on that trip when something goes wrong. So don’t feel you need to jump in and save the day – let someone else play hero while you sit back and make sure that everyone else is safe and sound.
Most serious rescue situations start as minor situations that are not dealt with in a timely manner. To avoid the major incident focus on correcting the minor ones right away. This is where leadership is key – if no one in the group feels responsible then little things get overlooked. If someone drops behind make sure they are OK. If someone looks unstable check in to see if there is an issue – new boat? feeling seasick? overly tense? If it’s a cold day see if people are feeling the effects – anyone shivering? Losing focus? Paddling slower than usual? Many problems can be solved quickly and easily at the start if at least one person in the group is looking out for them.
So the next time you’re sitting at home wishing there was a paddling trip scheduled figure out where you would like to go and schedule it yourself. Step up to the task and put the information out to the group and be clear on your role. You will find that it is relatively painless and not only allows you to go paddling but will create many friends thankful for the opportunity to join you.