Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who's in charge here?

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.

Rescue/Safety Scenarios

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Quest Unfulfilled

A recap of the situation.  Sean, Pedro and myself set out to paddle to all eight of the Channel Islands off the southern California coast.  After doing the first three in three days (and covering over 100 miles) Pedro and I decided that the longer open crossings we had coming up wouldn't be wise.  So we went to one more island (Anacapa) on our way back to the mainland.  Sean went on to Santa Barbara Island but the winds were not favorable and without the time to wait he headed to Catalina and then the mainland.  On his way he had a not so pleasant encounter with a Blue shark (no attack but plenty of circling and harassment for several minutes) and a more pleasant encounter with a megapod of Blue whales. So the goal of paddling to both San Nicolas and San Clemente is yet to be achieved - but it definitely still on the to do list.

I'm afraid I was interrupted from my Channel Islands video editing by having to teach a whitewater class.  But class is over and the editing is done - video is below.  For some reason my editing program (Sony Vegas) kept crashing when I tried to render a High Def version but eventually I got it to work.  I have to say it might have been a good thing we quit when we did - after doing just four of the eight islands I had hours of video to edit and a really tough time getting it cut down to ten minutes.

Video below and Pictures HERE

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

And then there was one

UPDATE:  Sean just txted us from Catalina - too windy out there so he's headed back to the mainland tomorrow.  DARN IT!

When I first put together the Channel Islands Expedition I rounded up a team of five paddlers.  In the planning stages two of the members dropped out for various reasons.  So three of us launched from Gaviota last week on the attempt.  After three days of paddling it became clear that two of us would not be making the record attempts on San Nicolas or San Clemente Islands so we headed back to the mainland while it was nearby.  So now it is just Sean Morley out there on the water attempting to complete a circumnavigation of all eight Channel Islands solo.  You can follow his progress on his SPOT page.

Personally, while I am disappointed not to complete the trip I feel that it was the smart decision to bail out when we did.  Our pace was slower than planned over the first few days and the distances were only getting longer.  Pedro was having some trouble with his back and that could have turned into a real nightmare on the big crossings if the weather were to deteriorate and force several hours of hard paddling.  And while I felt that I was physically strong enough to make the attempt I was not going to be able to keep up with Sean's pace and if he had to slow down for me it would have been a grueling trip for him - it is essential on such long paddles that each paddler be able to go at their fastest comfortable pace.  So I returned home with Pedro having gotten in four days of paddling in a beautiful setting, seeing islands that I hadn't visited in years.  And I'm certain I'll be back out there paddling some more and quite possibly make an attempt on visiting all eight islands sometime in the future.  But for now join me in wishing Sean all the best of luck - fair weather and fast paddling.

I'll have more pictures and video to add in a day or two...

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Messenger

GPS location Date/Time:09/14/2010 15:20:42 PDT
Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:
Click the link below to see where I am located.\-119.22215
If the above link does not work, try this link:,-119.22215&ll=34.15951,-119.22215&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

Monday, September 13, 2010

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Messenger

GPS location Date/Time:09/13/2010 18:03:00 PDT
Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:
Click the link below to see where I am located.\-119.56113
If the above link does not work, try this link:,-119.56113&ll=34.04818,-119.56113&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Messenger

GPS location Date/Time:09/12/2010 18:53:40 PDT
Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:
Click the link below to see where I am located.\-119.55638
If the above link does not work, try this link:,-119.55638&ll=34.04872,-119.55638&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Messenger

GPS location Date/Time:09/11/2010 17:34:57 PDT
Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:
Click the link below to see where I am located.\-120.04704
If the above link does not work, try this link:,-120.04704&ll=33.91973,-120.04704&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

Friday, September 10, 2010

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Messenger

GPS location Date/Time:09/10/2010 16:21:57 PDT
Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:
Click the link below to see where I am located.\-120.35242
If the above link does not work, try this link:,-120.35242&ll=34.0467,-120.35242&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Off to the Islands!

I drove down to San Diego yesterday and picked up my boat for the Channel Islands ExpeditionSeda is giving me a Glider for the trip and she's a beauty:  nineteen feet of speed and storage.  I love my Ikkuma as an overall boat but it gets a little tight when packing for two weeks.  And I'm also expecting rather mellow seas but long distances to cover - so every tenth of a knot of additional speed makes a difference.  I've spent today outfitting the boat so I haven't even had the chance to take it for a test spin.  But I have faith that it will float.

The last minute shopping is done and my new friend Eric Bloom is shuttling us to Gaviota tonight (a huge favor that is much appreciated).  We launch tomorrow morning (unless the forecast changes for the worse) and should be back in 11 days.  Wish us luck and keep checking the blog for updates from my SPOT.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Expedition training - sort of

With my Channel Islands expedition coming up shortly it seemed like a good idea to do some more training.  But instead of heading out to the ocean in a long boat I figured trying to make a really short boat go long distances on flat water would make good training as well.  So I went down to the Tuolumne river outside Yosemite for the holiday weekend and spent three days on the river getting in some good training.  Paddling a six foot boat instead of the nineteen foot speedster I'll be picking up for the expedition was sure to give me a good work out.

Truthfully, the weekend wasn't meant to be training but rather a great river trip to get in some whitewater kayaking with lots of old friends from southern California.  The main group (fourteen folks total) did two back to back one day trips down the main 'T': eighteen miles of class IV whitewater with plenty of slow stretches and a couple miles of paddling on the reservoir to finish off each day.  Many people take two (or three) days to run the river but by doing the whole rive each day we didn't have to carry any gear and we could take play boats instead of creek boats, making the river more fun and challenging.  But the trip was much more than just paddling - it was a chance to hang out with good friends in a low stress environment, enjoying not only the water but the scenery, the camping, the dinner in town and the experience as a whole.  It was pure fun.

The day before the masses arrived some of us decided to run the upper Tuolumne run (known commonly as Cherry Creek since that is where the run starts).  This is a class V affair and one of the most consistent and beautiful runs in the state, exceptional in that it has summer releases scheduled so it is still flowing in September when everything else is dried up.  Me and Alex had both down the river a couple times but not for years.  We lead a group of four first timers stepping up to their first real class V run.  It had the potential for epic disaster but everything went quite smoothly.  I had to scout more than expected since all the rapids had blurred together in my memory and I got beat down once when probing a hole, but otherwise it was an uneventful day in the best kind of way.  Going slow we ended up getting behind the release of water by the time we portaged around the last two big rapids but it didn't really bother us at that point.  But it would be nice to get back to Cherry a little more often so I could remember the lines and just have fun bombing the entire run.

Pictures HERE and video below: