Paddling With a Group – All the info you need

Dealing effectively with groups of people is a skill that will serve us in all areas of our lives.  It can also be a challenge- because people as individuals tend to have their own ideas about how they relate to a group, and not all of these ideas work very well in practice.  There’s a profound difference between a set of individuals and a cohesive group, and we’ve all felt that difference- where a group is tightly related and conscious of itself, the group is vastly more capable than the sum of it’s parts.  Where individual members are unconscious to the needs of the group, often the group is weaker than the sum of the individual member’s capabilities.

Gather and discuss all matters before you engage paddling with a group

The difference between a great group and a poor one is palpable- there’s nothing less pleasant than a group made up of all leaders with no followers, unless it’s a group made up of all followers with no leaders. The greatness of a group exists in the space of leadership and relatedness.

  • Leadership 

When we listen for that which others need in order to move forward, we discover our own capacity for leadership.  It is not in speaking or giving orders that leaders exist- rather, it is in our ability to listen for what is needed in the moment, and to express ideas such that they occur as opportunity for others.  Thus, leadership is a function of relatedness.

  • Relatedness

By relatedness we don’t mean going be on a date with your group member but more like companionship or when we listen for the needs of others, we discover relatedness.  As we relate to our world in different contexts, we discover that our identity is a function of this relatedness- thus, as we relate to our groups effectively, we operate at a level of identity where the distinction between self and group is meaningless.

As paddlers, often our groups come with a degree of relatedness built in- we have in common the pursuit of fun and the need for safety and well-being on the river.

Creeking can be great fun, but it introduces a number of challenges to the participants- as the technical difficulty of the river and the objective dangers involved increase, the ability of group members to see and communicate with each other decreases- creeks are noisy places with lots of variables, blind corners, horizon lines, hidden dangers, and the like.  As a result, the importance of group dynamics on the water as a means of mitigating these hazards increases, even as the ease of communication decreases.

Most experienced paddlers have developed habits for managing their group’s dynamics– experience, after all, is the best teacher.  That said, it’s also a truism that experience is the process of learning from your mistakes.  The purpose of this article will not be to inform you of all the possible mistakes, but rather to give you a framework of ideas to work with in order to create your own system of group communication and safety practices- ideally you’ll be leveraging the experience of a mentor or other experienced paddler, but without knowing what questions to ask, you may be left to your own mistakes to learn from :-P.

To begin, creeking differs from other kinds of paddling in several significant ways:

  • The danger factor is often higher in terms of technical hazards.
  • Visibility on the river is often reduced, increasing the likelihood of two things: loss of visual contact between paddlers in the group, and lack of visual ‘before the fact’ clues about technical hazards.
  • Noise is often higher on creeks than elsewhere, meaning auditory communication methods become less reliable as well.
  • As often as not, as the dangers increase, the remoteness does too- so the stakes of injury go up.

To overcome these challenges, I offer these operating principles:

Paddler’s Safety Checklist

  • Safety comes first.  True, we’re here to have fun, but the fun factor goes down significantly when something bad happens.  When in doubt, play it safe.
  • Every unknown should be treated as deadly if you can’t see it, it’s unknown.  Nothing that can be seen by looking at it from another angle should come as a surprise.
  • Every event should have a witness. If you’re running a significant drop, make sure someone sees you do it (and more importantly, sees you come out okay).
  • Everyone should have an idea of what’s going on with everyone else.Who’s upstream of you, who’s downstream?  Who’s setting safety?  Who’s about to run 
  • Everyone is responsible for themselves first.

Understand the roles that are played in your group:

Every group of paddlers is different.  Even the same group of paddlers is arguably different on a different day- but more importantly, different paddlers have different strengths and weaknesses, both in terms of their paddling, and in terms of their leadership, communications, water-reading, and non-paddling (e.g. safety, climbing, rope skills, etc) skills.  Because a good group’s operation can go a long way toward overcoming the added demands put upon you by the more challenging environment, it’s useful to talk about the roles we play:

  • Probe
    Probe is the paddler, bless their heart, that runs a given rapid first.  Probe discovers the sticky holes and the piton rocks, preferably not the hard way.  Point paddler is often the best reader of water in the group, but in a strong group the role can shift around.  If it’s a rapid that warrants set safety, probe will run the rapid and then switch roles into safety, setting up where appropriate, and often signal additional information back to the group.  Additionally, Probe/Point is in charge of being the front boundary of the group- if someone is washed downstream, he/she is witness and first responder.  If a given drop is impossible to set safety on, probe/point is the one to run first and set safety for the vanguard.
  • Newbie
    Newbie has the boat control skills to be here, but still needs to learn the roles and skills associated with said roles- newbie usually needs to learn how to read water and scout, so is often a vanguard paddler.
  • Leader
    Leader is the paddler who takes care of the details- leader knows who has rescue or medical gear, leader is first in charge of managing a crisis, leader sets the pace for the run, and often coaches newbie.  Leader doesn’t need to be the best paddler in a group- leader is a managerial position, judgment is leader’s strong suit.
  • Safety
    Safety is a role everyone must be prepared to play- however, some tactics can work without everyone’s participation- if, for example, sweep sets safety for probe, then probe sets safety for everyone else, the vanguard paddlers may not need to do much of this.
  • Relay
    Relay is the paddler who passes line-of-sight communications from one end of the party to the other- signaling that safety is set, signaling to the safety folks that the paddler is coming, etc.  Usually relay is also setting safety.  Relay is the most important member of the team when it comes to managing traffic.
  • Sweep
    Sweep is the last paddler to run the rapid- the anchorman to the relay. In aggressive groups that move quickly, one of sweep’s job is to make sure that nobody (especially newbie) gets left behind, and in cases where it’s impossible to go back up the rapid to set safety, sweep needs to be the guy who won’t need it.

Traffic Control:  In a strong group on familiar water, there are many options about how to proceed downriver that are in keeping with most, if not all, of the operating principles outlined above.

One runner at a time

Paddling one by one

As it implies, the whole group stops at every significant rapid, scouts as a group, and sets safety for every single person as they run.

Benefits:

  • Simplicity- This system is easy to understand.
  • Allows everyone time to scout everything for themselves.
  • Allows the group to proceed with a set run order.
  • Allows for use of set safety and relays in order to make sure every event is witnessed and to avoid bunching up.
  • Allows for near-maximal safety coverage- everyone’s attention is focused on the paddler.
  • Makes for better storytelling afterward.

Downsides:

  • This methodology requires probe or Leader to identify drops that the group will use it on.
  • It’s slow.
  • It requires room for multiple people to get out and stage before and after each significant drop.

In terms of safety and conservativeness, this is probably the most desirable mode of moving through difficult rapids, unless speed (or daylight) is a concern.  It’s social, excellent for redundancy and teaching, and allows for photography.

Blue Angel

This is the practice of paddling single file, each paddler following the one before.

Benefits:

  • It’s fast.  A group can cover a lot of ground in moderately difficult water this way without scouting.
  • It allows one leader who knows the run to guide multiple followers who may not.
  • For every event, there is a witness unless you’re running sweep.

Downsides:

  • It requires at least one member of the group to have prior knowledge of the run.
  • If one follower ‘breaks the chain’ and takes a different line, later paddlers are left without reliable guidance.
  • Bunching up is a serious concern.
  • There’s no ‘relay’ mechanism to notify you that the next blind drop is good, unless you can see the paddler you’re following.
  • Safety may be slow in coming if trouble occurs.
  • Because each follower is merely following their leader, often they don’t learn the rapids as well as they would have had they scouted.

Blue Angel is a fun way to move quickly, but if things go wrong for someone, the situation often falls apart.  Because of it’s lack of robustness, it’s usually done either by groups of very strong individuals, or by mere mortals as a way to move quickly through relatively easy rapids, to be replaced by a more conservative mode when the group arrives at more serious rapids.

Rolling Safety

This is the method by which the person at the end of the party is always the next paddler to go, and when they’ve run past everybody (who is setting safety) they take up the duties of ‘point’- that is, scouting the next drop, advising others about where to go, and setting safety at that point.

Benefits

  • It minimizes the amount of running around and allows a big party to move effectively in tight quarters or in dense rapids that require scouting every 50 feet, for example
  • It helps to minimize bunching in tight quarters.
  • It spreads out the scouting and ensures that everything gets looked at by at least someone and there’s always safety set
  • It enforces the ‘one boater at a time’ and ‘always a witness to everything’ rules very well
  • It requires everyone to pay attention to the whole group

Downsides

  • Requires a strong group where everybody is capable of performing all roles
  • More difficult to lead and organize
  • If drops require more than just verbal directions, flow ends up being choppy.

This method is best for runs where set safety or scouting is a good idea, but for which paddlers are okay getting verbal or handsign guidance for the next drop.  It’s excellent for moving quickly downstream on runs where the drops are blind enough to require safety verification (is it okay?  Where to go off?) but not complicated enough to require everyone to scout everything for themselves.

At the same time, this requires each scout to judge for themselves whether anybody in the group will need to look at this rapid for themselves.

Because this method loses quite a bit of it’s efficiency if every single paddler scouts every single drop, often this mode of movement is a means of moving quickly and conservatively through relatively easy (or familiar) rapids.

BEFORE YOU PUT ON:

Prior to getting on the river, before choosing which mode of traffic control to use for your group, Leader has three major tasks to accomplish: 

Essential gear before you embark on any paddling activity

  •  Inventory Safety Gear, medical conditions, and Skill Sets
  • Who has or lacks rescue gear (ropes, quick-release harness, carabiners, pulleys, belay devices, friction devices) and training on how to use it?
  • Who’s got a breakdown paddle or hand paddles?
  • Who has (or lacks) medical gear or specific medical training?
  • Who has a medical condition that the group needs to know about?  Are you asthmatic? Got any chronic injuries? Weak from too much sex?
  • Who knows the run you’re about to do and who doesn’t?
  • Where are the keys to the put-in/take-out vehicles?  Who has cell phones or radios?

2) Establish a Communication ProtocolBecause creeking puts you in a loud environment where you can’t reliably see or hear the person you need to communicate with, you need to become familiar with different modes of communication:

  • paddle signals
  • hand signals
  • whistle signals
  • other (radio, etc)

There are standard signals for all of the above, but it pays to agree on them beforehand, and to have that agreed-upon protocol fresh in everyone’s memory.

3) Establish a Crisis Protocol. – Given that everyone understands the signal for ‘trouble’ your group is using, it’s important that everyone know what to do when it is seen or heard.  In this situation, simple action is usually the best- that is, first make sure that you’re safe, and second, once you’re safe, find out whether you can help or not.

The most imperative thing about having a crisis protocol in place is that if the protocol is already established, you don’t need to make it up on the spot- which is a good thing, as crisis degrades the quality of our decision-making… especially if we’re new to creeking.

The best crisis protocol is not to engage on any high adrelanie activites if your not cut for it. You can simply stay relaxed on the beach and watch the others sweat and endanger themselves.

Good group dynamics can go a long way towards mitigating or overcoming some of the added hazards and difficulties of paddling challenging water.  Beyond that, they are a reward in their own right- for many (including the author) being part of a good group is as rewarding as the paddling… and as an added bonus, getting in the habit of connecting well with other paddlers can bleed over into your life and affect you positively in other aspects of your life.