Procedures for Staying and Working Together
by Duane Strosaker**
Our trio felt like a finely tuned machine, so we all agreed that we didn’t need to continue following our procedures for staying and working together as a group on the last day of the trip. After spending a week paddling and getting along great all the way the around the island, all we had left was a twenty-mile crossing back to the mainland. The weather was calm and the visibility was good. We could even see the point we were heading to across the channel. Naturally working together, we were just going to do the crossing.
Everything started fine, but soon I was struggling to keep up and bridge the quarter-mile-wide gap between my two friends. One was pulling left, and the other right. They were also racing to get ahead so the other would have to follow. I saw them steeling glances at each other and imagined the thoughts running through their heads. I had my own disappointing thoughts. In less than half an hour, any cohesion between three best paddling buddies had broken down.
Like waving a white flag to surrender, I blew my whistle and raised my paddle in the air. As they paddled over, they shook their heads, letting me know they knew what happened. Being such good friends, they played it up by jokingly accusing each other of going the wrong way. Then we all laughed about how our competitive nature kept us from staying and working together as a group even though we were going to the same place. For the rest of the crossing, we were happy to resume our procedures, allowing us to paddle together in the same direction and at the same speed.
Nothing is more difficult in sea kayaking than maintaining a cohesive group. Tired of chasing the fastest paddler, people being left behind, and the group dividing over which way to go, I developed procedures to make things easier for everyone on the paddles I organize. Not only are direction and speed handled, but also, everyone’s participation is maximized, all to keep the group staying and working together.
The difficulty with direction is that every kayak tracks differently and every paddler favors slightly left or right of the heading. If you tell everyone to steer by compass following a certain heading, soon the group will be spread out over hundreds of yards. The same results happen even if they are heading to the same point visible on the horizon. Don’t think it won’t happen using a GPS either. We have an infamous case in our local kayak club where two friends steering with GPS’s argued because they felt the other was going the wrong way.
The funny thing is that just about everyone is going the right way. For the most part, navigating by kayak is not difficult. As I like to say, it’s not like going to the moon. Sure, the heading may not be perfect and the course may zigzag or have a hook at the end, but most everyone will arrive at the same place. It is more important for the group to stay and work together than for the navigation to be perfect.
The best way to keep a group traveling in the same direction is for someone to be up front for everyone else to follow. The heading for the paddler up front can be a compass bearing, point to point, hugging the coast, or whatever is called for at that particular location. So while the paddler up front is following the heading, no one else is. Instead, they are following the paddler up front. There is a big difference between the two. Everyone following a heading will spread the group out, whereas everyone following the paddler up front will keep them together.
The difficulty with speed is that in any group someone is the fastest and someone is the slowest. This is true even among a group of well trained athletes. Soon their various paddling speeds will spread them out over a distance too. But once again, everyone will arrive at the same place, the only difference being by minutes, a large price to pay for everyone essentially paddling alone.
For a group to stay together, the speed has to be controlled, and that can be done only from the front, because the slowest paddler in the back can’t go any faster. Whoever the group is following up front has to look back frequently to check on each paddler, especially the one farthest back. If you are the paddler up front and someone is falling behind, your speed is too fast, and if all of the paddlers are right behind your stern, your speed is too slow.
Essentially, the paddler up front has the responsibility of the sweep, making sure no one is left behind. While a sweep paddler is most commonly used in the back of the group to help any stragglers, I have found it just invites the faster paddlers to leave the slower ones behind. I learned this lesson the hard way, when I was assigned to sweep from the back and was left behind towing another paddler. The paddler up front has to control the speed of the group based on the slowest paddler.
Rotating Shifts Up Front
To maximize everyone’s participation, I like to have each paddler take rotating shifts up front to steer the heading and control the speed for the group. With everyone knowing they’ll have a shift up front, they will be more likely to cooperate as a group. The length of the shifts up front depends on the number of people in the group and the length of the paddle. For example, if there are six paddlers in the group and the paddle is six hours long, everyone will get a one hour shift up front. The more paddlers who can take a shift up front, the easier it is for everyone. Steering the heading and controlling the speed is hard work, and after a shift up front, it’s nice to sink back into the group, relax, and follow the next paddler up front.
To set the example for frequently looking back to check on everyone and controlling the speed, I like to take the first shift up front. It’s best to have paddlers new at being up front take an early shift before they are tired and to save the more experienced paddlers for later in the day when everyone is tired and the winds pick up. You may want to give the slower paddlers additional shifts up front to let them slow down the speed even more if necessary. Remarkably, the slower paddlers tend to paddle faster when they are up front.
When you are up front, don’t forget to look back frequently to check on everyone in the group to control the speed. It’s important to emphasize looking back to see everyone, even if it takes looking over both shoulders, because you shouldn’t think that everyone is right behind you if you look back and see only one paddler. Sure, one paddler may be right behind you, but the rest of the group could be left behind.
The frequency that you should look back to check on everyone and the distance you should allow between you and the last paddler depends on a variety of factors. Basically, the greater the risk of the group getting separated, the more often you should look back to check on everyone and the less distance you should allow between you and the last paddler. For example, in thick fog I’ll typically look back to check on everyone at least every couple of minutes, and to keep everyone close together, not let the last paddler get back any farther than 25 yards. Whereas on a clear, calm day with everyone paddling well, looking back to check on everyone may be necessary only once every ten minutes, and to give the group some space, the last paddler can be back as far as 50 yards. Whatever the conditions, everyone should always be in voice range so they can stop the group if necessary.
If you are supposed to be following the paddler up front, avoid what I call steering from behind, which is paddling far to one side to try to draw the group in your direction. If you find yourself doing this, you are probably following the heading yourself rather than following the paddler up front. Another sign of this happening is when the paddler up front speeds up to try to stay ahead of you so you have to follow him. A sort of race ensues. You don’t want someone doing the same thing to you when it’s your turn up front, so stay in the area behind the paddler up front, who should be left free to steer the heading and control the speed for the group.
Following these procedures takes practice on everyone’s part. But the time invested in practicing is well spent, because it doesn’t take long for most paddlers to get the hang of the procedures and become an effective member of the group. Nonetheless, it will always be necessary for someone to keep things in check or the group will fall apart. Occasionally you will have to remind someone to follow the procedures. Usually it’s the paddler up front getting too far ahead of the last paddler or someone paddling far to one side to try to draw the group in their direction. Most of the time, they don’t even realize they are doing it.
It can be frustrating for a group to frequently have to wait for individuals randomly taking breaks on the water. Regularly scheduled breaks keep everyone moving and stopping at the same time. The schedule I found that works best for groups is a five to ten-minute break to drink, eat, and relieve oneself at the top of each hour, and around a one-minute break for a quick drink at the bottom of each hour. But anyone can call for additional breaks if necessary. For example, someone may not be able to wait until the next break to adjust some gear. No one starts paddling again until everyone is ready.
These regularly scheduled breaks may seem regimented, but on a long paddle it is good for everyone to know when the next break is going to be. They provide something to look forward to, divide the paddle into more psychologically and physically manageable intervals, and keep everyone well fueled and hydrated. But sometimes flexibility is necessary with the breaks. Plenty of times my groups have taken breaks early or late to take advantage of a protective cove to get out of the wind and not lose ground while we were stopped.
With the group stopped, breaks are a great time for everyone to check on each other’s well being. Just one paddler having difficulty can reduce a group’s effectiveness on the water. It’s better to identify and resolve problems earlier rather than later. For example, it would be much better to spend a few minutes now helping someone adjust the trim of their load to avoid weather cocking than end up towing later because of a sore shoulder. Speak up about any problems you may have. If someone looks like they are having difficulty, they may be reluctant to bring it up, so you should ask and offer to help.
When it comes to decision making for a group, diplomacy is usually the best policy. For example, if ferrying is necessary because of wind or current, a conversation about it usually results in agreement for the best angle for the heading and makes it a group decision, rather than one paddler being proven right or wrong. That conversation could also be about whom is the best paddler to follow and adjust the ferry angle as needed. Whatever the decision, including the group in it will usually result in more cooperation, not to mention take advantage of the combined brain power of the group.
You should also decide when staying and working together as a group isn’t necessary. Nothing is worse than a bunch of procedures for no good reason. I usually reserve the procedures for crossings and difficult conditions, when everyone benefits from the safety of the group. Someone not feeling confident or having a sore shoulder are other good reasons, among many, to stay and work together. But if the coast is calm and everyone feels good about it, we often agree to meet again at a certain time and place. Especially on multi-day trips, there are times when we all like to have a break from the group and do our own thing.
One of the most important decisions in sea kayaking is choosing who to paddle with. A group operates better when everyone is familiar paddling with each other, paddles at about the same speed, shares the goals for the trip, and most importantly, agrees to stay and work together as a group. Everyone should express their expectations early, well before meeting on the water. Anytime I organize a trip, I explain my procedures for staying and working together to make sure everyone is fine with them. Fortunately, most of my friends like the procedures, because they make things easier for everyone. But occasionally there is someone who doesn’t like them and ends up disrupting or even endangering the group. I’d recommend avoiding paddling with people like this, because they place their own interest above that of the group.
Despite the proven effectiveness of the procedures, sometimes I wonder if I’m imposing them on my friends. Then occasionally I hear they used them on their own trips. Once you experience a system that works well keeping everyone staying and working together, it’s hard to go back to the stress and discord of chasing the fastest paddler, people being left behind, and the group dividing over which way to go. The procedures really make paddling in a group safer, easier, and more enjoyable for everyone.
**- Duane Strosaker is an avid member of the California Kayak Friends. This article was published in Sea Kayaker magazine in 2012, and reprinted here with permission.
-Posted by Jay Murdock