Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Group Management

It's the time of year when instead of paddling constantly, I think about paddling constantly. The topic on my mind lately is group management. There are a few reasons for this. One is that winter paddling always makes me more cautious about paddling conditions. The group I'm paddling with are part of the conditions. One other is that there have been a few incidents recently where paddlers got into trouble.
One is documented here and here. We didn't make good decisions about conditions and the ability of the people in our group. Our communication broke down at critical points. A paddler was also left to return to the put-in by himself because the members of his group did not stick together. We ended up with a paddler in the water and performing a long distance tow in windy conditions. Once the incident happened and the group slipped into crisis management mode things went smoothly and it ended up fine.
Another incident happened a week later (I was not a participant and only report based on what people who did participate reported.) A group of paddlers paddled into an exposed part of the Bay on a windy and cold day. One of the paddlers decided to paddle knowing that he was pushing the limits of his skills. He believed that two experienced members of the group, who had paddled with him previously, were familiar with his skills. As the group progressed into more exposed conditions, the new paddler grew increasingly uneasy, but did not speak up. The group decided to make an exposed crossing in an area that is known to get rough and the group drifted apart. At one point the the newer paddler ceased being able to control his kayak and eventually ended up in the water.
In both cases the management of the group fell short. Experienced paddlers made decisions based on their own skill levels and desires. Less skilled paddlers didn't judge their skills appropriately. The participants didn't consider the group as a whole.
Paddling is a recreational activity for most of us and we'd rather not have to herd cats. RIC/KA, as a matter of policy, eschews placing a trip coordinator in a position of responsibility. How can a group be managed if nobody is in charge?
One thing that makes managing a group easier is paddlers making sound judgements about what paddles are appropriate for them. Paul has a great post about self assessment here.
Another thing that makes managing a group easier is all members of the group being considerate of the other members of the group. They show up on time. They stay with the group. They don't take undue risks. They speak up when they are uncomfortable. They help out if another paddler seems distressed. They don't push the group into conditions that are beyond the weakest member of the group. They accept group decisions. etc.
However, there are times in almost every paddle where someone needs to be in charge and make decisions. Sometimes the decision may be unpopular, but needs to be made. Someone needs to reign in the experienced paddlers if they are pushing the group beyond its level. Someone needs to alter the paddle plan if it becomes clear that conditions are changing or a paddler is beginning to be distressed. Someone may even have to tell a paddler that they should stay on the beach.
Groups are tricky things and I know that I'm not a great group manager. I'm much more comfortable lending a trip coordinator a hand in keeping a trip running smoothly. I suppose that is why when thinking about paddling in tough conditions, I don't think about open trips. I think of paddling with a close knit group of people I know and trust. I think of paddling with a self-herding group of cats.
Managing a group may be tough work, but if you choose to paddle in a group it must be done - particularly in rough conditions. Doing a rescue puts everyone at risk and can ruin an otherwise great day on the water. Hurt feelings are easy to repair - bodies are much harder.


  1. Don't get me started. As an instructor (ACA open water) I am aware that when our local group paddles many of the newer paddlers assume the more experienced among us will take care of them. Knowing this changes the atmosphere of the event and makes some of us feel that we are "at work". We encourage everyone to improve their skills and even take the instructor development course so we can all take care of one another...and ourselves.

  2. Paddling in groups of different skill levels in inevitable .. no matter how high the skills. The only way I was able to gain confidence in conditions was to tag along with more experienced people. At this point I enjoy taking people out and letting them push their limits, and as long as the more experienced people don't exceed their own limits .. everyone wins.
    Just my two pennies worth.

  3. Just read your post. Excellent. I actually wrote a similar piece yesterday so all us winterbound paddlers must be thinking alike!