Saturday, October 03, 2009

Random Thoughts on Club Paddling

Two things have been rambling around in my head about club paddling recently: trip levels and expectations. They are intertwined and distinct. Trip levels are one way of setting expectations, but often expectations are entirely dependent on people: who you are and who shows up at the launch.
A recent paddle sparked some discussion about retooling the RICKA sea kayaking trip levels. A paddler showed up for a trip that was at the outer edge of their abilities. It was not a problem because the conditions were perfectly boring. The concern, however, was that if conditions changed, this paddler would need assistance. This is not a rare occurrence. Paddlers frequently show up for trips that push their abilities (and some times clearly exceed them). So, there was a proposition to make the levels clearer, a little more stringent, and closer tied to wind/wave conditions. The hope, I think, being that people would make better self selection choices.
I had a hand in writing the current club guidelines so I'm a little biased towards them. They are definitely not perfect, but they do attempt to strike a balance between allowing people to grow and guiding them away from endangering others. The current guidelines were based on a professional guiding outfit's trip levels. This gives them a whiff of authority, but also make them a little problematic for a club. A professional outfit has a greater ability to screen out participants than a club does, so the outfitter can afford a little leeway.
The tricks to developing good trip guidelines for a club are manifold: They need to be realistic, stringent, and clear enough to guide paddlers into avoiding trips that are outside of their range. However, they need to be flexible to allow a paddler to participate in paddles that are at the outer limits of their range. A paddler may be fairly new to the water, but be strong paddler. They can probably handle some of the conditions of a level three paddle, but not the ones at the extremes. Or they may be able to handle the conditions, but be uncomfortable due to lack of exposure.
The guidelines also need to allow for a certain variability in ranges. For example, a paddler may be able to go like gang busters for long distances, but not have a solid roll. Clearly this paddler can participate in long distance paddles, but should avoid rough water paddles even if they are rated at the same level.
The guidelines should be tied to weather and sea conditions since they are factors in trip difficulty. However, they must allow for the unpredictability of the weather as well. If the guidelines said that an intro level trip required waves of a foot or less and winds of 5 knots or less, it would be impossible to schedule an intro level trip. The chances of the conditions exceeding the limits are just too great.
The guidelines also fall pray to the imperfect creatures called paddlers. In general, paddlers tend to over estimate their skills and guidelines need to account for this. Paddlers also tend to come with different shapes, sizes, baggage, and experiences. Trip coordinators always make judgement calls about what the estimated trip level should be when scheduling the trip and often base their estimate on what sort of trip they think they want to lead. Trip coordinators also make all sorts of judgement calls on the day of the paddle about letting paddlers participate or whether to change the trip to accommodate the paddlers planning on participating.
Guideline setting is a messy business and its success or failure requires a lot of vigilance. Coordinators need to pay attention to who is showing up for paddles and provide feedback to the guideline committee. Coordinators also need to make good decisions about screening out inappropriate paddlers or changing the trip to accommodate the group. Sometimes, it means accepting that any set of guidelines cannot address every situation.
Expectations are another sticky widget. I know there are many paddles that I go on and expect to be challenged, or not, and find that the paddle does not live up to my expectations. I know this is my problem, but I think others experience the same thine. Some times the change in expectations is because I just had a crazy idea of the paddle in my head. Other times the change is caused by the weather or the sea state. (You cannot have an epic paddle without wind or waves and cannot relax in six foot swells.) Often times, though it is because the group that shows up for the paddle is not in line with my expectations.
Group makeup defines what a trip will be like. Sometimes an easy level three trip will turn into a crazed, death paddle because a bunch of experienced, skilled, rock hoppers will show up and hijack the trip. Other times what should be an epic, or at least challenging, level four paddle turns into a leisurely cruise because a bunch of scenery seeing, relaxation seekers show up and hijack the trip. Neither outcome is bad for the group since it is a club paddle.
I guess what I've been realizing is that if I want to do a particular type of trip, say bounce around in the swells and rocks, I can either make it a club trip and accept that on the day of the paddle it may turn into a coastal tour, or just put together a group outside the club framework. Some, I suppose, would call this elitism or a similar thing. I, however, think it just makes sense. Club paddles are for the club and that means accepting what the group at large wants to do. Sometimes, paddlers need to have the option of doing something that requires more control over the participants of the group.

No comments:

Post a Comment