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Kayak TripA Trip-Leading Story—
the Good, the Bad & the Necessary

by Curt A. Gashlin, ACA Instructor & BCU 3 Star Sea Paddler

Leading kayaking trips can be tons of fun. A big plus is getting to paddle where I like. I enjoy “island hopping,” so I mostly post online in our kayak club forum for that kind of paddle. I also like to lead trips in these spots because I am most familiar with them.

It is certainly a comfort when you have other people with you, assuming you know the route and where you are. There is important prep work in coordinating the paddle, whether it is charting a course, planning the date, readying the gear, the float plan, or whatever else may be necessary. But that is all fun. I have found that for me, kayaking isn't only about paddling my kayak but also all the things that occur off the water, which is likely one reason kayaking can easily become time-consuming. Photo: Newer paddlers getting help with pfd's and instruction.

Planning & Preparation

In a normal post, I add such info as location, launch time, destination, distance, approximate expected pace, kayak type needed, expected skill level, and expected and possible conditions. I include other items required, like food, drink, lotions, hats, wearing a pfd, sounding device and more. I check the weather reports for rain or storms and when they are expected. I note the wind strength and direction, and water conditions. I try to eliminate surprises. I also try to group more experienced paddlers who have rescue training with inexperienced paddlers. I have cancelled trips if I was expecting several inexperienced paddlers and got a cancellation from the experienced paddlers who often come with me.

Pre Launch

So we all show up and are good to go. I give a pre launch discussion and provide some “in case of” what-to-do speeches, check gear and participant conditions, among other things. I tell everyone to stay within hearing distance of one another. I am really just trying to keep them close to me if someone needs help. But this is usually not a problem. I always have others with me who can help when needed. I think it's a blast when we are all paddling along to our destination and communicating odds and ends along the way. It's fun getting to a destination and having some social time as well.

dolphinThousand Islands

A recent paddle to what's known as the thousand islands off Merritt Island in Florida meant a two-mile crossing from the launch to the first island. The crossing is in the Banana River, and in the middle of the crossing there is no land within a mile in any direction. The water there is overhead in some areas. Photo: One of the island destinations and some wildlife for our enjoyment

No problem, everyone paddled just fine. We reached our islands and had lunch. This was such a great day on the water so far. Weather was warm and sunny, dolphins were making appearances, manatee were spreading some love, and salt spray was gently misting us. Perfect. It would be several hours before expected storms arrived.

On the way back, while making the crossing, the weather changed suddenly, which happens in Florida, and the wind began blowing at 18 mph. We were heading north and now had a wind out of the northeast, creating chop like a washing machine.

open waterThere were two kayakers not too far in front of me and four close behind. Several were pretty far behind, but another very qualified kayaker was with them. One of the paddlers behind me was having difficulty paddling in the wind and had come to a dead stop. I wanted to talk to him to check his status. Did he need a rest or maybe a tow? Before doing so, I yelled to the paddlers in front to come back to me. Photo: Getting around to the outer part of the thousand islands

As I was paddling toward the paddler who appeared to have stopped, the two in front decided they wanted to go home and took off. As I approached the paddler in need I looked back and the other two were too far for me to yell to, and the whistle didn't do the trick either. One thing I do right from the beginning of a trip is ask the participants for some info on types of paddling they've done and then secretly observe each when we launch to try and get a feel for their experience level. One of the kayakers who took off seemed pretty competent. I had watched him do a cowboy scramble earlier, so I felt okay about him. The other had me worried.

My plan now was to hook onto the stopped paddler with my tow belt because I no longer had time for a conversation, and the remainder of the group was still too far behind. Sometimes I just act and think about it later. That's probably not best, but that's what I did.

rough water
Photo: On the way back the wind and water began to kick up. We still had a ways to go

The Ten Responsibilities Of The Individual Paddler

List Courtesy of Bob Walls of Hui Wa'a Kaukahi, Honolulu, Hawaii ~ When paddling with others, few things are more frustrating than unprepared paddlers. It often means a late launch which can lead the whole group into bad paddling conditions, require a stretch of resources and even jeopardize the safety of all concerned.

1. Familiarize yourself with the Planned Paddle. Prepare yourself for conditions according to the rating assigned, and equip yourself with required and prudent personal safety equipment. Address any questions on these preparations to the Trip Leader.

2. Arrive at launch site as early as necessary for kayak and kayaker (this means you) to be rigged and ready to launch at the scheduled time, and to actively participate in car-pooling in advance of launch time.

3. Check in with the designated Trip Leader & sign a waiver if required.

4. Inform the Trip Leader of any limitations, intentions to deviate from the paddle plan, or other special situations (for example, the need to vary from the scheduled take-out).

5. Be responsible for briefing any non-member guests on the planned route(s), group paddling practices, and emergency procedures and signals, including the universal paddler SOS signal: paddle held vertically as high and waving it as may be possible.

6. Stay in sight or communications with at least one other paddler. If equipped with a VHF marine radio, monitor radio channel assigned by the Paddle Leader.

7. Don't paddle past the designated Lead paddler.

8. Keep the Trip leader informed of any special situations that arise during the paddle, either directly or by passing the word through the designated Sweep or other paddlers.

9. Have fun!

10. At the end of the paddle, check in with the Leader, which will relieve him or her of further accountability and officially end the paddle. Provide any feedback or suggestions, which may assist in planning future paddles.

I began towing the paddler straight toward the kayaker out ahead that I had worries about. The few others followed along. I had maybe a few hundred yards to go to reach him. Even though he was still paddling, I was able to get close enough that I saw he was paddling slowly but surely, and I could see the other more skilled kayaker already standing on the shore. He looked a little like a dot, but it was him.

We got to shore. The paddlers loaded their kayaks up, and I stayed on the water, slowly paddling back out until I could see the others coming. It turned out that a tow was going on back there as well.

Lessons Learned

Trip-leading is fun and rewarding, but there is always the chance that the adventure changes. On this day the forecast was beautiful until late afternoon, but the weather changed way sooner than expected. The sky looked fine until then. We happened to be heading back, so we just got caught up in it.

For some paddlers it was fun and rewarding, while some had less than nice things to say. In any case, this was just one of those days when a perfect day and perfect paddle just went sour. Usually while I'm paddling, I'm paying attention to my surroundings and just really enjoying life, but when times like this happen, it's time to get alert, stay alert, and do everything you can to make sure everyone else is okay.

The other paddlers may never know that you took all the stress and decision-making and kept them safe. In the pre launch talks, I told them that I and a few others can rescue them should they capsize, and this was one reason I needed everyone in close proximity. No one needed a rescue from a capsize, though I was on the ready.

Sweep paddlerI can't stress enough to newer kayakers the importance of being together on open water of any kind. I worried more about one single person who got out of reach than all the others simply because the rest of my immediate group was near me. Photo: One of the experienced kayakers paddling around helping others. She was with the group that fell way behind mine.

Another thing that keeps the stress down is that although the coast guard rules in our waters require you need only carry your approved pfd, I insist that it be worn if you intend to paddle in my group. This allows me more time to get to someone in a capsize and helps me with a rescue. This is most important in cold water but it was summer, so I wasn't worried about anyone freezing before I got to them. One of the experienced kayakers was paddling around helping others. She was with the group that fell way behind mine.

There is a heap of other info that can go into this, but I've shared enough to show that a great day trip-leading can become a stressful day. When you trip-lead, something inside you makes you feel responsible for the safety of the others. I am not referring to any legal worries, but more your own personal feeling of obligation. You know, I invited these people, so it's my responsibility.

Good Trip Leader Reflections

Should I have taken relatively new paddlers in waters that have potential to get a little rough, or where there was a chance for winds to pick up as much as they did?

I asked myself this question afterward. My answer is that if I was certain that what normally is a pretty calm paddle would turn into such a challenge I would have skipped it. Without being certain, I always assume the chance that this scenario will occur. I listen to NOAA weather so I can make a good choice.

If I had no training in helping others in these situations I would also pass on it. Since I have the necessary training to help people in this situation I felt more secure in having them come along. I have no idea how others feel about that, but I take it seriously, and I do feel a personal responsibility toward those who come on a paddle that I invited them to.

If you lead trips, I hope you feel this way too. I hope you have the training needed to help others in trouble. It doesn't need to be with an outfit like the American Canoe Association or British Canoe Union. They are certainly good, and it's good to know that what you are learning are the correct methods. But as an absolute minimum, training should happen.

Many clubs have some experienced paddlers and great trip-leaders who may have had ACA or BCU training, and you can learn from them. To lead others does mean they may be counting on you. Are you ready? Is there more you could have done? Most likely so. I didn't feel that anyone was in real danger and felt sure that I could help them. But I was also sure that several of them were afraid and getting worn out and could not help themselves in a capsize. I continue to lead trips and still enjoy it very much. I hope others get involved in trip-leading. I mostly hope that we are all responsible if we choose to lead trips. Safety is everything.

Stay safe and enjoy your paddling adventures!

Curtis Gashlin
ACA Instructor
BCU 3 Star Sea Paddlers
Greenland Mentoring

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