Whitewater kayaking doesn’t really seem like a team sport, but at times, it needs to be.
Kind of like riding a bike; you can do it in a group and it’s helpful to have a buddy, but you’ve still got to paddle yourself downriver. You are the first person to turn to when you need rescue, even when that just means swimming your soggy ass to shore. Sometimes though, we need more than what we’ve got, and this is where our team comes in.
Most trips down the river are full of fun and frolicking, but when you’re entering the unknown or pushing your limits, you have to know that your buddies have got your back. In fact, knowing who you’re going with is just as important as knowing your own skills. You could be all buffed out on your rescue skills and equipment, but are they prepared to help you? You’d better hope you picked the right crew if it’s your head underwater.
Like all relationships, communication is key. Talking through the shuttle, float plan, and what people are comfortable paddling is just the start. Being a rookie boater doesn’t mean you always have to boat with more experienced people, but it does mean you should be sure that your team is game to step it up together and not be afraid to ask what training and equipment the others have. Occasionally it’s good practice to get out there with people your own level or less experienced because it forces you to take more responsibility.
The fortunate side of the past few drought years has been that as a new kayaker, I spent a lot of time with class V boaters because the rivers they wanted to run didn’t have water. In turn, they mentored me in everything from reading water, skill based moves and functioning as a team. It may seem unnecessary on a class II-III river, but the practice and principles apply everywhere. Besides, things can go wrong on any moving water and beginning kayakers will spend more time swimming in class II-III than anything harder (at least we hope).
What should you know about your buddies?
- What level are they comfortable paddling?
- Have they been on the run before? How long ago and at what flow?
- What kind of safety training have they had? Swiftwater rescue courses specifically for kayakers are the best.
- What kind of safety equipment do they have on them or in their boat? (You should be thinking- first aid kit, throw bag, locking carabiners, prusik loops, and most importantly, the knowledge of what to do with it all.)
- Does everyone know and agree on the same hand/paddle signals?
- Does anyone take unnecessary risks that could put you at risk if they need rescue?
- What kind of state are they in that day? Substance use and ‘just not feelin it’ are reasons enough not to get on the water with someone.
- How do they make you feel?
This last question is really the crux when it comes to running more challenging whitewater, and life in general, really. If anyone in your team is anything less than supportive when you decide to walk around a rapid, red flags should be going off.
If you follow that badass boater down a new run because he or she has done it a million times and are known for running the gnar, but they don’t turn around once to look at you or bother asking if you want to scout; dump them. Just because they’re better than you does not make them a good teammate.
The people I paddle with are friends that I know will have an eye out for each other. There’s a well defined line between encouraging your pal to run the rapid they’ve walked around 10 times and you know they have the skills to run it versus egging someone on to run something when you don’t know their paddling abilities and history. When someone you just met says, “You’ll be fine,” about running a new challenging stretch of river, calmly smile, turn and go find a real teammate.
Finally, a brief word about group size. Everyone has their own comfort zone on this, but don’t mistake numbers for safety. If you are in a big group, make sure you’ve got a buddy to keep an eye on each other and not get lost or forgotten in the crowd. On tight creeks with small eddies, limit groups to five or less. Groups create their own momentum and you should never hesitate to ask to slow it down if you need to or find a couple people who will drop back with you. Alternatively, speed it up if you’re getting cold or it’s getting dark!
Finding the right posse can push kayaking from fun activity to a full-blown lifestyle.