Leadership when paddling with Peers?

Hey folks.

For those of you who have spent some time considering group leadership on the water, what is your approach for a day out paddling with friends, all of whom have well-developed skills?

I have an easy time finding my role when I’m paddling with novice or beginner paddlers. I fall very comfortably into a relatively laid-back, but dedicated role of shepherding them and keeping my eyes on the big picture, watching for dangers they may not recognize, and generally facilitating the experience without interfering more than necessary. I don’t feel torn between playing in that convergence zone just over there, and being a dedicated leader, because I know I can’t draw those folks into a situation their not ready for.

On the other hand, when I’m paddling with people in whom I have a lot of confidence, I/they don’t usually take any real leadership role. We all look out for eachother. We stay in sight, and we decide on plans by concensus. If a rescue is needed, whoever is nearest takes care of it.

In the latter situation - going out for fun playtime - I’m more motivated by a desire to get into the rough stuff and play than I am interested in sitting outside and making sure that there’s one person on top of everything that’s going on. But some recent training has me thinking more about how I handle leadership when paddling with peers.

So, how do YOU handle that situation? If you go out with 3 or 4 friends in fun conditions - conditions that everyone in the group is well prepared for - how do you structure the group. Do you designate a leader? Does that leader follow their role closely through the day?

Just looking for input as I sort out for myself how I’d like to deal with that in the future.

Thanks, Nate

No Real Leader

– Last Updated: Sep-14-10 11:58 AM EST –

Biking or boating it's usually a concensus thing: How far do we want to go?
How fast and what direction is the wind blowing? How's the traffic? Enough daylight?

Once those are figured out there's no real leadership going on. Everyone just keeps an eye out for everything.

Yeah, what he said
I think the way the OP is doing things now is just fine.

if everyone is comfortable on the water… you’re on your own. If trouble happens, everyone will pitch in. The only thing a few people need to know how many boats in the group so no one gets left at the takeout.

Not in that boat, but
I do have a question:

Doesn’t the answer depend at least a little on the personalities involved, not just the skills attained by the paddlers vs. required for the conditions? Some people who aren’t up to snuff skills-wise might insist on being included yet refuse to recognize anybody else as being leader, formal or informal. Others who do have the skills might feel uncomfortable without a preset, formal leadership hierarchy.

I suppose you could be picky about weeding out problematic personalities and avoid the above question. And hope that you don’t get into a situation such as encountering another “expert” group that is in trouble and hooks up with yours.

Group effort
I find it’s a group effort when paddling with people of equal skill or experience. We do have ACA instructors in our club but on group outings the only ones who really take the lead are those who know the paddling location. I always make it a habit of watching out for others no mater what skill level. If were all watching out for each other it makes for a safer trip I think.


You Got It… Weeding
My cronies and I would go to roll classes some years back. An individual there would ask “Why don’t you come along with us on such-n-such trip we have planned?”

“Uhhh… My kid has a thing. Yeah that’s it.”

We all knew this guy wasn’t a good fit. He seemed to really want to be the boss man and he seemed to have mediocre skills.

I was just asking myself the same
question while (as usual) paddling alone. Am I my own peer? Or am I peerless? Who is lead, and who is sweep? And what about Naomi?

There’s boat peers but most of us prefer the bushes.

I’ve seen a few individuals
ruin more than one outing barking out orders and acting as if they are some kind of safety czar on the water. I know they mean well but we would all be in one bigger boat and you the captain if I wanted to give up my autonomy.

The funny thing is it’s not like they know more or are better paddlers, it’s just a personality thing.

leader job
It’s not really in me to start bossing my buddies around. So I don’t wonder if someone needs to be micromanaging our outings. Instead, I just wonder if someone should maintain a leader’s perspective during an outing. In all likelihood that person would never even say a word about their lead, unless an issue came up. But they’d have in mind that one of their jobs is to keep a part of their mind on group issues at all times.

I think in reality what we do is just that, but we’re all doing it at the same time, instead of just one. When we’re a smaller group maybe that’s a good way to do it. Beyond say 4 or 5, I think the leader role might need to take more dedicated attention.

Anyone had 4-star training? Have thoughts on how that training speaks to this issue, in your experience?


Tsunami Rangers
It’s my impression that the Tsunami Rangers find it advantageous to have a clear leadership structure so that when it “hits the fan,” the response can be as quick, efficient, and effective as possible. This makes a lot of sense to me.

A hazardous rescue could get delayed or could fail if different group members have different ideas about how to respond. Valuable time could be wasted in deciding which approach to follow.


Good point.

A friend and I are also discussing this by email, and he just brought up the same thing, but also pointed out that the rangers primary rule is that each member is responsible for themself, and is free to make their own decisions. In the recent incident the ranger decided to do something that the others thought was unsafe (and they were right), but they left it up to him to make a dangerous solo trip.

This is an interesting thread.
I’m in my fifth year of paddling and only recently have felt the confidence in myself to take on a leadership role with anyone other than my wife or friends who don’t paddle regularly. I’ve noticed that when I paddle with AMC there is an “active” leader and a co-leader. So far my experience is that they are more like “shepherds” and these groups tended to be 10 or so with the occasional beginner who isn’t scared off by the “skills demonstration” language on the trip info pages. They make sure everybody understands the location, destination, timing and lead, sweep, basics of group paddling. Nothing overbearing. I’m a strong paddler and often end up in or near the front, although I am quiet and don’t offer anything up officially, as I don’t feel it is my place. If I see someone who needs assistance, or someone to talk to, I would not hesitate to offer my help. Situational awareness is a strong suit so I let that be my guide. I’ve paddled withConnYak, and by and large they are all well seasoned sea kayakers. I expected something similar to AMC but found that it was more a groupthink. Destinations and trip info was discussed, but nobody “grabbed the talking stick” to borrow a phrase. I enjoyed the experience as it was a group of adult paddlers acting like responsible adults. Respect and admiration were quietly given when called for. We have a couple of local yahoo groups that are strictly “get together” and leadership tends to lean to the “who has the best directions” or most experience with the location we’re paddling. Some people are natural leaders and I agree with other posters that personality plays a large part. As long as the group has a mutual respect vibe, I always enjoy the paddle, leadership or none.

Leaving out the skills part
Weeding is still a good idea!

Then again, maybe I’ve heard too many accounts of rafting trips ruined by personality clashes. Desperation to get “on” a permitted trip, regardless who’s going, must run really high.

you have it right already, IMO

– Last Updated: Sep-14-10 5:53 PM EST –

In fact I'd say you're fortunate that another one of the experienced participants doesn't have a leadership or control 'jones'.


– Last Updated: Sep-15-10 7:44 PM EST –

You open up a very big subject.

To start with, the negative issue many in "competent" groups have with leadership may be due to the poor training in, or understanding of, leadership.

If one is uncomfortable "barking" orders,you may well be on the right track towards good leadership.
Want a good resource? Google Tannenbaum/Schmidt, "Choosing a leadership pattern".

A simple idea is that a leader understands the limitations and assets of the group, and forms a structure necessary to meet the day's goal. That person is responsible for decision making when any new evidence is gathered that supports, or is contrary to, the original goal. That person may in fact be rather weak in some aspects of kayaking, but can delegate to the recognized appropriate group member. A military platoon leader is unlikely to be the best at sharpshooting,or radio communication, or scouting, but receives information from those people.

Simply designating a leader would not, in itself, make a group automatically safer. Unless the leader is skilled, this designation might create a false sense of security.

It is interesting to note that there has been much research on leadership, and judgement/decision making, in the arena of avalanche safety. There has been official coursework/certification available for some in avalanche safety and rescue. In recent years, the course material has been changed based upon that research. Turns out the people who most often get in accidents (the research is weighted on user days, not raw numbers) are those with basic education, followed by those with no education. The original syllabus was about snow science (snowpack instability), and incident response. The new syllabus is adding leadership,group management, and decision making skills. Why? Because it was usually a group of "experienced" peers that got into trouble.

The BCU 4star leadership course has been modified from its inception to reflect some of this research .


I like this
"A simple idea is that a leader understands the limitations and assets of the group, and forms a structure necessary to meet the day’s goal."

I like this concept.


Is this a seakayaker thing ?
Much different dynamic with surfers and whitewater boaters.

Usually if less skilled are invited the group takes care of them and shows them the ropes. otherwise it’s everybody watches out for themselves but are willing to help if somebody has a problem.

I went on a coastal paddle once where the trip “leader” chewed me out for paddling through a zone of breaking waves … for me it was the only fun part of the trip … but I was breaking the leadership rules … never went with that bunch again.

It’s a People Thing…
and an experience thing. Here in my cycling community there are a couple of guys who want to be large and in charge. They take on the role of ride leader, not as a way to promote safe cycling, but to feel big and important. They’ll plot out routes days in advance and state what the average speed will be, BEFORE THEY KNOW WHAT THE WEATHER IS GOING TO DO. Inexperienced riders seem to be content to be a part of this group. Experienced riders tend to do the ‘wolfpack’ thing.

I have had mostly good experiences
Down in the Keys each winter, we lots of times end up with a fairly large group of paddlers. Most of the time, we know them all, and it is just a matter of mentioning the route or destination, and then everyone seems to enjoy the paddle with no one lagging too far behind or wandering off too far.

However two instances stick out and they both taught me a lesson.

One was on a night paddle in a large Lake with a very large group of paddlers. There was no meeting on the beach prior to the paddle, and there was a blend of competant paddlers and novices. Right from the start I didn’t like the way it was going since splinter groups took off and there were three or four groups all separated from each other. About a hour out, clouds covered the moon, and it was almost jet black, and at the same time the wind kicked up creating some nasty white caps. I won’t go into details, since everyone arrived back safely, but there were some hairy moments for some of the paddlers, and waiting for some to get back safely.

That is the last time I would go on any paddle with people I don’t know without having a prior meeting on the beach in which everone agreed to stay together.

The second one was down in the Keys, and we were going on a long Island hopping trip with friends who we regularly paddle with. They asked if it would be Ok to bring a friend who they had met a few weeks prior to this trip, and we said Ok. Prior to heading out we explained where we were going, (the route)and for most of the route everything went fine except for the fact that on several occasions “the friend” would take off, and a few times went off to another Key.

On the way back “the friend” took it upon himself to take off to go a different way back via some other Keys and didn’t say a word about where he was going.

Needless to say after that trip when a stranger is joining me, on a trip where I have choosen the route, there will be some ground rules before he is allowed to join in.

Jack L