What Group formations do find work!

Real question for the real world. What group formations and leader placement work with real paddlers in the real world. Context is club kayak outings on challenging days, on open crossings, traffic areas like the Hudson River, etc.

As leaders do you place the stronger people at the back, where do you place yourself, your assistants? How do you explain to people the necessity of any formation? From humor to stern demeanor what works for you?


I am interested in this
thread. When we have our club outings we usually just appoint a sweep and lead to help the leader, but, not always. Some of the time there will be a sweep and the trip leader will take point. With a large group like we had on the Mississippi last year this wasn’t enough. The biggest problem we have is the differing types of boats and paddlers abilities. We will take rec boats along with us but they sometimes have difficulty keeping up with sea kayaks. Even among the sea kayaks there will be faster paddlers and slower ones. Trying to keep together in case of trouble is hard. None of our leaders are dictatorial. Usually when someone says to hold up for the slowers ones to catch up everyone will listen.

The thing that concerns me the most is how to handle a rescue. There are about 5 or 6 of us in the club that have some experience with this and we may not all always be on the same trip. Since we take all kinds and there may be only 3 with rescue skills things could get a little iffy. We have not ever had any problems, yet but we are a growing club with lots of new paddlers. When we get spread about 1/2 mile apart on the Mississippi things could get real dicey. We have discussed this a lot without resolution.

Lets see what kind of input this generates but keep the comments to the subject and not about “this is the reason that I don’t paddle with a club or group” stuff. I know we all are individuals but sooner or later we will all be in a group for whatever reason.

On river outings …

– Last Updated: Mar-16-05 9:05 AM EST –

On river outings I would suggest that you have at minimum one leader doing just that; leading from the front. Ideally, this will be a person who knows the route & hazards if any. Another experienced paddler should be "pulling drag"; bringing up the rear, and dealing with stragglers, making sure no one gets left behind. If people are constantly getting behind, the leader will probably need to adjust the pace to the slowest paddlers. If a third experienced paddler were available, I'd place them in the middle of the group.
You can signal the group by voice, or paddle signals. Paddle signals are usually best; voice commands usually will not get to all of the group. Whistle signals should be limited to emergency situations. Whatever signals you plan on using, the group needs to be instructed in what they mean, and the necessity of following the directions given.


P.S. Highpockets, I can understand your concern about a group of paddlers, with varied degrees of paddling & rescue experience, spreading out over a half a mile on the Mississippi. I have paddled on the Mississippi, and I don't think I'd want to go on one of those trips. Sounds like a potential problem that needs to be addressed, and resolved. If the faster/more experienced paddlers are 1/2 mile downstream, how will they even know if a rookie is upstream swimming? If the rookie needs help, what do the more experienced paddlers do; make a mad dash 1/2 mile upstream to help out?

Trying to keep an eye on a pod from the middle is difficult. If I’m one of the more experienced people in a group I’d rather be on one of the flanks so I only have to look over one shoulder. That can also be a way for faster paddlers to burn off steam – flankers can crisscross back and forth while the slower folks keep on going straight.

Having the leader
and his sweeps is certainly one of the most widerly used methods. I have used it dozens and dozens of times myself. Depending of weather conditions of course you may have your group spread out wide with sweeps on the North, south, east and west of the group.

Often I take groups of four to twelve. When using only one other guide we tend to roam around within the group staying opposite directons of eachother.

This was a topic of debate at a pool session recently. One of the stronger points that was made I remember, was an ‘over response’ to assist in rescues. On a group paddle ( an association trip) , the leader asked who wished to leave the shelter of the bay and head into large swells, with some breaking waves. Roughly half of the group did not wish to leave the bay and the rest headed out to sea. The group that headed out into large seas numbered about 14. Given that we had two sweeps and a leader out in it, we decided to practice rafting up. During the formation one of the boats capsized, the paddler exited the boat and the rescue was complicated by a number of boats rushing to the site. Due to the rush, one of the sweeps could not get near the paddler. It was okay, he was dressed in a drysuit in summer. After this, I began to open up my own groups, having several boat lengths between members of the group.

When heading into an area I know to be a little tricky ( ie: caves, small islands, beaches), one of the sweeps or myself will lead through. Leaving one guide at the back to assist with any potential problems there.

I have been rambling quite a bit here, and I am sure I can go on, but I’ll save it for a later post.

As we know, there are a multitude of reasons for certain methods of formations. High winds, choppy seas, injured or incapacitated paddler(for towing), whales feeding nearby, hazardous stretch of water with currents or overfalls. I’d like to see what this thread is going to produce.


real world
The specifics of the conditions and the paddlers skills REALLY need to be clear,before deciding on a plan or format for group management. Where you put the strong paddlers isn’t as important as to whether those strong paddlers and you are in agreement as to what the paddle plan is if you have to rely on them. Having a strong paddler shift in/out as independent paddler and someone sharing responsibility for group safety can be as disruptive as a paddler who needs to be towed. Some folks self-select their participation in paddles,some folks put together paddles and don’t invite strong paddlers with poor group skills as well as paddlers without paddling skills.

If it’s a vague “this is a club paddle” with some new paddlers whose skills are only communicated and not known by shared experience AND you’re doing something like crossing a busy channel that is NOT an envirnoment for beginners you might have to be flexible when what was communicated turns out not to be the case.

It seems to me that once conditions require decisive paddling: agreement on heading, speed through boat wakes, changes in conditions, wind, effort etc. that groups start to seperate immediately. Groups can naturally separate into A/B groups when they articulate the need before hand.

When that occurs it’s important to notice whether agreements as to who would go with who are held to. There are little indicators along the way telling you whether the assumptions in the plan are valid. If there are indicators that the assumptions are off,the whole plan can be off with one more straw on the camels back. In other words if you see that someone you thought was ok in a challenging situation isn’t,that takes a group out. If one group is out the other is compromised. It’s an opportunity to continue false assumptions or re-group and reassess,which usually never happens becuase we’re all having FUN!

My preference would be for large groups to start off seperated and not leave it to a decision on the water as conditions change,but that’s not always possible. But when it happens the plan essentially re-sets from the beginning. But no one really acknowledges that in mid paddle 1/4mile out and the wind picks up, “oh,did he say…?” “what?”. “what point did he say we’re going towards?”

The problem in club paddles in intermediate conditions where self-assisted rescue skills of the participants are assumed and not known is that there’s someone who’s really at the edge of their comfort zone, or they’ve invited someone who’s using the club paddle as a challenging learning experience. Which is ok and normal,but not often communicated clearly. That’s a natual group buster. “oh we’ll go back” or “I’ll stick with my friend”.

The less the group leader knows about the participants the more he has to rely on control and structure, the more he knows about the participants the more flexible he can be.

My recollections of club paddles back in Ca. is that some folks get a bit put out when questioned about their skills, some don’t. Guys are more prone to over-emphasize their skills and women tend to be conservative.

My preference would be to have two skilled paddlers in proximity to someone who’s more challenged.

I sure wouldn’t want to put together a plan that compromises my comfort level or group safety just because X number of people wanted to go. If you feel comfortable with a group of 6 people four of whom are in their comfort zone and two are looking forward to a challenge but not crossing the line into “oh hell, what have i got myself into” that shoudn’t be the format for twelve people where the math multiplies the problems. With the former you could still split into two cohesive groups or partner with a stressed paddler and leave the others in secure hands.

In a larger group if everyone has to stay together it’ll be a slow group. I’ve never seen six paddlers comfortable going at the same speed. Whether it’s 4mph,3.75,3.5,3.25,3,2.75,2.5,2.25,2mph. It doesn’t take much for folks to spread out.

If the large group HAS to stay together then have the strong paddlers roam the group,they get to paddle more and keep track on everyones well being quietly. Maybe have a leader in front and two paddlers in the back trading that position. But they and the others in the group have to know that’s their position.

Having agreed upon de-fault settings can help,“if someone has to be towed it’s important to re-group”,if someone dumps it and there are two groups someone shouldn’t dash off to communicate to the other group unless that’s in the new plan". “if the conditions get challenging and the group spreads out too much and it’s necessary to stay as a group it’s not time to negotiate whether you need to be towed,it should happen quickly and decisively”.

If someone is horsepower/technique challenged and it’s not an option to turn back, split the group or slow down then the decision shouldn’t be left hanging until the person is really dragging or the group is really strung out so the tower HAS to start towing. This really is an area where early decision making can acknowledge where the group is at and make a fun safe trip and not a drag fest. Ideally a person shouldn’t be lacking for horsepower,either the group is going too fast or the conditions too challenging.

But clearing away the issue of humble pie can make the difference between a safe slower trip for all or multiple miscommunications and over-stressed towers and towees becaue they waited too long.

changes…always changes
there is no standard answer…depends on the trip, the obstacles, the conditions, the group, the assistants that you have…and then that all changes as the trip progresses.

if you lead from the back, you have goof sight of the group but then who’s in front? are they aware of potential obstacles, of hazards…are they moving at a pace that keeps the group together? can a rescue get done in short order? how can you communicate with that leader and other assistants?

if you’re on the flank you have reasonably good line of site but then all those questions still…are you closest to or farthest from potential hzards as you go along the coast line? how close…are there others in the group that can help if you end up in the drink? are you far enough off of hazads to make this pretty darn unlikely?

if you lead from the middle - you can’t really see the folks behind you…how good is your sweep?

from the front - yup, you’re dictating where the group goes but then can you see what’s going on behind?

so many questions, so many variables…what position answers best the questions, which one decreases attendant risks…and then that changes as you move on the water…good luck.

Complicating thing some more
What happens when the strong paddler is assisting a rescue, then another paddler capsize? Who’s watching the rest of the flock?

That happens more often than not. Because the condition that can capsize one can easily capsize more than one. In fact, the few times I paddle “in considtion”, there were multiple capsizes each time. Granted, we were doing out there kind of “on purpose”, to take the challenge, so to speak. So, everyone in the group were capable of helping each other. But for groups finding themselves in condition rougher than planned, multiple capsize can happen pretty often.

And on one river trip, the leader was in the back because helping one of the capsized paddler while the group drifted into the rapid on the wrong side of the river! In retrospec, we should have paddled upstream to stay with the leader and the straggling paddler. But we were kind of pissed by his slow progress during the early part of the trip. And we thought we were just drifting downstream in flat water. Then suddenly, the rapids appeared right after a bend and we were all over the river, each for his/her own!

I travel on smaller rivers with groups. I set up with 1 experienced paddler in from and 1 on sweep. If we have more experienced paddlers I will put 1 in the middle too. once someone dumps , we call an immediate halt so 1 others can assist from shore. 2 the group stays togetther 3 no one else dumps too and complicates things.

Great Question
The best way I have found to sort this out is using a downwind stagger. This means that each paddler lines up side to side and then staggers their position so that the nose of the following boat is at the stern of the leading boat so that from a top view the boats look like half a “V”. The direction of the line is dictated by which way the conditions are coming from (The top boat, if there is trouble with it, should be headed into the path of the next person in line). The distance side-to-side between kayaks is dictated by the conditions. A longer distance is needed if there are big waves, lots of wind, etc.

The trip leader should position themselves between the group and anything bad that might come along. Big boats, rocks, sea beasts, what have you. The leader should not get involved in any hands-on rescues or towing but rather have their best person do it. Reason? Because they still need to be group leader and problem solve.

Try to put the slowest paddler in the front of the group as a pace car. If you get people wanting to race off in a group scenario, tell them they might want to think about being a gentleman or finish up their paddling career as a solo paddler. Either way, in a group paddle the group comes first! Position sweep boaters both in front and back and have them keep in mind that they are the people who should be painfully aware of all of their surroundings. It’s a rather thankless job but someone has to do it. Ideally, if there is an extra paddler he should be traveling back and forth from front to back checking in with the lead boat and the trailing boat, all the time looking out for the middle.

If this is a guide situation, the non-guide paddlers shouldn’t realize that they are being “taken care of” because that awareness could make them nervious about paddling.

And as it was stated before, always re-assess the situation you are heading into. Good planning is way better then a great hospital stay.

Like herding cats…
So much so that our club went “leaderless” three years ago. What we’ve found is that participation went up, more paddles are being posted since nobody has to “lead”, and there are no more fights on the water about who should be making decisions (Which were becoming more and more frequent).

The group decides in advance where to go, and they go there. If someone wants to leave the group, they are free to do so. We’ve had a few situations (Wet exits in conditons, exhausted paddlers), and they’ve been handled as efficiently as if we were paddling under military rules. We tell everyone that they’re not being watched over, and are on their own as to safety. Seems to make people a little more aware than back in the days when they would try to rely on a “leader” to keep everything together.

Sounds crazy, but it actually works.


Oh, and we recommend this scenario:
For groups to organize themselves if they want to , or feel the need to.


OK, stupid question…

– Last Updated: Mar-16-05 1:45 PM EST –

..., and not to hijack the thread, but:

Why doesn't everyone on your paddles have at least basic self rescue skills?

If a club doesn't consider this a minimum requirement for group paddles the better paddlers are being used as crutches by the weaker ones. The weaker ones are getting a free ride/false sense of security/and putting everyone else at unnecessary risk. Tilts the odds the wrong way.

But what do I know? I mostly paddle alone. Just seems to me that people who can't recover from a a simple capsize on their own might want to rethink where and when they paddle - and if they should be paddling at all.

both ways

I know of one paddling group where it would be best if the leader paddled in one direction and everyone else paddled in the other! :slight_smile:


I lead from sweep
…And use FRS radio to comm with a trustworthy paddler up front. Seems to work well for our group. I do headcounts every few minutes.

Defering to Highpockets age and
experience (I know he’ll get me for this Saturday).

On the Mississippi trip he mentioned we had 21 boats so I asked one of our power paddlers who’s usually out front to lead, another strong paddler to drag and I roamed up and down the line to herd the cats. In the past when I’ve led and been the point man it’s hard to keep track of what everyones doing and who’s getting tired, by roaming thru the group it’s easier to be the leader. For smaller groups where everyone is experienced it’s much easier.

For Greyaks comment we screen people and the leader can/has asked people to set out a trip, and we hold lake sessions to improve basic skills. However people cannot advance unless they push their limits and their assessments of their own skills may not be accurate so it’s always safer to be with a group who’ll watch out and help when needed.

Bob.com touched a good point small rivers are totally different if you have 6 boats the lead may be three turns ahead of the drag and that’s a whole different world.

SYOR (unless I’m the point)


Formation for ocean kayaking
A leader NOBODY goes ahead of, a sweep that STAYS in last place, and a right and left flank that EVERYONE stays inside of. VHF communication between at least the leader and the sweep, and for energetic paddlers who want a more vigorous pace, designate them as “liasons”, whose job it is to travel sweep-to-leader, flank-to-flank, transmitting messages, checking how everyone is, etc.

Of course, this requires discipline, but many kayakers tend to be like a herd of cats, as Wayne pointed out. For difficult outings, though, it should seriously be considered, and may actually work, due to the fear factor.



– Last Updated: Mar-16-05 8:07 PM EST –

My club looses people on the shuttles! But thing are better on the water, we use these guidelines.

Trip Coordinator Guidelines

Trip coordinators represent the Club. As such, prospective trip coordinators must be interviewed and approved by the Board of Directors. Factors to be considered are number of trips and length of time paddling with the Club, level of paddling skills and experience, and safety awareness. Input will be solicited from trip coordinators that have paddled with the prospective trip coordinator. On his or her first trip, the new trip coordinator must be accompanied by a Club Director to make sure Club rules are being followed.
1. Participants’ Safety is the #1 concern for all trip coordinators. Coordinators are expected to use good judgement and are NOT to take members on dangerous trips. They should view the safety videos in the Club’s library. CPR training is recommended but not mandatory. Coordinators must carry a First Aid kit and throw bag on each trip. A brief safety meeting must be held prior to each trip which contains the following information:

* PFD’s On advice from counsel, all trip participants must wear them. This blanket rule is the trip coordinator’s best protection from potential legal repercussions.
* Whistle Code: Everyone should have one: 1 blast of the whistle means: attention, 2 blasts on the whistle means: stop your boat, 3 blasts on the whistle means: a paddler is in the water.
* Paddle Signals

Paddle held overhead straight up in the air = Paddle forward
Paddle held overhead with blade to the left = Paddle to the river left
Paddle held overhead with blade to the right = Paddle to the river right
Paddle held overhead horizontally = STOP

* Lead Boat: The trip coordinator will be the lead boat or designate someone else to be lead. Participants must not pass the lead boat.
* Sweep Boat: Unless you have a small number of boats, a “sweep” boat should be in place. The trip coordinator has the option of asking for a volunteer to sweep or designating someone to do so. A sweep boat is the very last boat in the flotilla. It is their responsibility to always be at the tail end of the group. They may, with coordinator’s permission, switch off the sweep designation with another qualified boat throughout the trip.

2. The trip coordinator will designate the meeting place and time for the trip and plan the easiest way to shuttle.

3. The trip coordinator will advise people about the nature of the trip, what class it is, what equipment to bring.

4. The trip coordinator will screen all the people wanting to go on the trip to make sure they are members or guests of a member, and have adequate skill level and proper equipment for that particular trip.

5. The trip coordinator must use an official Club trip signup sheet which must be signed by all trip participants.

6. The trip coordinator should know the river or stream by recent trip or by scouting.

7. If on the day of the trip, water levels have risen and are unsafe, or if weather conditions are bad, it is expected that the trip coordinator will cancel the trip for safety reasons.

8. If the trip coordinator is not able to lead the trip for any reason, he or she should find an alternate coordinator or call off the trip. If the trip is called off, the coordinator must notify everyone who has signed up for the trip. (If a member is not reachable by phone, the coordinator must go to the meeting place to notify the member of cancellation.)

9. The trip coordinator will make all final decisions on the trip.

10. Trip speed is determined by the slowest paddler. For safety reasons, the group must be kept together. DO NOT leave slow paddlers to catch up with the group later.

11. The trip coordinator must see that ALL members are off the water and reunited with their vehicle at the trip’s end.

Small groups
I hate having more than 8 people in a group. Can’t keep track of them all.

If there are enough strong paddlers I’ll break larger groups up into smaller each with their own group leader(s).

With smaller groups and no weak paddlers I prefer to simply ask folks to stay together and watch out for each other.

With a mix of stronger and weaker paddlers I revert to a lead and sweep system.

I’m pretty comfortable leading club trips on rivers (within my skill level) but not open water.

Buddy system
No one seem to mention the “buddy system”. Particularly suitable for medium size groups (6-10) of varying ability. Pair up people either randomly or strong/week pair, depending on situations. Each pair must stay togather.

It’s easy for a group of 10 to realize they’re missing TWO paddlers, especially when the group are in “pairs”. Instead of having to keep track of 10 paddlers spread all over the water, you only need to count the 5 pairs. It’s a bit like outfitters putting clients in tandem. Though this case they’re not locked into the same boat and having to paddle the same cadence. So there’s more flexibility. It’s also possible to switch partners too.

For groups larger than 10, it should be split into smaller sub-group anyway. Trying to keep a very large group togather is simply not pratical and shouldn’t even be attempted. For smaller group of less than 6, it’s just as simple for the entire group to just stay togather.