09 February 2010

SAFETY: group size on the water

I am a social sea kayaker. I enjoy the company of other paddlers.
Paddling in groups has a great social aspect and the benefit of the safety to be paddling with others.
Paddling in a pod usually means that you have the support from your mates if something should happen on the water.
While in some other outdoor activities the help factor is not as critical, in sea kayaking, a quick response from members of your pod is much more drastic.
It really does not take that long that, if in serious trouble, you could drown.
By serious I don’t mean anything catastrophic; it can be as simple as just fainting.
The water is not forgiving and drowning even in rather mild conditions is always a possibility.
With this in mind I wanted to minimize my risks and paddle with others.
I wanted to paddle in the safety of a knowledgeable and skilled group that would offer me that support if something had to happen to me.
I joined a Club and undertook several instruction courses to achieve the standard of being able to rescue myself and others.

Instructions on shore_2 (c)
The Club follows set guidelines to ensure that all paddlers are safe on the water.
One of the areas that is recognized as potential danger factor is group size.
A historical incident with NSWSKC where a group of about 50 paddlers run into serious trouble and had to be rescued by authorities lead to the recognition of maximum group size that should paddle together.

The highly esteemed sea kayaker Laurie Ford says:

".... 10 or 12 should be an absolute maximum number of paddlers on any one trip (see my Philosophy on canoeing). It is absolutely impossible to keep an eye on more than that. The leader should be constantly looking round every few minutes and counting them all, so that at any one minute he/she knows exactly where everyone is. And with that number of paddlers, you can tell when some of them may be starting to get tired, or seasick etc. ..." *1

Some Clubs are however still promoting much larger pods of paddlers (I have seen some as large as 20).

Joining and leaving the group at different stages of the outing is also apparently OK.
As Laurie Ford suggests, I ask myself:
how can a leader keep an eye on such large number of participants?

And if the paddlers are then leaving and joining at different stages, who is there to know if somebody has actually been left behind?

A few years ago Laurie Ford observed :

"...Over the past few years there have been numerous articles in their (ed. NSWSKC ) magazine, from paddlers who felt they were left behind on trips - and generally given a hard time. The same magazine always had an answering letter from the ‘leader’ concerned, basically telling the novice that if they can’t keep up they shouldn’t be out there spoiling the leaders enjoyment..." *1

I observed the same on a recent outing.
One of the older paddlers was left behind.
When he later on arrived on the beach he said that the pod left him behind and did not wait for him.
I was concerned. If for some reason he would have capsized, most likely he would have not be able to self rescue (I know the guy and I have never seen him be able to get back in the kayak without great assistance).

While some informal paddling groups advocate for self reliance and involve paddlers that take the responsibility to look after themselves, a Club usually also caters for paddlers that need assistance.
The Club outings of low skill level/grading are aimed for beginners/non skilled paddlers.
Is it not the imperative responsibility of the Leader of that pod to have a watchful eye on all participants and make sure that at no time they should be left at their own devices?
An experienced Club Leader once said: "
Everything is OK until it goes wrong "
Lets hope that his prediction never happens.

I now wonder what is the view of other paddlers and instructors on group size.

*1 http://www.laurieford.net/sadnsw.htm FEB01

PS 09FEB10

6 NSWSKC separate pods congregate at a common destination
At Umina's Rock&Roll 2009 it was interesting to see that despite large number of paddlers participating in on-water activities, strict pod numbers were always observed.
If the pod was too large to paddle safely it was divided in two and two certified leaders appointed.
The briefing was separate and independent form each other, the route taken was independent and separate, the only thing common was the destination.
Pod group ratio was observed at all times as per Australian Canoeing guidelines.


  1. Gary Tischer wrote on QldSeaKayakClub forum:
    ....It is too bad that the article has no resemblance to the facts .....
    but never let that get in the way of a good story. In my opinion
    Damiano, is having a go at the club, the leaders and the supposed
    paddler that was left behind.

    Does the club really want to support this kind of pseudo journalism by
    linking to this?

  2. So, by asking what other paddlers and instructors think of groups size is regarded as "having a go at the club? which club?
    Gary, the question was posed for feedback, not for airing of grievances.
    Thank you for your contribution.

  3. I am not an instructor but I do lead trips with clubs I have membership with. When planning trips, I use the guidelines recommended by the sports local governing body, as I was taught to during trip leader training. This includes participant to leader ratio.
    At the last NSWSKC Rock n Roll event at Umina, I believe there were around 150 kayakers in attendance. During the event I observed large groups of paddlers split to smaller pods that paddled independently to a common destination. The large group was never together on the water and the small pods were rarely within sight of each other, only on landing on the beach. Each trip leader had a max of 8 paddlers, and as far as I know, nobody got left behind. As a visitor to the area and the NSWSKC, I appreciated the small on water pod set up and the opportunity to socialise off water later with the larger group. Of course conditions will vary in different parts of the world but I would be interested to hear what other instructors and trip leaders do with regard to group size on the water.

  4. I don't know if ratio is really an answer. Even the most competent leader can get into serious trouble with no more than a couple of paddlers. Oppositely, a well organized and coordinated large pod can paddle safely together with one or (preferably) two leaders. Buddy system can be very effective in managing large groups.

    Seems to me that the key is pre-trip communication of goals and expectations. Any time you have a group with mismatched skills or goals, you will have difficulty managing the group regardles of your leadership ability. You will not be able to please a racer and a lolly-gager in the same pod. One or both will have to compromise, choose a different pod or leave the group.

    Ultimately, I believe that on-water safety is the responsibility of each individual paddler. A leader can only help others with less experience make some judgments, s/he will not always be able to get those who are in above their skills out of trouble. Accidents like fainting, heart attacks, etc. also happen and kayak is a very very bad place in which to encounter one. There are inherent risks every time we set out on the water. Every paddler implicitly accepts these risks and no leader or pod size can guarantee ultimate safety.

  5. Well said Haris: "Even the most competent leader can get into serious trouble".
    My concern is with leaders among peers (certainly not BCU standard) where they can barely do a self rescue let alone help others in trouble. While the buddy system has great merits it has its limitations.
    My personal experience with very competent and accomplished leaders (instructors) was that things went wrong because the group was too large to manage.
    Communication breakdown was the biggest culprit in one case where not all participants could hear the instructions of the instructor.
    The Lifesaving personnel had to intervene that day to pluck the capsized paddler from the water.


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