River Leadership: Communication

Recently, I was asked to write an article on river leadership for my local kayaking club. I’ve decided to reproduce it here on the iboutdoor blog as a short series. So here goes….

River Leadership

I’m a great believer in that leaders are made not born. You don’t have to be the world’s best paddler to take responsibility for others on the river. What you do need is to be able to make good experience-based judgement calls and to adhere to some basic common sense principles. Leadership is something that you can always improve on and you will learn more and more just by spending time on the water, looking after different groups.

The BCU have an acronym that they use to teach leadership principles-  CLAP:

  • Communication
  • Line of sight
  • Avoidance is better than cure
  • Position of maximum usefulness

I’m going to take a look at these principles, whilst adding some thoughts of my own.


It makes sense to hold a quick safety brief before getting on the river when leading a group of paddlers who you may or may not have seen before. One of the topics that you should cover in your brief is communication and river signals. River signals are worthy of an article of their own and I have briefly touched on them here. Make sure that whatever signals you use, they are distinctive from one another.

Teaching signals or praying to the river gods?

Teaching signals or praying to the river gods?

What if the group uses different signals to yours? Whose signals should you use? If there’s only one of you and four paddlers that you’re leading, it seems logical for you to learn theirs. Adding new signals just before getting on a river is likely to confuse them and most people will resort back to what they know best when under pressure. If there is any doubt as to how the signals work, then practise on dry land. Set up some “eddies” on the ground and have the group walk the imaginary river, passing signals back and forth. Make sure that your group make eye contact when passing the signals and that the recipient copies the action. This shows an understanding.

For example:

  • Paddler 1 (Signalling): YOU come to ME
  • Paddler 2 (Signalling): I go to YOU
  • Paddler 1: nod/thumbs up/”OK” signal

It’s simple, but makes sure that the signal was interpreted correctly. Also, make sure that your paddlers understand that no signal means no move. If you’re slowly creeping up to a drop, one eddy at a time to see if it is safe, the last thing you want is for one of your paddlers to break in and float down behind you unaware. They need to stay put until you’ve told them that it is safe to move.

Think beyond hand signals as well. Sometimes paddle signals can be useful, as they can be seen easier from a distance. However, don’t use them as an excuse for losing line of sight. I’ve also seen paddlers getting surfed at the bottom of a drop with their paddle waving around looking very similar to the “OK” signal. Certainly not OK! Make those signals distinctive.

Most of us carry rescue whistles as well, but what do different signals mean? Usually one blast means “stop” or “attention.” You could tailor it for your group to mean “catch an eddy.” 2 blasts usually means “attention upstream” and 3 “attention downstream.” Three repeated blasts however, is universal for emergency and should only ever be used for that.

Describing lines:

Give some thought as to how you speak to people. The way you speak can have a big influence on people’s mood – and fear is infectious. For example, when describing a line:

“Centre line, straight through the V and then there’s a nice boof lip on the left”

As opposed to:

“Centre line, then make sure you don’t go right. The stopper is really retentive there, so make sure you don’t end up on that side.”

Firstly, putting an element of worry in to people’s heads is undoubtedly going to affect them and consequently, their paddling. Secondly, people have a tendency to fixate on the risks on a rapid. They may end up looking towards them and as we know, where the head goes, the boat tends to follow…

The other mistake that people make is giving a quick brief of a line, whilst looking over their shoulder at the rapid and consequently talking in the other direction to their group. Look at the rapid, decide what you’re going to say and then speak to your group.

Next: Line of Sight….

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