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Chris Brain Safety series: No.2 – working as a team on the water

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No.1 here:
No.2: working as a team on the water
By Chris Brain

In the second part of the Paddler safety series, we are focusing on working as a team on the water and the strategies we chose to use to keep us safe.

It is important to remember that there is no substitute for professional training in this area and this must be combined with experience in order to effectively use the ideas and techniques contained in this series. This article is not intended to replace formal training.

Both on and off the water teamwork is essential. We should all aim to share responsibility and contribute to decisions. Taking ownership helps to create a culture of independent paddlers who make informed choices and use their brains rather than one of being led, thinking minimally and having decisions made on our behalf.

A simple strategy which groups can use to work as a team is to apply CLAPS (Communication, Line of Sight, Avoidance, Position and Strategy).


  • Clarify signals with the team.
  • What do we actually need our signals to do?
  • Make sure that we pass on information clearly and that it is understood.

I have a theory that we can paddle, listen and think but when we are in a challenging environment it is hard to do more than one at the same time. Therefore, when we are passing on information or giving signals we should wait until everyone is in a position where they can take on board this information. We also need time to process this information too and for many paddlers, mental rehearsal is important. Make sure you give your team time to think about what they are about to do before you expect them to do it.

Chris Brain coaching

Our signals are exceptionally important and need deciding (and clarifying with the team) before we actually need to use them. It is worthwhile working out what signals we actually need to give and what we are likely to actually use. Rather than discussing every single signal at the very beginning I often add signals in at appropriate locations as we move along.

Most groups need their signals to be able to communicate the following

  • All go.
  • One at a time.
  • Come to me.
  • Eddy out.
  • Go this way – go that way (pointing towards where we want to go).
  • We also need to be able to select and place specific paddlers, often by pointing at them.

It’s the norm to have some kind of clarification that your signal has been understood when a signal has been given.

Usually we can keep our signals simple, if the information we pass on to our team is clear and we have already agreed what strategy we will use to move on a particular rapid beforehand. However, if your team paddle in a less pre-planned way, you might need to introduce signals which specifically define your movement strategy. For example, how will you tell your team part way down a rapid that you want to start eddy hopping or that you want to leapfrog or come in pairs? It is better to plan ahead rather than to try and solve a situation that has been created part way down a rapid.

Many groups also introduce a stop signal, but my personal preference is to actually use strategies to move the group that naturally incorporate stopping rather than having a direct signal for this. For example, rather than saying “stop,” I choose to say, “eddy out” and point towards where I want them to go to. If you think about it, it is actually pretty difficult to stop in moving water without eddying out! This goes hand in hand with “no signal – no move,” which becomes really important when we start to use strategies such as eddyhopping.

Chris Brain coaching

My experience is that every single group will use a different set of signals and this isn’t a problem as long as you all know what is happening and your signals are useful. My personal opinion is that I don’t use paddle signals or whistles as they can be confusing or misunderstood. The only time I use my whistle is in an emergency situation.

Whatever you decide to do, the key is making sure everyone knows and agrees with how you will communicate when you are out there on the river.

Line of sight
It is essential on the river that everyone can be seen by someone else at all times, however we don’t have to actually be able to see every single group member at all times. Of course it is preferable if we can all see each other constantly, but realistically this can’t always happen, therefore we maintain line of sight through the group.

Our movement strategies involve us being able to maintain line of sight and if it is ever lost then we do something to regain it. Tactics such as eddy hopping can be used to maintain line of sight when the nature of the river means that line of sight might be lost otherwise.

Chris Brain coaching

It is important to have an idea of what might cause a group to lose line of sight:

  • Gradient increase
  • Direction changes in the river
  • Waterfalls
  • Large boulders or features
  • Weirs and manmade structures

These features create either vertical or horizontal horizon lines meaning that seeing past or around them is an issue. When we approach features such as this our intention should be to adapt our strategy so that line of sight can be maintained. We must make sure that we don’t commit ourselves to having to paddle a rapid by catching the very last eddy. I know several paddlers who have been caught and either had an incident or a near miss by not making the final eddy or paddling through drops blind. Remember, rapids can change from day to day and trees and other obstacles can become stuck in the river at any time.

A common theme through everything we do on the water is to avoid unnecessary hazards and risks. Everything mentioned previously in this article has fitted well into that way of thinking and the planning we do and the decisions we make are about us avoiding having to deal with an incident.

Simple things such as not paddling down drops blind, taking lines that avoid the hazard rather than going through it and moving in ways that minimise the risks are all part of avoiding an incident. We also use rescue systems that are as knot, loop and snag free as possible and we dress ourselves to have a ‘clean’ profile.

Chris Brain coaching

Paddlesport is rarely without some element of risk and we are often balancing risk versus reward. When approaching rapids on the river I ask myself the following questions:

  • Can I see the line?
  • Can I paddle the line (and have I paddled something like this before?).
  • Can I put safety in place to help if required?
  • What are the consequences if I swim (and what is the likelihood of this happening?).

My answer to these questions massively influence whether I will paddle something or not. I have walked away from several rapids even though I could see the line and I think I could paddle it, but because I didn’t like the consequences should I end up in the water.

Our personal position on the river and in the group is very important to things running smoothly and incident free. Often this is presented as the position of maximum effectiveness/usefulness and many people believe that it is only the leader’s job to think about this. In reality we can all be in useful positions, even if we are being led by someone else and/or we are not that experienced.

Your useful position as a group member might be waiting in the eddy for a signal and understanding not to move unless called or it could be in an eddy maintaining line of sight. Your position as a leader or experienced paddler might be right by the hazard or the point where someone is most likely to swim.

Chris Brain coaching

On the water I am constantly assessing where I am most useful and I am not afraid to change my position if I feel like I haven’t made the right choice initially. Having an understanding of what skills, you possess is really important too, maybe you are not the most confident paddler and might not be very well placed in the water, but maybe you are useful on the bank being able to pass signals and maintain line of sight through a steeper rapid? Maybe you are a throwbag specialist or are good at rescuing boats? Either way we can all be in a useful position on the river.

As a group we should have an appropriate range of movement styles and strategies that we can use on the water. I often find that groups have three styles, all at once, one at a time and some sort of eddy-hop variation. They often move either too slowly or too fast and have very little in between. There are lots of ways that we can move on the water and it is important that we vary our tactics based upon the challenge and difficulty of the river.

We change our tactics based up on:

  • The speed we want to move.
  • The difficulty of the water.
  • The potential hazards.
  • The skill level of our team.
  • To minimise the potential amount of swimmers at once.
  • To maintain line of sight.

The strategies I often use to move with a team on the river are:

All go
Nice and quick for easy water.

paddling the rapid with a buddy or two. A bit more controlled than all go, but still pretty quick. Useful when we start to slow things down a bit.

One at a time
Great for when we want to look after just one paddler on a rapid.
Eddy hop – Useful to slow things down and maintain line of sight, I often use this so that one person moves at a time on a steeper rapid or one with lots of eddies.

Paddlers get to switch leads and move from the back (when signalled) to the front every time. Useful for moving fast and a good peer style.

Alpine leapfrog
Paddlers split into smaller teams and leapfrog as a team, protecting the next rapid for the group behind.

Constant leapfrog
Paddlers constantly leapfrog each other without using signals. If you are at the front your job is to find the next eddy and wait for everyone to pass you. As soon as the last person paddles past you, you tag on the end until you are at the front again. Very quick, catching lots of eddies, but still maintaining line of sight. More structured than “all go”

Strategic placing and use of specific paddlers and specific strengths by the leader on a rapid. Paddlers will be given different roles and are often placed ready to rescue and/or maintain line of sight. Usually requires a designated leader and is useful for a mixed ability group.

Next time you’re out on the water, have a think about whether you can put any of the above into practice, you might be surprised how much of this you already do. With a bit of time and thought, we can be safer, faster and clearer with our communications making us more effective on the water. Thanks also to Paul Smith for photos and also for his input into the article.

Chris Brain Bio

Chris has been kayaking, canoeing and coaching for the last 16 years and runs his own business Chris Brain Coaching, delivering paddlesport coaching, safety and rescue courses and REC First aid training.

Chris would like to thank Pyranha kayaks, Red Paddle co, Palm Equipment, VE Paddles and Go Kayaking for their continued support.

Chris Brain coaching

About thepaddlerezine (655 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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