Team paddling experiences

The four weeks I paddled in Sardinia is the longest kayak journey I have been on so far, and the first time I have travelled for so long with somebody I knew so little.

Things went very wrong between Wendy and I, and I have quite naturally given it quite a bit of thought as to why. I’m not sure it necessarily had to end like that, had we been able to handle some problems and situations better during the time we travelled together.

All interpersonal relations are inherently complex, and it doesn’t get less complex by placing those relations in a context of sea kayaking in unknown territory for long hours each day, occasionally in difficult weather conditions, while living primitively on beaches and the like. The physical and psychological stress induced further complicates matters.

The following are my thoughts on some of the areas where I think Wendy and I didn’t do very well as a team.

Please try to read this more as a “mea culpa” than as a “j’accuse“. Being the less experienced paddler of the two of us, I probably made more and graver mistakes than Wendy. Also, this is NOT an attempt to get into an online shouting match, but an attempt to share some difficult and at times painful experiences, and hopefully, hear about the experiences of others in the comments. I want to learn to be a better team paddler, so I can prevent similar unpleasant events in the future.

Information for all

It is very important that all team members know exactly where they are, where they’re going, how far there is and what conditions to expect. It sounds obvious when written like that, but we didn’t do it. I should have make sure I always had the necessary information each time we started, but I didn’t.

We only had one map case which I usually left with Wendy, even though I was offered to carry it many times. I would often just have a quick glance at the map before we left in the morning, memorise the important parts and just paddle on that, relying on Wendy for all the details during the day.

One day in particular was really bad, in large part because I had acquired too little information about our whereabouts before we started, and I was unable to get more information as we paddled on. We were on our way from Costa Paradiso along the coast. All was calm and we were tired of sitting still, so we left on a whim in spite of a forecast of F5-6 NW winds, that is from the side.

We started, had a short break before Isola Rossa, and started again towards a headland down the coast. I had gotten the impression that it was about 5-6km away, an hours paddle, though it seemed further. I discarded that observation thinking it was just a bit of mist making it look more distant. We paddled for an hour, we got a bit more wind, Wendy paddled ahead as I slowed down because my back started to ache a bit. The headland seemed just as far away as when we started. I could only see an outline of the headland as I had the sun right in front of me.

We paddled for another hour, the headland was still just an outline towards the sun and still distant. The wind grew stronger, at least F5 with average waves of 1-2m from the right, and as I had to work harder in the waves my back really started to ache.

After about 3½ hours non-stop paddle the headland was closer, but I still couldn’t see anything on it because I was blinded by the sun, I didn’t really know where we were, if we were to land at the headland or not, the wind and waves kept pushing me around and I was in quite a bit of pain. At that point I gave up fighting the waves to keep the course, and let them carry me left towards the coast so I didn’t strain my back muscles so much, and then turned the boat up into the wind using the skeg, again so I could relax my back. That brought me far away from Wendy, who had been ahead of me all the time, and she had to return to look for me. We finally landed on a small beach just under the headland after almost 4 hours non-stop paddling in rough weather.

The worst part of it wasn’t even the rough weather or my back aches, it was not knowing anything. My information on distance had been false, we paddled 16km in 4 hours, not 5-6km in one hour. I didn’t expect the wind and waves to changes dramatically in one hour, but they did in 4 hours. I had no idea about our destination. Were we to land on the headland or not? I had no possibility to acquire new information during the paddle. I was constantly blinded by the sun, so I couldn’t see a thing on the headland in front of me. Was it build up or not, was there a harbour or not? Wendy was ahead of me and as my back got sore I couldn’t catch up with her. The wind growing in strength, most communication between us was impossible anyway.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a good day on the water.

I tried in the following week to make sure I knew what was going on, and I didn’t have bad days like that again. I’d say I’ve learnt to stay informed.

Follow the slowest

A team will have to follow the slowest. If it doesn’t it won’t be a team for long.

A corollary to this rule is that all team members must accept this without complaint. The slowest team member won’t be any faster by being corrected, coerced, left trailing the rest of the team or by any other means. It will only make that person feel miserable and therefore make the team function worse.

Then, who says the slowest team member won’t one day be you.

There are many possible reasons for being slow, and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with weakness. One can be slow because the clouds in the sky have interesting shapes, or because there are beautiful rocks to look at, or because one experiments with different paddling styles, or whatever happens to not propel one forward at maximum speed.

In the little team of Wendy and I the role of the slowest paddler changed often, sometimes from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour. I was often the slowest in the days when I had back aches, but not necessarily. I did leave Wendy behind one of those days, simply because the pain was such that I wanted to get off the water as soon as possible. I just ate the pain and paddled as fast as I could. Wendy was many times the slowest because she wanted to look at rock formations and explore little coves along the coast. On a few occasions I was playing, trying to go as fast as possible, forgetting about team paddling, and I ended up several kilometres ahead of Wendy who couldn’t keep up.

Being slow is not just a matter of paddling. I’m a slow starter in the morning. It takes me half an hour to wake up and get started. There’s nothing really I can do about it, at least not without inducing a completely unnecessary level of stress in my body. Wendy is off before her eyes are fully opened.

No matter what the context, the team will have to follow the slowest or dissolve.

Patience

Following the slowest means waiting. We both discovered that waiting is an essential part of team paddling, frustrating as it may be. Different persons have different speeds, and some will always wait for somebody else.

Waiting requires patience, and lots of it.

Inability to wait patiently for the other team members to get ready or come along will cause all sorts of tensions and stress in the team. It is very, very unpleasant having to do something with others hanging over you, hurrying on you or moving your stuff around in some misguided attempt to get you to pack your boat faster. In the end things will just go slower for it.

In that sense, patience is not a virtue in team paddling, it is a necessity. An constantly impatient person is inadequate as a team paddler.

In any case, one day you’ll want the others to wait for you, so just learn to be patient.

“Mock waiting”

One particular nasty expression of impatience in team paddling is what I call “mock waiting”. I think most of us have tried it, most of us have probably done it too without thinking about the consequences.

“Mock waiting” is when the faster paddler moves ahead at his/hers preferred speed, then waits until the slower paddler has almost caught up, just to start again immediately.

Sounds innocuous, right? Let’s see what it does to the two paddlers.

The faster paddler gets to paddle at a nice, pleasant pace of his/hers own choice, interrupted by occasional breaks. These breaks might be frustrating and annoying, they are after all interruptions and they do slow you down, but they’re nevertheless still breaks where muscles and mind can relax a bit.

The slower paddler, who is always behind, experience a psychological pressure to paddle a little faster than he/she would otherwise do in the given conditions. The faster paddler exerts a pressure to move on by always being ahead. Whenever the slower paddler catches up to the waiting faster paddler, he/she starts immediately, leaving the slower paddler no time for a break and a rest. As a consequence, the slower paddler works harder for longer, without any breaks and without catching up. It is, to say it mildly, very unpleasant.

It is so easy to do without thinking about it, but it is not so nice being the slower paddler who works hard to catch up just to be left behind again immediately.

“Mock waiting” is very destructive behaviour in a team. It constantly underlines that “I’m faster and you’re slower”, while it wears the slower paddler down physically too. It can drive the slower paddler into the ground, physically and psychologically.

Mutual respect

Much of the above boils down to mutual respect between team members.

If the team members respect each other and each other’s differences, much of the above won’t happen. Respect in my book means taking the other person seriously, letting the other person have his/hers say, listening to what the other says and expresses, and taking that into account when deciding what to do.

Much of what I have written above are the results of an inability to listen to each other or an inability to let what is said influence one’s behaviour and decisions.

The short conclusion of all these words can be: don’t paddle with persons you don’t respect and don’t paddle with persons you don’t believe respect you.

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Well said. I think you covered the story well and explained things fully. I paddle a shorter boat (Romany 16) and always have to work harder to keep up with my companions in 17 and 18 footers. I know of what you speak. I was glad to hear your take on things.

I think that if you are going to go on a trip with a group it is vital to work synergetically, this means that the stronger need to help the weaker and together the group is stronger.Otherwise you are just a group of individuals travelling together.Mutual trust and respect is of primary importance, as is give and take.Kayaking is an individual sport so we all give up something when working with others.Your entry makes good reading.

Rene composes well his experience and what he learned. I believe good two way communicaiton is critical when ever paddling with others. Yes, i’ve been on both sides of poor communication. Rene’s forthright recount reminds me of a book by Valorie Vons about paddling around Baja California and what it ment to be a “partner”.

Thanks for sharing. Sometines it just won’t work between partners no matter what. On the water my goal is to have no goal, and curiously it made me have it all. It’s not about going at a specific place, so why put pressure on the other paddler anyway. I’m patient and in this way me and my female partner are 300 km close of New-founland, and we started from Montréal last year. A 2000 km trip on the Saint-Laurence river. It’s about loving the sea, not flashing on internet for doing some big expeditions.
You said it: Patience and respect and … being happy on the water.
Happy paddling René!

Great discussion, I think you make great points and present them well.

In my mind the keys are mutual patience, tolerance and respect, all components you described. If one is a person who might be described as “rigid”, it takes some thinking and behavior modification. I was on a trip recently with two other paddlers, a type ‘a’ personality and another type ‘b’ like myself. It took the type ‘a’ a bit of time to loosen up, and took us some time to let him be him and respect that.

The information thing is huge for safety as well as respect. This was a bit of an issue among us, as were contrasting beliefs in safety and constant verification of safety skills, and it almost caused a pretty serious problem.

The upside of traveling with different people than oneself to me is favorable to traveling with like minded people of the same personalities. I learn humility and tolerance – but I can also approach problems from an angle I’m not used to using. And in our group, the mix of skill sets, strengths and weaknesses made me feel like we were three puzzle pieces.

Lastly, I think when you are landbound, you have to make the most of taking some time to yourself.

Group dynamics absolutely fascinate me and I think the importance is often overlooked (I know I have!).

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[…] Tim Shuff has an editorial titled “Apologies to Everyone I’ve Ever Left in my Wake” in the summer 2008 issue of Adventure Kayak magazine, where he discusses the problem of mock waiting when paddling, based in part on my account of the things that went wrong in Sardinia in October last year between Wendy Killoran and…. […]

This year I travelled down the Andaman Coast island hopping for 3 weeks. Solo. Fo the first time in my life in a kayak. Sleeping rough on beaches and 4 star a/c rooms. Solo.

Rene, reading your discussion I am shocked by 2 things.

1, that you were surprised about human nature, in particular a wo/man struggling on the sea.

And 2, that you’d thought your expedition would end otherwise.

I marvel at your naivety and optimism! Surely you represent the best of what it is to be human. I hope to meet you on the sea oneday. All the best.

Why didn’t you communicate each morning about your plans for the day? And at the end of the day, review the days paddling? Communication is key. Speak your concerns to your paddling partners. Plus each paddler should have their own map. I’ve paddled with faster paddlers and make them wait until I am rested. I don’t accept “mock paddling” as you did. And when I paddle with slower paddlers, I wait until they are ready to continue paddling. With time and with more group trips, you’ll get the hang of it. Good luck!

Well, Jane, its easy to be wise afterwards. I was writing about a learning experience, and the “why didn’t you” questions you pose, are exactly about the things I learned, so I do know what you write, but I didn’t know it when I had the experience I wrote about.

If you are – or feel like – the weaker paddler in the group, it is very difficult to impose yourself on the others, saying “I don’t accept …”, especially if the other paddlers have already taken off before you reach them. You cannot “make them wait” if they don’t.

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