Safety when we’re out on the water starts and ends with effective communication. Even if we’re paddling alone we should always tell someone what we’re planning and when we’re due back, and when we’ve finished tell them we have!
In most cases however we’ll be paddling as part of a group and a good communications system between group members is essential if we’re to keep together and help each other out if necessary. The most effective form of communication is verbal. We use words to explain what we are doing and what we want others to do and, in reverse, to acknowledge or clarify the messages that we’ve received. Body language, gestures and facial expressions all help with that verbal communication, but words are key.
Sometimes on the water those words can however be lost. Wind and waves create noise that can drown our words and that is when a good signalling system proves its worth. What signals paddlers use can vary from group to group, but a good system has two important attributes: 1. That it is simple, and 2. That it is understood.
While whistle signals have their place, the most common signals use a hand or paddle to indicate what we want others to do. When using hand signals, good practice is to use the whole hand and present the palm to your recipient(s) rather than just a finger. The palm is easier seen as it is generally paler than the back of our hands which helps immensely in poor light. A hand or paddle extended horizontally in one direction is a signal to move that way, a jabbing action in that direction usually means move that way fast!
On white water rivers a group leader will typically indicate which bank or eddy they want the group to move to, on open water and slow moving rivers many leaders will use a paddle held horizontally with both hands above the head as a signal to stop. If the leader wants the group to come to the eddy they’re sitting in or gather around them a widely recognised signal is to place one or both hands on the top of their head. Often this will be preceded by the leader pointing to an individual paddler to specify who it is they want to join them.
When running drops or features with the potential for getting stuck on rocks or capsizing it is common for a group to run these one at a time. Typically the leader or another competent paddler will go first and sit at the bottom of the feature to use a hand or paddle raised vertically to signal for the next paddler to come down. If the feature isn’t as challenging as expected the hand or paddle moved up and down vertically is often used as a signal for ‘all come on down’ – just think pulling on a chain to flush an old-fashioned wc!
Individual leaders will typically use some or all of the above and have other favourites. A good leader will always discuss signals with their group before going afloat and agree what is going to be used for what that day. A good group member who receives a signal will always acknowledge it, either with a gesture or, if visibility is poor or the distance extended, by clearly repeating the signal back. And if a group member doesn’t receive or understand a signal they should do nothing, remembering the dictum: no signal, no go.
Clear and understood signals underpin an effective communication system and link closely to another safety protocol, that of maintaining line of sight with other paddlers. After all, if we can’t see other members of our group, we can’t use our signals to communicate with them!
I’ll return to line of sight and other aspects of safety at a later date, but remember, safety starts and ends with effective communication.