If a group of paddlers decides to break from the main group, they should do so only after informing everyone else where they are going and where and when they will rendezvous with the group.
Whenever possible, elect an experienced leader before each day's paddling. The leader should keep an eye on the entire group and make decisions regarding the safety of continuing.
When paddling in a large group, choose a front (point) boat to set a reasonable pace throughout the day. To make sure no one gets discouraged, assign a strong paddling team to bring up the rear as well. This "sweeper" team can encourage stragglers and slow the front boat down when necessary to keep everyone together.
To keep everyone involved, rotate the duties of the point boat, sweepers and group leader (when possible) throughout the trip. Just make sure that the group leader for each day has the experience necessary to make important safety decisions.
When skies are clear and the water is calm, feel free to spread out a little from other boats, staying within whistle or hand-signal range for safety's sake. But if conditions take a turn for the worse, tighten up and stay within voice contact as much as possible.
Since voice communication can get difficult in high winds (or rough seas), take some time before your trip begins to agree upon a few simple hand or whistle signals that everyone can use to communicate basic messages. If everyone is carrying a whistle, for example, you might decide that one blast means "attention", two blasts means "gather together", and three blasts means "emergency". If hand signals are easier for the group, decide on signals for the same kinds of messages.
Help your fellow paddlers stay safe by keeping them informed. Keep your eyes open for obstacles (like fallen or submerged trees, rocks, rapids), and point them out to the rest your group as soon as you spot them.
Like basic paddling and camping skills, safety skills should be learned and practiced well before any wilderness trip begins.
When breakdowns, capsizes or other troubles occur, the two closest boats should respond to the paddler(s) in trouble. Other boats should gather loosely, in case more equipment or assistance is needed. But if you're not involved in the actual rescue, stay at least a few boat lengths away so you don't inadvertently interfere.
After any capsize, hypothermia can be a serious risk. Assess the situation carefully, and head to shore if necessary so that the wet paddler(s) can change into dry clothing and warm up before continuing. Keep in mind that even severely hypothermic people often say they feel fine.
When bad weather threatens, be extremely cautious about paddling. Be aware of the next safe landing area along your route, and how long it will take to make it there safely.
If lightning occurs nearby, leave the water immediately. If it's not possible to do so (because of water conditions or the shape of the shoreline), protect yourself by positioning your boat within the "umbrella of protection" provided by trees on shore (if you can). This protection zone extends outward from the tops of the trees at roughly a 45-degree angle. Staying slightly offshore (while still within this protection zone) is often safer than paddling directly underneath shore trees.
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: 08/16/2012
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