What Makes a Good River Leader?

First Published in Ceufad Magazine December 2014 PDF (click to view)

On the river, whether we like it or not there is almost always someone who takes a leadership role.  This could be the paddler with the most experience, the smoothest skills, the bravest boater, the most technical knowledge, the NGB qualifications, or simply just the paddler that has been on this river before! 

 Many paddlers aspire to at some point take a leadership role and some go on to take formal training whereas some gain their leadership style and knowledge from those around them.

 As a leader on the river we are often required to have a range of skills, attributes, and experience, which can be grouped into the following categories.

Paul Smith briefing his group before they get on the water at the Tryweryn

 Personal Skills

Put simply, as a river leader your personal skills need to be up to the grade of the river.  You need to be able to position yourself in all the useful places and be able to get the eddies that will mean that you can manage the team effectively.  Ideally you need to be able to paddle smoothly with a good dynamic style, changing pace when necessary and breaking in and out of the river cleanly.

It is most likely that this river leader has experience of surfing waves and holes with the difficulty and size appropriate to the grade.

If the river leader is in a position where they are leading people new to that environment, they should be able to deliver high quality demonstrations that are obvious and relevant to the situation and grade of water.  The ability to help upskill those around you with some handy hints and tips can be very valuable.

Ultimately the leader should have personal skills to lead the group appropriate to the river they are paddling and should be able to surf, boof and move around as needed.

When it all goes wrong and members of the team end up in the water and out of their boats, the river leader should have the skills to sort it out.  They are most likely very well practiced at retrieving boats and have probably chased and unpinned boats before.  The ideal leader will be able to perform rescues quickly and efficiently, can throw a throwbag accurately and have a range of skills when it comes to safety and rescue.

A team of paddlers working together on the River Guil in the French Alps

Attitude and Characteristics

The right mix of characteristics and attitude are essential to be effective as a group leader.  The group leader needs to inspire confidence in others so that the team trust their judgement and respect their decisions.  The best river leaders also have a range of leadership styles that they use in a dynamic way appropriate to the river and to the team.  There will be moments where the best place to lead from changes from the front to the back and everywhere in between.   The leader may also involve the group in decisions or may make a decision on behalf of the group as they probably have the most knowledge.

The best river leaders will always consider the needs of the group and will make decisions on the river in the best interests of themselves and also their team.  They are considerate to others and will treat their team as individuals, doing their best to meet the needs of all of their group.

A good group leader is normally an effective communicator and is able to give clear instructions and is understandable.

Chris giving instructions to his team on the river Garry in Scotland

Knowledge and experience

Knowledge and experience appropriate to the level of the river is an essential part of the makeup of a strong river leader.

Ideally the perfect leader would have either paddled the river before or would have varied experience of rivers of similar styles and grades.  They will most likely have paddled at this kind of grade before and will have a rounded paddling background.

In a challenging situation the ideal leader will have the necessary tools, equipment and knowledge to handle it.  They are probably in the know about first aid, have a strong awareness of the dangers of hypothermia and understand how to call for help and manage the situation if that is required.  This probably isn’t the first time they have dealt with something like this on the river and their cool, confident nature should help make the situation much better.

Paul Smith shares his knowledge of the river to his team as they scout the rapid

Kit and Equipment
In their boat and in their PFD the river leader will have a range of equipment that they can use in the correct situation.  Most likely they are carrying things like locking karabiners, a tape or sling, a whistle, a knife and a saw.  Experience has also told me never to be separated from my van keys and my phone and an experienced leader will most likely have them on their person rather than in their boat (as boats can make unexpected descents of the river without a pilot from time to time!)

 The leader will probably either be carrying themselves, or potentially shared with competent members of the group some essential items that will make the whole day run smoother if something unexpected happens.  Split paddles can be incredibly useful and can be the difference between whether the group can continue the paddle or if they need to get out of the river early.  A group  shelter and survival bag are incredibly useful items for a group leader to carry and can make a huge difference when dealing with a casualty and are great for a cold lunch stop in December in Scotland too!  A good first aid kit, repair kit and some clever items such as a head torch, spare food and clothing too are always going to make a leaders job much easier too.

What kit and equipment would you need for this environment?

This is a good place to start from…..

But the best leader will make their own decisions and form their leadership style based upon their experience, they wont simply see leadership as being a set of boxes to tick off.  This list of characteristics is only a starting point and each individual will place a higher value on some areas rather than other.  The most rounded leader is likely to have a good balance from all the different areas rather than just be strong in one.  For example the best paddler isn’t necessarily the best leader and the person with the most kit in their boat doesn’t always have the most experience!