Select Page

Pod Dynamics

These comments are from BASK trip initiators and experienced instructors (Chris Kumai, Steve Lidia, Anders Landin, and Tony Johnson.) Here's their thinking on pod dynamics...

As stated in the guidelines, trip Initiators are not trip Leaders by default. Pods, in general, work best with Leaders.

One technique is to look back and make eye contact with the pod Sweep every 30 seconds or so. That's a lot of head swiveling and boat counting. Things, as you know, can happen fast in some kayaking situations (students tipping over...). In a "professional/commercial" situation, there is a designated leader and an expectation that participants adhere to this structure. Even then, this does not always work and thus one would have to practice various scenarios on how to deal with participant issues (Jack Rabbit paddlers, slow/tired/unmotivated paddlers, corralling paddlers away from danger zones, etc.) If there is only one leader, then there needs to be discussions on designation a lead or sweep. Also expectations for the lead and sweep as well as trip/class goals, way points, lead/sweep rotations.

A lot of this structure is absent in a BASK club paddle. Furthering this problem is that the Initiator, while not a Leader, does, in general, feel a responsibility for the safety of the group. Also, the longer the paddle and the larger the group, the more likely pods will disperse.

For pod/group paddles, speed/distance is limited by the slowest/weakest member of the group. As such, faster/stronger members might not want to be bridled by this restriction. For the club, there should not be a restriction that everyone must stay in a pod, although that is the prerogative of the Initiator.


1. Designate if the trip will be restricted to pods, loose pods, everyone for themselves.

1a. Restricted to pods if there may be a particular hazard or if there is a low skill level.

1b. Loose pods, members come and go as they please.

1c. Gonzo! This is for trips with very low hazard or a high skill level of participants.

2. Establish a plan A and a plan B/C/D. It could be an easy "Go forth" or maybe 5 stops at designated GPS waypoints. This also requires that it is clear what triggers plan B/C/D. Up to the Initiator.

Now for the pods:

1a. This is like a commercial tour and requires a Leader.

1c. No Leader required.

1b. This is the general scenario for BASK paddles. There can be an expectation that participation in a pod comes with some responsibilities. The basic responsibility is that everyone looks out for each other. If you "join" a pod, then you are responsible for participating in watching over the pod. At a minimum, you should stay with the pod by keeping watch of the "center" of the pod and not straying too far. If you join a pod, then you are part of the head count. If you leave a pod that you joined, you should tell multiple people that you are leaving and better yet, tell them your plans. This way the headcount can be adjusted. You can leave a pod by default, by paddling away, and thus you choose to lose the benefits of the pod.

If you are having problems staying with the group due to boat handling issues, then you should make that known.

It is necessary for the pod to not leave a slow/weak paddler behind.

If someone notices a change in the headcount (everyone is counting every few minutes...), then this change must be dealt with quickly. The pod should "stop and hold position" until the errant paddler is rounded up if they are lagging, or rescue protocols initiated if someone needs help, or otherwise deal with the situation. If someone paddles away, then the remaining members should adjust the headcount.

If you do not "join" the pod (lone wolf or miss the launch window) then you are on your own and the pod has no responsibility for you.

If you cannot communicate with the center of the pod, then you are not in the pod. You should expect that the pod will drop you from the headcount. This is how large pods can disperse. If a pod splits, no big deal. Ideally, there would be some communication and acknowledgement that the pods are splitting. There can still be an overall plan that various pods can agree to. If you find, unintentionally, that you cannot communicate with the center of the pod, then it is your responsibility to rectify the situation by paddling back to the pod (or a pod) or dealing with your new found freedom as the pod will assume you have left on your own intentionally (this, of course, does not apply to slow/weak paddlers as it is necessary for the pod to not leave members behind).

"You cannot "not join" the pod and still paddle with the pod as that will confuse the headcount."

This is the difficult part. If it is announced that pods will form and a headcount is made, then you are counted as part of the pod. If you don't want to be in the pod, then you should be courteous and remove yourself. You should realize that it is difficult for the pod to deal with a constantly changing pod size. This will, of course, happen but paddlers should accept this responsibility if they are paddling with the club.

"Rules for loose herds of BASK paddlers"

  1. For the initiator, communicate "The Plan". Also plans B, C, D, ... and the trigger for these changes (fall back or fall forward changes). If the initiator needs help with this, they should seek out advice.
  2. Designate if it is expected that paddlers join pods. Expected vs required.
  3. Make a headcount. If the headcount changes, then this information should be spread to everyone in the pod. Everyone should count boats/paddlers often. Look behind you.
  4. If you cannot communicate with the center of the pod, you are not in the pod. Look behind you.
  5. If you want to be part of a pod, then you should stay with the pod. If you cannot stay with the pod due to reasons/conditions beyond your control, you need to inform the pod. If you are having issues and you cannot communicate with the center of the pod, then position yourself behind the pod, if it is safe to do so, and rely on rule #6. The pod needs to be able to see you for this to work. They are looking behind for you.
  6. The pod should not leave a slow/weak paddler behind. If a headcount comes up short, the pod should communicate this and hold position until the issue is rectified. Keep looking behind for slow/weak paddlers.

It seems like it might be good to do two things:

  1. For the short attention span of the general BASK population - stress personal responsibility, impress the importance of communicating what is expected before you are on the water, and somehow try to distill a simple rule on how what to do when things go not as planned so that people act predictably -- not sure what that is, but something like a slogan that people will recall so that when something happens, the people in question and those reacting work in the same direction. Seems like people need to understand that if they are split from the pod, it may impact others whether or not they are able to make it to the destination, as seemed to happen in this case. If there are some basic ways that pods go bad, maybe try to capture those in some concise and memorable ways so people are generally on the same page in how to react and respond to things that happen on the water.
  2. For those thinking of initiating a trip, and especially one that could have large numbers of people, a more detailed article on the web site that would give ideas on what the trip initiator might want to consider under different circumstances, how they might want to structure the trip, what to communicate to people before the paddle, and how to respond to different scenarios that occur on the water.

Every paddle is different and every BASKer is different and most would rather tailor their paddle for what makes sense for it, but giving some food for thought would be a good thing. Could give a set of basic rules for those want those, but a rigid set of rules may be counterproductive for those instances that they don't fit too well.

—BASK is a club, not an outfitter. Our trips are initiated by one or more people, and have one or more (sometimes many many more) participants. Each paddler needs to have the confidence in their skills and abilities to be able to fully participate in the trip as outlined in the announcement and discussed on the beach beforehand. It would be unfair to the initiator or to any other participant for someone to impose greater needs at the outset - unless some prior agreement had already been established. In general, the less capable/confident/experienced paddlers should first seek their training in appropriate venues (outfitter classes, skills clinics) that are designed to meet their needs.

—Pods need to be a manageable size. If you can't quickly assemble a pod together for an impromptu discussion, it is too big. Practically, that imposes limits of 3 to 6 paddlers per pod, if the pod is moving through an area. Maybe a few more in other situations where visibility and conditions warrant it.

—Everyone within a pod shares the identical level of responsibility towards every other member, and the group as a whole. That is the point of a pod.

—Popular within instructor corps these days is the CLAP acronym for OTW group management. Communication, Line of sight, Awareness, Positioning. This is as useful in rock gardens as it is in protected open water. It's also easy to remember and to remind oneself while paddling. It just needs to be emphasized and reinforced. There are some simple drills that can be done in just a couple of minutes to get everyone into this frame of mind and practice.

—If we support each other in our exploration and enjoyment of the marine environment, then the CLAP principles of practice will be very easy to maintain and will allow individuals to peel off and play for a bit.

Support the pod and the pod will support you.

One of the long-standing principles of BASK has been that the initiator defines the parameters for the paddle. As a consequence there is a wide range of leadership styles, ranging from tightly controlled paddles to almost uncontrolled ones. This is a great strength of our club. I think it would be a huge mistake to try to "institute" something more stringent.

The only thing I wish is that the initiator sometimes was a little more explicit about what level of control was intended for a trip. Obviously participants need to understand what level of control / safety / freedom is offered and what behavior is expected on each particular paddle.

Most BASK (and any club) paddles break down to two categories:

  • Common Adventure—everyone is expected to have sufficient skills/experience to do the trip on their own. Responsibility is shared equally among the members of the trip.
  • Experienced Led—some paddlers will need guidance. Some folks (not necessarily the initiator) are accepting more responsibility to look after those who need it.

It is the trip initiator's prerogative to decide which type of trip they are doing - they need to be clear in their own head of what they are offering. But if they offer guidance it is the responsibility of those who require it to make that need known.

Regardless of the type of trip there are a few simple things that make them all go much smoother and safer:
Trip Announcement (including location, date and time, basic paddle outline, skills/equipment necessary, limits on numbers, RSVP (optional)). This is where the trip initiator should clearly spell out if leadership is being offered.

  • Pre launch: Waivers, Safety Gear, Safety Talk. Safety gear check for what is required for everyone and what additional equipment folks have. Safety Talk should specify what type of organization (or lack thereof) will be used on the water. It should also specify communication methods - paddle signals, radio channels, cell phone numbers, semaphore flags, etc.
  • On the water: Follow the plan! If something happens it's a good idea to have an 'incident commander' who watches the whole group instead of just focusing on the individual needing assistance.

The key to all this is communication. Don't assume that anything is 'common club knowledge'. Spell out what will be provided on the leadership side - even if it is no leadership. It's very easy to come up with a standard disclaimer for yourself. It also only takes 5 minutes to perform a safety talk before launching.

Most often people are left behind by their pod because of a cows returning to the barn syndrome but it has happened due to socializing and to differences in adventure seeking. Pod size didn't seem to matter but group composition is important. It may be an individual's perception of risk issue more than communication more than anything else.  A kayaking magazine ran some articles about boaters getting into trouble under "good conditions". Bad shit can happen at any time under any conditions for a number of reasons and the key question in paddling in a group is what kinds of risk are the pod members relying on each others' support to reduce the risk of bad consequences.