“I’m smart,
I’m funny,
And dog gone it,
People like me.”
-Stuart Smalley, Saturday Night Live ca. 1995


We all want to have friends, lots of friends, friends that are fun and friends that are reliable—friends we can count on to blow off work and go kayaking.  But what happens when all of our friends bring all of their friends, and their friends bring theirs, and a few strangers wander over and ask if they can tag along?  And, there is only one of us that knows the river.  What then?

Although hard to imagine, sometimes we can have too many friends on the river at one time.  Have you ever been the 18th person into an eddy and wondered what the trip leader said about the following rapid?  Have you ever discovered that the other 16 people don’t know either?  While paddling in large groups can be fun, it can also be a real shit show when things get out of hand.  So then, where do we draw the line?  How many is too many?

The answer, not surprisingly, depends on the situation.  Since no two river trips are the same, a number that works for one group may not function for another.  Numerous factors such as skill level, river difficulty, length and access, weather, etc. all play into the equation.  And, since these factors are subject to change, it is impossible to pin down a specific number that works everywhere, all the time.
It is possible however, to choose a safe and manageable group size based on an accurate assessment of three key elements: a) the conditions at hand, b) the strength of the individual members and, c) their ability to function as a team.

To further explore this process, and the watery nature of group dynamics, let’s look at each of these key elements in detail.

The Conditions at Hand
Numerous conditions affect both the composition and size of a paddling group.  To shed light on the dynamic relationships between them, let’s look at three classic examples:

  • The nature of the river
    The nature of the river influences group size by influencing communication.  Specifically, the landscape of the river determines how well the individual members will be able to see one another.   An experienced trip leader knows that group integrity depends on maintaining a visual link between the lead boat and the sweep boat.  Without it, there is no way of knowing that the trip is together.

    On a wide river with big, sweeping turns it may be quite feasible for the leader of a 15-person group to always see the last boat.  However, in a narrow gorge with tiny eddies, a leader may only be able to see at most 3 boats behind them.  Sweep boats that fall out of sight essentially sever the trip, and create an uneasy separation that leaves both parties wondering about the condition of the other.

  • Access
    Access is often one of those elements that becomes multiplied in the event of an emergency.  On isolated, remote runs it is critical to have enough people, should one of the members of the group become incapacitated.  There is a reason that tripods have three legs and triangles have three sides.  They are both very strong, until one of the legs or sides is broken, but the remaining two legs will work to remain intact.  Even better: four people can form four corners—the base of a pyramid or cube.  If one goes down, they can be reformed into a tripod, and still carry a great deal of weight.  Obviously, more hands equal more help in the event of an emergency.  However, as group size increases it can create its own emergency by gobbling up another key variable—time.
  • Time, like love, is one of those things that you don’t realize you got till it’s gone.  One minute you’re basking in the afternoon sunshine, and the next you’re miles from the takeout, chasing the last light of the day.  One of the drawbacks to paddling in large groups is the extra time it takes to do anything.  More people on the water means more people stopping to scout, or pee, or fuss with outfitting.  These small stops add up over time and can bring downstream progress to a crawl.

Strength of Individual Member
The strength of the individual group members is one of the most crucial aspects in determining an appropriate group size.  Like the elements mentioned above, the key here is balance.  Groups of beginners, novices, or anyone paddling at the edge of their ability need to be balanced by stronger boaters who can assist in giving directions, laying lines, and cleaning up swims.   Even the best TL’s can typically handle no more than one swimmer at a time.  More often than not, it takes at least two people to get both swimmer and gear to shore.  On days where the swim potential is high, having adequate backup is critical to maintaining the safety of the group.  As a TL, people are entrusting you with their health and lives.  Don’t take them lightly.

A side note to aspiring boaters: while most of the time the trip leader is trusted to select a well-balanced group, this doesn’t always happen.  Before agreeing to runs that push your personal envelope, take stock of the group and group leader.  Does the TL know the river?  Are they enthused about showing you down?  Do they even know you’re there?  Is there any organization whatsoever, or does the whole event seem like some Black Friday sale at Wal-Mart? You may be a neophyte kayaker, but you still have the capacity to reason what appears to be good judgement and what does not. Look out for yourself!

Anyone who has ever tested their skills on an unfamiliar river knows that big crowds are not ideal for pushing the envelope.  Crowded eddies, shifting dynamics, and shoddy directions can lead to unnecessary drama and risk.  As someone preparing to step it up, be conscious of the group size and group leaders.  Avoid the drama of too many friends, and save the crowded party for the takeout.

The Ability to Function as a Team
In river running, there is no more important quality than the ability of individual boaters to function as a team.  In our experience we have been fortunate to paddle with an extensive network of kayakers, from groups of a dozen that functioned seamlessly together, to partners who were barely there.

The team dynamic is a difficult one to grasp, especially since boating is such an ephemeral and impromptu activity.  Kayakers in general shy away from things like structure and obligation.  It reminds them of work, duty, and whatever else they blew off to go kayaking.

Still, there is an innate teamwork in kayaking that can make even the largest groups seem small.  In short, it results from every individual member seeing themselves not just as a float in the parade, but as an integral player on the team.  From the lead boat to the sweep boat, it is this vision that not only makes for a smooth and successful descent, but more importantly, builds better relationships and the potential for lifelong friends and boating partners.

Wow…so much to consider!  So little time to go kayaking.  Remember, the above points are observations from decades of kayaking experience.  It is likely that new insights are still to be made.  We hope that this article has helped to shed light on the mysterious world of group dynamics and in some small way, related to your kayaking experience.  Thanks, and see you on the river!

Footnote from Juliet:
Overall the kayak family works hard to conduct itself in a responsible manner on the river. On any given day on a river there can easily be a network of boaters with years of experience out paddling. And the bonus is that our sport comes equipped with good gear, the availability of good training, and many times good access is available on and off rivers.  Statistically our “inherent risk” is pretty low. But sometimes a freak accident can happen that causes even the best/most experienced of boaters to stop and question.  An accident is unplanned and it is unexpected.  What to do about freak accidents?  Review the accident to see if anything can be changed about the way things are done to avoid it occurring again.  Can you eliminate the chance of a  “freak accident” occurring? Maybe not. But a sport such as ours requires that we all are open minded enough to learn from a situation and work together to improve everything about our sport.