I wrote the following for an installation of the local club newsletter, available here. I'll reprint it here, since I think it's an important thing for new boaters (and clubs) to consider:

Bobbing Down New Rivers

There has been a significant amount of discussion in the club, both online and in the real world, about how fast paddlers in the HCC should advance and who should decide how fast club member should advance. To ease the semantics of the debate, we’ll call this hypothetical, fairly novice, paddler Bob (since if he gets in over his head he may be swimming). Allocating this decision—whether Bob should run a certain river—is a bit of a high-wire act.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to do it. The first is to adopt a sort of control system, where a trip leader, generally an experienced boater, decides if Bob can go on a certain trip. The second option is to adopt a relatively laissez-faire approach, allowing individual paddlers to decide whether they’re ready for a particular river, and leaving the decision to Bob. On one hand, we have safety as a consideration. If boaters get in over their heads, they become a danger to themselves and to the group. On the other hand, paddling is a fairly individualistic sport, and many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of giving one person veto power over our decisions to run a particular river.

Once all of the dust settles, the control system looks like an untenable option. Placing the bulk of the responsibility of the safety of a trip on one leader puts a heavy burden on that person’s shoulders, and could result in depleting an already small group of trip leaders. Moreover, adopting a control system approach undermines the all-for-one, one-for-all approach cohesive teams use when approaching paddling safety.

We need to leave the decision of whether Bob runs a certain river with that paddler. However, we still need to keep safety in mind when putting together paddling trips, and safety must always, always take priority over the worry that we might step on someone’s toes. If anyone, trip leader or otherwise, familiar with Bob’s abilities doesn’t think he’s ready for a river, that concern should be voiced.

In the end, it is the responsibility of each paddler to appraise their skills and decide whether they are ready for a new run. It may be difficult for some new boaters to know if they have the skills for a certain run, and if that’s the case, they need to start asking questions. What is the character of the run? Big water? Creeky and technical? Are there a few big drops that garner a Class IV rating, or is the entire run made up of continuous Class IV maneuvering? What is the hardest move on the run? Answers to these questions should give Bob an idea of whether he has the skills to approach a particular run, and should allow him to improve his skills at his own pace while paddling new rivers.

None of this is to say that groups as a whole don’t retain a sort of veto power. If Bob is paddling with six people, four of whom don’t think he should run the Upper Gauley, he should probably rethink his decision to run the river.

I would suggest that, generally speaking, the following skills are requires for safely paddling the following classes:

  • Class I-II
    • Wet exit
    • Forward stroke
    • Sweep stroke
  • Class III
    • Reliable eddy turns
    • Reliable roll
    • Decent draw strokes
    • Rope use
    • Ability to boat-scout Class II
    • Proficiency in basic hand and whistle signals
  • Class IV
    • Bombproof roll
    • Boof
    • Accomplished boat handling, including compound strokes and ability to catch small eddies
    • Rescue skills
      • Throw rope
      • Pin extraction
      • Basic CPR
      • Boat-based rescues
    • Ability to read water
    • Ability to boat-scout Class III
  • Class V
    • Ability to run continuous, demanding rapids
    • Significant physical endurance
    • Expert level boat-handling skills
      • Ability to catch micro-eddies
      • Ability to maintain control in steep, confused water
    • Expert water-reading skills
    • Expert rescue skills
    • Ability to work as a cohesive, interdependent team

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