It might be safer to paddle kayak in group than to paddle kayak by yourself. That is not the same as saying it is safe to paddle kayak in a group. It is also very different from saying that just because you are paddling in a group, that group functions well enough to provide safer paddling for you. It could even be that the kayak safety is less in the group than when paddling with a trusted person, or even less safe than paddling alone.
The photo is from paddling in a gale (but protected by islands keeping the waves down). There are 5 clearly visible paddlers in the picture, but they are so spread that it may take time noticing one of them falling in, as well as it might take time to arrive to rescue in the gale. If the water is cold, then the time is precious. Also, when the group started paddling 1.5 kilometers ago, it was a group of 10 kayaks (there still are 10 kayaks, but the group is now quite spread).
When considering the question about kajak safety in a kayak group, then it is also important to remember that the question of safety is a relative question. Even though there are some risk, the risk might be low enough to be acceptable. The important question I am surfacing here is under which conditions and to what extent paddling in a group affects safety in a positive way for you, as well as when can your safety be helped by a group. The following explains why group paddling puts some demands on the environment and the group dynamics before paddling in a group is a good safety measure.
First of all, let us define a number of simple alternatives to paddling in a group, so we can compare advantages and safety factors:
- Paddling by yourself
- Paddling together with a trusted person being a better paddler than yourself
- Paddling with a trusted person at your own paddling skill level
- Paddling with a trusted person being a worse paddler than yourself
- Paddling in a group
With "trusted person" above, we mean a person who would surely notice, and stay and try to help you if you have any problem during the paddling. When we later talk about a trusted group, we mean almost the same thing. A trusted group is a group where you can be sure you will be noticed and get help if you get into problems. It has nothing to do with persons in the group not being trustworthy, it instead has to do with what is needed for the group dynamics to work well enough to assure that the group will be noticing your problems, and thus being able to realise you need help.
All of alternatives 2-4 above contain a security element which can improve the safety compared to alternative 1, paddling by yourself. It can easily be recognised that there could be situations where your ability is suddenly lowered to a level where you yourself benefit from the help of another person. For example, your paddle might break and you do not have a spare, or you might become so ill or injured that you can not go on by yourself. This can happen in circumstances where even the worse paddler can help you. So situations where paddling by yourself might be worse than paddling with someone else can easily be found.
For some, this is a matter of controversy. It is not a statement that is true in general. But there is no reason to close your eyes on the matter. Good paddlers will be picky about who they join in rough conditions. There are situations where it could be safer to paddle alone than paddling together with someone else. Expressed even stronger than that:
- Paddling by yourself can sometimes be safer than paddling with someone trusted.
Looking at alternative 4 above, paddling with a worse paddler, if the circumstances are bad, it is likely that paddling with a worse paddler will be less safe than paddling alone (explained in next section, but above picture from a good paddler paddling in gale (surrounded by with protecting islands keeping the waves down) might contribute to a feeling on how a bad paddler could actually become an increased risk).
For the reasoning, let us start with an example. Let us say the weather picks up and reaches a level where your ability is really challenged. In that case, if alternative 2-4 is at hand, you might have to perform a resque action to help the other person, who has accidentally been overcome by a wave worse than he could handle at the moment. This might now lead to you having to stop, to turn, to manouver into place, and to attempt the rescue. If you would have been able to keep the safest direction if you were not forced to stop, and yet were already strained to stay upright in that direction, now having to go into a standstill, and turn, and manouver for the rescue and then attempt it, will put you at much higher strain. This might get you into the water, which is placing you in a situation where you are at risk, and where you would not have been unless you were paddling together with someone else.
Thus, there are situations where it can be said that paddling with others decreased your safety. Now, since it was just a coincidence the other person fell in the water. If we talk about probability and risk, it can be said that as long as the person is better than you, there is higher chance you benefit from the situation than lose from it. If you are similarly skilled, then there is a 50/50 chance that you will need to be rescued by the other, instead of that you will have to rescue the other. If the person is worse than yourself, the chance is higher you need to make the rescue (thus increasing your own risk), compared to you being rescued by that worse paddler.
Based on above, whenever you get a chance to paddle with a trustworthy person that is a better paddler than you, take that chance. As long as you limit yourself to paddling in situations where you are good enough for the circumstances, always also paddle with someone that is as good as you if you get the chance (on top of the 50/50 chance you are adding all additional advantages with being more than one, tipping the scale in your favour).
To select to paddle with someone that is worse than yourself, you have to be judging the situation a little more. Only do that if you are good enough to handle the circumstances should the other one be unlucky and fall in in the very wrong spot. Also, remember that if you fall in, it might be during circumstances where the worse paddler will have to pass his limits in order to help you. Thus, to paddle with a worse paddler, you should feel sure that the whole trip will occur at circumstances which you can handle on your own, and at which you are able to help yourself and the other at all times.
If the group is a "trusted" group in same way as the above possible paddlers were trusted, then the same logic can be applied. That is, as long as the trusted part of the group contains better or similarly good paddlers, always accept the kayak group as a safer choice. And if the trusted paddlers it contain are all worse paddlers, then just as discussed above, only join if you are good enough to handle the circumstances should any of the others be unlucky and fall in in the very wrong spot, and if you are sure that you on your own can handle an accident where you get back up if you are yourself falling into the water during the expected circumstances.
It is easy to define when a single other paddler is trusted. The other paddler is trusted as long as he/she will stay with you in the circumstances, notice you, and attempt a rescue in the circumstances. But a group is different. There are many elements in a group which are different then compared to two paddlers.
If two paddlers are paddling together, it is very easy for both of them to know where the other paddler is. But in a group, this is much harder. For any specific paddler in the group to know where all other paddlers are, the paddler has to have complete overview of the whole group at all times. This can only be done in small groups, and only if everyone is paddling within short distance from each other (length as well as sideways). The more wind and waves the group is paddling in, the harder it is to see and hear each other. Thus, the tougher the conditions in which you are paddling, which is the same as saying the higher the risk is you need help, the more important it is that the group really has a plan for how to keep everybody together.
If the group tries to overcome the problem of knowing if anyone need help by subdividing the group into smaller groups by paddling two and two, then the group is really not better than the worst of the two-person groups (the weakest chain).
One of the best solutions for making the group trusted is that no person in the group paddle faster than the weakest paddler in the group, and that the best paddler in the group is paddling last, forming a sweep function. This to be sure that whoever falls behind, or falls in, is spotted and has access to a good paddler for help. This method leaves the sweep paddler in a situation where he must rely on himself, which per above is the conclusion for anyone paddling with only weaker paddlers.
For a sweep paddler to work, the group has to be kept together. Thus, for the sweep paddler to work, there has to be a clear leader in the group, and everyone has to follow the paddling plan from the leader. The demand on a leader of a paddling group in order to make the group function as a group is very high. If you instead are only two persons, and know each other, then it is likely that you will wait on each other. It would be more natural to wait than leave someone you know behind. If you would leave one another behind, it is likely you will no longer want to paddle together. However, if you are a part of a group, then it is likely that there are different minds and different skill levels and different desires in the group. Getting all of them to agree is hard. Getting them to agree in tough conditions is even worse, and it is during tough conditions it matters the most.
If you ever paddle in a group that do not have the sweep function, or do not slow down to the speed of the weakest paddler, do not trust the group. The group might be a very good social group and good company. But would you fall behind, possibly it will not be noticed until after a while. Would you then fall in, the very same thing is true, it might not be noticed until later. And a whistle or kayak bongo is not heared very well in wind and waves, especielly if you are paddling against the wind. Thus, even if you select to paddle in that group, do it fully aware of the risks such a group still contains.
In the same way, if you paddle in a group which does not have a very clearly defined leader, or which allows part of the group to make independent decisions on paddling speed or paddling plan, do not trust the group. Just like mentioned above, as soon as the group splits into two groups, the sweep paddler can only function as a sweep for one of the split groups, thus, effectively it means you might find yourself paddling in a group without a sweep paddler.
Even if the group stays together, and even if it has a sweep paddler, there is a limit to the conditions at which rescue from a fellow kayaker is a liable alternative. The better the sweep paddler (and yourself), the higher the level. Depending on skill level, somewhere between strong wind to gale goes a limit after which rescues will not work. That is, when conditions are over a certain limit, you are on your own, independent of number of fellow paddlers surrounding you.
Your own stamina contributes to safety. Even if the sweep paddler is good enough to function perfect in the conditions, would you happen to be a paddler so pressed by the circumstances that you are frequently falling in, you will find yourself either exhausted, or freezing depending on water temperature, in a very short time.
I have been in a number of groups at different times. I have fromn those occasions selected some examples to consider for looking at possible lack of safety from the group:
- First time was during my scare from the Prijon Kodiak. It was blowing fresh breeze, and I had fallen in a number of times. I was getting exhausted and felt I would not be able to climb back up many more times. This was in a perfect functioning group, and I was escorted back to shallow waters.
- At the end of another long 30 kilometer trip, in moderate breeze, I was both physically and mentally tired. This was in an untrusted group, where most paddlers where tired, and it was getting later than expected. The plan for travel was suddenly changed from paddling along shore to instead making a 5 kilometer run straight over deep water. The change of plan was made simply by a couple of paddlers taking the route (being the shortest route), and others following. I had to either paddle totally alone, or try to follow the group. I tried following the group, but was paddling last, and with no one looking back. If I would have fallen in, I could just as well have been paddling alone.
- During the end of another long trip, also that one around 30 kilometers, the leader and some others were taking one route, when another set of people decided to take another route. This led to some uncertainty in the lead group, and after a while people in the previous lead group started to turn towards the outbreak group. This led to the first paddler in the original lead group to become a single paddler, two kilometers ahead of everyone else (still in sight, but only just).
- Last day of paddling in a longer trip, we were a set of people that selected to paddle back home to avoid having to paddle in the strong breeze on more open water. This meant we formed another group and left the company of the main group (which had a very good leader). After a while, confusion and different targets lead to the group of 9 people splitting into small sets of paddlers with different plans, two or two,and in one case one single paddler. The distance was not that great, but 1.5 kilometers alone or with a worse paddler in deep water and strong breeze was not what was planned when this untrusted group started the way back home.
All above are examples when a group, through group dynamics, become an untrusted group. Thus paddling in that group sometimes become less safe than to paddle kayak with a trusted person. It should be noted that what is described here is interpretations based on my view on safety from paddling in groups. Some of the above examples are from a group which I enjoy paddling in, and plan to paddle with many more times. the people are nice and friendly and helpfull and positive people. I enjoy their company and also know that they will help whenever they can. However, the group dynamics showcased is from a group that believes in, and acts based on, individual paddling. It thus serves well as examples of a group where your participation does not automatically lead to safe paddling for you.