Musings on IT, data management, whitewater rafting, and backpacking

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Call and response" on the river

I've taught hundreds of boats full of whitewater paddlers how to paddle. The basic paddle commands for Class III whitewater are:

  • Stop! - Stop paddling, take paddles out of water
  • Forward! - Everyone paddles the boat forward
  • Backpaddle! - Everyone paddles the boat backward
  • Left Turn! - Left side of boat backpaddles, right side forward paddles, boat turns left.
  • Right Turn! – Like left turn only reversed
  • Highside! - Everyone climbs to the high side of the boat to prevent wrapping around a rock.
Most crews, most of the time, are easy to train and pretty responsive. The training technique I use:
  • Get everyone to look at me
  • Explain one command
  • Demonstrate that command
  • Practice that command
  • Repeat all these steps for each command
  • After going through all the commands, run the crew through several commands in random order.
The commands that cause the most trouble are Left Turn and Right Turn. People have trouble remembering which side they are on, and what they should do (forward or backpaddle).

A few ways I reinforce Left Turn/Right Turn training:
  • Between Demonstrate and Practice, have everyone on that side of the boat raise one hand.
  • If they screw up a turn during practice, stop, point out the problem, and try again.
  • Early in the day, use an extended command, e.g. "Left Turn! (short pause) Left Side Back", until they get it.
  • After people move around in the boat, call a few turns to make sure everyone gets it again.
Pretty standard stuff, and this is what I teach new guides, and teach trainers.

These training techniques engage paddlers through listening, watching, and doing, on multiple occasions. This broad based approach is important, because people have different dominant learning styles for physical skills, and need repetition to hone those skills.

With some guides, some crews, and some really loud rapids, the paddlers in the front of the boat have a hard time hearing the guide shout commands. What looks like paddler stupidity or rebellion is often inability to hear or understand.

Yesterday, I thought of adding one more twist to this scheme.

Have the crew repeat the command back in slightly different form, a "call and response":
  • Guide says: Stop!
  • Paddlers say: All Stop!
  • Guide: Forward!
  • Paddlers: All Forward!

  • Guide: Backpaddle!
  • Paddlers: All Back!
  • Guide: Right Turn!
  • Paddlers: Right Side Back!

  • Guide: Left Turn!
  • Paddlers: Left Side Back!

  • Guide: Highside!
  • Paddlers: Everyone on the high side!
Adding this call and response could help paddlers:
  • Hear the commands
  • Do the correct command
  • Stay verbally engaged in the commands
Engagement is important. Experienced guides on rivers they know well can get down most of the river without their crews. But paddlers have more fun if they feel their efforts are important to getting down the river safely.

One more variation. Some rivers have "Quiet Zones" while rafting through suburban back yards. We teach our paddlers to use their "inside voice" in the Quiet Zones.

I've never seen this used on another boat. Maybe there is a good reason?

What do you think?


  1. Rocky,
    There *actually IS* another nautical usage. Without doing the search engine bit, I remembered that when the ship's captain or OOD gives a command, say "Starboard 15" e.g. turn 15 degrees to the right, the Helmsman echoes "Starboard 15, Aye!". When I checked with my milhistory buff, he said format has been used for a long time, maybe centuries?

  2. FBIG,

    Thanks for the reminder. I probably subconsciously stole the idea from many hours of TV watching in my youth. You see the same pattern of command call-and-response in other settings, like pilot checklists.

    But I haven't seen call-and-response in whitewater rafting.