Provincial and state bans that make it illegal to chat on cellphones while driving make perfect sense—conversation is a distraction that increases your risk of an accident. If this realization seems long overdue on our roads, it is equally overdue on our rivers.
It’s a challenge to process incoming verbal information while at the same time focusing on technique, river reading and feel. The outcome of these verbal distractions while paddling is similar to talking on the phone while driving.
Roles and responsibilities
On the river, discussions between paddlers in a tandem canoe often flow only one way…from the stern. There are two possible reasons for this: 1) the bow person is facing away from the stern, making it difficult to be heard over the roar of the water; 2) someone told the stern person that he was in charge.
It’s very difficult for a bow paddler to develop feel for the water and timing if he is reacting only to directions from the stern. The skills of river reading and developing personal judgment—how to help with the directional control of the canoe or how to cope with potential obstacles—are not learned by a bow paddler blinded by commands from the stern.
It’s also particularly important to realize that when a tandem pair is new to paddling, it’s too much to expect the stern paddler to be able to focus on managing his own end of the boat, while at the same time giving accurate information to the bow person about controlling his end of the boat. It’s not uncommon to see the stern person doing very little at his end other than telling the bow paddler what to do.
Talking less on the river starts with understanding the duties of each seat. The stern person is in charge of the big-picture, general direction of the canoe. The bow paddler is responsible for fine-tuning that direction. Both paddlers contribute to momentum as required.
Experiment with silent runs at a location with familiar, easy current. On shore, plan a route that includes a few predetermined eddies and, once you’re underway, negotiate the route without conversing. Debrief at the end, discussing what went well and what could be improved, and try it again.
While I’ve spent the last 375 words extolling the virtues of silence, it should be understood that effective communication remains an important element in tandem paddling.
Learn to be economical and precise with words. Develop a system of communication that involves simple one-or two-word directives. Using this method, it’s possible for the stern person to hear a short directive from the bow. For example, “got it” from either paddler means that you can fix a problem on your own. “Help” might mean that you’re trying to avoid an obstacle and need help with the direction of the canoe. “Back-paddle” is self-explanatory.
Consider avoiding words such as left, right, draw or cross-bow, since many of us need a moment to process which side is in question. As skills improve, a tandem partner will start to intuit the direction his partner is intending to manoeuvre the canoe and can instinctively provide assistance. Tuning into the current and boat, rather than verbal directives, yields a more immediate response.
“I thought you meant that eddy!”
As a bow paddler, try not to be too attached to a specific or predetermined location. Your stern paddler may have been doing his best to get to that location and made an error, or maybe you were talking about two different eddies. Regardless, as a bow paddler, do your best to go with the flow—try to discern which direction is intended and provide the best possible support for a positive outcome.