SOC's River Running Style
To a paddler from a more "formal" club background, used to acronyms like C.L.A.P. and groups with defined leaders, assistant leaders and so on, SOC's river running may well appear very casual. To see this in context, you must recall that the club (all sections) runs on the premise that "responsibility for decisions affecting personal safety ... rests solely with the individual participants". This does not mean "every man for himself", but it does mean that we expect everyone on a trip to be aware of their own limits. Groups normally consist of people who paddle together frequently and know each other well, so we often don't have a defined running order or specific leadership roles. Although it may not always be obvious, when we are paddling with people we know less well, we will aim to have one of the core group of paddlers ahead on the river, and one bringing up the rear on all but the very easiest of sections. Paddlers must be aware that if they stop to play on a wave after the rest of the group has set off, they risk losing contact as those moving down the river aim to keep each other within sight, whilst if you paddle off ahead of the group before they are ready you are tacitly taking on a leadership role and should be prepared for that. We do like to give everyone a chance to lead down rapids if they so wish, but by doing so you are vouching for your own confidence in doing so without immediate backup.
We welcome new paddlers, but won't always know you, so we tend to have a bit of a discussion at the start of the trip to ensure that everyone knows (and is using) the same river signals, and is aware of any particular bits of the river which might need inspection or particular care. We try to put on at a spot where there is a playwave or jet for ferry gliding so everyone gets warmed up before committing to the trip and we can spot anyone who is finding the conditions harder than they expected. That's not always possible where the put-on is in a particularly flat section, or equally where the river is fast-flowing and narrow.
On rivers we know well, we are very likely to do all our scouting from the water, knowing the lines in advance, but looking for new hazards such as fallen trees. On harder rivers, or on harder sections of easy rivers, we may well adopt a more formal river running style with hand signals and people on the bank, so be on the look out for people stopping before a hard section to set this up. It is rare that a single leader will go first over the whole course of a trip. There are often one or more people on a trip taking photographs, and paddlers always look better when seen from in front, so do not be surprised to find someone paddling flat out to get ahead of the group coming up to a photogenic bit, or occasionally hitting the shore and leaping out onto the bank.
No-one should feel under any pressure to paddle any bit of a river that they are uncomfortable with, so if in doubt, ask and we will be happy to get out and inspect, set up safety cover, or portage. If we are aware that we have less confident paddlers in the group, we will often do these things without discussion, but if you feel that your confidence is being overestimated, let us know - we'd prefer everyone had a pleasant trip and not be put off paddling in the future !
With anyone under 18, we are aware that we have a greater duty of care and may well feel that we need to ask you to stay within the group (ie. in a specific running order) unless we are on an easy section or we know you well enough to have every confidence of your ability to lead a section. No-one should ever get so far ahead of the group that line-of-sight is impaired, and no paddler should remain playing on a wave alone after the group has started to move on. A whistle is useful for alerting the group if you are obliged to stop to empty your boat (or replace a contact lens, etc.) when at the back and feel that no-one has noticed, or indeed, if you see someone else in difficulty and need to attract attention.
I can personally vouch for SOC's ability to rescue swimmers, but, particularly on rivers in higher water, it is important to avoid having more than one swimmer at a time, so unless you are confident you are needed and actively able to assist in an ongoing rescue, stay in, or get into, an eddy as soon as practical. Often it is useful to have someone on shore to grab a boat or swimmer as they are marshalled to the bank by those still on the water, so if you find yourself in an eddy on the right side of the river to help, leaping out to the shore may be very helpful even if you can't get downstream fast enough to be of help with a throwline. Someone on the bank is also a good communication link if a rescue takes lead paddlers out of sight of those staying safe at the back.
Whilst for several years the club didn't offer coaching there are a lot of qualified coaches in the club and the club rules on this have now relaxed so specific trips may be designated as coaching events. Even on normal trips, you will find people are more than willing to offer useful advice or demonstrate the best (or sometimes the most difficult) line or technique on the river. Many people have progressed from beginner to regular whitewater paddler with the club without formal instruction and we should now be even better able to cater for beginners and improvers. The old club style worked well for those who learn best by simply getting out there and doing it, whilst offering a chance for our qualified coaches to simply paddle in a peer group and not find club trips being more of what they do for a living ! Many trips will still run in this way, so watch out for trips in the programme that are specifically intended for beginners to learn technique.