Sea Kayaking Leadership and Risk Assessment CLAP!

I’ve written a couple of posts about leadership and risk assessment for sea kayaking. While writing this post, I tried to keep these other experiences firmly in mind.

My Apostle Islands experience began my leadership experience.
I had another foray into leadership in November on our Port Sheldon to Saugatuck trip.

I had some serious doubts about my performance under these conditions. Granted the November Gales trip was somewhat extreme, but I organized and planned it. So I was responsible for it.

When I was sea kayaking in Orca Island Washington, I was brave enough to ask for help/advice from Shawna and Leon on where I went wrong that day.

The answer was CLAP.

Line of Sight

For some this is not a new term. It is straight out of the BCU playbook, so to speak. Leon also explained that people in Alpine climbing have been using it for a while to plan expeditions and trips with groups.

I am going to break CLAP down as it was shared with me and as it pertains to the events of the November 15th Trip .


Without communication you really can’t exercise any leadership with a group, everyone is acting as individuals.

Signals can be more useful than one thinks. Set down and agree on them before hand. When using signals keep it simple, paddle straight over head means come to me. Paddle held over head in both hands = stay where you are-and so forth.

A marine radio is dead useful when there is more than one radio in the group. With only one radio, it is only useful for evac from the coast guard. I will most likely be making an investment in one in the near future.

No communication can really get you into trouble on the water, let me tell you. This is probably the key failure of the November Gales trip. Once we had split up there was no way to communicate with one another about the change of plans, or the shifting conditions. So everyone was sort of in it for themselves and the group cohesion was lost almost immediately. We also had no agreed upon signals when exiting the river channels onto Lake Michigan. I could have been leading the way out, and then turning to make sure everyone else got out. If a set looked ugly I could have held a signal for wait/stop etc.

Line of Sight

Line of sight to everyone in your group is really important. It is hard to lead a group you cannot see you, or whom you cannot see. There actually is a difference between the two as well. A good member of the group for a four star assessment will position themselves to be visible so that the leader of the group can see them, know they are safe etc.

Being able to see your group is essential to making landings, as I found out. When I lost line of sight to John and Joe during our November trip, I had to make an educated decision about where to land and then figure out how to regroup. If we had never lost communication or at least line of sight, we would have been able to use hand signals to figure out where we could all land together safely. I also lost sight of Doug for a short period during our launch out of the breakwall, where he almost hit the pier. Perhaps if we had all been within sight, he might not have come close to hitting the wall, and thus being a little jittery throughout the rest of the trip. Of course this is not what happened.


Avoidance of risk is easier than the cure, or so the quote goes from the BCU manual. If you can avoid a narrow jetty with breaking waves, go around it. If you can avoid a day with thirty knot winds, don’t go out, if that is not what the group is up to. (sigh). It can be avoiding risks that you know about before hand, or avoiding risks and problems that arise during the journey such as sharp pointy rocks, boats, etc. Avoidance to be fair seems to be the one that is the most subjective.

Risk I think is related to skill level, weather, tides, and a lot of other factors that are covered in the risk assessment bulls eye below. Clearly the point is that if you can avoid a risk for the group, all the better. We decided to engage the risks rather than avoid. We did adjust the trip based on the risk of getting caught in the dark. We shortened the trip by about 5 miles that day.


Position for a leader is being in the best position to exercise the above. A leader of the group cannot effectively help avoid say a narrow spot between islands where the rest of the group may run into the rocks if he/she is way ahead of this obstacle. The leader cannot communicate the risk to the other members of the group, have line of sight if there is a problem to even use a signal, nor can they physically help within a reasonable amount of time with rescues, towing or any other method of avoidance.

Needless to say, despite the fact that I was positioned with Doug when he was having trouble I still didn’t have any sort of positioning to the other members of the group to help them get safely back on shore.

These are short, cursory examples of the points. Hopefully by reading the account and grasping the concepts as described, you begin to fill in the picture of how these concepts work with real events. Certainly I hope my failures serve as a warning to others. And I think from reading the above you do get the idea that I got lucky more than I was skilled.

Risk Assessment

Body Boat Blade Risk Assessment Bullseye

Using this bulls eye the leader of the group can sit down with the group and plot risks from this Risk Assessment for Sea Kayaking PDF.

With the group the leader will take all of these variables and begin to plot them into the green, yellow, and red. When everything is in the yellow, and the green, it’s a go. When everything is in the yellow and the red, it’s a show stopper. The leader will have to make informed decisions based on who is paddling about whether the assessments of what is in the red, yellow or green is accurate. Beware, if you don’t know a paddler very well, everything that gets placed into the green, or even yellow might be suspect. It’s interesting to note that environmental variables such as bright sunshine may place certain people in the green, where as a dark and stormy day might put someone in the yellow.

The great thing about this is that the group participates in assessing their own risks. The leader is not the one saying, “hey, it’s a no go.” or, “you can’t come”, or, “we should paddle somewhere safer”. Hypothetically it’s the group that comes to this decision by plotting their own assessments. This might actually be a true measure of leadership. Guiding people into making their own good decisions rather than coercing, or imposing.

I encourage anyone who reads this to comment, or reply to the article with their own experiences. I have summarized a lot of this into short excerpts related to my own experiences and previous postings on this blog. Nothing can replace real world experience and coaching. I look forward to applying this to future trips and journeys.


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  3. I googled around a fair bit also and couldn’t find it. When I used to climb, I never heard it used either.

    It’s still a great acronym.

  4. Nice post. I hadn’t seen the acronym before, and really like it. The way I learned “Position” is that you always put yourself between the folks that you’re guiding and the most probably place that they’re going to run into trouble. That way, they don’t have a chance to encounter that location.

    A simple way to say it is position yourself between your participants and the hazard. Is this how they taught it to you?

    Great post! And I’m going to use this acronym from now on. I haven’t been able to hunt down any references to the acronym in alpine climbing. Do you have any?


    • I was taking Leon Somme at his word that alpine climbers used it. Ha! I couldn’t find it either. I googled around a fair bit. I think it might be a British thing, not sure.


  5. I can see where you could use the risk assessment bull’s-eye in another way. In the planning stages or even for a day paddle, hand out laminated sheets with grease pencils/dry-erase markers. The sheets get set up like individual questionnaires, or rather individual assessments.
    “What scenario puts YOU in the red/ no-go zone?” 1-3’ waves, 3-5’, 5-8’, 8-12’, … Offshore winds up to 10kn, 15kn, 20kn… currents, swells, distance off-shore, total distance covered, surf launch/landings, yadda, yadda, yadda…
    This does quite a few of things. It forces the individuals to take an active roll in the planning, it makes them consider their own limits realistically (without the machismo), it gives them a voice about any reservations, and it gives the leader feedback about their group and the perception of the trip. I suppose it also gives the leader the boundaries of the trip given the accompaniment…that’s the crux, right?
    Yeah, it could be seen as pompous, but if it’s done humbly, and/or handed in anonymously, the sheets could be very valuable tools.

  6. John:

    The link for the PDF should be fixed now.

    I had to run a mysql update to find and replace all references of to

    This should be all better!

    And I also feel pretty manly about it.

  7. This post is really great! Both parts, ‘Communication’ and ‘risk assessment’. I’m looking forward to putting this into action. I can’t wait to get out into howling conditions again, so I might introduce a motion to change “Avoidance” to “Awareness”.

    I would have loved to have a radio on the Nov 15th trip. Given the conditions, I’m not sure if I could have used it on the water, unless rafted up (interesting situation). And radios would have been great for relaying information once people started getting to the beach. (I realize that I need to get and learn how to use a marine radio. Specifically, I want to see if I can use it without taking it out of my PFD picket, just by hitting the talk button. This seems like it would be the most useful setup, on the water. )

    It is a great plan to use easily recognized hand signals. On that trip, I had to flag down Joe to quickly discuss exit strategy, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to give him any sort of recognizable signal to wait for me to catch up. We were separated by a hundred yards or so, but one of the times we could see each other through the wave-action, he could see that I was trying to get his attention. We got close enough to yell out an exit plan over the howl of the wind, which turned out to be a really good thing! (We landed on the same beach!)

    The bullseye tool seems like a great way to build group consensus, especially when agreeing to take calculated risks. I’m guessing that the “risks to be plotted” relate to the days itinerary and weather conditions (I can’t get the link to work…) It seems like you are also suggesting discussing beforehand a plan-of-action for possible on-the-water mishaps. This, too, sounds great, and might serve as a way to learn a little more about everybody who is paddling.