Canoeing Tips: Partner Communication

When you’re on the water in a tandem canoe, the other person in the boat is the most important person in your world.

In fast water, you’re at their mercy and they are at yours. You both have distinct responsibilities (which vary depending if you’re in the front or the back of the boat) but if you aren’t coordinating your actions, you’re both going to get wet. Because of this, the relationship between you and your partner is a complicated one in which communication is vital.

Partnerships grow over time, as you each get better at anticipating the actions and responses of the other. At the highest and most zen-like level, an experienced pair will make it down a rapid with nary a word uttered between them. Those of us who aren’t at that level, however, develop a system of shorthand to coordinate our reactions while we’re under the intense pressure of making it through a rapid in one piece.

Because there isn’t always time to express full thoughts, each utterance between partners can have a variety of meanings depending on the situation and what’s gone before it. Fascinatingly, it doesn’t take long at all before even novice partners can understand each other’s intent in just a couple of syllables.

Let’s take a look at an example.

You’re in the back of the boat in the middle of a difficult class III rapid. Your partner has less experience than you do and seems a touch overwhelmed. The canoe has already hit a couple of tricky rocks which you were able to recover from. You see a submerged rock coming up on the right that could be trouble, but aren’t sure if your partner has seen it. You shout out “2 o’clock!” the rock’s location.

In this situation, “2 o’clock” could mean any one of the following:

1.  “I’m sure you’re already aware that there is a dangerous rock coming up on the right, but thought I’d shout out its location just in case. Better safe than sorry. I trust you to make the right decision about how to get us out of its path.”

2.  “Perhaps you could execute a cross-draw, or similar stroke, that would move us out of the way of this rock I’ve just identified to you. You’re doing your best and I’m sure you would have seen it in time, but I’m a bit paranoid. Thanks.”

3.  “Even if you don’t see it, trust me that there is a rock at 2 o’clock. Don’t think, just move your ass.”

4.  “Hey, look. It’s another goddam rock we’re going to run into. If I didn’t need your feeble contributions to get down the rest of this rapid I would beat you to death with the paddle I’m holding confident that not a jury in the world would convict me you worthless and blind sack of flesh.”

Part of the beauty of partner communication is that after your partner navigates you both flawlessly around the rock in question, your shout of “2 o’clock” retroactively means:

“I have complete and total faith in you and am only speaking to make myself feel better, such a master of the river you are.”

It won’t take long before both you and your partner excel in the art of on water communication. In short order you’ll be able to alert each other to danger using only your eyebrows and dismissive exhalations.

Good paddling!

Next time: Choosing where to poop

Canoeing Tips: Partner Communication