Rhetoric of Raft Guiding


A raft guide stands knee deep in 40-degree water surrounded by snow-covered peaks. One-by-one people approach him prepared for their baptism. But this is no religious ritual. It’s the beginning of a commercial whitewater rafting trip on Six Mile Creek near Hope, Alaska. The people entering the water are all paying participants on the trip, a journey that begins with an orientation speech and a swim test to make sure they understand the information given to them and can apply it under stressful conditions.

With a gentle tone and firm touch, the guide checks everyone’s equipment for proper fit, angles their body to the flow, and tells them to jump. The guests launch in the water kicking and swimming with all their might. In the time it takes them to travel 20 feet across the river they have floated 20 yards downstream. When they near the right bank, they roll over and float on their backs with their feet pointed downstream and their hands lifted out of the cold water.

As they approach an eddy 100 yards downstream, another guide on the bank starts yelling instructions. “Roll over and start swimming. Keep swimming, keep swimming, c’mon a little harder. That’s great, good job, good job.”

A third guide soloing a cat boat sits at the bottom of the eddy, ready to push into the current and assist swimmers who are having trouble. The guests clamber onto the shore and gather in the sun, smiling, laughing, and breathing hard.

Taking guests down the river means figuring out how to make them do what you need them to do, when you want them to do it, while still being entertaining and hospitable. But you can’t force people to do what you want just by yelling at them, and you can’t assume the guests will always know what to do. If the typical guest could navigate whitewater, then they wouldn’t be on a commercial trip.

It’s as much your responsibility to instruct and persuade your crew to paddle, as it’s the crew’s obligation to listen and physically place the paddle in the water. Beginner guides are taught what paddle commands to use and when to use them. But not a lot of emphasis is given on to how to convey this information in a persuasive manner. As my friend Snuffy likes to point out, paddle commands aren’t commands at all, they are requests.

Rhetoric is the study of how to use language and actions to influence others. The philosopher, Aristotle defined three modes of persuasion—Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. Guides use rhetorical tools fitting into one or more of these modes on a daily basis with little consideration of why they work. But being conscious of how your crew relates to the information you give them and how it motivates them to act, can help you hone your guiding skills to be more effective.

Ethos is the characteristic of being credible. Guests will feel more comfortable with you if they think you’re a capable guide and likeable person. The more confidence they have in your ability and judgment, the more likely they are to follow your instruction. The better they can relate to you, the more they believe you’re giving them good advice.

If the crew doesn’t trust what you’re asking them to do, they may second-guess the commands, not provide the strokes you need or throw in strokes that counteract what you’re trying to do. And when a raft has a bad line, the crew’s confidence can be further diminished, and their willingness to follow your instructions wanes.

One part of the confidence game is using your voice properly. If a guest is having trouble hearing you, don’t just compensate by yelling louder. This can be hard on the vocal cords, especially for guides with a breathy voice. It also gives the impression of being panicked, angry, or out of control.

Instead of turning up the volume, learn to tense your vocal cords by flexing or engaging your throat muscles while talking. I learned it in a voice and diction class in college—it’s much easier to teach in person but it helps your voice carry better through the rapids and gives it a more authoritative tone; thus, making the crew more responsive.

Also, remember your guests won’t have confidence in you if you don’t have it in yourself. Everyone gets hung up on rocks. The difference between a novice and an experienced guide getting stuck is how they deal with it. If you become frustrated and embarrassed over minor blunders, then your guests will lose faith in you. However, if you laugh it off or make it seem like no big deal, then your guests will likely neither mind nor notice.

Of course, if you want your crew to respect you, then you have to respect your crew. Try to learn their names, have patience with their mistakes, and avoid passive aggressive comments. It’s standard in the rafting industry to view the people paying to go rafting as guests, rather than clients, customers, or some derogatory synonym. If you refer to your crew, as anything other than guests, even while venting with your buddies post-trip, you will unconsciously begin treating them disrespectfully. These are guests in your raft and on your river, and you should treat them as such.

Part of being credible is also being knowledgeable. As a guide, you should be familiar with trivia, stories, and interpretive information pertaining to the river you guide. If the conversation is dwindling, you can also point out different hydraulic features and explain how they affect the raft. Describing how ferry angles, eddy lines, and hydraulics work, not only builds credibility for yourself, it also helps your guests understand why you’re taking them through certain routes or calling for particular paddle strokes, which brings us to another tool of persuasion, Logos.

Logos as Aristotle uses the term means logic. If we want to encourage people to do something, we need to justify why it’s in their best interest to do so. I’ve watched guides rattle off quick commands, only to get frustrated when the guests didn’t comply with the instructions. A lot of concepts we take for granted, aren’t intuitive for the novice rafter. If an instruction isn’t self-evident, and if we have time, it’s always best to explain why specific actions are needed during the trip speech or trip talk. Don’t just tell people not to put their feet down in strong current, demonstrate how foot entrapment works. Don’t just call for backstrokes in the middle of a rapid, describe a back ferry. Don’t just advise them to use torso muscles rather then their arms for paddling, show how it produces more power with less effort.

Of course, the sentiment you employ when describing concepts and motivating actions can also be a rhetorical tool. Pathos is the ability to evoke an emotional response in order to communicate or persuade.

 During your pre-trip talk or pre-rapid spiel, you should be able to adjust your language to the nature of the trip and the concerns and expectations of the group. If you have a nervous family, reassure them with a calm demeanor and a liberal amount of bad jokes. If you have distracted teenage boys, spew forth tales of fire and brimstone to gain their focus. If the water is low, get the guests fired up for swimming and beautiful scenery. If the rapids are difficult, rally the crew to the challenge. And if everyone is falling asleep, cut the speech short and get people on the water.

Making the ride fun for the guests and engaging them as members of a team is another way to use emotion as a persuasive tool. Many guests request to be in paddle rafts because they want to participate. Pulling off spins as you go through easy rapids trains the guests on how to turn the raft and keeps them involved.

Even if you don’t need help to make your line in a difficult drop, call a few strokes as you go through the tail waves after a crux move. Paddling makes the foam piles seem larger and gives the guests a sense of accomplishment. And at the bottom of major rapids, give positive reinforcement with paddle high fives. It’s more important to make the guests feel they had an active part in a successful run than it is to show off your skill.

As the trip nears the first canyon, the crew now stares into the mouth of the whitewater, a cauldron of frothy foam and exploding waves, hemmed in on either side by tall narrowing rock walls.

“Forward two.”
The crew responds, then waits anticipating more strokes as they slowly drift toward the large wave.
“All back.”

There is a slight hesitation, but then the crew digs in, prying the paddle off their hip and slowing the raft down to a near stop as the bow buries into the crashing backwash. The raft resurfaces and the crew gets in a couple more strokes before the guide yells, “Stop.” They bob up and down through the smaller wave train, leading into an increasingly narrower and deeper corridor.

“All forward.”

The crew paddles hard as they round a corner and crash into the biggest wave yet. The raft stalls out then comes through with everyone jostled. Large eyes and big grins break across tense faces as the guide has them back paddle a few strokes to catch an eddy and watch the other rafts.

Just as the river changes with water level, each rafting crew has strengths and weaknesses to which the guides must adjust. By modifying your speech and actions to meet their needs, the guests can be more involved, and your job becomes easier. Better communication also breaks down traditional guide and crew barriers, thus making the trip a more fulfilling experience for everyone.

Editor’s note: Photos courtesy of Chugach Outdoor Center and Southeastern Expeditions