Boating is all about community: the people you meet on the water, the people you share your chips and salsa with at the take-out. The right crew can improve your odds of kayaking and your skills, sure. It can also improve your life. But finding and keeping paddling partners isn’t always easy, especially if you are new to the sport. You might have a regular text thread of paddling partners, but what happens if you travel, move to a new town, or someone starts a new job, has a kid, gets injured or is just “really busy”?
Based on a decidedly unscientific assessment of personal feelings and fuzzy logic, I’ve compiled a list of tips to help make and keep paddling friends. I don’t know if my unsolicited advice will work for you, but at the very least, it might help avoid some of the awkward encounters and disastrous failures I’ve experienced.
One: Be reliable.
We all have that one friend who is a waffle. They want to go, but they don’t know if they can, or they don’t want to commit in case something else (read, something “better”) is running. When people call to go boating or make plans, they want to know that when you say “yes,” you’re in. Maintaining paddling friendships is hard when you get up early for that dawn patrol lap and see the text that says, “Brahhhh… sorry. I bailed,” at the take-out. It is a cold, hard truth, but if you frequently renege or bail last minute, you’re unreliable. Repeat offenders usually stop getting invited.
Two: State your intentions.
If you’re on a certain timeline, let your crew for the day know and make sure they are down. A quick, “Hey, heads up, I need to be off the water by 4 pm. Does that work for you?” goes a long way. There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through and finding out you need to rush because you’re behind a schedule you didn’t know about, and their car is the take-out vehicle.
If you’re on a longer trip (think, multiple days) and you plan to boost before the trip is over or need to head your separate way at the take-out, let people know ASAP. Figuring out trip logistics also includes details like food and shuttle. Leaving mid-trip may mess up other people’s plans or even leave them stranded. Not cool. Really, not cool.
Three: Time is precious.
Everyone’s time is valuable. Know your crew’s dynamic. Pre-dawn work hustle? Lunchtime hot lap? Post work/weekend chill and hang? In some crews, everyone runs late. Even when you set a time, you know Chad will roll in 10-15 minutes behind schedule or want to meet at the put-in. (To all the real-life Chads out there, sorry to throw you under the bus.) Other people run on military precision. To be early is to be on time, and on time is late.
Regardless of your crew dynamic, when your friends start loading boats, that’s not the moment to send “one more email.” If you’re running late, let people know. Maybe they can run shuttle to save time, or find a way to make up for it down the line. We all misplace our keys or forget our shoes on occasion, it’s cool. But if you consistently operate in your own personal time zone, don’t be surprised if people stop inviting you along.
Four: Help with shuttle.
If you want to paddle the river with other people, I strongly recommend having a way to shuttle multiple people and kayaks. Yes, it saves on air drag/gas mileage to put the front seat of your sedan all the way down and strap your boat next to you in the front seat. While transporting that way lets you gently stroke your boat and tell it to think good thoughts about the run ahead, it doesn’t help your friends. Yes, kayaks are heavy. Yes, loading boats on the roof solo can be hard work. But they make racks for every car, even your sexy, two-door sports car.
Pro tip: no matter whose car you’re riding in, share the heavy lifting. If you’re hitching a ride with someone for those longer distances (two thumbs up for environmental consciousness), a little gas money or other thank yous can go a long way.
Five: Know your ability level.
One way to lose paddling friends is to consistently try to jump on runs that are above your skill level and turn your paddling homies into your personal non-stop rescue crew. If people are scared when you’re on the water, they probably won’t enjoy paddling with you. While everyone is between swims, there aren’t enough bootie beers/thank-you-24s in the world to make up for consistently putting yourself or others at risk. If you’re headed somewhere new, research the runs beforehand. American Whitewater and YouTube are both great resources, as is the whitewater.guide app. Don’t forget to check flows! A river you ran at low water in the fall or summer might look drastically different in spring.
If you end up over your head, people won’t hate you forever for admitting, “I’m not ready for this.” While it is typically better to realize this prior to a run, portaging rapids or even hiking out are acceptable practices. It’s better to know your limits than put your crew in danger. If you have crew members who are comfortable on stuff way above your ability level, remember that while there are days they are stoked to float and get on the water with you, you may not always get the invite when they head to harder stuff.
Six: Safety first.
Safety should always be your number one priority. You want to be able to trust everyone in your crew to handle any situation that may arise in the river. Taking a swiftwater rescue class is worth its weight in gold. Your crew’s lives are worth even more! But training doesn’t mean much if you never take safety gear on the water.
At a minimum, you should always have a throw bag in your boat and have practiced using it. Kill time on your next shuttle while waiting for Always Late Larry with a few practice tosses. If you forget your rope, tell your crew, and offer to carry one of theirs instead. In addition to a swiftwater course, having some basic first aid knowledge and knowing how to do CPR is a literal lifesaver. You don’t need to brag about these skills to find a crew or add them to your LinkedIn profile. Show them when you paddle. Demonstrating awareness of hazards or others on the river by looking back at people, adjusting your pace as needed, and catching eddies/offering to set safety can earn you lifelong friends.
Seven: Exercise good judgment.
Note: Swiftwater training does not replace good judgment. Acting crazy or reckless on the water—or even off the water—in person or on social media or doing or saying things that make people uncomfortable may turn people off to the idea of paddling with you. We don’t all have the same sense of humor, and what impresses some people might fall flat with others. Read the room and adapt to the mood of the crew the best you can. If you misread a situation, own it. Be a class act out there. People are always watching! On that note, please pick up your trash at the put-in/take-out!
Eight: Limit the invite.
Some people are very social on the river, inviting everyone and anyone to join the fun. Others prefer to paddle in smaller groups with those they know. Whatever your vibe, typically, the more people you go with, the longer a run will take. Depending on the group dynamic, a creek that normally takes two hours may take six with a bigger group thanks to the faff factor, chatting, loading boats… If you’re going with a crew you don’t know, maybe ask before casually extending the invite to two, three, or seven of your closest paddling friends.
Try not to let it upset you if you run into people you know on the river but they didn’t invite you to join them (awkward). It’s not that they don’t like you. They may be on a time crunch, have rallied last minute or preferred a smaller-size group that day, or forgot to text. Okay, if it keeps happening, maybe it’s because they don’t like you or like paddling with you. Or maybe you did or said something that made them uncomfortable. You can always ask?!
Respecting the river is a big one, always. But it’s also important to respect the decisions and opinions of your crew members. No one should be made fun of for walking a rapid or bullied into running something they don’t feel comfortable with. And if someone tells you that you should walk a rapid or that there’s a move you aren’t ready for yet, it’s worth listening or asking why rather than arguing.
The flip side of this is refraining from judging others for wanting to run a specific rapid or section of river. Remember, you don’t have to paddle with anyone. You have the power to remove yourself from situations that make you uncomfortable. If things do go wrong (i.e. you felt ‘pressured’ to run a rapid before you felt ready or someone told you that your skills were good enough for a particular river but you felt way in over your head) — rather than play the blame game, reflect on what happened, adjust and move on.
Ten: Don’t forget to kayak when you go kayaking.
While your kayaking buddies can become your closest friends, the river is a way to have fun, relax, and leave the stress, etc., behind. My daily sprint session helps me process things going on in my life. Sometimes I want to talk about it; sometimes, I don’t. I appreciate a crew who is willing to listen when I need advice or need to vent but doesn’t pry. There are days when we’re happy to sit in the eddy or chat through the flats, other days, there is solidarity in silently pushing hard.
Bonus: Be flexible.
No crew is set in stone. Some days, you may be the most experienced person on the water. Other days, maybe you’re the least. Embrace learning how to be in both roles. Take ownership of your choices and progression. Work on your skills, scout whenever you can, set safety, and speak up if you feel over your head or uncomfortable. Get to know people in the community. Spend time with them off the water, get to know them, and see what they paddle, ask them for help and advice. Finally, never be too cool to say hi to someone you don’t know—it could be the start of a new friendship and your next crew.
Guest contributor Eli Geisenberger is the event manager and river master at Potomac Paddlesports in Washington, DC. When not instructing on the Potomac or repairing gear, you can probably find him at Muddy Creek or Holtwood Whitewater Park.