Paddling in a Group Guide (Caring the Red Lantern)

There are a number of things a paddler can do to move faster. But if a paddler starts to fall to the rear of the pack, it’s the group’s responsibility to make sure that person isn’t struggling to keep up.

In the Netherlands, “carrying the red lantern” is an expression used to describe someone at the back—the last person in the group. How many times have you paddled in a group that had a slow paddler lagging behind?

Were you ever that paddler? How did it feel?

If you are reading this, you probably didn’t stop paddling because of it. But you might have thought of giving up kayaking if the groups you paddled with consistently ignored you and left you in the unenviable position of bringing up the rear. 

When I started paddling, I always seemed to have trouble keeping up with the group. I thought I was the root of the problem and that I probably wasn’t cut out to be a kayaker. I focused on my “inability” — too little skill, experience, stamina and strength.

I was frequently frustrated and paddled to the brink of exhaustion trying to keep up. I even ordered a new “fast” sea kayak, hoping it would make a difference.

It didn’t. I progressed slowly, and over time, my technique improved.

I grew to be a stronger paddler. I remember well the day I could paddle from the back of the pack up to the front paddler to say hello. But my early experiences did not have to be so difficult and discouraging.

There are a number of things a paddler can do to move faster. But if a paddler starts to fall to the rear of the pack, it’s really the group’s responsibility to make sure that person isn’t struggling to keep up.

The Speed of a Group

A group of kayakers is only as fast as its slowest paddler.

In my early years of sea kayaking, there were a few considerate paddlers in my group who kept me company. And yes, the group waited every now and then for me to catch up. But the moment I drew even with them, they would immediately start paddling again.

Most of them had had time to rest, drink and eat a snack while waiting for me. The other paddlers may have thought I was doing fine, but because they started moving again as soon as I caught up, I never got a break. I was too proud to speak up and kept paddling at the limits of my endurance.

Psychology and Group Control

Nobody wants to be left behind. If it is inability that puts a paddler at the back in the first place, no amount of effort will help that person keep up consistently.

That paddler may resort to muscle power with less attention to forward paddling technique. The paddler becomes inefficient or tense or, even worse, gets exhausted and paddles even more slowly.

One of the quickest and most effective solutions for the person “carrying the red lantern” is for the group to put the slowest paddler in front to determine the paddling speed of the whole group. If the trip is planned around this estimated paddling speed, there is no reason for anyone in the group to go any faster.

This removes the pressure to go fast and lets the paddler in front concentrate on efficient, relaxed paddling. I’ve often observed that the person stationed at the front of a group paddles faster than when paddling at the rear. And that even holds true for myself!

If you are in a group that is moving slower than you’d like, be supportive of the paddler who is not “up to speed” on that trip. Your patience and support will create a positive learning experience that will encourage the paddler to embark on future trips.

It’s also important to be honest, especially when putting a group together for a trip.

Novice paddlers must be aware or made aware of their skill level and abilities relative to the standards needed for the trips they would like to undertake. What is just an ordinary trip for you can be a challenge for someone less able.

Rough Water

In waves, novice paddlers or, more generally speaking, paddlers outside their comfort zone tend to focus more on stability than on forward speed.

Paddlers feeling uncomfortable in rough water will often use wider sweep strokes to augment their stability, which offer less-efficient forward progress. Also, when paddlers are anxious, their performance suffers.

If possible, offer a route around patches of rough water. Use a buddy system. An experienced paddler offering encouragement can do much to help keep feelings of panic and anxiety in check and be in a position to offer assistance if necessary.

Prior to paddling into rough water, the trip leader can reduce the build-up of anxiety by explaining the best approach to keeping the group together and who will be paired up. This briefing should take place before launching or, at the latest, well before entering rough water.

Following Sea

For most experienced sea kayakers, a following sea provides a “free” ride. Paddlers who are adept at surfing on wind waves can cover distance very quickly.

Taking advantage of waves requires short bursts of high energy and quick paddle techniques. A paddler who can’t or doesn’t know how to surf will soon be well behind.

If the paddlers are surfing waves that come at an angle to the group’s course, they may follow a zigzag course to get the best rides on the waves. The person at the rear of the group may become frustrated by the frequent and seemingly random course changes and may not know which direction to paddle. This paddler might make frequent course adjustments that deter from forward paddling and the most direct path to the goal.

The paddlers who are not surfing should maintain a consistent heading. Those surfing should drop back from the group before catching waves and pull up before getting ahead.

That way, they can keep the group from spreading out too much. The trip leader can also do a better job at the back, overseeing the whole group and spotting paddlers who may have trouble.

Quartering Winds

You can control weathercocking—the tendency of a kayak to veer off course because of the wind—by the weight distribution of your gear stowed in the front and aft hatches.

When a kayak veers off course downwind, you can make a quick fix by putting one or more water bottles in the front hatch of the affected sea kayak. (If the bottles are empty, fill them with seawater.)

If you ever have the opportunity to help someone with this trick, you’ll be considered a miracle worker. Of course, this technique should only be used when you can safely open the hatch.

While paddling in crosswinds, a paddler can use up a lot of energy trying to keep a sea kayak on course. If the rudder, skeg or changing trim can’t solve the problem, setting up a course-holding tow may be the best option. Offer the tow well before the struggling paddler gets exhausted.

A course-holding tow is more effective when the paddler being towed hasn’t been pushed to exhaustion—if the towed paddler can make some forward progress, the towline will be slack most of the time, with only an occasional tug needed to bring the paddler back on course.

With any tow, a second buddy should paddle back and to the side of the towed paddler to offer assistance if needed.

Surf-Zone Launching

Clearing the surf zone at the start of a trip can use up a lot of energy, putting paddlers with less strength at an early disadvantage. For some, the drain of energy can start even earlier with carrying the sea kayaks to the beach. I like to take at least half an hour to recover after hauling kayaks to the water. Allow for delays when choosing a departure time.

Capsizing and re-launching also eat away time and energy. Pushing paddlers off the beach is good for conserving their energy, but don’t make a routine of it. Providing a boost does not make less-experienced paddlers proficient in launching on their own.

Make sure novices take the time to check for wave sets, and coach them through the surf. The experienced paddlers will probably get through the surf with minimum effort, so when everyone has gathered outside of the surf zone, start paddling easy. There will already be a separation between fit and tired paddlers.

Surf-Zone Landing

Many trips will start from a sheltered put-in but will head for a less protected destination. Paddlers who seem quite capable at the launch site may not be up to handling the surf zone on an exposed shore.

If for some reason your group must land through surf, then carefully estimate the surf height. Anything higher than two feet should be considered big surf. Beaches subject to regular dumping surf should be off-limits for trips involving groups of paddlers with mixed abilities.

The standard procedure in sea kayaking is to send in the most experienced paddler first. When you have other experienced paddlers in your group, pair them up with less experienced paddlers. I often see paddlers stay in the surf zone way too long, despite executing exactly what they were taught. Although they back-paddle to let waves break in front of them, overall progress is rather slow.

There is often too much time and chance for that big ugly wave to arrive. The more experienced paddlers could give their buddies instructions on when to paddle hard, wait or back-paddle. Before deciding to land for a break, the trip leader should be certain that everyone in the group is fit and capable of the landing and subsequent launching.

A lot of time and energy can be spent in the surf zone. Everyone in the group must have enough energy left to paddle back to the put-in. If some paddlers are already getting tired, it may be the wiser choice to raft-up out at sea for a break.

Fit is It

So far, it might sound like the difference in skill or experience determines if someone is able to keep up with the group. But even when you are among “equals,” a paddler may still fall off the group’s pace.

For some, it is very difficult to admit to not feeling fit or strong enough for the challenge ahead. If you are having doubts about your condition, it is important to speak up before setting out. It is much more embarrassing and risky if you have to fess up halfway into a long crossing.

It is not unusual for a tired or hypothermic paddler to grow quiet, so everyone in the group should keep an eye on each other, just in case.In rough conditions, some paddlers may not be comfortable pausing to eat and drink. Considerate paddlers should regularly check to see if their companions need to raft up for a refreshment break.

Experienced paddlers who are comfortably stable in their boats will be able to relax and rest while they set their paddle on their spray deck or in a paddle park. Those who feel unsteady will keep using their paddle for bracing, burning up energy on balancing even if they are not moving forward. For them, there is never a rest in rough water.


Most of the time, it is very easy to tell when a paddler is struggling to keep up. If you’ve set a fast pace and gone without breaks or if the wind picks up and conditions get rough, check to see if the group has spread out and some paddlers have fallen behind.

If so, it is time to gather the group around the trailing paddler. If an exhausted paddler is no longer able to paddle independently, a rafted tow is needed. Having to accept a tow can be an embarrassing situation for some paddlers, especially more experienced ones.

They often feel that they have failed, although in fact, it is the group that has failed. And depending on the conditions, the whole group could be in danger. It is difficult to decide when to tow a paddler who is not yet exhausted. If weather or tidal conditions are deteriorating, swift action should be taken. If the need for a tow is explained clearly, the paddler in question will usually understand the need and readily agree to accept the tow.

Exhaustion can induce hypothermia and vice versa. When energy reserves are low because of exhaustion, there might not be enough energy left to warm the body. It’s a good idea to keep an exhausted paddler warmly dressed during towing. In a rafted tow, the buddy who has stopped paddling to raft up and steady someone’s kayak might become cold due to lack of activity.

It is best to take care of tiring paddlers quickly before they get to the point of requiring a great deal of assistance from others in the group. At that stage, the progress of the whole group is impeded even more.

Time to Spare

Strong paddlers might get frustrated if they have to maintain a slower pace or paddling cadence. They might even complain of being cold because they’re paddling too slowly.

Depending on their attitude, faster paddlers can use this time to socialize, navigate, work on skills, take pictures, be a considerate paddler and trusted buddy and become a competent trip leader.

The most experienced paddlers can take turns being the “shepherd” roaming around the group. They’ll get plenty of exercise by paddling from the back of the pack to the front paddler. If the fast paddlers put their energy to good use while staying close to the group, it creates a setting that takes the pressure off the less-experienced paddlers, allowing them to improve rapidly.

Red Flag

A trip starts when the last paddler is on the water and ends when the last paddler is off the water. Obviously that last paddler should never consistently be the same person.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, as a trip really starts even before getting on the water and probably only ends after debriefing. But by being aware of the paddler carrying the red lantern, the red flag signaling trouble may not need to be raised.

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