Developing Paddlecraft Seamanship

There’s a huge difference between boat handling and seamanship. There’s a whole lot more to boating than how to handle one under near ideal conditions. I learned a lot about this difference when learning how to handle a motor boat and a sailboat as part of the Sea Scout program. Only at the time, it seemed I had to learn a whole lot more than I did to handle my canoe. It wasn’t until I reviewed the requirements for Canoeing, Kayaking, and Whitewater merit badges and asked myself, “What else should a paddler know?” The difference between boat handling and seamanship is knowing how to handle the boat, or a fleet of them, in a wide variety of conditions.


Our Ship, Ship 378 S.S.S. Dawn Treader spent every Saturday during the summer with Aquatics Mania 2014, 8 Merit Badges this Summer. We taught Swimming, Lifesaving, Motorboating,Small-Boat Sailing, Rowing, Canoeing, Kayaking, and Whitewater merit badges. In addition, we helped young Scouts complete rank requirements for swimming. Before launching into this adventure, we all became lifeguards and spent three years mastering seamanship, mostly with sailboats.

With the perspective of knowing the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA’s) aquatics rules along with the Sea Scout and merit badge programs, we were able to see a bigger picture of what BSA’s aquatics program attempts to achieve. What became obvious relative to boats is that it is mostly about handling the boat safely in near ideal conditions—especially with regard to paddlecraft.

The Question

I admit, I was very unhappy to find out that after completing all the other requirements for Whitewater merit badge that we were essentially limited to Class I & Class II water. It seemed to me at the time that the difference was wearing a helmet for Class III+ water. Only later did I figure out there was much more to it than that.

This discontent, more than anything led me on an adventure that continues to this day to figure out what paddlecraft seamanship looks like. I’m looking for the middle ground between a boat handler and a well-equipped professional. The Sea Scout program by no means expects a Sea Scout to have a Captain’s license, yet he or she has more experience and broader responsibilities than a Scout with a merit badge. The question is, “What basic professional skills could/should a paddler possess beyond boat handling?”

Sea Scouts and Paddlecraft

When our Ship started, our primary and only vessel was a canoe. Someone said we could actually get our Scouts to Quartermaster using only canoes. At the time, we didn’t know anything about kayaking, but we had been in rafts. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t see how the Sea Scout requirements could be applied to a canoe. For example, what does a fire drill look like on a canoe? Falling out of a canoe is common. When we fell out, we recovered our boat, got back in, then went on. What then did man overboard look like? I have to laugh when thinking about using ded reckoning on a twisty, windy river. In short, there are several requirements a Scout handling a power vessel or sailboat routinely uses with no apparent practical application in the paddling world. It was a lot easier to switch vessel types than figure out how to use our canoes to complete them. After all, there is no relief for requirements that make no sense when using a canoe or kayak.

New Sea Scout Experience Base

Our Ship is somewhat unique because we need to travel more than one hour to get to water big enough to operate a motorboat or sailboat on. All of our members are familiar with high-adventure skills on land, which we affectionately call dirt scouting. Anyone joining our ship is likely to come to us with a similar background. This, as it turns out, is a great advantage when it comes to paddlecraft seamanship.

Getting Answers

To answer my own question, I got the opportunity to train with the experts—firemen with swift water rescue training. These are the professionals we rely on when our communities are flooded or our cars float away or other otherwise plunge into the water. They train for much more hazardous conditions than a Class I or Class II river—the BSA limit for canoe and kayak float trips. Their gear is specialized and techniques well developed since their training first began in the 1970s. Clearly, what I learned was way more than what Scouts need to know for managing a fleet of paddlecraft on a float trip. Implementing Our Program. How to implement what I learned is the subject of another paper as it is our year-long training program for our Ship—maybe even two. With it, I hope to upgrade the skills of Venturers and waterfront staff in our Council and maybe the surrounding area. However, here, I will discuss the broad skills needed and how to use them with a float trip.

Paddlecraft Seamanship Skills

Basic swift water seamanship requires communication, swimming, lifesaving, climbing, paddling, teamwork, and first aid skills. On-water paddlecraft operations also include navigation, float planning, weather adaption, gear choice & maintenance, situation awareness, environmental responsibility, and survival. All of these have a counterpart in the dirt scouting world.


For a Sea Scout, a radio is a lifesaving device. For a paddler, a whistle is too. We promise to know how to use radios for routine and emergency communication. Fleet coordination is much easier with radios. Did you know rivers were loud? When crew members end up in the water, knowing how to use a radio and whistle is imperative for just about anything beyond a routine capsize in shallow, slow water.


When training with the firemen, I swear I joined the river swim team. I didn’t even know swimming was really possible or necessary in a river. I never tried to do more than get back to my boat or swim to shore. It never occurred to me to learn to read the river to figure out better and safer ways to get out. Then, I never tried swimming for a quarter mile or more.

It was only in learning how to swim a river did I begin to fully appreciate all the hazards a person forced to swim a river was exposed to. I also learned how to read a river and understand how water physics (hydrology) changes as I float/swim trying to get me and my survivor out. It’s a far cry from learning only defensive swimming without really knowing why to keep your feet up without any explanation about when it was okay to stop swimming. I just about got thrown out of the course because I had a difficult time grasping the principle. Knowing how to swim a river is basic for self-rescue, lifesaving, and many other in-river tasks.


Lifeguarding, as taught for swimming pool and waterfront lifeguards, is basic but woefully inadequate for boating rescues in all moving water environments including rivers, lakes, and oceans. Here, participants are supposed to be wearing life jackets. Our ship had to adapt lifeguarding skills for use with sailboats because it’s key for completing a man overboard rescue—especially in cold water. We didn’t develop our tactics strictly on our own. The makers of LifeSling helped us with that. In the same way, many lifeguard skills have to be adapted for the river environment. The swift water rescue folks have developed products and practices we can easy learn and use safely.


I’m looking forward to learning line handling skills used for rock climbing, not because I ever intend to climb rocks, but because the same lines, knots, accessories, and techniques are used over rivers. The skills are handy for getting a boat unwrapped from around a rock. On our last float trip, those skills would’ve been handy to help move two people who flipped out of their canoe out of the water they were forced to stand in for 20-30 minutes while we got their boat back to them. I’m looking forward to it because these systems can be great fun to play on otherwise. Have you ever ziplined while floating in a river? Our Council routinely teaches rock climbing & rappelling skills.

Paddling (Boat Handling)

Though I paddled for several decades, I realized I had 1 years’ worth of experience over 35 times. Eddying in and ferrying out are basic river skills. The Whitewater merit badge gets around to requiring them. Yeah, we did and taught them, but until I had to swim a river, I didn’t fully appreciate them. The best way to minimize capsizing is to learn how to handle your boat in moving water. Flat-water boat handling skills are basic, but not adequate for moving water. Thankfully, Class II water is plenty to learn a variety of swift water boating handling. Did I mention the definition of swift water is water flowing 1 nautical mile an hour or faster?


Teamwork is crucial on and in swift water. Sailing with a crew of two more is demanding and the results of ineffective teamwork are readily apparent. It’s useful for developing critical thinking skills. Sea Scouts need protocols for operating as a Ship on a river.

Just as station bills are created for man overboard, fire, and abandon ship drills, they can also be created for river emergencies too. Someone has to watch for things flowing through a rescue area. Sometimes it takes a couple of people to safely get to a stranded paddler. How is the boat and other gear going to be retrieved? Who’s scanning the river to figure out what’s downstream in case it’s easier to get out or the team has fallen and ends up swimming? What better place to get a team to start working together better than COPE? I’m already scheming low-rope COPE skills that directly relate to what might need to be done in a river.

First Aid

I haven’t found anyone yet who doesn’t groan when the idea of practicing or studying first aid comes up. However, first aid, including CPR, is a key paddling seamanship skill. The first of the last two steps in any river rescue is first aid. This not only includes the assessment and treating of wounds, but it’s also about preparing the victim for transport. The good news is that Wilderness First Aid now comes with an Afloat option: Wilderness First Aid Afloat.


Piloting and navigation skills were developed by mariners and adapted by land travelers. Thankfully, topo map handling and orienteering, along with other land navigation skills are adaptable to water navigation too. I like orienteering from the water. Have you ever tried it? Unfortunately, the way mariners do navigation and hikers do it are vastly different. However, those who learn both do it much better in either environment than those trained only in one. In our area, we have the Georgia Orienteering Club, who sponsors monthly events for the public. What I do know is that a river chart is more like a topo map than it is a harbor or off-shore chart. Because of what I know from both arenas, I’ve created easy-to-use tools—especially for GPS navigation and float planning.

Float Planning

Like backpacking, float trips require more planning than is needed for a short walk or splash in a pond. There’s not a whole lot of storage space in canoes and even less in kayaks. In addition to efficiently carrying the absolute minimum of essential gear, there is route planning. A float trip at Northern Tier drives the need for them as much as Philmont does for backpacking. In our area, there are weekend training sessions to prepare paddlers for Northern Tier in terms of handling their boat and packing gear. What’s missing is filling out the Guard’s Float Plan form].

I understand filling out the float plan form is obnoxious for short trips. However, the principle is at least letting someone know where you’re getting out along with the time frame for doing so and how you intend to get there. It helps to build in times for checking in with someone offshore.

Often, our float plan for a short river trip is we’re getting in here, going downstream (we’ll pick which way to go around islands when we get there), and expect to be at the takeout by dinner time. Be there to pick us up by a certain time. That’s a float plan!

However, when things get more complicated, better planning is needed along with the discipline of communicating with folks not on the trip. The Coast Guard’s float plan is good for all of them. However, a lot more skills are needed for planning anything longer than a short, one-way trip. These skills must be taught and the discipline needs to be there to ensure they’re completed.

Weather Adapting

Knowing how to use weather forecasts to plan for adapting to changing weather conditions should be a key skill, not only for sailors but anyone operating outdoors. In reality, in my experience, an understanding of weather is rare. It’s strange but weather requirements are pushed late into the Sea Scout program.

Very early on, our shipmates are taught how to read 48-hour weather graphs for the area we’re operating in. All of them have completed Weather Hazards training. However, knowing how weather is made and the predictability about how it changes is missing. Weathermen can predict rainfall, but cannot predict squalls. We have to do that. I recently found a computer-aided training available from BoatUS that explains these phenomenon. There is simply no excuse for not having a better understanding of weather than the general population anymore—because Scouts spend so much of their time outdoors.

Gear & Gear Use

Though I knew a lot about paddling safety and lifesaving gear, it didn’t occur to me there was more appropriate gear and better methods of using gear I learned for merit badges.

I didn’t pay attention to the types of personal floatation devices (PFDs) until I got into Sea Scouts. Perhaps it was because the only thing I really ever used was a Type III and had to carry a Type IV boat cushion. It wasn’t until I got into swift water training to realize a Type III is really appropriate only for relatively calm water. I now have a Type I more comfortably wear than my old Type III, and I know it’s appropriate for almost all Sea Scout activities.

There’s a variety of other essential gear. I learned how to get more than one shot at rescuing a person with a throw bag. I know how to wear my diver’s knife. Because I’m trained on how to use it, I now have an extricating leash (cowtail) attached to my life jacket. My whistle is loud and nearly foul proof.

The handling of every piece of a properly equipped Type III life jacket and a throw bag needs to second nature for anyone operating on a river. A Sea Scout does not go on a float trip as a well-equipped professional. Our gear and practices must be limited to scant swimwear; Type III life jacket; whistle; throw bag; diver’s knife; a basic first aid, survival, rescue kit, the appropriate paddle; and the boat being used. I would like a helmet to be required too. This is how we enjoy a day on the river. Our practices need to be limited to what we’re expected to have on Class I/II river.

Situation Awareness

Awareness of winds and currents are basic for any boat. Though they’re crucial for a paddler, there’s the added dimension of topography because the rocks and landscape shape the behavior of the water. Currents are more predominate than wind because the landscape constantly changes the behavior of the water. Though I have taken many physics courses and have studied plumbing and HVAC system airflow, it never occurred to me to apply what I knew to river behavior. Understanding river hydrology is imperative for making wise decisions on or in the water. River runners really need to learn how to read a river with only their head above water, because that’s how one figures out where it might be safe to get out when forced to river swim. Hydrology also figures into how to operate effectively in and on the water to avoid water accidents or to render aid.

Environmental Responsibility

For a Sea Scout, learning the laws about dumping and handling oil spills are necessary because it’s clear what the impact is on navigable waters. However, everyone needs to learn Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. For a river float trip, the principles are applied similar to backpacking. BSA has LNT training programs.

Water & Land Survival

There is a reason I didn’t join the Navy. It wasn’t clear to me how I was going to survive if submerged or otherwise found myself separated from the boat. What was I going to do if marooned? BSA has plenty of opportunities to learn how to survive in the backcountry. I know from experience these tactics have to be adapted to water environment. Within days of starting our Ship, I was reading the Annapolis guide, How to Survive on Land and Sea. When we join other Venturers for the survival campout required for Ranger, we showcase these skills.

The only reason I got over my fear of being on or in open water was because I obtained and learned how to use a dive knife. In my opinion, and swift water rescue professionals, is that no one should be without one. I should be able to cut myself free of entangling webs and ropes in the time it takes to hold one breath without passing out.

Training Paddlecraft Seamanship

Our Reality

Firemen are not usually readily available when we need them on a river. By the time they get there, the situation may have already transitioned from rescue to recovery. If we’re lucky, the responding firemen are trained in swift water rescue. Don’t bet on it. For wilderness first aid, we’re acutely aware we might have to treat our patient well past the golden hour before qualified help arrives. I don’t propose a Scout be a professional rescuer, but let’s apply the same logic we do for training them in first aid. Let’s train them to do enough safely to handle their buddies in moving water until qualified help arrives. This is the training level a Venturer or paddling Sea Scout should be trained to.

Our Opportunities

Many high-adventure skills taught in BSA’s program can be adapted to paddlecraft seamanship. In addition to canoe and kayaking handling, let’s train our Sea Scouts in COPE, climbing, Wilderness First Aid Afloat, BSA Lifeguard, orienteering, LNT, CPR for Healthcare Professionals, and wilderness survival. These programs already exist. Our challenge is to creatively adapt them to the paddling world.

Apparently, BSA also offers Swimming and Water Rescue as well as Paddlecraft Safely. I’m not aware of these programs, but I’ll ask my Council’s Waterfront Director about them. These need to be considered too.

There are some things we’ll have to make up for, such as adapting to weather and river swimming. There is not a program in place I’m aware of in BSA.

To ensure training is adequate and doesn’t cross unsafe boundaries, Ship Consultants (and hopefully the Skipper) are trained in appropriate swift water rescue skills. It’s every bit as important as Seabadge Underway.

Filling Program Gaps

I came to Sea Scouting with the belief that I could get Scouts to Quartermaster without motorboats or sailboats. I’ve yet to figure out how. I also know the Sea Scout program does require enough seamanship skills for paddlecraft. A lot of the missing components are part of Venturing Ranger.

Post Quest Conclusion

As Skipper, I’m well aware of what’s needed to operate on a variety of water types. I know Sea Scout advancement requirements are lacking in a number of areas, besides not being easily adaptable to paddlecraft. When our Ship was started, we figured out many of the gaps were closed with the Venturing Ranger program. In attempting to answer the question about what paddler seamanship looks like, I figured out how to close the remainder of them. In the process, I found ways to make Sea Scouting exciting for dirt Scouts too!

Contributed by

Sam Young, Skipper, S.S.S. Dawn Treader, West Point Lake, Georgia