Thursday, 31 May 2018

Time to stop putting the word crazy in-front of the word Russian !

Notes from a IRF GTE workshop in Russia 

One thing I have observed over the years is that all great white water stories normally start with the sentence. "This crazy Russian paddler " Or "Crazy Russian inner-tube rafts. I sat back and giggled to myself as my short flight from Helsinki touched down at St Petersburg Pulkovo airport in Russia . I was about to find out first hand if this was true or not.

My Mission this week was to observe and assist in the running of the first IRF workshop In Russia for over 15 years.

For the past few seasons I have been mentoring Russian kayaker Anton Sveshnikov along the pathway to become Russia,s first IRF Instructor. The first time I met Anton was a few years back on the Zanskar river in India where I was running a workshop at the time. One of the first things that struck me about Anton at the time was he was Russian and not crazy. Since then myself and Anton have crossed paths many times and I have learned that not all Russian rafters & kayakers are crazy.

Anton provisionally passed his IRF Instructor assessment in India last year. In keeping with the new IRF guidelines Anton needed to deliver a workshop under the supervision of an assessor. Fast forward a few months and we had a group of 8 raft guides from all over Russia ready to go. Some of the guides had flown for over 5000km to join us whilst others had between 10-20 hour car journe

The workshop was been hosted by Kivineimi rafting. Sergi, Egor & Kostantin  made us more than welcome in there awesome riverside  camp.

The Kivineimi rapids are situated 115 Km North of St Petersburg. The 300m long section acts as the drainage between 2 lakes & creates a short but intense big volume 800 cumec class 3 run with easy logistics.

The rapid ends in a lake which created some very interesting (raft eating) whirlpools to keep us on our toes.( Imagine 800 cumecs hitting stationary water ).

Antons job was originally run the safety kayak section of the workshop. in Order to avoid any language barriers  I was more than happy to let Anto lead the way with the entire workshop.

Day 1 kicked off with Introductions & personal kit inspections. I could see the students had many questions that needed answering. My Job was to let the students warm to me so that they felt easy asking what they thought were stupid questions (which they were not!).  Most if not all of the students were attending a structured course for the first time and having somebody observing them and giving them feedback on their Performance was welcomed.

Before we headed to the water we decided to take a look at the pre trip safety demonstrations we split into 2 groups 4 guides with me & 4 guides with Anton.
A quick debate on how a foreigner who does not speak or understand Russian was going to asses their Russian safety talks soon followed.
Through Anton I explained that a good safety talk needs no language barriers  Actions speak louder than words.
The Guides took a second to think about it as a result we got some amazing safety demonstrations opposed to traditional boring long winded, useless safety talks.

After a few warm up runs and a breif lesson in the understanding of Russian raft commands for my benefit we were starting to see some impressive raft guiding skills. As the Rapid was only 300 meters long the guides have to make the most of every ferry glide & eddy available to them. The rapid even had an eddy fed play hole which was great to observe surfing skills & crew management.


Day 1 was completed with a personal swimming skills assessment. I was happy to give demonstrations as Anton coached the students through the key points.
The Students had a real motivation to make the final eddy on the swim test. Any student who missed the final eddy was heading towards the dreaded whirlpools if the downstream back failed. 

The evening of day 1 ended with a foundation knots and anchors section in preparation for the  rope work test on day 3.

Day 2 
During the 2nd or 3rd run on the 2nd morning. I realized that these guys were not crazy they simply did not have the same access to training that most western companies have. These guys had really good on the water skills but some of there background knowledge & risk assessment skills   needed topping up. The fact that they had taken the time to join the workshop showed the fact that there is a real thirst for knowledge & education in Russia. The guide team were really starting to bond together. 

Most Russians start there whitewater life as the crew in  cat-raft. During the workshop I got to observe a father daughter team in training as we paddled on the rapids. I strongly recommend giving it a go if you get the chance. Paddling a cat-raft is a good way to develop your water reading skills. 

The Afternoon of day 2 was spent looking at throwbag skills including the IRF throwbag test. The rapid gave us a perfect test site. The swimmers were moving in really fast water which meant that not only did the throw have to be accurate but the belay needed to be spot on. The guides showed us some excellent throwbag skills & Technique. 

One of the key messages that was now becoming a mantra was practice, practice, practice. the guides were taking the course seriously. Knots were constantly been practiced well into the night.

Day 3 
Day 3 or wobbly Wednesday as I like to call it stated with a mechanical advantage ropework test. After the first 2 days some of the guides were looking a little tired and wobbly on there feet. 
Myself & Anton had antcipated this and planned to stay on the land this morning. 

Anton had  assured me that all Russian me understand mechanical advantage as it was drilled into them at school. He was not wrong the Standard IRF test was passed with ease.

The remainder of the Morning was dedicated to the art of safety kayaking. We spent time running the the role of the safety kayaker on a commercial trip. We then gave the kayakers a multitude of tasks that involved controlling a guideless raft form there kayak & dealing with multiple types of swimmers. Each of the kayak students agreed that climbing from there kayak to the raft in the middle of a rapid was a challenging but fun exercise. The guides also masted giving the kayak safety talk in silence which was impressive to watch.

We were now moving into the time where we could potentially start to identify potential trip leader candidates. As this was the first workshop in Russia for a long time most of the students were either company owners or very experienced guides. Out of the group we identified 6 potential class 3 or class 2 trip leaders. Most of the students explained to me that one of the major challenges for a Russian raft guide is to take control of a crowd of rowdy Russian rafters. All of the candidates has very strong leadership capabilities . The nature of the Kivineimi rapid meant that all of the trip leader scenarios were going to be dynamic scenarios normally based around a flip. We ran scenarios focusing on lost customers, panicked swimmers, multi raft flips etc. 

Day 4 
the final day was spent finishing off the trip leader scenarios which then moved into the Flip test. the lake proved to be the Ideal flip drill test. I lead the way with a demonstration then the guides followed with some impressive times in the sub 40 second range which is outstanding. 

One of the things that struck me was the amount of support and positive energy that was flowing around the group. 
By the time the Flip drills were over the group had bonded really well and you could see that some of them wanted to continue learning. Which is exactly what happend as the IRF workshop flowed straight into a 3 day Rescue 3 whitewater rescue technician course. 

To sum the course up we had a blast. new friends were made. Russia has some new guides and its first IRF instructor. many thanks to Anton & the team from Kivineimi rafting for an amazing week of Russian hospitality. 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Time to dig deep ( An early season workshop in the snow)

IRF Instructor workshop Bosnia 2018

I had been following the weather in Bosnia for a week prior to the start of the workshop. The Forecast did not look good lots of snow was forecast . I pre warned the course students to prepare for cold weather.
 This was going  to be a busy 6 days. We had 17 students  from around the world descending on the Tara & Piva rivers to participate on a IRF workshop. The candidates had traveled from Austria,  Canada,Chile, Ecuador,Croatia, Argentina, Romania, Montenegro & Bosnia. The students were made up of Instructor candidates, through to trainees.
 As the numbers were so high I needed to employ another instructor in order to keep the quality of instruction & safety supervision at a high level. Having worked with Gaspar on many other workshops I knew he was the man for the Job. 

Having 7 instructor candidates meant that the standards were going to be high which was great for all involved. The Location of the workshop turned out to be an excellent choice. The Tara river was bank full with lots of rapids for the class 3 students to demonstrate there skills on. For the class 4 candidates we ventured onto the less run neighbor of the Tara river the Piva river. 

As many of us may know the rafting on the Tara river has its problems. Besides 2 proactive companies the safety standards among  the other 50 rafting companies  on the Tara are questionable. A lack of access to quality training  & equipment has left some of the operations looking like something from the dark ages. This workshop was going to be a chance for some of the local guides to be exposed to best practices from around the 
Step forward Mirko & Dimitrje To local company owners striving to raise the standards on the Tara to benefit everyone. Tara raft owned by Mirko & his family had kindly agreed to host the workshop that would be our base for the week. Having worked with Mirko before I knew they would take care of us and that they did. each day after we came off the river cold wet and tired we were greeted by a roaring fire and home cooking to die for courtesy of Anja and here kitchen team. Nothing was too much for them.

As we had 7 instructor candidates I decided to put the teaching into their hands. 3 weeks before the start of the workshop I had pre sent the instructor candidates a list of theoretical & Practical sessions that I wanted them to prepare and deliver during the workshop. This added great value for the other non instructor candidates during the evenings after dinner they could sit back and listen to the instructors give there mock talks before there final assessments at the end of the week. I could also get to see how much pre work the instructor candidates had put into there talks.

During days 1&2 all of the candidates had to pass the standard IRF guide assessment. on either class 3 or class 4 water depending on their experience. The assessment areas were:
  • Pre departure safety demonstration. 
  • Rafting maneuvers & crew management.
  •  Personal White water swimming skills.
  • Timed Throwbag test. 
  • Timed Flip drill test. 
  • Timed Ropework test.
  • Completion of the IRF written paper.

Once the guide assessments were successfully completed the students with more experience were invited to take a trip leader assessment. We had 7 TL candidates which meant we needed 2 days to get through all of the emergency scenario assessments. Myself and Gaspar took it in turns to set up and assess the scenarios. The scenarios were a mixture of static and dynamic emergency scenarios that could happen on any commercial trip. 
The scenarios are always a highlight of any workshop as this is where the guides learn lots from each other. Even I myself learnt on this workshop that the versatility of a pack raft as a rescue tool is a true asset on a trip.

Some of the guides had a taken a rescue 3 WRT class with me before the workshop. 9 days of been wet, cold, tired & hungry was starting to take its toll. On the final morning a motivational speech was needed to re-motivate the guides. The theme of the talk was "Dig Deep & keep going"
With support from each other the students soon turned those frowns upside down as the sun came out on the mighty Piva river.
The Final day of the workshop was the opportunity for the instructor candidates to present there assessment theory lessons. A wide spectrum of subjects were presented with some real thought and planing evident.

The IRF now have 5 new Provisional instructors. & 9 new guides. but most of all a gang of international rafters got together and shared there love and knowledge of rafting in an awesome environment. 
See you on the water 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Rafting on the roof of the world. An IRF Instructor workshop at 3500M In the Indian Himalaya

As I walked down the steps on to the Tarmac at Leh airport that familiar feeling of been short breath as  the altitude hit me. This weeks 7 day  international rafting Federation  workshop was to be based at the base camp of Wet N wild explorations in Nimoo at the altitude of 3500M above sea level on the banks of in lower Indus & Zanskar rivers.

For those unfamiliar with the Northern Indian town of Leh part of the Ladakh region  in the Northern Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Let me explain a little :

 First off there is very little humidity due to the altitude 3500M. So expect your lips & skin to start drying immediately.

Second: Ladakh is the sunniest state in India. The Sun in Ladakh is harsh and brutal (My hands  look like they aged 40 years since my last post. We were going to spend 7 days on the water so the sun is intensified by the waters reflection.

Third: The altitude of 3500m affects you. The thin mountain air make the simplest of tasks become breathless ordeal. Standing up quickly or bending down to tie your shoelaces can leave you breathless & dizzy. I have often experienced waking up at night out of breath with a short feeling of suffocation.

This was to be my third trip to the area. I knew that the students on the course were in for a shock.

I had been planning this workshop since February. 7 Months later we were almost ready for the off. The students had started to arrive in the camp. This workshop had a true international flavor. The course was made of  a team of guide who had travelled  from the following countries.
India, Bosnia, UK, Spain, Russia, Argentina, 
The workshop was to be run by myself from the UK & Gaspar from Hungry.
This workshop was going to a mixture of global experience. Secretly I could not wait to let the action begin.

As I have mentioned many times before it is very rare that a guide can present themselves for an IRF assessment  and be polished in all areas of raft guiding. As per the popular trend for this year  I had combined the first 3 days of the workshop with Rescue 3 Europe Whitewater rescue technician Professional certificate (WRT PRO)

WRT day Theroy session
The first 3days of the course were gong to be spent looking at the whitewater rescue skills of the guides and preparing them for the final 4 days of assessment on the course. The WRT gave the guides a chance to update or lean new rescue skills. The WRT also played another silent role. It was allowing the guides to work together as a team and create a working relationship that would help them during the IRF trip leader emergency scenarios.
The International team soon bonded and became close Knit 

Gabby & Dave working through MA systems 

We based the first 2 days of the WRT on the rapid next to the Wet & Wild explorations a 100m long big volume class 3 rapid  on the lower Indus river. We kicked off the first morning in the classroom discussing the Rescue 3 philosophy & rescue theory along with communications & personal equipment.   

We ventured out on to the water to look at whitewater swimming technique. I could hear the guides quietly laughing at me when I gave them a very simple 70M class 2 swim. The laughs were soon gone when the students realized how cold the water was. Each of the students completed the swim the local Indian guides were shivering due to the lack of quality PPE (personal protective equipment) available to them. The International guides mostly had drysuits but were gasping for breath as the altitude was teaching them a lesson. 
The Mid day heat was so hot even the instructors had to cool off

The learnings from the mornings theory lesson were starting to ring home. When working in whitewater at altitude the Self, Team, Victim,  rescue  priorities were ringing big loud bells. 
We continued through the next 2 days working through the WRT syllabus.
We completed day one with a basic ropework session looking at the knots needed for river use.

Double swimmer rescues

Day 2 started with shallow water work and some rescue scenarios. We spent the afternoon looking at pinned boats and mechanical advantage. The team were really starting to gel together now. The instructor candidates were starting to show there experience coaching the less experienced students on Mechanical advantage and ropework skills
On the evening of day 2 we looked at night operations. We discussed search theory along with night rescue operations. I then set up a night search scenario  by hiding some willing volunteers around and in the river all of the first 2 days learnings were put into practice. After the search exercise we focused throwbag exercises in the dark. 

The final day of the WRT was spent looking at the use of a raft in a rescue along with tensioned diagonals. All of the students were now qualified Rescue 3 Whitewater Rescue Technicians.

Day 4 was the first day of the 4 day IRF workshop. Gaspar had joined me as the numbers were high we had 11 students ranging from instructor candidates through too 1st year guides. Gaspar was also observing how I delivered the workshop as I myself am working through the pathway to become an IRF assessor.

The first morning  was spent assessing the throwbag & flip drills. I had already assessed the swimming & ropework skills during the WRT section beforehand. Both myself & Gaspar set up 2 work stations I ran the flip station & Gaspar ran the throwbag station. This way we were both able to keep all of the students active. All of the foreign student mentioned that the flatwater standard IRF flip drill was a challenge at this altitude.

During the afternoon of day 3 we looked at the use of a kayak in a raft operation as we focused on the safety craft assessments. The non kayaking students got to spend some extra stick time coaching with Gaspar whilst I put the safety kayakers through there paces. We looked at dealing with multiple & panicked swimmers. The students also go to look at how to deal with unconscious swimmers from a kayak. the students also got to experiment with taking control of a guileless raft they practiced using vocal commands along with manipulating the rafts position with there kayaks and ultimately exiting there kayaks into a raft to take control
 of the situation.

Flip drill time 

Days 5 & & were spent based on the Lardo class 4 rapid on the big volume  lower Indus river. Lard was also the venue for the recent High altitude ladakh river festival. Lardo is a 200m Big volume class 4 rapid with multiple lines each with interesting consequences if the line is missed. The next 2 days were going to be spent looking at class 4 rafting skills and trip leader emergency scenarios. It was interesting to watch the guides step up when we asked who wanted to guide lardo first. Once the lines had been run a few times confidence levels raised amoungst the students.  

Both myself and Gaspar agreed that we wanted to have a large element of practical rafting skills included in the TL scenarios as any potential scenarios on lardo would be dynamic in nature and would involve customers / victims spread out over a large area. We took turns to set up an assess each scenario. we had 2 days to  run 9 trip leader scenarios. Each scenario had complex issues which were both fun to set up and a learning experience for the students. 
Some of the subjects covered in the scenarios were. 
  • Multiple mid stream stranded swimmers. 
  • Non English speaking stranded swimmers 
  • Lost customers 
  • flipped rafts 
  • Hypothermic  customers 
  • Entrapped customers
  • Customers with shoulder dislocations 
  • Non co operative customers 
The Students did really good jobs in managing the scenarios. The key learning points were. 
  • In a emergency scenario the trip leader needs to be a strong leader with good communication & Delegation skills. 
Once a emergency scenario has been dealt with a good trip leader should debrief the whole team quickly to re gain group control and re motivate the customers. 

Strong communication is a must from trip leaders 

Day 7 was spent observing each of the instructor candidates delivering a 20 minute theoretical classroom based session. The guide & trip leaders had selected the topics that they wished to see a presentation on. Many of the Instructor candidates delivered very interesting presentations. The key learning points for the instructor candidates were.
  • Give your talk a structure (Introduction, activity,summary).
  • Position your students in a style where learning can be maximized. 
  • Don make your subject to big (Keep it simple) 
  • Use as many visual aids as possible involve the students as much as possible).

The workshop was a great successes for all involved. The IRF now has new provisional Instructors from Uk, 
india &Russia.  We have a host of new trip leaders, guides and safety kayakers from India,Spain,Ecuador. A warm heart felt thanks to Chotak & the team from Wet n Wild explorations In leh India and to the candidates for making the workshop a great learning environment.
See you on the river 

All Pictures 
Mark Hirst, Anton Sveshnikov

Mirko Davidovic