Sunday, 4 October 2020

Slovenia IRF workshop 2020

All pictures taken by Jasmine Zurlini

The IRF GTE is starting to come to life again after the varoius covid related issues. With successive workshops in Canada, Switzerland, Slovenia, UK & USA during Sept & Oct 2020

Having spent a few months guiding in Iceland I noticed that the European domestic rafting companies were having a busy season. I was hearing from friends based all around Europe  who were working as raft guides that they were having record numbers of rafting customers compared to previous seasons.

Myself & future IRF instructor Miha Mihelic had been planning a GTE workshop for a few months on the Soca river in Bovec Slovenia. Miha had informed me that demand for the workshop was high & that we needed to add a 2nd instructor. Fellow IRF instructor Sebastian Larcher & provisional instructor Mauricio Fernandez were added to the list of course instructors. This was going to be a well staffed workshop.

The weather gods had been kind to us providing us with ample amounts of liquid sunshine (rain). The main commercial rafting section & slalom site were running at circa 50- 60 cumecs which raised the eyebrows of a few of the course students. 

In to total we had 8 students due to last minute cancellations. We needed to run the following assessments over 3 days 

8x guide assessments 

5 x trip leader assessments

2 x safety kayak assessments 

Both myself & Sebastian have been running IRF workshops for over 5 years around the world. It was great to work with an instructor I have never worked with before. We both agreed that even though we only had 8 students in total our time management skills needed to be kept on point. Especially because we had the ever enthusiastic provisional instructor Mauricio observing us. 

Day 1 of any workshop is always going to be a long day as the framework for the workshop needs to be laid down. After the initial introductions session we headed to the river in the pouring rain. 

The PPE & signals session was completed before we broke off into 3 groups for the first safety talks. With our waterproof note books at hand myself & Sebastian started to take notes to feed into the student de- brief forms.

The general feedback for all of the safety talks throughout the entire workshop was. 

Keep the verbal instructions to a minimum & give more visual & practical demonstrations. 

Think about the order of the micro topics within the safety talk. 

Think about the environment & position of your customers to maximise the learning during a safety talk.  

We spent the reminder of the day observing a high level of guiding skills on class 3 & 4 whitewater. Arriving back at the Prijon kayak centre well after dark in the wet rain we decided to call it a day after 2 runs of the commercial rafting & slalom sections of the river.

Day 2 gave us perfect conditions with a bluebird sky & 50 Cumecs of the famous Soca pristine blue water. Our goal today was to run the following parts of the assessment. Today was going to be a wet day

  • Swim test 
  • Flip drill 
  • Throwbag test 
  • Mechanical advantage rope work test. 

We also observed more safety talks & personal rafting skills from the day before. 

Mauricio ran the assessments which allowed myself & Sebastian to observe the sessions. 

The Flip sessions were passed with ease. We set a challenging swim which involved swimming a set line down a rapid which included eddying out river right & river left. The students needed to swim 2 laps of the course once with a paddle and then again without a paddle. Not only did we want to test the swimming skills of the students we wanted to test their fitness too. 

Straight after the swim test we move a few hundred meters down stream into the throw bag test. Which its self was set in a challenging environment. After a few warm up throws the students all managed to pass the standard IRF throw bag test. Which involves making 2 throw bag  rescues inside 90 seconds with the same rope. Belay & Rope management skills were also assessed. 

In the evening back at the base all of the students demonstrated their rope work skills by building either a 3:1 or 4:1 mechanical rope system. During this session not only did the students receive feedback on the way the system was constructed they also were given feedback on effectiveness of their personal rescue equipment (PRE). 

Day 3 was trip leader (TL) assessment day. We had a busy day ahead as we needed to set 5 trip leader scenarios. In the morning the students were briefed on the assessment standards of the TL awards. We then headed out to the river. Myself, Sebastian & Mauricio took turns in setting up & assessing the scenarios. 

The students started to notice a pattern was emerging when dealing with a scenario 

1 Communicate with your own crew that something is happening 

2 Communicate with your fellow guide team that something is happening 

3 Get a head count ASAP & try to set a down stream safety net 

4 Make a plan & prioritise your rescue

5 Delegate & communicate your plan 

6 Make the rescue 

7 Get everyone & all equipment back together 

8 Maksure all are ok before continuing down stream

As the students had been working together for 2 days the teamwork bond was now starting to form which made the scenarios easier on the students. 

Once again we arrived back to the base after nightfall after an interesting day on the river. As the students decided to fire up the BBQ with a few beers myself Sebastian & Mauricio started to compile the students results & de-briefs for the next morning. 

Once the workshop was  completed the feedback from the students was encouraging. The students all commented on the following points 

  • Learning took place 
  • Personal skills & communication skills were tested to the max 
  • Fun was had friendships were made 

2021 has the potential to be a big year for the IRF GTE (Fingers crossed) The 2021 conference will be held in France with a number of workshops already confirmed. 

Many thanks to Miha Mihelic, Prijon sports Centre & Jasmine Zulini for the amazing pictures 

Happy rafting 

Mark, Sebastian & Mauricio


Monday, 17 August 2020

Are we ever safe in Whitewater ?

 Are we ever safe in whitewater  ??

The aim of this short article is too create a healthy debate on the language we use when giving information to commercial rafting guests 

Picture: East glacial river Iceland Mirto Menghetti.

Whist guiding & travelling around the world I get to listen to lots of safety talks & observe lots of commercially run trips. 

I recently (2019 pre covid) observed an angry rafting guest arguing with a raft guide after he had taken a swim in a shallow rapid. The guest had multiple cuts and bruises to the back of his legs along with pain a in his lower back that presented its self as a bruised coccyx. 

The rafting guest was angry as during the pre trip brief the guide had explained to the guests that if you fall out of the raft put yourself into the "whitewater safety position & you will be safe"  "Lie on your back with your feet up and you will be safe" The guest argued that this was not the case 

This made me think. As commercial guides is the word safe the correct word to use? 

Can our guests ever be 100% safe during a rafting trip ?. 

At the start of the trip we often ask our guests to sign a waiver which often mentions that Rafting is a risk sport XXX rafting cannot guarantee your safety 

Then during the trip the guides will often use the word safe many times. 

It seems to me that we are un-intentionally giving our guests mixed messages & unreliable information. Which in turn makes us look un-professional.

For those who have attended a workshop run by myself you may have heard me mention the 3 S words that are forbidden. 

  • Safe, Our guests are never 100% during any part of a river trip 
  • Sh@t, As it means you have made a mistake, our guests don't need to hear about your mistakes 
  • Sorry, This means you are accepting responsibility for your mistake  even though the guests have already been informed that rafting is a risk sport. 
You only need to look at any rafting carnage video on YouTube where the guest is doing exactly as they have been instructed to do so and yet they still get put into a potential life threatening situation in their eyes.
 How many times have you heard a customer say after a long swim 
"I thought I was going to die"

My challenge to you is next time you work as a guide count how many times you use the word safe during a trip . Then ask yourself "is the customer going to be 100% safe" Am I really telling them the truth ?

In order for us to keep commercial rafting sustainable we need to be as transparent as possible with the truth to our guests and not powdercoat coat the truth with the safe word. 

see you on the water 

Sunday, 29 March 2020

The principle of Smile

The Principle of Smile & The big 3 

During this brief post I wanted to share the tips I use to reduce the chances of my raft customers panicking during a swim.

I am getting on a bit now I will be 43 this year !. I first went kayaking when I was primary school in my home city of Manchester in the UK. As most school kids one of the first things we were taught is that if we go upside down when the kayak capsizes is " TRY NOT TO PANIC" 

Yeah right I know sit upside down in plastic lunchbox in cold dark water that is around 10 degrees C in an oxygen poor environment. wearing nothing more a thin long John wetsuit with no dry top and try not to Panic dream on !!

I eventually overcame the urge to panic and as the years past by.

 I found myself pleading with my guests not to panic when as a result of my poor guiding skills I would inevitably flip on regular occasions sending all of my customers for a swim. When working as a raft guide.

I am sure many raft guides will agree with me when the twinge of guilt you feel when you see a customer panicking in the water as a result of a mistake made by yourself. 

In 2007 I was lucky to work with a team of exceptional guides in Iceland on a demanding river that has a habit of making people (guides included) panic during a swim. Most of the guides quickly realised that panicking customers is bad for buisness for the following reasons. 

  •  Panicking creates added stress for all concerned parties customers & guides in a potentially stressful environment. 
  • A Panicking customer is not likely to return or become an advocate for your trips. 
  • In the dawn of trip advisor & social media bad reviews are not good for business

As a team of guides we asked " what can we do to stop our guests from panicking when they swim?"

step forward Mr Chris from Canada. 

In a moment of clarity Chris said
 "Instead of telling the customers what we do not want them to do Lets tell them what we want them to do"

Bingo I thought. 
As a team we quickly established that we wanted our customers to remain calm.  How can we communicate to our customers that we want them to remain calm when they are about to swim partway down a class 4+ rapid that can potentially give them 10-15 seconds of down time in glacial water. 

The general consensus was that the safety talk needed to have the same resounding message mentioned time & time again. 

"When you fall out of the raft the first thing we want you to do is to SMILE!!!!"

Chris had managed to convince us that it is physically impossible to panic if you are smiling. Until this day I don't know if it is true but smiling defiantly works for me when it's all going wrong around me. 
"The principle of smile was born !"

We noticed to see rapid results instantly when we encouraged our customers to smile. As we dropped into big rapids you could clearly see that the customers who had listed to the safety talk in detail we actively smiling & enjoying the OBE experince (Out of boat experience) 

The next development was the big 3. What big 3 points could we drill home to our guests to really make our clean ups after flips fun & easier.

  1. SMILE 
We then started to see that as a team of guides we were pre briefing the customers before the rapids where we knew that swimming was likely to occur. We found ourselves religiously reminding our customers to smile and do what we told them to do. 

I fondly remember loosing a guest out of my raft at the top of a big rapid and taking a long swim. I made a mental note that I would need to do some confidence re building  on her return to my boat. 

When I got to the bottom of the rapid and we re grouped the swimmer ran back to the raft with a big smile and proudly said
"Look I have my paddle & I am smiling that was awesome "

I gingerly smiled & thought wow

Take homes 
So what messages am I trying to get through to you !
  • Try telling your customers to smile when they take a swim watch the results yourself 

A smile creates a smile
  • Focus on telling your customers on the "what to do" instead of the "Not what to do"

  • Be proactive if you are at the top of a rapid that historically produces swimmers quickly remind  your customers at the top of the rapid what you want them to do and what to do if they take a swim. 

See you on the water