By Sheralee MacDonald

I started packrafting six years ago, have been to most packraft meetups and been on a few trips. But I’m a very cautious paddler (G3 freaks me out!) and tend to rely on more experienced people to take the lead and know what to do if things go wrong. Being safely in my comfort zone and letting others make the tough calls makes for very easy and enjoyable paddling – but not really fair on the ‘others’!

So when the Packrafting Association of NZ (PRANZ) offered the opportunity to do a intermediate packraft course subsidised by a training grant from the Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC)*, I decided it was time to stop taking the chicken line and step up. 

And I’m so glad I did!  There were eight of us on the course, with two fab instructors (Daan from NZ Kayaking School and Huw from Packrafting Queenstown), and a mid-summer weather bomb which pushed my ‘fair weather paddler’ status.  

The focus of the two days was safety and rescue and improving your paddling skills so you’d be a better person to paddle with. The end result was a group whose confidence on the river was boosted — not just because we now knew how to use our rescue PFD properly and punch through the frothy scary-looking eddy line (instead of riding the nice green tongue into the wave train). Bye-bye chicken line, it was nice knowing you…

The biggest thing we’d learned was how to take responsibility for making our own decisions and communicate well and paddle safely as a group – even in rising rivers and dropping temperatures!

This put us in good stead to be ‘mentors’ at the annual PRANZ meetup in St Arnaud at the end of the week.  With 85 registered and a range of experience levels, we needed to split into groups of six with a nominated group leader for the day and look after each other on G2+.  Day one was on the Wairau (which I’d never paddled before) and after an enjoyable 5 km hike in, I was on the bank with five friendly strangers looking at ME as the leader. Eek! 

I figured I’d treat it as if we were off on a trip together. First thing I did was find out everyone’s experience and confidence levels in throw roping, self-rescue, catching eddies, as well as any medical conditions and who had PLBs/first aid, etc. We practised throw bags and recoiling for a second throw (as during the course I’d learned some really useful tips). We ferry glided to the other side of the river — making sure we all knew the basic stop, go, eddy out signals — and then we were off into the unknown, but feeling all the more confident from having had those initial conversations about where everyone was ‘at’. 

Although I was the ‘mentor,’ I really only scouted the first couple of rapids and gave signals.  Everyone then took turns scouting, choosing either the chicken or party lines, and eddy hopping.  I tried to role-model catching lots of mid-river eddies and edging properly — such good practice.  The group was great at watching out for each other and rescuing people and boats when we swam (yes, I role-modeled swimming too!).  At the end of the day, stepping up as a mentor was a great experience, and really confidence building for me personally. 

I asked my fellow course grads one thing they learned that they are keen to pass on:

  • Practice harder moves on Grade 2 so you can be more confident in Grade 3. Don’t always take the green tongue/V!
  • Use cross current momentum to give you time and make more controlled moves.
  • Working as a team to eddie hop, boat scout and communicate makes the trip more efficient, safe and enjoyable for everyone
  • Think several moves ahead and try ‘S’ turns instead of taking a picnic in the eddie!

Thanks to all those who have mentored or been trip leaders in the past and to those who are getting out of their comfort zone and learning to lead too.  It’s great to see the packrafting community developing good group paddling skills, sharing the responsibility and all having a fun, safe time out there!

Sheralee MacDonald was awarded a FMC Training Grant: a cash grant to enable this Packrafting Association of NZ (PRANZ) intermediate packraft course.

Each subsidised participant committed to run a regional event in the next year to build a norm of safe and effective paddling. Megan is planning a packraft event to parallel the Hutt Gorge Kayak Race and a Central North Island Mangatepopo weekend. Sheralee is looking at a Hurunui weekend in Canterbury and Rachel and Sarah are taking lead roles in the next PRANZ National Meet-Up organising committee which will be held in Wanaka.  We hope to see lots of people there. 

*The training grant was made possible with the support of  FMC’s Mountain and Forest Trust. PRANZ is looking to build capability within its ranks and develop our future leaders. To learn more about the Training Grant, or to apply, visit the FMC website.