Contracting with School Groups
It is essential for all certified SKGABC guides to ensure that when they take contracts from School groups, they are within ratios and meet our industry standards. This would include safety gear, boats with non-leaking bulkheads, solid neoprene seals, spare paddles, bilge pumps that are working, throw bags, and life jackets that fit and work well. If we look at past incidents in our industry, most have been in Ontario and Quebec, where entire school classes have gone out with teachers and parent volunteers with one or two certified guides. It has typically been in canoes and not kayaks, but we have noticed a trend out of Tofino and the Gulf Islands for this to be happening on a more regular basis.
We often see that schools approach companies and individual guides to run programs for them. They will often want to use their school boats and rent some boats from a specific company. To save money, they will bring all the food and cooking gear. They will use an Outdoor Ed teacher who may have had certification at some point in their career and other staff who may have practiced rescues and done some white-water teaching. They will ask AOG and Level 2 guides to help them lead their class in the outdoors on a multi-day expedition. You might find yourself meeting at a specific boat launch to find unprepared students, not knowing what they are fully getting into. They may not have done any stroke and rescue sessions at the school and may not have packed the correct clothing or not have waterproofed stuff sacks or dry bags. It is hard to ensure everyone's gear can be packed properly at this stage. It becomes a recipe for possible problems and can snowball into a critical incident. The wind may pick up, you may need to do some difficult landings, or you may have to deal with attitude or behaviour issues that are untimely and unexpected. It is important that you get as much information as possible before you begin an expedition, meet with the group and go over how to pack, what to bring and what not to bring. Review expectations weather probabilities and get medicals well ahead of time.
Guides are the leaders and thus make the decisions for the group, and if there is no company experience backing you up, you need to take extra precautions. Things to consider:
- Are you being covered by any insurance if you are contracting for a school?
- Does the school's Insurance cover you as a contractor? You don't want to lose any assets you have gained over the years in a lawsuit to make several hundred dollars on a contract that went poorly. If you have any assets like a house or condo and don't have Insurance or formed a corporation to work under, this contract you are taking on might be ill-advised.
- Do you have medical forms from the school? Know all allergies both from food and the environment.
- How big is your first aid kit, what communication systems do you have, and what are the other leaders carrying?
- Do you know the other leaders and what valid certifications they have?
- Have you met and discussed the route made route plans and alternative route plans for poor weather.
- Are their cancellation options and other dates in case weather systems are severe?
It may seem like a great deal to take larger school groups out and obtain experience coordinating the complete program. Still, it is important to be careful and establish your ratios with other guides, matching the water level to their qualifications. It is important to know the boats on the water and have trained students. Most school boards require a pre-trip training session where students do a stroke and rescue course before getting out on the ocean. Ask these questions and ensure the students have some experience. Review their clothing lists and meet with the students beforehand to discuss how to pack their gear and what they should take and what should not. Review the food packing list if you are not bringing the food and ensure the menu meets the energy output demands and you've packed it correctly before they arrive at the launch site. This is part of the pre-trip training necessary for an organized trip. You may even make a day trip out on the ocean to give the students a practice run before going out on an expedition. This way, you get to know the students and their strengths and weaknesses.
Make sure you are well prepared and don't end up finding yourself on a beach loading kayaks and being caught in an uncomfortable situation because you didn't ask enough questions, and prepare this group for going out. These days even paddling in Level 1 or two waters can be difficult with a Low-Pressure system that comes up quickly and takes you by surprise. Even if the group is prepared, being out for three days of rain with insufficient tarps, leaking tents, poor sleeping bags, or inadequate clothing can be very unpleasant and possibly dangerous. You are taking these students out to give them a positive experience. If the weather looks poor, make sure you can cancel or postpone the trip. You may find yourself with students that have done absolutely no paddling, who are not ready to put in a 5-6 hour day and did not know what to expect on this end-of-year "fun" paddling trip. You may find the goals or the students are much different from the teachers' goals.
Sometimes it is better to say no than to take on a bigger job than your experience level.
Remember your objectives and that your job is really to be a risk manager; if you have had little or no contact with the group before the paddling day, are you able to make the best decisions for this group.
Have a safe and enjoyable paddling season!
SKGABC Vice President and Examiner