Leadership on the ocean

This year I predict an explosion into coastal SUP and exploration with new-found confidence and skills growing, plus newly qualified coaches and leaders excited to put their theory to the test.

Words: Elaine Farquharson: Dorset SUP Coaching and Guiding
Pics: Elaine Farquharson & the RNLI

This year I predict an explosion into coastal SUP and exploration with new-found confidence and skills growing, plus newly qualified coaches and leaders excited to put their theory to the test. People last year mastered the basics, and now the horizon and taste of adventure are within their grasp. As the famous ocean scientist and explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

It will also be the more experienced and skilled paddlers who will find themselves in a position of responsibility by default. However, being a good leader is not just based on personal skills; it requires a lot more tactical paddling experience and coastal knowledge to plan a successful journey for others. Plus group awareness in terms of technical or physical ability is more complicated on so many levels when you are exposing people to the wildness of coastal environments. God forbid if things do take a turn for the worst like the fog come down, or the wind picks up, it’s having the experience, initiative and aptitude to get the team out of trouble and into safety that counts the most. Finally, a lot of compassion, understanding of psychology and a love of people are essential to being a good leader. In this article, I hope to help all levels of ability to get the most out of their coastal leadership experiences this year, whether that be a new guide, paddler or experienced salty sea dog.


So ask yourself, who do you trust to take you on a coastal journey? Let me help you.


The leader needs to care and understand the team’s psychology to keep the atmosphere fun and prevent stress out on the water. According to psychologist Myers Briggs, there are 16 different personality types with differing combinations of thought versus feelings, extroversion versus introversion, spontaneity versus routine, or those that see the bigger picture versus the micro. When taking a group out awareness of these interactions and how a team forms is imperative. Also understanding the roles people take within a team, and how they might interact helps the leader best utilise the dynamics, (you can read more on this through the work by Belbin).

For example, some teams bomb bust when they hit the water so utilising a team player, or setting boundaries early on can keep group safety. Equally someone who is a shaper is driven and highly self-motivated this could be utilised to inspire others and keep the team morale high.

Having coaching experience is essential to understand the different types of learning styles. Honey and Mumford looked at four main styles, the activist, pragmatist, the reflector and the theorist. It’s essential to identify how people best take in the information and utilise that to enhance their paddling out on the water. You can cover some of this in the pre-trip information, enabling reflective thinking on the water, giving people practical things to do or just allowing the group to play and have fun.

Leadership on the ocean

It also helps if people are aware of their competence levels; however, as a coach, you may recognise some problems in the perception of competence and peoples ability levels. The hierarchy of competence becomes a problem when the two perceptions don’t marry up. The leader must manage this with tact and care to prevent the destruction of confidence but not let the person endanger the rest of the group.

Using communication skills in transactional analysis ensure communication channels don’t become strained through an over-controlling leader, causing a rebellious child. Understanding the inner chimp, or emotional drivers within us can help prevent the rebellious child, or inner chimp from coming out to play in the first place and keep the peace.

Leadership on the ocean

Finally, when pushing the grade and progressing on more challenging water, it’s important not to stretch the comfort zone because learning shrinks through fear and anxiety. Mike Brown’s ‘Comfort Zone: Model’ highlights making the activity mildly adventurous to enable growth and fun out on the water. The problem can be when the leader is inexperienced in the environment and overstretches the group beyond their mental boundaries. This can cause people to snap and make bad decisions or paddlers to become distressed or upset. Let’s remember the reason we paddle is to have fun not to scare ourselves to death.

Physical ability

Leaders must be physically fit to be able to rescue and tow and be a good role model. Coaching experience also helps to be able to improve biomechanics and efficiency, saving energy along the way. It’s essential though to adapt movement models to the individuals’ physicality, understanding how peoples differences affect their paddling and adapt around it. For example, a stiff ankle can prevent weight transference or indirectly restrict knee bend. It can make balance more challenging, adapting the technique to accommodate this or using the right board to assist balance will make a world of difference to that individual and their enjoyment of their day.

Individuals will all have different health and general fitness. The leader should have screened and profiled each individual before establishing their strengths and weakness and tailoring the trip to these needs. It is important to understand how much paddling people have done and how comfortable people will be in differing postures out on the water. The endurance and strength needed for each trip should be tailored to the weakest paddler’s fitness in the group. If you have a speed demon in the group, you can always set them some challenges, but it becomes a problem if someone struggles to keep up with the team. In these circumstances, it will become necessary to tow or assist that person but remember this will take up your time away from the rest of the group, so it’s best to pitch the activity appropriately.

To prevent fatigue, people should bring food and drinks, but also they need to be dressed correctly for the conditions. It’s the group leaders responsibility to make sure the team remain healthy and happy. If a person becomes ill, it can have serious consequences out on the water, and a sugar low will often have an adverse effect on psychology and the chimps come out to play.

Technical considerations

The leader’s personal skills need to be good enough to handle more than the group environment dictates, but they don’t need to be the next Kai Lenny. Skills generally required for coastal waters are the ability to trim the board up and downwind, handle chop, utilise surf stance and footwork on downwind, or surf landings, control the paddle for efficiency into the wind, navigating currents around headlands or over shallows, or having an efficient paddling style.

Using the wrong kit can make a trip miserable, too short a board or not enough volume in choppy conditions will struggle against the longer touring boards. Surf fin set up will reduce efficiency compared to a longer touring fin. Equally knowledge of different types of kit helps ensure it has been set up correctly and seaworthy. The same standards for personal flotation devices, either a PFD, lifejacket or buoyancy aid should be worn, and always a leash. Should a fault develop on the water due to cheap or poorly looked after equipment it could put the whole group at risk. A leader should check these.

Ideally, the personal skills should match up to the environment of the trip. If not, it is advisable to recommend coaching before taking a person out on exposed or extreme conditions. Equally carrying expedition kit will cause the boards to handle very differently, so flat water journeying and practice should ideally be encouraged first. Launching and landing skills can be very technical, so care is needed to ensure the group have the capability of going in/out through surf or tow back before committing to challenging more exposed beaches or coastal routes.


There is a lot to plan before and during the day. Weather forecasts, tides, topography and hydrology need to be understood. For example on a windy day communication might be difficult so other methods rather than voice may need to be employed to communicate with the team such as hand signals, whistles, mobile phone, VHF, or using assistants to create a line of site or communications.

The plan should include the meeting place, including the facilities with consideration of disabilities or comfort needs. The nautical maps will show you the shore’s contours, which will help identify whether the beach will have surf or even the ease of the ground type for the boards for launching or landing. It will also show you exposure and the potential for rest stops or exit if things deteriorate.

The surf forecast will give some idea of the swell height and period at the shore and the open sea. The tidal flow will help with crossings or negotiating overfalls around headlands so that hydrology is pitched to the group’s ability and fitness. The leader should consider the wind strength and direction, and understand that this will create features on the sea and how that might interact with the swell, reflect off cliffs or affect the group. Also, visibility is essential to keep the group safe by making the navigation easy.


Often when you are out on the water, nothing bad will happen, but there is always the potential for things to go wrong, this is where a leader’s experience is imperative. A leader should carry an emergency kit which matches the exposure and risks to the environment, including: communication devices or trackers, spare leash, slings, tow line, split paddle, spare fin, first aid kit, hydration and food, protective clothing, emergency shelter or space blanket, emergency repair kit, spare pump, and suncream.

The leader should have been drilled in emergency situations in physical and emotional first aid, equipment failure or what to do in adverse conditions like fog, or weather changes. Although we hope they should never be needed, these emergency skills and experience should be practised regularly, and training should be updated as the governing bodies require. If an emergency does occur, the leader has the skills, expertise, problem-solving and ability to keep calm to keep you and the rest of the group safe.

So leading is not an easy thing to do, but it is hugely rewarding and a highly responsible privilege to watch others grow and live out their dreams. I hope you all enjoy sharing water time together safely this year and make amazing times memories. The sea and our British coastlines have some of the most spectacular and challenging places to explore in the world, enjoy!

elaine farquharson


Elaine owns and runs Dorset Sports Physio, based in Weymouth community college sports centre. She offers sports physiotherapy, biomechanics and coaching to the Dorset communities. Elaine’s specialist interest is tri sports and SUP, not only as a competitor but also through her work as a coach and physio. Elaine’s specialist work with the lower quadrant has helped her achieve advanced practice recognition in hip and pelvis and works closely alongside Dorset’s expert hip surgeons and lower limb specialists. Elaine’s facilities offer a large private treatment room, three sports halls, a fully equipped gym, sports pitches, and also racquet courts across the two sites. Elaine also has a hydrotherapy pool and Pilates studio off campus.@dorsetsportsphysio

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