By Bill Vonnegut
ACA L5 kayak instructor
There are many acronyms used in the paddling community. I honestly can’t recall all of them. CLAP, on the other hand, stands out as exceptionally valuable. Whether paddling with friends, teaching a class, or on a club paddle, CLAP is the common language of safety and group management.
Line of sight
Position of maximum usefulness

Bill Vonnegut is an ACA L5 kayak instructor and a founding member of the Neptune’s Rangers rock gardening crew. You can find Bill paddling the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean or at Pacific Coastal

Bill Vonnegut

C.L.A.P. More than just an acronym

Words we often hear but don’t always implement. How can we utilize CLAP so that its principles become natural rather than just another item talked about during a class or safety talk, soon forgotten. More than just an acronym, CLAP is a method and style of paddling.

When introducing CLAP to a group, I often find that my emphasis lands on A. For, as with many things in life, awareness is the key and it is needed to make any of the other parts of CLAP functional. Awareness is needed by paddlers to put themselves in the Position where they will have Line of sight to Communicate.


Awareness (A) is where we use our knowledge and skills to steer through what may come up. A is also sometimes interpreted as Avoidance, where we try and steer around things, but this too falls under awareness. Besides all of the things we need to be aware of while on the water, awareness starts long before you leave home.

With good awareness you will have checked conditions, (temperature, wind, waves, current, surf), determined distance to paddle and chosen appropriate dress and gear to bring. You may decide you should stay home or even decide not to launch when you get there. Awareness continues with consideration of how many paddlers there are and their skill level. Are you the most experienced or the least? Is this a class you are taking or are you the leader? Awareness is all-encompassing.


If you have ever taken a paddling class, you are likely familiar with being asked: “What does the C stand for?” Communication. How do we communicate? Radios, whistles, paddle signals, voices… There is more to communication than just that.

What about when you are planning the trip? You check conditions and talk to friends about a destination. So before even arriving at the paddle you have already started communicating. People show up and start talking about ideas for the day. After the paddle we may stop for refreshments and reflect. If this is a class we might call it a debrief. Reflecting locks the day’s events into our memory so the next time the group paddles together less active communication may be needed. This process can create a team.

For example, about a dozen friends and I recently did a rock gardening trip in the coastal waters of Mendocino. The first day we met at the put-in, arriving from various locations. We said hi, geared up, then carried boats down to the beach. Before launching I lightheartedly said to the group, “Time for our safety talk,” to which a friend replied, “Ok everyone be safe.” We all laughed, but not because we were dismissing the importance of a safety talk but because just the reminder was enough. This team of experienced paddlers have consistently used the language of CLAP for years as their style of paddling. It has become natural with practice to the extent that much communication is unspoken.

Local Sheriff: “Are you part of those crazy kayakers”

As we flowed with the waves through and over the rocks that day, we came upon a passage with high rock walls which the group passed through. Both the far end and exit of this channel had large breaking waves so timing was needed. The main group stopped at the entrance letting a few head through and exit before they entered. We got the whole group through successfully, reaching the open water on the far side.

A few of us paddled in again for some more fun by way of another entrance. This entrance also needed to be carefully timed between wave sets and included crossing the opening of a large hole between the rocks before getting back to the exit channels (a fun spot). One boat got flipped while timing the hole crossing and was pushed next to the rocks, limiting the ability to roll and causing a swim. There were a few of us positioned on the ends of the channels. We were able to calmly and quickly back deck carry the swimmer across the hole and push the boat across to perform a rescue. Once all situated, we timed our way out and went on with our day.


One reason this rescue was so efficient was our utilization of the principals of the CLAP acronym. The area we were paddling formed a triangle with limited lines of sight. After the full group cleared, when I went back into this area to play, I Communicated to a few people my intention, I paddled toward the entrance and a couple of my teammates Positioned themselves where they could have Line of sight to both the entrance and the staging area for the exit.They did this automatically without direction because they had the Awareness of where they could be of maximum use. Then once a couple of us ran the first part, we waited in the position of maximum use to assist others who ran the feature. This teamwork is what made the rescue routine rather than escalating into an incident.

As I paddled out of the slot after the rescue, I looked up on the cliff and saw two deputy sheriffs, one with climbing gear and swim fins, standing on the cliff overlooking where the rescue had just taken place. They had climbed out and been watching us for some time. Two days later we came across some friends who had launched from the same location on the day after our trip. They told us the story of getting questioned about their skills and plans for the day by the local sheriff, “He asked if I was a part of those ‘crazy kayakers’. He said while watching them on a bluff one of them actually came out of their boat near the rocks!”

The position of maximum use is variable and not only depends on where people are paddling but also on a paddler’s individual skills. For example, what about the person in the front of the group leading paddlers on a trip? What is their responsibility in this position? Besides needing to know the destination and route choice they need to be comfortable enough to actually be turning around regularly.

strung out

There have been times I have been on group paddles and the person out front ends up being the paddler who is the most nervous. They paddle along, often with a tight grip on the paddle not comfortable enough with their skills to turn around for fear of capsizing. As the wind and chop increase they tend to go faster, their focus becomes more on survival than group awareness. This leads to the group getting strung out over a large area with some paddlers increasing speed in an attempt to keep up with the lead while others, often newer paddlers who have yet to develop a strong forward stroke, trail at the rear. This can be problematic as those in the rear can sometimes be more likely to capsize because of their experience level. This type of situation could be avoided by regularly practicing CLAP.

Club trips

Paddling with a club is always a good opportunity to practice CLAP. When I post a club trip I specifically speak about pod dynamics in my safety talk, since I like to enjoy myself and not spend time keeping the group together. I make it clear that the person who is in the lead is in a Position responsible for keeping the group within Communication distance. It should be possible to transfer a message from the rear to the front of a group.

Lead Paddlers need to be Aware of the whole group, be able to turn around often getting Line of sight. I suggest if someone finds themselves in the front and uncomfortable with this, simply slow down and let someone else take the lead. The next person may feel the same way so they back off their speed resulting in the pod getting tighter instead of more spread out. Eventually someone who feels comfortable ends up in front. I have found that using CLAP in this way works well, though sometimes a few reminders are needed.

CLAP is a way of paddling that can be utilized throughout the paddling community until it becomes a paddling style. It naturally creates a team of paddlers that are aware and looking out for each other.