Andy Singh

Almost 2500 years ago Heraclitus wrote,
No man ever steps into the same river twice,
For its not the same river, and he’s not the same man.
Now I sit at the headwaters of a river I have paddled four times before.
At the base of a dam wall, water shoots forth out of a valve as a regulated fury.
My role over the next five days, is to lead 120 paddlers down this river.
By itself, the river is not difficult to paddle,
But funnel 120 paddlers of various skills and ability down its narrow channels,
and danger looms.
Delivering one eulogy this year to a lost kayaker, there is no taste for another.

Later this day,
A paddler turns a corner.
Calls go out for him to go wide,
but he is drawn by the energy of the water towards a menacing log.
The log snatches, the kayak tips and the paddler is in the water,
Swift currents draw him towards the waiting submerged logs.
In an instant, a helping hand flings a throw rope.
A mass of rope hits his chest.
In seconds, he is on dry land.
The flash before his eyes disappears,
replaced by tears of fear and gratitude.

His rescue is no accident.
Last year leadership was exercised on the fly.
This year, leadership is exercised with purpose.

One hundred and twenty paddlers offer a challenge of complexity.
Some are the best paddlers in NSW,
Some are complete novices.
Some have the skill and control of a ten-year old riding a shopping trolley down the suburban street.
Many know their lack of skills is only exceeded by their level of fear.
I watch as Seamus shoots past.
He is covered in branches and leaves, battle scars from wrestling a willow tree.
I wonder if Seamus will survive the next five days.

Complexity rarely travels alone.
The river is a perfect storm of complexity.
Volatile, unpredictable, turbulent and dangerous.
The last year has seen logs move and new channels scoured.
The river feigns familiarity but hides new dangers with deception.
The eddyline separating kayaker and river normally favors the kayaker,
but this river plays the long game, waiting for its day to come.

Day one slides into day five,
And now we face our most significant challenge, Stump Alley.
Three hundred meters of tightly channeled water mazed by hungry stumps,
Ready to grab boats like wilder beast to the crocodile.
Kayakers try and make their run down Stump Alley.
But then a log snaps,
a kayak is caught,
the boat tips,
a paddler is being drawn down into the water,
towards the untimely embrace of the submerged log.
The laws of hydrology are now calculating his unfortunate fate.
Again, helping hands come forth, slipping under his arms,
lifting him to quickly to safety.

How is it,
on this complex river,
with its complex rabble of largely novice paddlers,
Helping hands appear at the right time and right place,
to cheat this river of another victim?

Leading in complexity is about anticipation.
Months in advance, invitations go out,
to a select band of paddlers,
all with diverse skills,
but committed to the safety of others.

Over months, visions and values are discussed.
Equipment, skills and tactics are identified.
Visons and values shape days of training.
A mantra is shaped.
Give people the right information to make the right decisions.
Only risk life to save life.
Leave the lost paddle to the river.

We train in anticipation.
We prepare in anticipation.
Our boats are loaded in anticipation.
Snap ropes, tow ropes, throw ropes,
Z-drags, snorkels, first aid kits, defibrillators,
Knives, screwdrivers, tape and wire cutters.

The volunteer river scouts form their own complexity.
Strangers to most. Authority to none. Reception is unknown.
But by the first corner, when paddlers meet the river,
when fears rises from the heart into the throat, river scouts are there in anticipation.
Giving clear communications to guide the way forward,
and in exchange, grateful paddlers give the scouts the legitimacy to lead.

Every night, river scouts meet to discuss the day,
Each meeting is long, each tale reveals a new truth.
This is learning in action,
No standard operating procedure can replace,
people learning to lead their way down the river.
Some scouts yearn for the certainty of being told what to do,
While others devour the path unknown.
The complexity of learning is not for some, but it is the only way forward for all.

As our journey progresses, the leadership of the river scouts,
gives way to a collective leadership of the many.
Now river scouts have only to leave some visual cues,
and this motely band of kayakers begins to act as one.
Hand signals are passed down the line,
Verbal calls are repeated,
Moderation of action follows.
They start to act as a group,
They start to put aside their own individual desires,
To act safely, to create safety for all.

Over five days, one form of complexity,
the formation of a high performance, agile, adaptive team,
United to a common purpose,
is able to exert enough influence,
to create enough trust and order,
to enable a complex collective of motely paddlers
to defeat the worst intentions of this, 180 kilometers of complex river.

A plan would have been more reassuring.
Some detailed maps would of helped.
Formal authority would have been nice.
But in the end, all we had was vision and intent.


The WomDomNom is a charity kayaking event run annually from Wellington to Narromine on the Macquarie River. It is run entirely by volunteers, and its safety framework is a reflection of the collective capacity of the paddlers and the people who support it.