Unsung heroes

Called ‘seconds’ or ‘shuttle bunnies’, these are the people that provide support for paddlers. Their role typically involves taking a vehicle to the take-out point of a trip, or in the case of river races, meeting their paddler/s at multiple points along the river to offer refreshments and spare parts. More often than not, though, their unofficial duties extend to that of being a cheerleader, cook, navigator, paramedic, psychologist, physiotherapist and emotional punch bag. The list of tasks is endless.

For these reasons, a more apt name for them would be ‘unsung heroes’. They are the true legends of the sport. Paddling can easily become a very selfish pursuit, and a very common manifestation of this is that paddlers take their seconds for granted. I mean, face it, why are they called ‘seconds’ in the first place? Second to what?

Heading for the Orange River
Heading for the Orange River

Our lives as paddlers would be quite miserable without sacrifices from shuttle bunnies. Here are some suggestions to keep the shuttle bunnies in your life on your side.

  • Don’t mess them around. They are doing you a favour, not the other way around.
  • Make sure your vehicle has enough fuel for the trip. Don’t make this their problem.
  • If your trip will be quite long, arrange something nice for them to do while you’re on the water. Don’t expect them to just sit around waiting for you.
  • Make sure you provide good directions to get to the take-out and other points along the river where you would like them to meet you. It causes a lot of unnecessary stress for both parties if your shuttle driver takes unexpected detours.
  • Don’t ask the same shuttle driver on every trip or race that you do. At some point, the favour is no longer a favour.
  • If you have a big group, club together and pay someone to do the shuttle.
  • If you end up having the same shuttle bunny on many trips, arrange a trip for them as a treat to say thank you. Book a trip with a commercial rafting company, or buy/borrow/rent a kayak or raft that suits your shuttle bunny’s skill level.
  • If you do a trip far away from home, don’t be shy to ask a local to be your shuttle driver. I have done many trips where I recruited a shuttle driver for the trip on the evening before getting on the water. There is always someone-who-knows-someone with time on his hands who would be keen for a little adventure. Good places to ask around include the establishment where you plan to stay the night before the trip, or a restaurant where you stop for a meal. Try the local pub too, but don’t be surprised then if your would-be shuttle driver doesn’t pitch the next day.

Race organisers, a word of advice for you too: if you want paddlers to keep coming back to your races, make sure their shuttle bunnies have a good time. This applies to races on dams and surfski races too, not just river races.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure that there are enough toilets for racers and their supporters.
  • Make sure there is entertainment for children too.
  • Having food and refreshments available to buy can go a long way.
  • If it is a rainy, miserable day, some form of shelter will be appreciated by everyone.

I’ll leave you with this little story.

I once did a trip in the Transkei where we asked the chief of a little village in the area to do the shuttle for us. He was the only person in the village with a driver’s licence. The next afternoon, after a long day on the river, my brand-new bakkie was nowhere to be seen at the low-level bridge where we had agreed to be met by the chief. I spent two stressful hours contemplating the wisdom of my decision and wondering whether he was really a chief or maybe just a thief who had decided to take off with my bakkie. Then, he arrived, all smiles. The chief explained that he was convinced we would take longer to do the trip than what we estimated, so he gave us some more time before coming to the meeting point. Faith in humanity restored!

This article was originally published in The Paddle Mag, September 2018.