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A Raft of Meetings

The office that paddles together, stays together

By Paul Sullivan
Published: June 18, 2010
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The best business meetings I ever attended were on whitewater rafting trips in eastern Washington. One year, my late wife, Pat, and I rented a cabin on Lake Wenatchee. After I tired of golf and fishing, I took a sales job with a magazine publisher who had a trade-out arrangement with a local raft outfitter. The trade was simple: Ad space for raft space.
   
The boss thought crashing through Class III and IV rapids was great for team building, which it was. Like any successful business, everyone on the raft had to work hard together and paddle correctly to make it through the rapids without spilling. It was also great fun, and a welcome break from the office routine.
   
After finishing work on each issue, our entire staff occasionally headed to the Wenatchee River on a hot afternoon to cool off on a four-hour float (from Leavenworth to Cashmere). Before we pushed off though, our guides always reviewed safety procedures, paddling commands, and checked our helmets and PFDs. Fun for us, but it was all business for the guides.
   
My favorite guide, Eric, always began his instructions with, “If you fall, where should you fall?” To which anyone who had ever paddled with Eric replied loudly, “Inside the boat.” If anyone did fall out, Eric pushed them down and then hauled them aboard swiftly as they popped up like a cork.
   
Falling into that mountain snow water was always a shocker. Sometimes a paddler not paying attention to the oarsman’s commands was brushed against a rock intentionally and knocked into the cold water, a notice to stop yakking and pay attention to business.
   
Eric, a certified emergency medical technician, carried the medical supplies and floated last in the string of rafts. “Why last?” I once asked.
   
“Always easier to float down to the emergency than to paddle upstream,” he said. He was a tall, long-limbed young man who could make a paddle slap on the water sound like a shotgun blast. The county sheriff once grew weary of investigating Eric’s “gun shots” called in by citizens and banned him from a river.
   
I always liked to ride in Eric’s raft. With his long arms, he could steer interesting do-si-does through rapids that other guides couldn’t duplicate. His favorite trick shot was floating through Drunkard’s Drop in a sweeping circle. Coming up on Snow Bird, he’d hold back until the other rafts had cleared out. Then he shot through so fast it left us drenched, gasping and laughing. He was an artist with a raft and a paddle.
   
In the quieter sections of the river, water canon fights defused pent-up interdepartmental hostility. Take that for making me work late, boss. Naturally, the publisher was always the first target. She was a good sport and gave as good as she got, often making a preemptive strike against the sales manager.
   
Our raft of meetings always ended on a sandy beach, where we did, indeed, sometimes talk business while quaffing cold beers and chowing down on grilled burgers. Yes, the best business meetings ever.

Paul Sullivan has never met a cabin he didn’t like.
 
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