The wind was blowing whitecaps across the bay as Mandy Buckner shouted, “Got anything else you’d like to show me?”
She was the American Canoe Association (ACA) Sea Kayaking Instructor Trainer. She was the judge, the final authority on whether one received the Instructor qualification or not.
This was the last chance for the 14 Sea Kayaking instructor candidates to demonstrate their skills in paddle strokes, rescues and instruction. Kym, a former US Olympic Kayaking representative, spoke up, and instructed us again on the method for completing a “T” rescue.
Of the 14 candidates, myself and five other “students” were successful in gaining the Instructor qualification (43% success rate). Four of these five students had come from the kayaking shop that sponsored the training event and were probably always destined to get their qualification (or get sacked!).
I have been in the US for over two years now, and having completed the requirements for my Instructor qualification, I thought I’d write of the experience and provide some general comments on sea kayaking in the USA. These are my personal observations only and are blatant generalisations. Knowing the Old Sea Dog has a pedigree in this continent, he may find these ring true or not or somewhere in between!
Let me first mention that sea kayaking is a BIG growth business over here. There is good money to be made for smart businesses / individuals. Take the Instructor’s course itself -that set me back US$550 or about AUD $850 at a $0.65 cents conversion rate. Certainly not mucking around. To do a standard one day “introductory” course costs US$95, the content and conduct of which is another story again. An instructor gets paid US$125 for conducting an 8 hr introductory course.
To gain the instructor certification requires you to register for two distinct courses. The first is the Instructor Development Workshop (IDW). This is a three-day course run by the Instructor Trainer and designed to expose you to different teaching styles and techniques while showing the ACA methodology for teaching some of the basic strokes and rescues. It covers on- land subjects such as boat fit, carrying methods, wind, waves, tides, weather, common illnesses and injuries, kayak design, methods for loading a kayak, etc. The on-water portion covered “proper” stroke technique of the forward touring, reverse, stopping, forward and reverse sweep, draw strokes (in water, out of water and sculling) and braces (low, high and sculling). It also covered rescues including the scoop, eskimo bow and side rescue, T rescue, the “all -in” and the ubiquitous paddle float rescue with, and without, a stirrup! They were all pretty amazed to hear that a paddle float is not widely used in Australia: over here it is almost considered mandatory.
I completed my certification through a company called Wild River Outfitters based in Virginia Beach, V A (about four hours drive SE of Washington, DC) (http://www.wildriveroutfitters.com). The venue was just over the border in North Carolina at a place called Tulls Bay. They had the use of a cabin right on the shoreline. It was on a huge block of land. Everyone bought tents and camped out for the duration with use of the shower and toilet facilities inside.
The wind came through on or the first night and flattened a few tents causing the occupants to race for the shelter of the cabin. The other “candidates” were a mixed bunch with a common thread of enjoying the outdoors. There were wilderness leadership instructors (another big business over here), people setting up their own kayaking business, employees from Wild River and those that just wanted to push their skills some more (my category!). The three days were intense and the pressure was on to learn, and learn the ” ACA ” way. Mandy was an effusive personality with a great sense of humour. She is known for being a “tough” trainer -the course run in 1998 had 12 candidates and only four people got their qualification.
It was a full on time, with lively discussions going on in the evening around the fireplace and I introduced some of the braver ones to the “pleasure” of Bundaberg Rum. Funnily enough, they all declined the opportunity to sample some more on the second evening. We all had to give presentations on sea kayaking topics including submitting a written lesson plan. We were critiqued by our peers on the content, delivery and style. I probably enjoyed these three days more than the two days of “assessment”.
This last phase is titled the Instructor Trainer Certification or ITC. It was conducted over the following weekend and for some, the gloves were off. Mandy was much less the “Ms Nice Guy” and all business. The assessment was in the areas of Teaching Skills and Group Management; Attention to Safety; Paddling Skills; and Technical Knowledge. It included a written examination and a ten-minute verbal presentation. This is somewhat similar to the Australian Board of Canoe Education Instructor requirements which encompass: Test of (Kayaking) Ability; Practical Teaching; Demonstrate Knots; Written and Oral Exam; Show Log to include several overnight trips; and a ten minute talk on a (kayaking) topic.
Mandy didn’t provide as much guidance during this phase and you were expected to basically convince her as to your instructor qualities.
The American’s are generally extremely safety conscious. Risk management and erring on the side of safety is consistently highlighted. This is due, in part, to the extreme level of legal liability and the American willingness to “sue, sue, sue”. One only has to look in the telephone yellow pages to see that the legal section is by far the biggest. The classic case of this cultural preoccupation was when a bus had an accident and the driver was featured on TV complaining that before the accident he only had about 10 passengers and yet afterwards there was about 20 people claiming to have been passengers and now suffering “injuries”!
Okay, so now for some personal generalisations and observations. The growth of sea kayaking in the USA is generally appealing to people who want some excitement but not too much danger. They generally expect to complete day paddles in protected waters with short fetch. Bodies of water such as lakes, bays, estuaries and rivers are the more commonly paddled. People tend to use the sea kayaks for more sedentary pursuits such as bird watching, drift fishing or perhaps for a few hours exercise. It was interesting that of the 14 students, there was only one other person that had actually been on an extended paddle of more than two days duration.
Having seen about four or five sea kayaking classes conducted by Wild River, it’s interesting that the average age of the participants is around 45 years and there are about 40-50 % females. Of these, most are “looking for something different”. The oldest couple I saw was a guy aged 70, and his wife 65, who bought their kayaks a year ago and needed advice on how to get in and out. So they attended the class. It was actually quite inspiring that a couple of that age and ilk wanted to get out there and do it — within reason — and they were very much aware of their limitations. I’d be interested if these demographics are at all similar to that encountered in Australia, where participants are larger majority male and probably most of the instruction is probably conducted through the Club setting (Rock and Roll weekends etc.) by senior members, as opposed to the outdoor outfitter, pay for service, method used here in the States. Wayne Langmaid may care to offer some observations on this.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the US and Australian kayaking scene is the reliance and use of safety devices. Along with the paddle float the next “most important” piece of kit is the hand pump. Just thinking about using this causes me angst! The idea is that once you have used the paddle float to re-enter your kayak, you empty the cockpit of excess water by using the pump. Suffice to say, this is hard work, inefficient and you have yet to paddle clear of the conditions that flipped you in the first place! But, to be fair, this system is designed more for those who are paddling in protected waters — which is the majority of the US sea kayaking fraternity — and who “happen” to capsize.
In Australia, the emphasis is very much different. The Sea Proficiency certification requires a sea kayak with a “pump or self bailer capable of no- hands operation”. When I showed the kayaking group my Attwood battery operated pump, they were initially skeptical until I showed it in operation. I think I may have converted a couple of them.
The eskimo roll is considered an advanced technique in the US. Part of the certification requirement was to complete three rolls in a row, turning through 360 degrees. Not all of the instructor candidates could do this and the day prior to the examination I spent a few hours working with two of the students to enable them to perform a basic Pawlata roll. According to how I was taught, and Derek Hutchinson’s book on Eskimo Rolling, this is the easiest way to learn to roll and enables the progression to a screw roll. The ACA method is to teach the C-to-C roll, which in my view is harder to learn from scratch. Consequently, there were some students who did not gain their qualification because they could not roll. This was actually a big discriminator. Interestingly, the stipulated Australian requirement for Instructor certification is for “a roll” to be demonstrated as part of one’s kayaking ability.
As one would expect, there are some differences and similarities between the countries. I know the club has recently experienced the legal liability issue and has introduced measures for waivers and to ensure people acknowledge they are participating in a risky sport. I fervently hope our society doesn’t follow in the US footsteps in regards to litigation. This has caused some Clubs to disband as people are unwilling to accept the trip convener/leader responsibility, so paddlers end up going solo or with “like minded people”.
For all that, completing the ACA course was a great opportunity to get out with a bunch of interesting individuals and to make some friendships that will last long after we return to Australia. Time spent paddling is never wasted.
See you at the Rock and Roll weekend!