From the President’s Deck [45]

by Robert Mercer

Rob paddles off Eagle Rock, Royal National Park

I watched in amazement from the top of the cliffline just south of Sydney heads. A lone kayaker skidded down the steepening face of a two metre swell, wallowed in the trough and then accelerated off the crest of the next roller. I had just purchased my first sea kayak but had always considered the ‘sea’ in ‘sea kayak’ referred to the water contained in sheltered estuaries. This paddler was revelling in the open sea conditions and doing it in exactly the same make and model of craft I had just purchased to splash around Sydney Harbour! I instantly knew  I wanted to be out there, but I also suspected I had a lot to learn. Now, six years later I regularly paddle that stretch of coast. It’s even more fun than it looks and I still have a lot to learn.

For most of us freedom from bureaucracy and regulation are part of the personal experience of paddling the trackless sea and it remains the principal challenge of our Club to reconcile the demands of exciting and challenging trips on the one hand and responsible trip leadership on the other. This is further complicated by the relative nature of ‘safe paddling’. What is considered ‘safe paddling’ for some of the Club’s ‘bruisers’ may be too demanding for some of the Club’s less fit or less accomplished members.

A couple of years ago, when the Committee held an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the future organisation of trips, it was decided by popular vote that Sea Proficiency be used as a mandatory requirement for paddlers on trips graded three and above. The influx of new faces had made it very difficult for trip leaders to assess prospective starters on their trips, self assessment wasn’t working and Sea Proficiency was chosen as the yardstick. When put to the vote an overwhelming majority of members present voted in favour of this. From my memory the meeting room at Currarong was filled to capacity. This was not a decision pushed through without the support of the membership. So why did such a large number of people vote for the use of a qualification that almost none of them had? Firstly, the members wished to show their support for an initiative which would make the trip leader’s lives a little easier. Secondly, the use of a qualification designed and endorsed by a third party, the Board of Canoe Education, seemed fair and saved designing our own. To encourage active acceptance of this new policy the Club began an ongoing programme of training and assessment for Sea Proficiency. If you review these requirements one by one you will see that there is nothing in the assessment criteria for Sea Proficiency which is not important or indeed essential to safe paddling on our exposed coast.

I suspect that any enlightened  kayaking club committed to open sea paddling will end up with a formal set of requirements. The Sea Kayak Association of British Columbia use a two part scheme:  A-D for skill level and 1-4 for the length/endurance of the trip. This system has much in common with our own. We use Sea Proficiency as a reference for the skill component, and add distance and speed requirements in much the same way. The major difference is that we have moved away from a trip grading system to a paddler grading system. The paddler is the focus for assessment, not the trip, after all you can’t grade the sea.

In preparing for assessment for Sea Proficiency you will also be expected to participate in trip planning, navigation and interpreting the weather. You will develop better self assessment skills in the process. Learning to make sound decisions about when to paddle and when not to paddle is the skill most likely to save your life.

Consider being assessed for Sea Proficiency as a means to an end, not an end in itself. When you get there you will realise it is a very small amount to have learnt, but you will have truly begun to learn about paddling on the sea. Learn the skills, be assessed and get involved.

Since the Rock ‘n’ Roll weekend the Club has had fifteen successful Sea Proficiency candidates. Congratulations to Rick Angel, Kevin Brennan, Adrian Clayton, Michael Culhane, Tim Dillenbeck, Greg James, André Janecki, Huw Kingston, Paul Loker, Vicki McAuley, Andrew McPhail, Richard McNeill, Debbie Miller, Mark Windsor and Alan Whiteman. I suspect Alan holds a new record. He has progressed from complete beginner to proficiency level in less than three months.