Tuesday, October 16, 2012


I'm a professional kayak instructor. That means I get paid to teach people how to kayak. I like to teach. I also like getting paid. It allows me to do things like eat and pay rent. So it seems like a good combination, right? But there's a problem.

You see, for me, kayaking is about exploration. It's about self sufficiency. It's about taking your skills and putting them to use. Testing yourself. Learning about yourself and doing what you want to do. Being the one in control. It can be greatly social or it can be quite isolated. It's not about following.

At the beginning, it helps greatly to have someone show you the basics. You could figure things out on your own, but it's much faster, safer, and better to learn from someone who knows what they're doing. Once you have those basic tools, I think the joy in the sport comes from using them (the most important of which is judgment). Classes should be used to learn specific things that will allow you to go do something new. They're not a substitute for practice and reflection, they don't replace critical thinking and studying. Ultimately, you have to be able to do it on your own.

Here's where the conflict comes in. In order to keep getting paid to teach kayaking, it's in my best interest to get students to keep taking classes. Not just me, this is true for all instructors and instructional programs. On the books, we love perpetual students. The ones who take every course on the schedule and come back for more, maybe set up some private lessons, maybe ask for classes on specific things. They keep pumping money into the system.

It's not that I don' like money. And I understand that some people feel more comfortable learning from watching others than exploring on their own. But I just can't get myself to teach to that mentality. Maybe if you have the money to spend it's no big deal, but most people don't. And it isn't necessary. Kayaking, like most things in life, is built upon fundamental principles applied to various situations. Learn the principles and then apply them in ever more challenging environments. If you know how to do rescues on flat water (properly), then you know how to do rescues in rough water - you just need to practice. If you can paddle class III well, you can paddle class V - once you have the experience.

I mostly teach beginners. I think that's where the best instruction is needed. I definitely have the skills and credentials to teach advanced courses (I'm doing that at the Lumpy Waters Symposium this weekend). Those classes are fun, and they can definitely be worthwhile, but I always worry the students are expecting that the class will make them a better paddler. It won't. Paddling makes you a better paddler. Classes just teach you what you need to do when you go paddling.

Maybe it's just me. I certainly have lots of friends who teach advanced stuff and work with the same students repeatedly. I know quite a few paddlers who have done many different classes and seem to enjoy the experience. Maybe I'm just shooting myself in the foot by not getting my students to depend upon me. Maybe I'm old and cranky and set in my ways. But if you end up in my class, I will do everything I can to make sure you don't need to take another one. I do love seeing my students again, but hopefully it's when I run into them out paddling on their own.


  1. Sometime we get so excited to teach someone that we just fill them up with everything we know in a very short time. Teaching should be about helping someone to improve a skill and to let them practice it until it become natural, you can then work on another skill. One of the most important part of teaching is to decide with the student what we should be working on, at the end of the lesson is to review what as been done, how the student feel about it and then let them know what you will be working on at the next lesson. If you think that you've tough them everything you know, you can offer a group outing, video session or wilderness photo adventure. Sometime some of your students can still learn a lot from your experience without you even technically teaching them.
    One thing that make me a better instructor is to still take lessons.

    1. I've never taught anyone everything I know. I know way too much for that :-) I just think there are many things you can learn but can't be taught. I want my students to go do that learning without me (or my equivalent) around. Sometimes that's the only way.

  2. I’m a self taught kayaker. I took a one day course on the basics of kayaking several years after I started. I took this course because I bought a “Sea Kayak” with the proper floatation deck lines etc. I wanted to hone my skills before going into conditions. If I taught myself bad habits I wanted to rid myself of those habits. I also learned some tips that I never thought of and that made some things easier.

    When I kayak in conditions, I’m usually out by myself, and I don’t venture to far past the breaking zone of the wave. (in case I have to swim to shore) Once in a while I practice rescues with my son 10yrs. and my wife. (My son has a Tsunami SP. And wife has a recreational boat). I don’t practice rescues nearly enough, and I don’t know many different types of rescues. When I practiced a rescue in lumpy water with my son, he was tired and scared. A bad combination!

    I belong to a kayaking/canoe club, they get out every weekend but due to my working schedule and family life I don’t get out with them much and due to the experience levels and types of boats of all the members its never in any sort of “conditions”.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I agree with you that it’s about self sufficiency and taking your skills to the next level and constantly pushing and testing yourself. Sometimes a person may not be able to push and test and even learn from themselves as much as they would like to. Taking a course can help greatly and shorten the learning curve for select paddlers. Those paddlers must remember that taking a course does not make you proficient in that discipline. Only time in the seat of your kayak paddling in those similar or slightly greater conditions can make you a more proficient paddler.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think we agree: instruction can shorten the learning curve and allow people to push themselves, but it's ultimately NOT a substitute for time in the seat.