There are other organizations out there that do similar things. The North American branch of the British Canoe Union (BCU), now called PaddleSports North America. There's also Paddle Canada and I'm sure many more such organizations around the world that are set up to help educate and train paddlers. I'm all for systematized learning and best practices coordination, and for paddlers to unite and help each other out. These groups are good things.
This is all good. I've spoken on this before, but I think it's great when paddlers get more training, when they have a goal to achieve, and work to improve their abilities, knowledge, and safety awareness. So I'm on board.
But here comes the rant. I don't want such assessments/awards/certification to be in any way mandatory. I don't want anyone saying this is what you have to do to be a kayaker. I don't want the public thinking that they need someone else to tell them they're a kayaker. I don't want them thinking they need to spend a lot of money on classes to become a kayaker. And here's why.
First, one of the reasons I, and I believe many others, like kayaking is the individual nature of the sport. I love the community, but on the water you are the captain of your own ship. There aren't a ton of rules and regulations and kayaking allows me to get away from the bounds of society and explore a rich wilderness where I'm responsible for myself. To formalize everything, to make it into a structured sport where one has to travel along a specific path to advance, takes away a large part of what makes kayaking so special.
In a similar vein, kayaking is a rich, white guy sport. That's not a good thing. I know there are other people who paddle, but especially on the sea kayak side, it takes a lot of money to get into paddling. If you want to buy a new kayak, the basic gear that's necessary, maybe a little extra to paddle in cold water, then you'll be spending three grand before you get your feet wet. It's not uncommon for paddlers to show up at the put in with twice that amount riding on and in their vehicle. As such, the demographics for kayaking skew older, middle class and above, and predominantly white. I would really like to see more diversity in this sport, if only because it would allow meet to meet a more diverse group of people (I'm selfish that way). But it would also be nice if more of those underprivileged, economically challenged, young,culturally diverse folks out there could get to enjoy the same things that the rest of us like so much.
Anything that suggests that it takes more money and time to become a real paddler is going to discourage people who can't afford either - time and money are the number one and two reasons why people don't kayak more. And make no mistake, that's what assessments require. Before you take an assessment, you have to go through formal (paid) training. Then you need to pay someone to assess you. Then you need to do it again and again to move up the ranks. If you have the time and money it's great - and I wholly encourage those who can to do it. But many paddlers don't have that luxury, and I'm afraid if people look into the sport and feel that such things are required, then they won't even bother to start.
I don't want to put more hurdles up; I want to knock them down. I want us to find ways to make getting into the sport easier, to include more people and make paddling accessible for anyone who might want to do it. I don't want clubs and informal organizations to become more restrictive by requiring people have a certain award or be certified at a certain level in order to participate.
And on a practical side, I have a few issues with using assessments as a standard for anything (including instructor certification). I've seen quite a few certified paddlers over the years who clearly do NOT have the skills and qualifications that their award states they should. Certifications have value, but they're not perfect, foolproof, or entirely accurate. That will always be the case.
First, an assessment is an imperfect thing. To assess someone at as a level 4 sea kayaker (just to use an example), I need to evaluate them in winds 11-16 knots, surf to 3 feet, and current to 3 knots. It's hard to get all that perfect. What if the waves are only two feet - is that really enough to assess someone's surf handling abilities? Is 1 knot of current enough to evaluate their skills in moving water? And what if it's calm on the day of the assessment? There's a lot of ground to cover and if someone is paying to get assessed, there's going to be pressure to give them the award (it's not about questioning the integrity of the assessor, but admitting the practical realities of the world).
And even if someone did have all the necessary skills on that one day, what about the week after? What about two years down the road? Or ten? Unless they need to continue to demonstrate all the skills on a regular basis (they don't right now), how can anyone be certain that their assessment is still valid? And which organization's rules do we go by - ACA, BCU, PNA? They're all similar but not exactly the same. And if there isn't a single, consistent standard, if there isn't uniformity in assessment (and there never will be because it's a subjective thing run by human beings), then how can we use such assessments as a standard?
I've seen a great many paddlers who have tremendous skills and knowledge, who are an asset to our sport as safe and responsible paddlers, who have never taken a single course and have no interest in formalized training. I've also seen highly certified individuals who are reckless and get into situations over their head (and sometimes lead others there with them). There are great people on both sides of the certification divide, and I don't want to lose out on on those rugged individualists who tread their own path - I've learned too much from those folks over the years.
I will freely admit that the assessment process will lead to safer and more skillful paddlers - for those that can afford to go through it. That's great, but I want to make sure that everyone knows there are other paths to take, other ways to enjoy this sport and improve at it - and those options are equally valid choices. I really want to see our sport become more inclusive and accessible, to open up to groups of people who have never thought of paddling as a possibility for them. I know no one is actually suggesting that certifications become a requirement to paddle, but I think we need to think about perceptions and cultural expectations when we decide how we treat certifications and standards.
This isn't a simple issue and I don't think it's cut and dried, but I think it's worth sharing my opinion and hopefully getting more people to think about it. I'd love to hear from others on what they think of paddler assessments and where/when/how they should be used. The comments are open.