Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Paddler Assessments

I'm going to go on a rant, but before I do I want to lay out a little bit of background in order to make my point clear. First, I'm an American Canoe Association (ACA) Instructor Trainer in both Ocean and Whitewater Kayaking. I've been an ACA member for fifteen years and I'm on the California State Executive Council. I think it's a wonderful organization that does a great many things for kayakers and I'm proud of my role in the organization.

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.

Among the many useful things that these organizations do is paddler assessments (some call them different things, like star awards, but the concept is the same). They set up criteria by which to judge paddling skills and knowledge, and have a group of people, normally certified instructors, who judge paddlers to determine if they deserve the award and at what level.

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.

The same goes for becoming a certified instructor. While I do think it's important that we hold certification to a high standard, including both personal skills and teaching ability, I don't want to make the process longer or more expensive. The more you require people to pay for your training before they can be assessed for certification, the more you're limiting your pool of instructors to the wealthy, leisure class. Yes, it's worth paying for professional certification if you're going to be a professional, but the majority of kayak instructors will never make the money back on their investment in certification. If someone walks up out of the blue and can show me that they have the skills, the knowledge, the craftmanship to be an effective teacher, I want to be able to get them the certification they deserve as easily as possible.

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.


  1. I think paddler assessments are great for personal goal-setting for skill acquisition as a way to improve in the sport simply for improvement sake. They're a great way to get feedback on your progression. The problem, as you stated, being the lack of time and money. I would add to that lack of opportunity, which perhaps is concomitant with lack of time. For those who do not live in the few locales where assessments, not to mention the symposia where you could gather the skills necessary for assessments, are held, you're out of luck. This is a deeply frustrating and discouraging situation for me. Perhaps when I retire, or win the lottery, or move to a more active sea kayaking location, or change to a non-traditional career with more liberal time off policies, I will be able to participate again. In the meantime, I feel relegated to the sidelines watching the more fortunate continue their progression. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

    1. Good points. There's a practical side that says not everyone is going to have the same access to high level instruction and certification, just based on population centers and locale, but what happens when those people do want to come out and play in such an area? Do they have to get certified before they can join in the fun? But don't give up on progressing in the sport. We all have our lulls and plateaus, but the great thing about sea kayaking is that you can keep doing it (and keep improving) no matter how old you get.

  2. I see both sides. For some events/symposiums/higher level classes/tours, it is hard to know someone is qualified to be in the class, so assessments definitely can help with that. Having a person in a class who isn't qualified can not just be dangerous for that person, but also impacts the rest of the participants as often what the class/tour does is limited to what the weakest person is able to do.

    But as a guide/instructor, seems that few of the companies that hire guides/instructors pay for these people to get trained/assessed, so it is out of the instructor/guide's pocket both for the cost and the time (these generally happen during prime time they could be paid to teach/guide). And they have to stay certified for first aid/CPR, pay membership fees for ACA, and other expenses. Any additional would limit more, as you have said, who would be able to be an instructor.

    1. Every time this question comes up for symposium attendees, my opinion is that I wouldn't trust an official certification any more than I would a self assessment. So I don't think it solves any problems, but it definitely would keep qualified people from attending.

      And the instructor side is tougher. It's good to have professional standards, but the industry really isn't large/rich enough to support that. When you look at the certified instructor pool out there (at least in my experience), it's rather male dominated and quite pale, despite all that sunny paddling. I'm as white and privileged as they come, and the truth is the sport doesn't need more people like me, but more people different from me.