The main purpose in writing this piece was to provide an update on my sea kayaking journey. Beyond improving my skills, the more time I spend on the water, the more I want to give back. The best way I can do that is to bring others into the sport. I want to get others, especially younger generations, on the water safely and the core skills providing them an opportunity to explore the Puget Sound. That meant earning my instructor certification.

The intent had been the ACA’s Coastal Sea Kayaking designation. L3. With COVID-19, I have too few chances to work on certain skills. More, there were no local certification weekends planned. After joining NSSKA, I came across an Essentials of Kayak Touring certification course (L2). It would be a good start for teaching and a test of personal progress.

What follows is how the weekend went. It’s a long read. For those simply following my progress, I did earn my certification (though there is more to come). It did not however, go smoothly:

Instructor Certification Weekend

The ACA instructor certification course would cover three days at Washington Park in Anacortes. Erika and I would base camp for the weekend. We both love to camp and were looking forward to the trip, even though it would likely be cold. We’d head up Thursday afternoon, set up camp, then enjoy a nice evening. The plan for the three days was breakfast and coffee together, go our separate ways for the day (while I was on the water, she’d be able to hike, bird watch, or just put her feet up), then spend the evening relaxing over dinner and a fire.

With the campsite reserved, we were set.

By Wednesday afternoon, the forecast for the coming days wasn’t great. Strong winds were predicted with rain Friday. Saturday would be sunny, but with colder temps and winds expected….I didn’t bother to look at Sunday. Camping in those conditions – while quite tolerable – becomes less so when I’m expected to be up early, on the water all day, and knowing I’ll be spending time IN the water. I worried about being able to warm up, about getting a good night’s sleep. 

Erika and I discussed our options. We agreed that driving up and back Friday, then re-evaluate for the next two days was best. In the end, I drove up and back each of the three days – a decision that turned out to be the right one.

Friday

I was up early, the rig already loaded. I heated what was leftover from the previous night’s dinner and filled my thermos. I packed some snacks and a bottle of hot water for tea later. On the road early, I was heading back to Bowman Bay. Conditions off Washington Park would be well outside the acceptable limits for the course (for the full list of criteria and what was being tested: Level 2: Essentials of Kayak Touring
Instructor Criteria).

Bowman Bay was more protected. With rain called for, there were also covered shelters for the classroom portion. 

By 0800, five of us, masked up, gathered to get the rundown on how the weekend would go. We’d work on refining our skills, get tips for working with students, and demonstrate proficiency in the strokes and rescues required to pass. Throughout the process we’d be expected to teach lessons, some formal, others not. We’d be watching each other and critiquing ourselves and our colleagues….all while being evaluated. On- water sessions would be balanced with classroom time. 

The goal for the day was strokes and maneuvers.

Warm-up.

Before getting into lessons, our instructor had us perform a series of balance exercises. This was both for a bit of fun and a great example of a teaching tool we could use as instructors. 

While in deep water, he started by having us climb out of our cockpits and sit facing the bow. We’d then rotate to sit sideways, facing the stern, then the other side. Once facing the bow, he had us kiss it – work our way to the end of the bow, kiss it, and return to the cockpit (christening a sea kayak). Back in the cockpit, we partnered up to swap kayaks, then paddled back to shore for a break. 

I was grateful that part of my early education, and for fun at the end of trips in warmer weather, these were regular exercises.

To everyone’s credit, no one got wet (though some didn’t fully make it to the edge of their bows) – until our instructor and his candidate partner swapped back. While the instructor self-rescued, I did an impromptu T-rescue as the candidate was having a tough time re-entering solo – solo rescue is not a required skill for L2 – something that surprises me.

The instructor had watched the rescue, telling me afterward I did a great job (knowing it was likely being watched, I made it a point to do as he modeled it the weekend prior – i was invited to participate and observe an L2 assessment class he was running) , including how he braced the boat – something I learned from others do differently – as it’s more positive contact). 

Teaching my first lesson – the sculling draw.

I’m a public speaker. I teach, though in a less formal manner. I’ve been doing so for close to two decades. I have no problem presenting information in a manner it’s understood and to a point it can be implemented. 

Coming into the weekend, teaching the lessons was the least of my concerns.

‘Just add water.’

It was the first time I taught a lesson on the water. Clearly, that added element through me for a loop.

The dynamic setting made it challenging for me to keep myself in a good teaching position. I thought I had accounted for the variable. I hadn’t. I had a tough time demonstrating the stroke with a constant need to adjust position.

It was brought up during my critique. So was my lack of use of the IDEAs model – introduction, demonstration, explanation, assessment (of students performing it). To be clear, the IDEAs model was not a requirement. It’s only one teaching method, and I thought I covered the points – but my instructor mentioned it earlier in the day and I should have used it.  

There was clarification on my content as well. I mentioned the paddle shaft should be at the hip when performing the sculling draw. It was corrected – it should be at the boat’s center point. That may seem a minor detail, but it’s not. With a cockpit slightly aft of center, like mine, using the hip or rear of the cockpit as the paddle shaft position means the sculling motion is likely to turn the boat, not draw it sideways. The shaft must be at the kayak’s center point.

Also noted was lack of  proper terminology. Thinking back, I understand why. I was being tested on that terminology. Per the ACA, candidates must ‘demonstrate knowledge of, and ability to teach…kayak nomenclature and design.’

I wasn’t feeling great. 

It was a long two-hour drive home that evening – I was tired, it was dark and raining, and the lesson and critique were eating at me.

Saturday

Friday night ended with a hot shower, some prep time for both my 2nd stroke lesson and my class assignment (keeping the IDEAs model in mind), dinner, and some needed sleep.

Erika and I decided to forgo the camping. The weather wasn’t improving much and the drive was manageable, so I prepared a hot lunch, snacks, and two bottles of hot water – one was going to be to warm up cold, wet gloves and booties that spent the night in my rig – the other, my tea. I got on the road feeling good.

We’d be at Washington Park. The decision was made to shift back to the original venue based on the forecast. October in Washington, though, means what’s forecasted won’t always be what we get. It wasn’t. With a north wind at over 15-20 knots sustained, conditions on the water were perfect for an L4 certification….not L2. Fortunately, our instructor scoped out a small lake prior to our meeting. It was a few minutes south, protected from the wind, and would be ideal.

Finish up our stroke lessons.

The morning was to be spent finishing up stroke lessons. I would be demonstrating the stern rudder – pry and draw. 

Part of my prep Friday evening was watching YouTube videos – from Dimitri Vandepoele (North Sea Kayak) advanced maneuvers (this one shows most of the L2 strokes, including the sculling draw) and Shawna and Leon over at Body Boat Blade (they’ve since retired):

I needed to find a way to introduce the concept, model it, explain it, and teach it. No small feat when it requires momentum, blade position in the water relative to the hull, the angle of the blade’s top edge, edging of the kayak….to create the directional change desired. 

I settled on introducing it as a directional stroke, designed to help maintain course, rather than as a steering stroke. The plan was to start on land showing blade positioning – challenging on the water when the blade is harder to see – then move to the water to demonstrate,…with a little momentum…how the blade’s power face, when rotated toward or away from the hull, affects direction. I’d explain how – water flowing over the power face or below it either draws the stern to the blade or pries it away. My students would practice. I’d assess them, then build on the lesson by adding more speed and the edging component.

My takeaway on the summary portion would be draw to, pry away. On the stern draw, you edge to the paddle and the blade’s power face rotates to the hull and for the pry – the power face rotates away as you edge away from the paddle.

Nothing ever goes as planned.

I didn’t get the chance to start my lesson on the shore, even though I requested it first thing in the morning. I was able to adjust, finding a way to clearly model the blade movements. I was able to follow through the rest of the lesson, and it was better executed than my sculling draw, but plenty of faults were still found. 

The rest of the morning had me as the student and gave me another impromptu assisted rescue. Again, our instructor trainer was watching. He described it to the group as near-flawless. After my stroke sessions, hearing that was needed. 

Subjects of critical importance to a sea kayaker.

After lunch, we started our ‘concepts’ lessons. As part of certification, we’re required to do more than demonstrate proficiency in performing and teaching strokes. We need to “demonstrate knowledge of, and ability to teach, those subjects of critical importance to a sea kayaker”. 

Prior to heading home Friday evening, we each had to pick a topic or two  to teach. We’d be able to show our understanding of the others through structured discussion that included critiquing each other. Each lesson was to be 10 minutes and we’d be evaluated on both content and delivery. 

“Signaling devices and safety equipment including VHF radios.”

My lesson plan was simple: A quick introduction, the need for communication on the water – within the group and external calls for help, the three primary means of communication (visual, audible, and electronic looking at methods and limitations), ending with a quick review and asking for questions. I covered the basics with everything required. It was under 10 minutes. I nailed the IDEAs model. 

It still wasn’t enough!

The critique – I covered too much material. It was too little about too much. I should have narrowed my focus and gone into greater detail. I remember the conversation – it was mentioned I would be teaching L1 and L2 paddlers. They’d likely not have or need VHF radios, so I could have skipped that portion and gone into more detail on visual and audible signal choices. He gave great examples for showing effectiveness.

I was a bit stunned. 

As per ACA requirements, I needed to demonstrate my knowledge of VHF radio usage. I did just that. Moreover, even if my audience won’t have or need VHF radios, EPiRBs, PLBs or other electronic communication devices, they still need to know they exist. 

His examples were great for our open environment venue (and I will likely use them). They’d be harder to pull off in a traditional classroom setting,where I am likely to teach these lessons. 

Even now, as I write this, I’m bothered by the critique. It felt there was more an issue with how I presented the material than whether I knew the material and taught it well – the latter being what matters. I’d argue there’s a fine line between presenting and teaching.

Rescues and recoveries

There is a full slate of rescues L2 candidates are required to demonstrate and teach. As an instructor candidate, there is a need to show we know how to perform the skill; to be able to teach the skill – but there’s a bigger ‘theme’ when it comes to rescues and recoveries. 

There’s a risk factor while teaching on the water. Practicing edging, low braces…even a sweep stroke…can end with a student capsizing. The ability to perform a rescue is as much about student safety as it is about the ability to impart knowledge.

We’d be spending a fair amount of time in the water for the afternoon. At some point we’d all have to play the part of the ‘swimmer’ needing to be rescued. All of us were grateful that a lake was our venue for the rescues, given they tend to be warmer than the Sound. 

As it turned out – not this one! Even with more base layers than I would normally wear, I was cold.

The rescue session was an eye-opener.

I’d performed all of the required rescues in pool sessions. Most of them have been practiced in up to L3 conditions. A couple in L4. I knew how to do them. But unseen variables exist, each of which can impact the success of a rescue. The big one for me – the kayak. In this case, the one one belonging to the swimmer. 

First up was the unresponsive paddler rescue – the hand of god – uprighting a kayak when the paddler rolls and is unresponsive. The likely scenario being a heart attack, stroke, or cold water shock. 

This one I’ve practiced in pool sessions. I know how to do it. I haven’t had an issue. This time I did. I couldn’t roll my partner’s kayak back onto its hull. Proper hand position, hip snap….even with instruction, it didn’t matter. 

Two thoughts went through my head….I wouldn’t earn my certification without demonstrating the rescue, and, worse, what if this happened on a real trip? Or while teaching? My heart sunk. 

The instructor stepped in to demonstrate. A bit of hope. Maybe I was missing something. 

Turns out I wasn’t missing anything.

Our instructor could not perform the rescue! He had demonstrated it several times prior, so it wasn’t for a lack of skill. Then it dawned on me. The kayak in question was a Wilderness Systems Tempest 170. I’ve owned one. Solid on the water. The squared hull around the cockpit provides exceptional primary and secondary stability. In fact, that’s why I sold it. That stability made it hard to edge and maneuver. What if that made it harder to roll back up with an unresponsive paddler? Was it possible the boat’s hull affected the rescue?

I felt redeemed, but still concerned about what would have happened in a real-world scenario. It’s recommended never heading out alone, but I have long felt we should be encouraging at least 3 paddlers at all times. In this scenario, a 3rd paddler would be able to assist in the rescue (as well as others).

As the day ended, I was feeling cold and dejected. Too many missteps over the two days. 

It was another long drive home that evening.

Sunday

It was to be a shorter day. This would be the leadership portion of our course. We’d each be responsible for leading a portion of a trip we mapped out prior to ending Day Two. Based on currents, we picked a route launching from Seafarer’s Memorial Park, crossing the Guemes Channel, and following the shore before crossing over from Southeast Point to Saddlebag Island. Depending on conditions, we’d paddle a figure 8 around Huckleberry and Saddlebag. We’d trace our way back to our launch point after lunch.

Our instructor informed us that others would be joining. This would simulate our ability to lead a group. The trip would test us on situational awareness, group control, and some basic navigation – skills necessary to lead a group on an L2 equivalent trip. During the trip, it was expected that we provide coaching. There’d also be a few formal lessons, a towing demonstration/practice, and me teaching the paddle float rescue. 

Each of us would need to lead a leg.

With an odd number in our group and three legs, someone needed to lead solo. Though I may have had the most experience on the water, I didn’t have any familiarity with the area (it’s never recommended to lead a tour into unfamiliar waters). I didn’t immediately volunteer to go it alone. Once the plan was set for the route and with no one else volunteering, I offered to lead the last leg. That would give me a chance to cross the channel with the group prior to leading others through it.

Leg 1 – from Seafarer’s to Guemes

The first leg and crossing was slow but easy – short and with little wind or current. The test for the leads was the ferry angle. After a quick debrief and lesson on how to launch a kayak, it was off to Saddlebag and lunch.

Leg 2 – Heading to Saddlebag

The leads had the benefit of hearing the debrief from the first leg. It was smooth paddling to Southeast Point. We’d cross toward Huckleberry, head north around it on our way to Saddlebag. 

At the point we’d cross to Huckleberry, it was starting to show that a few of our group were getting tired. While conditions were within L2 limits, our intended course would put us against the wind and current. Waiting for a boat to cross and thinking about the instructor traps we discussed before launch, I mentioned to the leads what I was seeing, expressing it might be better if we changed course and crossed with the current.

We end up in a little cove, out of the wind and in the sun for lunch and our final concepts lessons.

Leg 3 – from Saddlebag to Guemes

The intended landing time was 2 PM. We were well behind schedule. After lunch, the last two  formal teaching sessions, and the towing portion, our instructor took over the trip lead role. Rather than retrace our steps, we’d head straight from Saddlebag to Seafarers. Partway back, I’d shift to lead.

The morning started out cold with a bit of wind. Part way into my leg, the winds died down and we were greeted with a bit of sun. I had on an extra layer – something I rarely wear but knew I’d be in the water for rescue training – and I was getting warm. I used that as an opportunity to bring up how paddlers can become hyperthermic and walked through ways to cool down – wet face, wet hat, edging using the bow of another boat to get your drysuit wet and to take advantage of evaporative cooling.

The warmth, and now a lack of any current assist, made for slow going, especially with tired paddlers. As we got closer to the landing point, there was increased pleasure boat traffic. That brought wakes: all within the scope of L2 conditions to just outside of it – nothing over a foot and a half. But for less experienced paddlers, now tired, and the wakes coming broadside, things can go wrong.

As the waves approached, I reminded the group to just keep paddling. That stability is highest when the blade is in the water and working. 

The debrief

The debrief just outside the marina included a comment from a fellow candidate that I was too concerned with keeping people from drifting. To be fair, I was – I had no co-lead and several tired paddlers. I needed to be in a position to keep an eye on everyone and be in a position to help.

The big positive comment was from one of the less-experienced paddlers, who said she’d felt safe and comfortable. She trusted me, felt secure, and appreciated that I was encouraging as people got tired. 

Our instructor felt I had done a great job given that it was the last leg, though hinting at some issues with his final comment of ‘leaving it there’.

The paddle float rescue.

The last thing required was the paddle float lesson. I needed to teach it. We all needed to demonstrate it. Being late, the decision was made to skip the formal lesson. We’d discuss how to do it, then model it. Since it was my lesson to teach, I was asked to ‘walk’ everyone through it. (A footnote here – I have only once performed a paddle float rescue…as part of a class in June 2019.)

Without exiting the kayak, I slowly walked everyone through the rescue, showing paddle and hand placement as best I could. A few minutes later, we were all in the water. 

First back in the cockpit, I don’t think I had been in the water more than a minute. I’d later be informed that my self-rescue was a textbook example.

Moreover, everyone only needed one, even though the instructor had mentioned at the start that some of us would need several attempts.

The course was complete.

All that was left was to pack up boats and gear, then meet with our instructor to see how we did.

With the longest distance to travel, I had my final debriefing first. Plenty of praise, plenty of constructive criticism: 

  1. My skills were solid. Some strokes needed refinement; rescues were near flawless. All a testament to my mentors; my friends who welcomed me as part of the H2O Project when I likely should have been excluded due to my lack of experience.
  2. I was a good trip lead. I had leadership skills that worked on the water. I have situational and group awareness. I was trusted by those on the water with me.
  3. My teaching, not so solid. My instructor, even with all of my improvements, wasn’t comfortable with my ability to teach the skills. 

While I suspected his concerns on the 3rd point, I also know the others learned something from my lessons. I was also aware of my ability to provide impromptu, mid-stroke lessons. On Day 1, one of our group, heading back from Rosario Beach, was struggling with keeping her bow pointed in our direction of travel in the crosswind. As we were paddling, I mentioned extending her forward stroke, ending with a stern draw. I demonstrated the effect explaining that we normally end the forward stroke at our hip to avoid turning, BUT allowing the blade to continue a bit further in wind provides directional control.

It was she who did the forward stroke lesson that afternoon. She incorporated what I taught her as part of the lesson. Our instructor commended her on bringing in blended strokes, never knowing how she learned the skill. 

L2 Continued

In the end, I wasn’t surprised with his assessment of my teaching. I felt he had been critical of it all weekend. I was shocked, though, to discover he felt it was inadequate to the point that he wouldn’t award me the L2 certification

He left the door open, even if slightly. I was provided an opportunity to provide a 10 minute video lesson on a skill within three weeks. If it met his standard, I’d have my L2. Otherwise….

A rough drive home.

I was tired. I had a two-hour drive ahead of me. Frustration with the weekend crept in as I started the engine. I messaged Erika that I was on the way. She asked how the weekend went. I think my response was ‘meh.’

She wanted to know more. I wasn’t in a mood to talk. I headed out, my brain alternated between frustration and coming up with a lesson. By the time I arrived home I had a plan…

The decision.

I sent two ideas to my instructor. Any feedback would help. In the end, I would teach a forward stroke class, and It would be done from my living room.

I devised a way to use our coffee table as a kayak. It would allow me to show the paddle blade position. It was an ideal size for me to ‘paddle,’ allowing my stroke to be recorded from the front, side, and back.

It took three takes. 

Erika informed me afterward how amazing the final take was, and that she was hoping I wouldn’t stop during it. I sent it to Bill, without ever watching it myself, to get his feedback before submitting it to my instructor. I received high praise from him, including the comment that I could teach the forward stroke to NSSKA members any time I wanted.

The final verdict.

I sent the video to my instructor.

His response:

Job well done! My feedback is just some little nitpicky stuff that I think can go unsaid, so let me congratulate you on your L2.

I had earned my instructor certification.

One more big step taken in my journey – one that started at 50 – and one I look forward to continuing for years to come.

So what’s next?

I’m exploring a few paths. For now, the goal is to enjoy what I have earned, get back on the water with my friends, and explore more of the Puget Sound coastline.

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View from the cockpit of a Nigel Foster designed Whisky 16 sea kayak with bean seas and white caps to the left2021, Robert Nissenbaum