Deb Volturno is a certified sea kayaking instructor and instructor-trainer. She recently taught an American Canoe Association (ACA) certified kayak surfing class at Hoebuck Beach in Washington State. Students who learn from her are fortunate indeed, as she is a consummate instructor, with multiple certifications, and most important, myriad skills.
I’ve known Deb and kayaked with her for almost two decades and can say from first-hand experience that she is damned good in all aspects of sea kayaking: in addition to being a senior Tsunami Ranger officer, she is a world-class kayak surfing competitor and an all-around competent boater who has kayaked in New Zealand, Brazil, Scandinavia, and up and down the entire U.S. pacific coast, from Mexico to Alaska. As I write this, she is paddling at Haida Gwaii on the Canadian coast. Because I have paddled with her and taught classes with her, I know with absolute certainty that she is qualified to teach any aspect of sea kayaking. And she happens to be certified with the ACA.
I perused the ACA website (www.americancanoe.org) and found it to be a valuable resource for any boater who wants to know about canoeing, kayaking, even stand-up paddleboarding. The website has a bunch of safety and boating tips in PDFs that contain useful information. The ACA offers classes in most aspects of sea kayaking, from basic instruction to sit-on-top surf classes. ACA classes provide uniform content and its certified instructors are similar in many ways. A student who takes a class from an ACA-certified instructor is assured of at least nominal competence from all ACA teachers. This is good!
All in all, I think responsible organizations such as the ACA and the British Canoe Union (BCU) benefit paddlers. As an aside, I have often heard that BCU coaches really know their stuff. At the Golden Gate Sea Kayaking Symposium earlier this year I met the fabled Nigel Dennis, a senior BCU coach who is highly regarded by all. He taught a slew of classes in inclement weather and winter water. He deeply impressed me as superbly qualified and very experienced. It would be a boon to take a class from him—whether he was a BCU coach or not.
In addition to instruction and certification, organizations such as the ACA and BCU sanction events and offer insurance, which any liability-conscious instructor would want in today’s litigious society. But that can also be a bad thing. Take the ACA for instance. It costs a lot of money to get insurance for a class or event. The class or event must follow ACA guidelines, participants must be ACA members (and that costs money) and fill out special ACA liability waivers, and a report must be filled out afterward, among other requirements. In other words, it’s expensive and involves a lot of bureaucratic paperwork. Years ago, the ACA refused to insure our kayaking race because it was in surf, and thus wasn’t considered safe and normal enough for them. We were outside of their box. It was at that point that the Tsunami Rangers dropped out of the ACA. They were holding us back.
The ACA is a large, pervasive organization, as is the BCU in the U.K. Big organizations, because of their power and reach, influence people, for better or worse. Here’s a good example. The Boy Scouts, a humongous organization that everyone knows, basically teaches boys how to camp and do other outdoor skills—and how to be good and reverent citizens. This is a good thing, on the surface. But a boy’s dad or older friend could also teach him this, perhaps even better than the Boy Scouts, wouldn’t you agree? And the Boy Scouts cost money, have lots of rules and norms which must be followed, and exclude certain boys (e.g., homosexuals). In my opinion, this is not so good.
Here’s another example. I do martial arts. In the biggest national organization in my type of martial art, the head guys “certify” that you deserve a black belt, after giving you an exam in which you must do the arts their way, as opposed to your teacher’s way, which may differ. Unfortunately, some arts mandated by this organization are simply not effective. And certain certifiers, in my opinion, are capricious in their evaluation of exams. It costs money to join, and there are bureaucratic hoops a teacher must jump through, such as liability waivers, mandatory background checks, rules and procedures which must be followed, a certain number of functions which must be attended, etc. This organization is pervasive and influential, but does not teach arts any better than, and sometimes worse than, any independent instructor. So, what is its real value, other than being an insurance carrier?
I am not certified to teach any aspect of kayaking, and yet I do teach. I believe I’m a good teacher and a competent paddler, but I’m not affiliated with any certifying organizations. I know many fine kayakers who are not certified but are good teachers, including most of the Tsunami Rangers.
I sometimes wonder if not being certified by Big Brother will be a problem for us and our students down the line. Would a surf zone class we teach count for ACA instructors who took it? Would authorities such as the Coast Guard stop us from kayaking in certain places or wearing certain gear? Would retailers refuse to rent boats to customers who have completed our classes but not the ACA equivalent? Is the stuff we teach not up to date? For example, if we choose not to teach how to use GPS navigation in a beginning class, have we harmed our students? My opinion is that what we teach and the way we teach is as good as, if not better than what is taught by the ACA or any other big kayaking entity.
Just like a father teaching his son outdoor skills, or a martial artist teaching martial arts, if you are a good kayaker who wants to teach, especially if you have a unique approach to paddling, then I say just do it. It’s not necessary to affiliate with a national organization and pay dues and follow their rules and fit in their box. After all, you don’t have to be a Boy Scoutmaster to backpack or teach someone how to tie a knot.
On the other hand, if you are a student just learning to kayak, you probably won’t go wrong in seeking a certified kayaking instructor. You may not get someone as good as Deb Volturno or Nigel Dennis, but you can be assured you will get adequate instruction and a uniform set of skills. Whether you choose an ACA instructor, a BCU coach, a master kayaker, or a friend to teach you, pay special attention to how and what they teach. Is it a good match with you? If yes, then go for it.
The bottom line: Kayaking knowledge and skill, and the ability and willingness to teach are by far the most important criteria in being a teacher. Certification, like a merit badge, is down the list a ways.
Am I right? Wrong? Much ado about nothing? This is your chance to weigh in on the sea kayaking certification issue, which has been circulating for decades. I welcome all thoughtful discourse. Please comment just below the post.