Editor’s note: This topic arose during one of our Tarp Talks on the Tsunami Retreat in November, 2019, and we’d like to share our thoughts on this very important subject. In the past, the Rangers have been vilified as a bunch of chest-beaters, careless, crazy, dangerous, whatever. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, we count one of the highest-level certified ACA instructors in the country as our Captain. For another, the main reason the Tsunami Rangers came into existence is that Jim and Eric knew they couldn’t go to the places they wanted to go and do the things they wanted to do safely without a team of like-minded kayakers. We hope you enjoy our little discussion, recorded on Jim’s iPhone, and that you’ll chip in with your two cents in the comments section at the end of the post. Thanks!
Tarp Talk, November 14
Jim: My attitude toward certification is I always thought, oh that’s for Herberts, and for people who just want to get the badge and aren’t really invested in the sport or the environment, but my attitude is changing about that a little bit because I realize now as Tsunami Rangers we do have our own form of certification, we just call it rank. But there are advantages and disadvantages to everything, and in the kayaking world there’s a lot of disagreement on what certification actually means. Now, I am not knowledgeable about the different certification ranks or different certification schools and classes, what all that means, so we’re going to have to develop that into a very descriptive couple of paragraphs so that we know what we’re talking about…
In the Tsunami Rangers we’ve always scoffed at certification and I think that that was probably a little bit of an ill-conceived attitude because I think that certification is useful and this is what we’re trying to decide now.
Nancy: Why do you think it’s useful?
Jim: Well, um, I don’t know but here is Captain Tortuga to talk about why certification would be useful.
Deb: Why is certification useful? Well, in the Tsunami Rangers that certification has to do with your experience, your decision-making, your risk management, and as that develops more you earn a higher rank. And there’s a lot that’s similar to other certification systems and the most familiar would be the American Canoe Association, the ACA, and the British Canoe Union, the BCU. And there’s also now a certification system in Canada, I think in parts of Europe and New Zealand, something that’s a work in progress, with that same idea. Now I’m very familiar with the ACA because of being involved with the American Canoe Association for many years, and I’m an instructor at a Level 5; I’m an instructor trainer-educator at Level 5 which is the highest certification offered by the American Canoe Association, and at this point I’m the only woman who holds that in the country.
I think certification is a great thing. I think where there’s a lot of sort of controversy or discussion is because what does a certification buy you? And that a lot of people think that it’s just a badge and in some ways I think that it can present itself to be just a badge, but what it does is each level shows that you have the paddling skills and the group management ability and the leadership ability in those conditions so Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4 and Level 5 in coastal kayaking, and Level 5 being the highest, and now there’s no upper end of the conditions so there’s no remit at Level 5, so it’s all about judgment in those conditions.
But what happens is instructors go through this process, and that’s what they do, they teach kayaking and they don’t necessarily get out in the real world and get the breadth of experience, the broad spectrum of experience in all different environments, and not just their home environment, but other environments in other parts of the world, cold water, warm water, all of that.
Jim: The downside?
Deb: The downside? The downside of certification is that instructors or whoever go after the certifications as a badge of honor or it’s a badge to achieve rather than gain the other experience that goes along with it to make you a good leader, a good safety officer, a good group manager, a good risk assessor, good risk management in all different environments so you get a small window of your assessment and if you pass that you are awarded with that level of certification. And I think where the discrepancy is that there’s a lot of discussion about is whether that certification is just a badge, and then how do you use it in the real world, because the real world is where it matters.
Nancy: Okay, so I have a couple of questions. As a low man on the totem pole in the Tsunami Rangers I’m really honored to be a member. It has done something for me, the rank, I suppose like the certification, has helped me in that it has actually made me feel better about my kayaking; it’s made me feel like I have some skills, because as the person that I am, and I think women tend to do this, is we tend to doubt ourselves, and so when you get something like that you go oh okay, I’m good enough. And that’s something, you know, that gives you some spirit, that gives you some power. At the same time I think for some people it can give you a sense that you know everything and I remember my late husband Eric saying that women are competent but not confident, whereas men are confident but not competent and I think there’s a lot of truth around that and if you’re giving the same certification across the board which obviously you have to, people take it differently. And I know that as a novice I could go out with the Tsunami Rangers and feel that I would be totally safe. It didn’t matter what their rank was. They were Rangers. I was safe being around them.
When you go out with a person who’s certified, and I’ve read accounts of this type of thing happening, you should expect to be safe, but sometimes people lead classes, expeditions, whatever, and bad things happen because they make poor judgment calls regardless of the fact that they are well-certified so how do we deal with that?
Jim: I think what Nancy’s talking about is the “duckling syndrome” where the person with the badge goes out there and leads a trip and all the little ducklings just go along because they figure that person has their certification so they know what they’re doing. And I think that that is one of the real errors in the system is that it’s hard to qualify someone on all levels and you can’t just take a six-week course, even an extensive one, and still be competent on all levels because there’s situations that you can’t predict until you get into them so you have to be able to have good judgment based on skill sets rather than classroom exercises, and so I think there’s a distinction between knowledge of the environment and knowledge of a system, and I think there’s room for a discussion on that.
Deb: And adapting to a dynamic environment. You can’t learn that in a classroom and you can’t learn that as you’re climbing a ladder. You’ve got to get out in the real world and experience that, and I think that’s where the Tsunami Rangers have gone into that dynamic environment, created a hierarchy of assessment for their officer rankings, but working together as a team, and then that’s where you adapt to the environment as you need to because it’s not in a book. There’s so much goes on as conditions ramp up that it’s counter to everything that you’re gonna read in any of the literature; you’ve got to adapt with your bag of tools.
Nancy: Yesterday we had the conversation that skiers and mountain climbers and river runners initially, well, certainly skiers and mountain climbers, don’t get certified. On the other hand, rivers and ski slopes and mountains all have route rankings, so that if I tell you that I can kayak in a Class 1 and Class 2 you automatically know where I am regardless of whatever certification I might have. Same if I tell you that I can ski a green slope or a blue slope or a double black you know what I can do. Same if I tell you what kind of pitch I can climb; if I can do Half Dome free climbing, you know I’m a really good climber. So those people don’t have to be certified but their routes are certified and that gives you a real sense of what that person can do. All you have to do is take them out there and see what they do. Like my martial arts teacher used to say, I don’t care what your rank is; get on the mat and show me what you can do. And I think that’s what the Tsunami Rangers do, we all know each other very well, we all know what we can do and what we can’t do, and so we work really well together, but when you’re advertising yourself as certified this way or that way it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to somebody who’s never met you before. You might be really good. You might not. We don’t know what you’ve done; we don’t know where you’ve been; we don’t know what kind of pressure you’ve been under, and that can be an issue.
Jim: I want to say one thing about rating a river or a climb in that it’s a fixed rate whereas on the ocean it’s really hard even with the Sea Conditions Rating System that Eric developed it is just about impossible to predict all of the conditions that you might be in and it’s a big variable that is rarely addressed in the certification systems.
Steve: One thing I want to say about skiing certification is that I know ski instructors, those who work with disabled skiers and/or other ski instructors, go through a certification system which most mountains know exactly what that means in terms of your skill level for teaching.
Jim: Excellent. Anybody else?
Deb: I think one of the differences that Jim brought up between rivers and mountains is it’s very linear and mountains if you get into high alpine, it’s extremely dynamic, unpredictable, yet you can always hunker down, dig a hole, and wait it out. The difference with sea kayaking going back to the quote that Eric Soares made that rivers really are linear, a rhythm of rock n roll, predictable rhythm, and the sea on the other hand is trying to dance to improvisational jazz.
Deb: So it’s extremely dynamic on so many levels, and I say it’s at least four dimensions, maybe five. So it makes it much harder to earn certification that can be boxed at that level when you’ve got the most extreme.
Nancy: What would those four dimensions, maybe five be? Tell us what they are.
Deb: Well, it’s in liquid, right? So you’ve got length, width, height, time, and the change of dynamics. The movement through those things I would say is the fifth dimension, because they come together to create a whole other dimension of its own.
Jim: So it’s left, right, up, down…
Deb: Left, right, up and down, depth, time, and then the blending of all those things…
Nancy: And animals…
Deb: Well, and the sea critters…
Jim: The difference between the Tsunami Rangers and most certification systems is that certification systems typically give the assessment to an individual whereas in the Tsunami Rangers as a team we are assessed based on the skill sets of the whole team and to distinguish that from the individual Tsunami Ranger certification, and their rank is based on their skill set as it is in the team. Something else to add to that?
Nancy: Yeah, I want to talk about how Deb uses her experience with the Tsunami Rangers when she certifies people because it adds so much to her understanding of what is needed especially for really high level people. Deb, you wanna talk about that for a little bit?
Deb: Not really. Just, as you get into higher level certification when the conditions are… the standard or remit is above 25 knots, 4 to 6 foot seas, anything above that goes… anything over 4 to 6 foot surf goes… it’s managed with many parts, so it’s not just group management, it’s about communication, it’s about understanding the group, it’s about taking a group in that environment and being a good enough leader that you can assess the group, assess the individuals, and know whether to bring them into that environment or not so it’s a very difficult level to assess, and what I bring from the Tsunami Rangers is the years of working together as a team and understanding where the strengths are in a team.
And the communication that we use because when you get into big conditions you’re not gonna be able to say, “Hey wait a minute, come on over here, let’s talk about this”. You need to be able to signal and go. You need to be able to work together as a tight team and the tight team comes from skills yes, but basically good communication, good decision making, and adapting as you go, as things are changing.
Nancy: So as far as I know, and Deb can correct me on this, people are not necessarily certified based on judgment and Deb was mentioning that she uses the Sea Conditions Rating System developed by the Tsunami Rangers when she certifies her beginning level people and that’s really important because one of the things about the rating system is that it helps you judge what kind of conditions you really want to go out in because you can look at things and then you can add something like cold water and the level becomes more difficult or you can add rocks and suddenly it becomes more difficult whereas previously it didn’t look that bad, and that judgment thing can follow you all the way through your certification process if you do well. But if you don’t do well you can go all the way through the ranks [of conventional certification systems] and still have really poor judgment and yet have a really high level certification and that is not necessarily a good mix.
Jim: Yeah, okay, my comment is basically process versus end result. You can have all kinds of processes and systems but it’s the end result that you actually want and so this is a question for Deb, actually, in your experiences in teaching your ACA certification classes, how do you reference the Tsunami Rangers in how we do things versus how the ACA does things?
Deb: Well, Admiral, that is top secret. I can’t divulge that, but I do adapt Tsunami Ranger methods in my work mentoring and working with other instructors and certifying other instructors in the ACA system. And I’ll just leave it at that.
Jim: It augments your skills.
Afterthoughts: On Judgment
Deb: Engage the brain from the beginning, ask the right questions, and make effective decisions. Empower students and instructors to engage in their reality, monitor their reality, and adapt in a safe, timely, and hopefully even a fun way. Judgment is skill development for the brain, which is arguably the most important part of paddling. If you’re putting yourself and your students in a highly dynamic liquid environment, you better have good judgment. The best judgment comes from your own experience.
Judgment is always part of the instructor assessment. As the assessor I must provide opportunities for the instructor candidate to show their stuff – but it’s a very big picture, not limited to one individual or one environmental condition. I add layers to the tasks, and elements of the unknown which is realistic. The big problem is that the window for assessment is small, usually three days, so you can imagine that there must be as many layers to assess as possible.
Again, this highlights the issue with assessment. If the instructors are not getting out regularly to paddle in a variety of environments, keeping up with playing in dynamic conditions, keeping up with challenging themselves outside of the certification world, they are selling their students short – and in my opinion merely using the certification as a badge.
Nancy: So it sounds like at the highest levels of sea kayak certification, judgment is the most important skill, really a quality, that instructors need to have, and it is also the most difficult to teach and to assess. As Deb says, the best judgment comes from experience. Acquiring good judgment on the water takes time. Assessing good judgment also takes time, probably more than three days. For example, you can know someone for years and think they have good judgment and then one day…
Jim? Your thoughts?
Jim: Positive side – certification classes help create a network that develops into long term contacts and can evolve with time.
Negative – puts students in a classification of safe “box” that is good for the moment but when things change can be a restriction.
Nancy: Mulling this over I remembered that without certification people can’t teach and make money. Many of our friends own kayaking companies that offer classes teaching people not only how to kayak but also advancing students’ skills with regard to surfing, rock gardening, and whitewater in both sea and rivers. Certification allows people to get insurance to cover themselves and their businesses in case of a lawsuit. Being a kayak instructor is a preferred way of life for lots of people and without certification that wouldn’t be possible. So in the sense that certification creates a niche in which kayakers can make a living doing something they love, it’s a good thing.
Well, that’s it, folks! We hope you enjoyed our discussion. Please join the conversation by adding your comment below. Thanks!