Reflections from the Cockpit
"Education Gap"
April 2004

This last Sunday afternoon, during three days of the Jersey Paddler Paddlesports show, a kayaking instructor stopped by the USK booth and we had one of those instructor to instructor talks where we shared experiences and challenges. A topic that hit a chord with both of us is one I call the "Education Gap."

This instructor asked if I experienced paddlers just out of their basic classes wanting to take the instructor classes. I told her this has been a frustration of mine for the last fifteen years. I have too many examples of kayakers who have enrolled into instructor development level classes with skills barely above basic level. They had a huge gap in their sea kayaking education.

I have pondered this education gap for more than a decade. In the early 1990's I thought the main reason was the lack of educational opportunities. The ACA was still at the early stages of their Coastal Kayaking Program. BCU instructional classes in the US were not too common back then. In addition, the number of instructional programs through retail outlets and schools were fewer as compared to the availability today.

So here we are ten plus years later from when I started trying to explaining this education gap. The ACA program is well established, BCU clinics are regularly advertised, retail stores and schools have well run programs for the paddling public. In addition there are numerous books, instructional videos, symposia and other events around the country where continuing education (even basic education) are available. Kayaking clubs have also increased and many of them offer instruction through club activities. With all of these resources available why are we still seeing paddlers coming to instructor level classes with basic skills? Why are we still reading about kayaking deaths in magazines? While I was at the show back east my wife Hadley calls me and tells me about the e-mails from our local paddling club and their comments regarding a 71-year-old paddler who nearly drowns. He was described as an avid kayaker who has boasted of 14 or more channel crossings in his years on the water. The article describing the capsizing incident says he had to use float cushions (no PFD), he didn't have a pump (because he was bailing water out with his hands) and he couldn't get back into his kayak because he was weighed down by his water logged denim jeans, T-shirt, sweater and jacket. He was in 59 degree (F) water for two hours and suffered from exposure.

I can spend a lot of time talking about ignorance vs. judgment vs. stupidity but my goal is to focus on the unexplained reason why a significant number of paddlers refuse to take classes or limit the number of classes they do take. This article is not meant for those of you who take advantage of the educational opportunities out there. I am hoping to raise a little bit of awareness for those who DON’T think they need instruction.

Why do some paddlers believe they only need to take a basic class and then they are ready for the high seas? Why do I read accounts of the same paddlers getting smashed into the beach in surf zones week after week and yet never go to take a surf zone class? Is it the same phenomenon as never asking for directions when not knowing the correct route? Is it the "I'd rather figure it out on my own" syndrome? Why do a significant portion of the population avoid taking formal classes? Is it simply a matter of not wanting to spend the money?

I wish I had the exact answer if such an answer exists. Rather than speculate as to why these paddlers don't take classes, I will suggest a possible model for kayakers to follow as they work their way from novice to expert and then to instructor. I will readily agree that almost anyone with basic motor skills if put into a kayak and handed a paddle could figure out how to move their kayak from here to there. It is not brain surgery. However, being able to move a kayak doesn’t mean you are doing it efficiently or you are not a liability on the water. The question I ask "is how much time do you want to spend reinventing the wheel?" Now that I am on the back half of life rather than the front half I value time above most other commodities.

I believe a basic class should be mandatory for anyone who wants to paddle a kayak. There are certain physical principles that cannot be changed. As kayakers we need to know what they are and how to work with them. There are also equipment issues that need to be addressed so the paddler can function properly. In addition there is a wealth of experience that a good instructor will share with their students as to the common mistakes made by paddlers. If we don't learn from other's mistakes it is a waste of a good lesson.

There are some lessons and skills that need to be learned by experience and that takes time. The formal classes are to introduce you to the new skills. Skills are perfected through practice. Practice time needs to be done outside of the class.

Model for continuing education:
Basic class
Practice with a partner in very protected water
Guided tours commensurate with your skill level
Practice (perhaps with your local paddling club)
Next level class (usually additional strokes and more capsize recovery practice)
Club trips or more guided tours.
Short solo paddle in very protected water along a shore with many bailout spots (a reliable self-recovery is essential to paddle solo)
Good forward stroke clinic to help you become more efficient.
More practice
Club & guided tours
Open water skill classes
Guided tours and club tours into more challenging conditions.
Even more practice
Specialty classes (surf zone, navigation, rolling, etc.)
Lot's more practice
Multi-day trips
Solo trips
Guiding class
Assist in guiding (many times)
Maintain a regular paddling routine

The above model assumes you are dressed for immersion, wearing a PFD, have a pump & paddle float and you know how to use them. When you see the word practice you are not only practicing your strokes you are also practicing capsize recoveries. I tell my students to practice a capsize recovery for the next twenty five times they go out.

There are many variations to this suggested model. The main theme is class, practice, experience, class, practice, experience, class, practice, experience… Sea kayaking on any body of water has potentially high risks due to environmental conditions. Time on the water is a key ingredient to working your way up the skill ladder. Once you have your hard skills (kayak skills) you need to work on your soft skills if you intend on working with people. If you want to teach then you need to add another layer to your training which is learning how to teach. What do you expect from your kayaking instructor? How much experience do you want them to have before they step in front of your class? When you can articulate those answers then you have set up your own training model to be a guide or an instructor.

If you are like most people it is difficult to remember everything you learned in your classes. The use of instructional videos, books, magazines and web sites are excellent ways of increasing your education and reviewing skills you have already learned.

Anyone who knows me knows teaching is my passion. I also enjoy solving problems. As a professional educator I get frustrated when people refuse to take advantage of education opportunities. Therefore I try to find more ways to provide education. I know there is only so much time in a kayaking class and it is impossible to cover everything there is on any given subject. That is the reason I created the "In Depth Instructional Video series." After your class is over you can review the skills you learned in your class and see skills that may not have been taught. Aside from our instructional clinics and presentations at symposia I also created the USK web site to be an educational resource for sea kayakers. Starting this month USK is offering a new service to help paddlers improve their skills. Please refer to our video analysis page for more information.

It is time to get off the soapbox and on the water to do some paddling. Before I sign off I want to thank all the conscientious instructors, guides, schools and clubs for their educational services to the paddling community. I also want to say how proud I am of the active members in our local paddling club (CKF-California Kayak Friends) for all the time they spend in offering practice sessions and trips for club members. You are the greatest.


Wayne Horodowich


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