ACA Surf Kayak Instructor Workshop

Nov. 2008

I haven’t been in the surf in a short boat since sometime in 2003 or 2004; I’ve never had a lesson nor paddled with any kayak surfer who knew what they were doing; I’ve only paddled one whitewater river in the last four years.  Here’s my plan: take the new ACA Surf Kayak Instructor Certification Workshop!

Now, most people would say “Dude, shouldn’t you, like, know what you’re doing before taking an instructor workshop?”  That would be a good question for most folks…but where’s the fun in that?  I’ve always had a single priority going into a certification workshop.  That is, whether or not I come out of the workshop with a piece of paper suitable for framing, I will come out a better coach.  My goal has always been to continue to improve as a coach, so if the stress of having to “pass” a certification is removed (or at least minimized) then it frees me to get the most possible out of the workshop. 

I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to coach, all I need to fill in is the what to coach for surf kayaking.   I was hoping that I could pick up enough info about the what to coach as the workshop progressed.  It sort of worked out but I wasn’t able to incorporate the new material into my personal paddling quickly enough to pass any of the higher levels.

This particular workshop was the last of the pilot programs for ACA Surf Instructors.  It was a combined Instructor Development Workshop (IDW) and Instructor Certification Exam (ICE) called an Instructor Certification Workshop (ICW).  This has been the first combined course that I’ve attended and would now be disinclined to participate in another combined course.

The course was overseen by Ben Lawry who was also overseeing two Instructor Trainer Candidates, Nigel Law of Savannah Canoe & Kayak and Chuck Conley from Virginia Beach.  You can read Nigel’s blog posting about the workshop and see a pic of me trying to wiggle my fat butt into a tiny boat while everyone else waits, silently amused.

Day 1

We met for introductions at the Best Western Hotel right on the beach in Virginia Beach; it’s awesome to be able to paddle 100 yards from where you sleep. The day started with the usual introductions, expectations and inevitable paperwork.  The next phase was a way too long series of classroom topics that dragged on twice as long as planned. 

My personal view is that you should never do anything in the classroom that could be more effectively delivered on the water.  Afterall, the sport is called ‘paddling’ not ‘lecturing’.  As an example, one of the topics delivered by the ITs was ‘Teaching and Learning Styles’.  They had us each fill out a learning styles inventory to help us determine our dominant learning style.  This was fine but could also have been part of the pre-course work.  We next did a team teaching excercise of teaching someone how to put on a life jacket using 4 different styles (each pair of candidates delivered the session teaching towards a doer, thinker, watcher or feeler.  It was reasonably effective but could easily have been part of the on-water session and using a topic that was more reality based.  

Flatwater site

We drove to the flatwater site after lunch where a few candidates delivered one of their lecture topics. Then we were on the water for flatwater stroke sessions with each candidate teaching one or more strokes to the class.  I was asked to teach edging and rudders.  I screwed up my edging session a bit due to not thinking about when you would edge in the surf.  I fell back on my sea kayaking experience and had the students paddling in a circle while asking them to vary the amount of edge and direction of edge to discover how those two variables effect the radius of their turns.  What I missed was the fact that in surfing, you are mostly holding an edge while paddling in a straight line and the edge is used to hold the boat on the wave not so much to help it turn.  It would have been better to have the students experiment with edge while paddling in a straight line rather than a circle. It was at least a good example of a guided discovery style of instruction.

My second attempt at teaching strokes was the stern rudder and using it to run straight and turn on-side and off-side.  I got cut off by Ben after my demo, as I didn’t teach a progression, and jumped right into demoing all 3 maneuvers.  He then modelled the progression he would like to see.  I am in agreement with him about the progression and the fault is mine for teaching to the candidates and not at a beginner level.

This brings up a significant point.  All the ACA courses I’ve been on have never used ‘real’ students for the instructor candidates to teach.  The candidates are only teaching each other. I am absolutely convinced that using students that are actually at the level that the instructor will be teaching is vastly superior to teaching ‘fake’ skills to other candidates. I fully appreciate that it is much more difficult to run an assessment when you have to deal with the needs of the ‘guinea pig’ students, the instructor candidates and the IT candidates but in the end I am sure it is a more accurate assessment when the candidates are teaching actual students and not eachother.

Our last excercise of the day was to have our skills video taped for later review.  Ben set up his camera on a dock, looking down at the candidates and each person was filmed doing forward and reverse sweeps, rudders running straight and turning to both sides, low and high braces, forward paddling, stopping and finally rolling (for those that had a roll).

Day 2

Let the carnage begin!

We started the day with a few lecture topics and a review of the prior day’s video tape.  Ben played the video and focused on one particular stroke from each candidate, so by the end we had the high points of each of the strokes but missed out on much individual feedback for any of the other strokes.  I think it was just a time management decision to do it this way.  On the ACA Open Water ICE, we also did video analysis but all the candidates were filmed doing a particular stroke.  During the review session this allowed feedback for everyone’s stroke while the feedback for other candidates was still fresh in each person’s mind.  The downside, is that this took longer than the technique we used during the surf workshop.

The seas on day 1 were completely flat, no surf at all.  The forecast for day 2 was 2 foot swell at 3 seconds period, building to 4.5 feet and 5 seconds period by the end of the day.  winds were forecast for 16-22 MPH out of the northeast and the swell running from the north.  This presented our first challenge.  Having seas with such a short period (the 3 seconds in the forecast was very optimistic) and coming from the north meant that the waves were hitting the beach at about a 45 degree angle, one right after another.  Trying to launch into those conditions (even with only 2 feet of swell) was quite entertaining.   One thing I know from paddling through surf is that it is not a time to lolly gag.  There’s a reason the phrase ‘punching out’ exists; it’s not ‘drifting out’ or floating out’ or ‘casually paddling’ out.  If you’re going to get your butt off the beach, once you decide to go, you go and keep applying power until you’re clear of the break.  Many of the candidates learned this through repeated pummelings on the beach, sand in the hair, bashed by flying boats, the works.  Fun to watch, not so fun to do.  It seems that there is some sort of primordial impulse, that, when in a kayak, and a breaking wave is about to hit you full on, forces both hands straight up over your head while at the same time makes you yell wa-hoo! Unfortunately, this particular reflex really doesn’t serve one well as the consistent outcome of stopping paddling right as a large wall of water smacks into your chest is to get thrown backwards and pounded into the sand.

I paddled a ‘proper’ surf boat for most of the day and was a bit surprised at how twitchy it was.  I was in a Mega Maverick first and had a tough time doing a respectable forward stroke. It was forward, brace, half forward, brace, etc.  In the second part of the day, I switched to a different, higher volume surf boat and had a much easier time of it. I was also a little surprised at how slow both surf boats were.

We wrapped up the day at night with a quick dinner and then more lecture topics.  It was a long day with folks a bit sore from the beach pummellings and their minds fuzzy from the presentations.

Day 2

As if yesterday’s carnage wasn’t enough

The surf forecast was for 5 foot swell at 6 seconds period with the swell from the northeast, switching to east with winds northeast at 11-15 MPH. I decided to hop in my old Dagger Ultrafuge whitewater kayak for the day’s session rather than thrashing around in a surf boat. 

We did an interesting rescue excercise of a swimmer with a spinal injury.  The basic technique is to stabilize the head with your arms as you pull them from their life jacket straps.  I played the victim for a few tries and am quite sure that had I actually had any sort of spinal injury that I would, in all likelyhood, be completely paralyzed after being ‘rescued’.  The technique seemed fairly simple but turned out to be much more dufficult, trying to stabilize the head while at the same time walking backwards through the surf zone dragging 180lbs of dead weight.  This was something worth practicing some more, since if it ever needed to be used for real, the consequences of doing a poor job are rather significant.  Of course, I suppose it is a little like doing a poor job at CPR–it’s still better than nothing since the guy is already dead, if you do it wrong, he can’t get more dead.

There was still a fair bit of pummelling going on.  The waves were much cleaner compared with the day before but they were also a bigger.  At several times during the day I looked around and the only people still in/on their boats were me and the other guy that passed at level 2.  There was plenty of rescue practice to be had, fortunately, there were 3 candidates on sit-on-tops and 3 in decked boats, so the SOT folks did self rescues and the decked boaters just swam in after a wet exit.

We worked on bottom turns, diagonal runs, cut backs, peel offs, and made a stab at top turns.  The waves weren’t quite good enough to get a top turn (especially for those of us new to the technique.  I certainly had more fun using the boat that I was more familiar with but also reverted to some more whitewater style techniques that aren’t part of the surf style (flatspins and cartwheelie-type flopping about).

In the end, 2 of us passed as Surf Level 2 Instructors which allows us to teach sit-on-tops in up to 2 foot surf.  Five candidates were not yet at the standard and need further development. The other candidate who passed is also super close to getting his level 3 and if the conditions on the course had been just a little bit better, would probably have gotten it during the course.  I think the Level 3 is attainable for me with just a little more focused effort on the actual skills.  Level 3 can be assessed in either sit-on-top, whitewater, or surf boats; Level 4 is surf boat only.  I’m not sure if it makes sense for me to try for level 4 as a Great Lakes based paddler.  It seems that the surf boat is great when the surf conditions are ideal which I haven’t seen a whole lot of on the Great Lakes.  So, having a sea kayak and whitewater boat to surf seems to be sufficient for now.

The vast majority of my instructing time is in sea kayaks and my BCU Coach Level 4 and ACA Advanced Open Water certs allow me to teach in sea kayaks in any conditions I’m likely to be willing to take students into on the Great Lakes.  I’ll have to experiment a bit in 2009 to see if surfing short boats is better for cross training sea kayakers than having them surf in their sea kayaks.

All in all it was a very enlightening workshop.  I finally found out a good deal about what I didn’t know about kayak surfing as a separate discipline. For too long I had surf kayaked  with folks who knew as little as I did and there was just no one around to show me where the next level was.  Now I know where the next couple of levels are and will work towards getting there.