When I started my nonprofit Hudson Valley H2O, I became the executive director of a paddling organization. Sounds fancy, right? All that meant was I was, when we were doing standup paddling instruction, I was the guy in the water. I already had a paddling certification for PaddleFit, but the American Canoe Association seemed to offer a very good skills course with their certification. With that ACA certification, HVH2O would be eligible for insurance during our paddling events, which is critical for a young organization such as ourselves.
I took the class through Prime Paddlesports, a local paddlesports education company. Matt Kane, the owner of Prime, organized the class, but he was a kayak guy so this weekend he was going to be a fellow student. Steve Busch, an ACA instructor, was to be our teacher. The class was a three-day affair, from Friday to Sunday. Our instruction group was small, three local students (myself, Matt, and a kayak instructor named Ann) along with Kevin and Kara from Resilience Paddle Sports in New Jersey.
We first met at Matt’s apartment for land instruction. The class began with a slide show, mostly reviewing what the ACA was and the steps of the course. Once we finished the introduction it was time to hit the water! We launched on a sheltered lake in Fahnstock State Park. Steve soon had us on the water practicing a range of strokes and turns.
But heck, I knew this stuff! (I even had an ACA L1 certification from last year.) Then Steve started with the more complex techniques: cross-bow paddling, sculling draw strokes, paddling on one side only. Yeah, let’s just say that confident Ian had a lot to learn. Soon Steve had me get off my micro cruiser and paddle something “less twitchy” — which was him subtly saying “Ian, you’re falling too much.” Unfortunately all I had with me was my Ghost Board. (I had already loaned my all-arounds to my classmates.) When I asked Steve if he ever had anyone do this course on a 14’ cruiser, he said, “No, this would be the first.” Okay then!
By the end of the day, we were tired. To finish the skills portion, Steve created an obstacle course which required draw strokes, cross-bow paddling, pivot turns, sculls, and side slips. We were pretty confident then, so Steve delivered the coup de grace, paddling without fins! For some reason, I really didn’t like that. Going finless made me anxious and nervous. However, there might be an incident someday when I lose a fin, so it’s good to practice it.
The next day we took to the Hudson. Each of us taught a mini-lesson on the tidal and choppy Hudson. While we had the skills now, doing instruction on the river was a very different experience, especially with the group being pushed into West Point. We managed though, and (with Matt’s guidance) built a raft with our combined paddleboards, and practiced sculling forwards. Back on shore we taught mini-lessons on river navigation, board parts, and other topics.
The last day we launched from Cold Spring into challenging conditions. Winds were 10–15, with whitecaps across the Hudson. So to practice our last instruction we headed into the sheltered Constitution Marsh. After we did our routines, (and ran that same obstacle course again!) Steve taught us a trick not on the syllabus, river surfing! Since the marsh spilled into the river through a constricted channel, it created a strong current. He showed us how to point our boards into the narrow current and ride that like a wave. Lots of fun!
We finished at Matt’s with our last mini-lessons: mine was on cold weather gear, others did fins or PFDs. Then it was our final conferences with Steve where we received our grades. Funny, I was nervous. I’ve been a public school teacher for 17 years and given out tens of thousands of grades, but I was nervous for my own. When I was called in, Steve asked me a surprising question, “Did I get something out of the class?” He sounded concerned.
“Yes, of course I did. I really liked learning the new strokes.”
“I’m glad,” he said relieved. “I’m definitely passing you with a level two certification.” I was pleased, but not surprised. I had fumbled a little with a couple of the strokes, specifically the side slip, but I eventually got them in my clumsy way. We shook and I was pleased, especially when learning all my fellow paddlers had passed as well.
This class made me reassess the idea of certification. A certification means that an organization is putting its stamp on your skills. Most of the highly skilled paddlers I know do not have a certification and would scoff at the idea. I probably had some of that attitude in the beginning too.
The emphasis on paddle skills comes from the ACA’s history as canoe and kayaking organization. These sports have a long tradition of paddling skills, so no wonder that’s their emphasis. I am definitely a better paddler because of Steve’s instruction. A couple of the strokes are really useful when teaching beginners. I’m combining my forwards and draw strokes — perfect for facing someone while paddling. That cross-bow stroke works well too.
Before the class I had confidence to power through lots of situations, but this class gave me something new: finesse. I did the certification because of the insurance benefits, but I ended up learning much more than I expected. Thank you Steve. Great job.