Becoming an ACA Certified SUP Instructor

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when attending the 3 day American Canoe Association Instructor Certification Training.  My formal paddleboard training was limited.  I worked on my stroke with Dave Kalama, but other than that, most of what I knew was learned from reading, watching videos and experimenting.  It was still plenty to get people on the water, get them paddling and help them have a good time.  But I felt that I owed them, and myself, more.

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For most people the first time on a paddleboard is primarily about getting comfortable walking on water and has very little to do with technique and learning a variety of strokes and tricks.  And that’s fine, as long as our students are safely having fun and learning what they want to learn.  But it would be nice to have more to offer.

The class I attended is an intensive, 3 day, all-day training workshop and exam.  It covers “Level 1” and “Level 2”.  Level 1 is for flatwater conditions and consists of 2 days, and Level 2 is for guiding groups in open water and for that you need to attend all three days.   Level 2 includes dealing with swell, boat wakes, boating channels, and tides.

What on earth do we need to know that would take 3 full days to learn/be tested on?  Lots!

  • There are a lot of strokes that you need to be able to perform and teach…one set of strokes for Level 1 and another for Level 2
  • Knowledge of safety practices, including the ability to rescue an unconscious person and towing someone in open water conditions
  • The ability to read the conditions before heading out and constantly while you are out on the water, and the ability and willingness to adjust plans as conditions and the group’s abilities dictate
  • Being able to manage a group in various situations including through boating channels and marinas

Even though we had the syllabus well in advance of the class, there were some elements that even after googling (and I am a good googler) were still elusive.  Many of the strokes in standup paddleboarding are variations of canoe and kayak strokes.  So some of them you can only find in one of those incarnations.  The principles are the same, but the execution tends to be a little different and it can be very difficult to tell if you are doing them right without feedback.  So the workshop was the first time I got to see many of these strokes in person.

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Some were easy enough to learn and teach within a day…some were a little more involved and required more time and practice.  If you don’t “own” the stroke yourself, you can’t effectively teach it.

We spent the first day on Olney Pond at Lincoln Woods State Park.  It was a nice, calm day and it was perfect for getting acquainted with everyone and the format and for practicing learning some of these new strokes and some variations on familiar ones.  We also learned how to perform a rescue of an unconscious person.

We also did some off water teaching.  Each of us was tasked with giving a presentation on a given topic at some point throughout the 3 days…board design, paddle design, weather, tide, radio signals, and nautical rules of the road covered the assigned topics for this session.  The first day pretty much laid out what the workshop would be like and on that day I was pretty sure that I would get the Level 1 Certification and would have to come back for Level 2.

We spent days 2 and 3 at Wickford Harbor.  It is a very busy boating area and there are marinas and boating channels from every direction.  We had considerable winds the first day there and our Instructor Trainer Peter Casson mostly lead the way out, and we each took a turn coming back.  Containing a group with the added challenges of the open water is much more difficult than on our little Stump Pond we call home base.

sup instructor

We also had to practice towing in these conditions…naturally it is much more difficult to hook up the tow and actually pull someone along when the conditions are rough, but it makes sense that those are the more likely conditions in which you would need towing skills.

The third day was the exam.  We started from the beach with the on land briefing. We had to demonstrate each stroke on both sides.  We had to teach a couple of strokes to the group.  We had to tow someone a given distance.  And we had to lead the group through the boating channels.  Following all of that, we went back to shore where we were each “debriefed” on our performance and given the verdict.

I also learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses during the weekend!  A lack of confidence was probably the biggest thing holding me back and that was confirmed in my debriefing.  I need to see myself more as the expert on the water and take more of a leadership role. I have a new appreciation for the level of skills that I do possess and a greater appreciation for the importance of taking control to keep everyone safe.

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Getting the ACA Instructor Certification is not guaranteed just because you take the course.  You really need to prove yourself out there, for the safety and enjoyment of everyone involved, you are not rewarded just for your participation.  It was a fantastic learning experience, and you can feel confident that if you are working with an ACA certified instructor, you are working with someone who has proven his/her ability to paddle, teach and keep everyone safe while paddling.


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