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Sea Kayak Program Review Update for Members

Request for feedback

The Sea Kayak Program Development Committee is keen to hear your thoughts and feedback on either the proposals outlined in this report or other ways to improve the sea kayak program.

Please submit your feedback in writing by August 31, 2016 via this online form.


The Paddle Canada sea kayak instructional program was written more than 17 years ago, and since then, has received numerous tweaks and updates. In the Spring of 2015, the Sea Kayak Program Development Committee (PDC) decided it was time to undertake an extensive review of the program. The objective of this three-year review is to look at every aspect of the sea kayak program, from the overall goals to the individual skills, and to identify which aspects should be adjusted in order to better meet the needs of the sea kayaking community. We started the review last year by canvassing our members and stakeholders.

At this stage in the process, we want to provide the Paddle Canada membership with an update of what we’ve been working on, as well as an opportunity to review and provide feedback on several of our proposed program changes.

A detailed work timeline for the review project can be found in Appendix A.

Collection of feedback

In the Summer of 2015, we engaged with Paddle Canada members through various methods, including surveys and focus groups, to collect feedback and ideas for program improvement. To help facilitate the data collection, we partnered with Mr. Rob Davidson, who was working on his master’s degree at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. Along with the surveys and focus groups, the PDC committee members also reached out to instructors and students in their respective regions to gain additional feedback.

pdfRead the the complete research report.

Findings and conclusions

Once the feedback was compiled, several early themes started to emerge, which included:

  • high levels of satisfaction with lower level courses (Basic & Level-1);
  • high levels of satisfaction with the overall programs focus on the teaching of safety skills;
  • desire for enhanced instructor resources and training;
  • reduced satisfaction among both instructors and students with higher level courses (in particular Levels 3 & 4);
  • inclusion of teaching campcraft skills may be a barrier for course participation (in particular Levels 2 & 3);
  • need for standardized program delivery and instruction across Canada;

To help address some of these issues, the PDC has developed some initial high-level proposals, which we want to share with the membership. Please keep in mind that at this point in the process these are just high level proposals and lack specific details. Our goal is to share these ideas with the membership to keep everybody informed on our direction and to ensure any changes made are in a direction that is agreeable with the majority of the membership. We are always looking for feedback and there is information at the end of this report on how to submit your thoughts and ideas.

1) Campcraft skills

With Paddle Canada’s development of a new independent camping skills program, we are proposing that campcraft skills no longer be evaluated within the sea kayak program. It’s important to note that, when we use the term campcraft skills, we are specifically referring to items such as how to set-up a tent, select a campsite, kitchen organization, etc. Other sea kayak journeying skills such as navigation, risk management, loaded boat rescues, self-care, etc., will remain a core element of the program.

We are proposing this change for several reasons:

  • When the program was written 17 years ago, sea kayaking was viewed as an activity closely tied to camping or tripping. That is, if you like to sea kayak, you like to camp. Since then the sport of sea kayaking has evolved, with participants also getting into the sport for reasons in addition to camping (eg. day tripping, rough water, surfing, fishing, etc.)

  • We received feedback from both instructors and students that the campcraft skills and, in particular, the overnight component of Level-2 could be a significant barrier to participation.
  • While there is the assumption that Level-2 is an introduction to campcraft skills, there are actually very few campcraft skills specifically outlined in the manual.
  • Many people who participate in Level 2 have already gained camping experience elsewhere and thus they are forced to review those skills again.
  • The new camping program currently under development will provide an excellent training opportunity for those who are specifically seeking out campcraft skills.
  • Research brought to light that, while the delivery of paddling skills at Level-2 is fairly standardised across Canada, the level and amount of time spent actually teaching campcraft skills varies significantly. This leads to a very different experience depending on who is offering the course.

In reviewing the program, this proposal will affect Level-2 skills the most as there will no longer be a requirement for an overnight component. While the development of the Campcraft Skills program is still in it’s infancy, the PDC will work with the Program Coordination Committee with the goal of developing the programs in such a way that those who would still like to teach campcraft skills will be able to do so by combining Level-2 skills with the new Camping Level-2 as a dual certification.

We feel that this proposal will attract participants who would like sea kayak instruction, but don’t want to camp. It will also be attractive to paddling schools, as it adds flexibility in options for delivering the program. Level-2 for example, could be offered through a combination of evening sessions and daytrips, which may be appealing to busy professionals. This proposal would not preclude instructors from continuing to include overnights or trips as part of their course offering.

2) Greater syllabus direction and details

While we have always taken pride in giving sea kayak instructors a significant amount of freedom in how the program is presented, the feedback received was that instructors would also like more syllabus detail in the manual. For example, there is very little direction on exactly what to teach as part of a Level-3 navigation lesson.

We are proposing to carefully go through the manual to flesh out any vague elements and provide clearer direction. This will help standardise the program across Canada, as well as develop a more succinct set of learning outcomes for each skill. Our intention is not to limit instructors freedom, but rather to provide more effective resources for both new and experienced instructors.

3) Reduced satisfaction for Level-3 & 4 courses

Our research shows that participant satisfaction with Levels 3 & 4 is lower when compared to the lower levels. There are various reasons for this, some of which we have control to help fix, and others that are completely out of Paddle Canada’s hands.

Some of the feedback provided during the research stage of our review included the following perspectives:

  • Levels 3 & 4 are too similar in focus and skills,
  • Levels 3 & 4 are too “manly” and thus not appealing to women or those not interested in that atmosphere,
  • Level-4 is difficult to run due to all the environmental elements that need to be satisfied (current, surf, rough water, large crossings, etc.). Some report being required to drive significant distances over the life of a course to meet the remit.

To help address the concerns above we are proposing to adjust the focus of both Levels 3 & 4 so that there is a more obvious difference between them, and a more natural progression in learning. While we still need to work out the specific details, we are proposing that the focus of Level-3 be adjusted slightly to continue to build on the leadership and journeying skills introduced at Level-2, while Level-4 will be changed to have a greater focus on advanced incident management, group problem solving and rougher water paddling.

Draft mission statement

Our proposed new mission statement for the sea kayak program is as follows:

To promote and teach the necessary knowledge and skills to safely paddle sea kayaks on all Canadian waterways. Through our support for a safe, enjoyable, and accessible paddling community, we develop a love and respect for the environment and nature, as well as an understanding of sea kayaking’s place in our Canadian heritage.

Proposed level descriptions

As part of our initial review, we looked at the overall program from a very high level. This was an important early step; using the overarching objectives, the committee brainstormed how the different levels could meet the main overall goals, as well as how each level fit with the one previous to and following it.

Knowing that there was high satisfaction and success with both Basic and Level-1, our primary initial focus for improvement was with Levels 2, 3 & 4.Below are the proposed draft descriptions for each level in the new system. It gives a good sense of the proposed look, feel and direction for each of the levels. For the purposes of this document, each description is broken up into three sections:

  • Short description – a single sentence description of the level.
  • Learning outcome – a description of what a student should be able to do upon successful completion of the course.
  • Plain language description – a more detailed description of the program to give a more complete picture of what it’s going to be like.

Our plan is to use these descriptions as the foundation or initial jumping off point for when we rewrite or adjust the syllabus for each level. It is important that we agree as a community (as much as possible) to the look and feel of each level as that will make the detailed work later on much easier.  Please refer to our proposed work plan and project timelines in Appendix A.

Basic Kayak Skills

Short description

Introduction to the foundation kayak skills.

Learning outcome

Upon completion of this course, the student will be able to confidently kayak in class 0 or calm, sheltered waters in the company of one or more paddlers with similar skills or knowledge.

Plain language description

Basic Kayak Skills is the starting point of the Paddle Canada Sea Kayak skills progression. It is a single day course that introduces the sport of kayaking. With a focus on foundation skills and knowledge, Basic Kayaking inspires students to go out paddling in calm, sheltered waters on a half- or full-day trips.

Level-1 Skills

Short description

Introduction to sea kayak skills.

Learning outcome

Upon completion of the course, the student will be able to confidently kayak in class 1 conditions on a day-trip in the company of one or more paddlers with similar skills and knowledge. The paddler will be an asset to the group and an active participant, willing and able to assist others if they need assistance or rescue.

Plain language description

Building on the techniques learned in Basic Skills, Level-1 is a two-day course that moves participants beyond flatwater kayaking and into the sport of sea kayaking. The course is conducted in slightly rougher water than Basic Kayak, aiming to develop the paddler’s comfort in class 1 waters. There is a strong focus on rescue techniques as well as the skills required to safely plan and execute a day trip (navigation & route planning, weather interpretation, proper clothing/gear, etc.) with friends.

Level-2 Skills

Short description

Intermediate paddling skills on extended day-trips in intermediate conditions.

Learning outcome

Upon completion of the course, the student will be able to confidently sea kayak in class 2 conditions along moderately exposed shoreline in the company of one or more paddlers with similar skills and knowledge. The level-2 paddler will be an excellent resource to the group, and be able to provide peer leadership and navigation skills for day tours.

Plain language description

Building on the skills developed in Level-1, Level-2 gives the paddlers the skills they need to go out sea kayaking in class 2 conditions along semi-exposed shoreline. Along with intermediate sea kayak strokes and skills, this level introduces soft skills, including leadership, risk management, incident management, and self-care, as well as skills needed for a possible emergency overnight. This course is four days long.

Level-3 Skills

Short description

Advanced paddling skills, group management, and leadership during rough water overnight touring.

Learning outcome

Upon completion of the course, the student will be able to confidently sea kayak in class 3 conditions along exposed coastline with frequent landing opportunities. The student will be able to apply principles of risk assessment, decision-making, judgment, group management, and seamanship in while traveling on an overnight journey as part of a group of peers.

Plain language description

Level-3 Skills builds on the leadership, incident and risk management skills introduced in level-2 and applies them to real life scenarios in class 3 conditions. At this level, students are also introduced to more advanced topics in the context of a multi-day trip, such as expedition behaviour, group management, decision making, advanced navigation, and seamanship skills.

While campcraft skills are not part of the formal curriculum, there is an overnight component of at least 2 nights to ensure a realistic learning environment for the skills being taught.

This course is a minimum of 4 days long.

Level-4 Skills

Short description

Advanced paddling skills, group management, and leadership during a multi-day expedition in a rough water environment.

Learning outcome

Upon completion of the course, the student will be able to confidently sea kayak in class 4 water conditions along remote and exposed open coast for an extended trip. The student will be an effective part of a group of peers, able to perform both leadership and supportive roles.

Plain language description

Students will be challenged to apply leadership/decision making and paddling skills in class 4 or greater conditions. They will be asked to successfully complete scenarios and develop/reinforce skills to a point appropriate to transit remote and/or technically challenging locations while fine tuning leadership and risk management.

Like level-3, this five-day course has no formal campcraft skills as part of the syllabus; however, there is a requirement for a minimum of 3 adjacent overnights.

New water classification system

We are proposing to move away from our current environmental descriptions and over to a new classification system currently used by several other outdoor groups including the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of BC, Parks Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard.

This new system takes into account more factors than just water/wind conditions. It also covers things like level of wilderness, access to land-based assistance and the distance of major crossings, etc.

Class 0

Non-challenging protected waters with limited wind effect, little or no current, easy landings, and ready access to land-based assistance. Wind calm to rippled (< 8 knots).

Class 1

Non-challenging waters with mild wind effect (0–11 knots), little or no current (0–0.5 knots), uninterrupted easy landing options, and ready access to land-based assistance. Sea state is calm to light chop.

Class 2

Moderately exposed coastline with frequent easy-landing opportunities and short crossings. Moderate potential wind effects (12–19 knots), surf of less than 1 meter and a combined sea state of less than 1 metre, gentle to moderate non-turbulent currents of less than 3 knots, and light surf beaches. Short delays in access to land-based assistance is expected.

Class 3

Exposed water, with more committing crossings, moderate to strong currents with turbulence (< 3 knots), moderate to strong wind effects (12–19 knots), ocean swells and a combined sea state near 1 meter with occasional rough sea state. Difficult but frequent landing opportunities, surf-beaches with surf up to 1 metre. Delays in access to land-based assistance is expected.

Class 4

Rugged and exposed coast with long committing crossings, strong turbulent currents (≥ 3 knots), strong wind effects (near 20 knots), large swells with a combined sea state 1 metre or more with a moderate to rough sea state, exposed surf beaches (≥ 1 metre), infrequent and sometimes difficult landings which present significant challenges for individual safety and group management. Significant delays in access to land-based assistance can be expected.

Request for feedback

The Sea Kayak Program Development Committee is keen to hear your thoughts and feedback on the proposals outlined in this report, or other ways to improve the sea kayak program.

Please submit your feedback in writing by August 31, 2016 via this online form.

Appendix A: Project timelines

Our working timeline to complete the review and implement the proposed changes is as follows:

Date Task
February 2015 Sea Kayak Program review initiated
May 2015 Membership and Instructor survey distributed
May 2015 Focus group at Pacific Paddlesport Symposium
September 2015 Survey and focus group results compiled and distributed to PDC
Fall 2015/ Winter 2016 Preliminary work on review
April 2016

Initial update to membership on the project and proposed vision

First call for membership feedback

Fall 2016 to

Winter 2017

PDC reviews membership feedback and starts syllabus adjustment

March 2017

(or sooner)

Second progress update to membership

Draft changes to the program are released

Second request for feedback

Fall 2017

Final polishing of the program based on member feedback

Final Board approval

Training and information sessions on new program to existing instructors

January 2018 New sea kayak program goes live