Sea Kayaking & Touring

The Path to Level 5

by laura-zulliger
Friday, November 01, 2019
   Sea Kayaking & Touring
Friday, November 01, 2019
Deciding whether to become a kayaking instructor or get certified to coach at the next level? The answer is yes. Here’s how.
Laura Zulliger
by Laura Zulliger

Laura is a California based sea kayak instructor and loves all forms of paddling, from sea to surf to whitewater to canoeing.

“Are you sure you don’t want to coach at a higher level? You’re already paddling in Level 5 conditions. Why not teach in them?” My friend and frequent kayaking collaborator, Kelly Marie Henry, posed this question to me on one day during our expedition in Taiwan. It was one of many long days of paddling in which we already exhausted all tangents of our life stories and moved on to discussing the future.

Kelly Marie Henry and Laura kayaking the coast of Big Sur with Freya Hoffmeister on a leg of her North American circumnavigation.
Kelly Marie Henry and Laura kayaking the coast of Big Sur with Freya Hoffmeister on a leg of her North American circumnavigation.

“But there are already so many talented L5 coaches and a finite number of students wanting to paddle at that level. What would I have to contribute?” I asked in return.

“Just the nature of your being a young woman coaching at that level would inspire a new crop of students who are different from the folks already paddling at that level. And it’s good for the sport that we have diverse perspectives and teaching styles at all levels.”

Why not?

As simple as it sounds, I had never framed the question to myself in the form of “why not?” When thinking about becoming a sea kayaking instructor at the highest level (L5), all I had focused on previously were reasons to stay teaching at my current level. It was comfortable, less vulnerable, and, well it felt safe. Yet, there’s a sense of inevitability implicit in asking “why not” and that’s what stuck in my mind. I was already on the path. I had strong paddlers offering me mentorship, a car with racks, and my own kayak. From that conversation I stopped collecting reasons for excluding myself and decided to join Kelly in committing to maxing out our coaching certifications.

Rock gardening along the coast of Pescadero, CA. Photo - Mark Boyd
Rock gardening along the coast of Pescadero, CA. Photo - Mark Boyd

With the mentorship of several strong, inspiring female and male coaches encouraging me, I earned an American Canoe Association (ACA) L5 Advanced Open Water Kayaking Instructor certification earlier this year. In this article, I want to share not only why I made the decision to pursue a higher teaching certification but specifically how I prepared for it in the hopes that more female instructors will join us.

What does coaching at the L5 level look like?

The ACA provides guidance for its instructors and students regarding the conditions and skills at each level. For L5 the conditions, coaches are certified to teach in up to 3 to 5-foot seas, 15 to 25 knot winds, 3 to 4-foot surf break, 4 to 5 knots of current. Commonly offered classes at this level are Advanced Surf Zone, Rock Gardening, Tide Race Paddling, Rough Water Towing and Rescues, among many others.

In addition to coaching in more advanced, consequential conditions, L5 coaches are expected to not simply instruct and demonstrate proper technique, but to properly diagnose what individual students need to reach their goals safely. For example, you’re working with a student in the surf zone and she’s mastered catching waves but needs help determining when and how to better exit the wave. How can you cater your feedback, offer drills, and further hone the discret maneuvers required to help her meet the next level of her surfing? That student-centered approach is the hallmark of coaching at L5.

Strengthening Your Own Paddling Prowess

One talented coach, Sean Morely, offers in many of his classes the useful adage, “Race your strengths, and train your weaknesses.” And that summarizes what I tried to do, especially in the year leading up to the Instructor Certification Evaluation (ICE). The first step in advancing your certification is to take what’s called an Instructor Development Workshop (IDW). Usually this comprises three days of paddling in L5 conditions with fellow candidates and instructor trainers. In the IDW, you’re asked to teach advanced skills and concepts, often to real students. In return, you’re given a lot of incredibly useful feedback that will highlight gaps in your own skillset and your coaching toolkit.

Gettin’ Bold in Big Waves

For me, my largest room for improvement was comfort in the surf with waves over 3 feet. In the year and a half between my L5 IDW and ICE, I went surf kayaking as much as I could to build my tolerance for big waves. I also developed a love for short boat surfing in the process and discovered a penchant for competition (thank you, Santa Cruz Paddle Fest!) which really drove me to improve quickly and push myself in larger surf.

Competing at Steamer’s Lane in Santa Cruz Paddle Fest. Photo Tom Gomes
Competing at Steamer’s Lane in Santa Cruz Paddle Fest. Photo Tom Gomes

If It’s Rainin’, We Out Cross-Trainin’

I also cross-trained a lot in whitewater, working on my confidence stepping up from Class III to Class IV, embracing opportunities to paddle rivers at higher volume with talented boaters. I was lucky to also start teaching beginner whitewater during this time, which helped me work on skills for fear management for myself and my students. And I also jumped into surfski paddling to hone my forward stroke and build up my muscles for distance paddling.

Building Up to Big Maneuvers with Scaffolding

As you can imagine, paddling in L5 conditions and feeling comfortable isn’t the hardest part. The hardest part is teaching in those conditions. And not just that, but differentiating your coaching in those conditions to each individual student and their needs. My preparation here focused on differentiated instruction and “scaffolding.”

Laura teaching with Debbie Grima-Lowe on the Rogue River, OR on a Cali Collective clinic. Photo Liz Maehve
Laura teaching with Debbie Grima-Lowe on the Rogue River, OR on a Cali Collective clinic. Photo Liz Maehve

How to “scaffold” a complex skill is one of the most important methods I’ve learned as an educator. I borrowed the term from my training as a middle school English teacher and it seamlessly applies to kayaking. Scaffolding a skill requires you to break down all the discrete parts, movements, and concepts necessary for mastery. Then, you structure your instruction and design exercises that hone each part before graduating students onto the next level or key piece. For me, the ability to scaffold has proven essential for teaching advanced strokes and maneuvers. For example, let’s take the goal of catching and surfing waves in a tide race. What skills do you need for surfing in a tide race? Peeling out into the current, identifying the appropriate waves, using powerful strokes, stern draws plus trim to position yourself on the wave, edging to carve and hold position, and strategies for exiting the wave and peeling back into the eddy.

Training in big swell in Point Lobos, CA. Photo David Santaniello
Training in big swell in Point Lobos, CA. Photo David Santaniello

Once you’ve identified the key parts, how do you then develop a custom lesson plan for a student to master each piece then have structured and guided practice before mastering standing wave surfing independently? That’s how you apply scaffolding.

In addition to reviewing all the L5 skills and developing scaffolded lesson plans, I shadowed and assisted a ton with L5 classes taught by skilled instructors. From there, I built up to co-teaching L5 classes and applying feedback from students and co-instructors as quickly and shamelessly as possible. I also tried to teach at least once every month in the 6 months leading up to the certification exam to keep my skills and teaching awareness tuned.

Teaching whitewater kayaking on the South Fork American. Photo Melissa DeMarie
Teaching whitewater kayaking on the South Fork American. Photo Melissa DeMarie

Why Not More Women?

At the time when I took my instructor certification, there were about 45 Level 5 coaches in the U.S. and within this group, only 7 were women. As true for a lot of adventure sports, there’s a growing number of women entering sea kayaking, but few teaching at the highest level. I think the reasons for this thinning out are complicated and well-contested. But what’s not contested is the need for more women coaching at all levels, especially the top.


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