Intermediate versus Beginner

Having read the previous posts on 'Skill Levels", responses relative to the limitations of certification programs and having gleaned various misconceptions about the purpose and/or practical application of various BCU Star Award criteria, I offer that following as one paddler's interpretation of the BCU 3 Star skill set.

From the "BCU Coaches' Directory":
Note, quoted text appears in double quotes ( " " )

"3 Star Test - Closed Cockpit Kayak"

Please read "Closed Cockpit Kayak" as any decked boat that one sits in to paddle. This includes WW, Rec & Sea Kayaks, SOF's, et-cetera. Note that no-where in the directory is a paddle defined to be one thing or another, nor to not be of any type or another for the purposes of the 3 Star Test. Technically anything that you can use to efficiently propel your boat and perform to the standard is allowed. The "rules" do not exclude shovels, hoes, brooms, single blade paddles, pie plates, fine china, hats, ironing boards, hand paddles or even bare hands!

"Aim: Successful Performance at this level indicates that candidates can consider themselves as intermediate canoeists rather than beginners"

"Venue: "Sheltered water, not a swimming pool"
Don't read this as "flat water". Sheltered means no steep or breaking waves, swells are acceptable as are minimal wind effects.

The candidate's general paddling knowledge is assessed relative to:

Equipment, Safety, First Aid, Access, Environment, (trip) Planning, General (boat & paddle types), Group Awareness and Map & Compass.

The candidate's abstract understanding and ability to demonstrate practical boat handling skills is assessed by demonstration of the following maneuvers:

Lifting, carrying and launching
Forward paddling (with directional stability, efficiency, control and power)
Reverse figure-of-8 (no forward sweeps or 'braking strokes' allowed)
Turning on-the-move (via Low Brace & Bow Rudder turns)
Moving sideways with and without forward movement (std draw, sculling draw, draw on-the-move & hanging draw)
Support & recovery strokes - Low recovery, high recovery & sculling for support. (Low and high recoveries to be demonstrated with and without forward movement. Forward movement to be maintained during and after recovery)
Securing (the boat to a trailer or rack via rope)
Edge control (to assist turning).

The candidate's understanding and ability to demonstrate practical rescue skills is assessed by performance of the following maneuvers:

Deep water rescues (all as both rescuer and victim)
Eskimo Rescues (all as both rescuer and victim)
Rolling ("satisfactory beginnings" only is required)

Lastly, the candidate is asked to present evidence of a minimum of 3 - 3 hour trips. (oral evidence is customary)

My opinion, as one who has participated in the system for over 6 years, is that this award is about defining a 'base level' of expertise to which all kayakers should aspire. This level is not about sea kayaking or white water or lake paddling or harbor floating. It is about the fundamentals of paddling a "closed cockpit kayak" of any of these disciplines. The SPIRIT of this skill set is to expand the candidate's awareness to the richness of our sport, the myriad techniques available to make paddling more safe and enjoyable and to help them recognize the potential faces of various hazards.

Regardless of whether you are a 'structured learning' or 'learn it on your own' type, these are skills that can only enhance one's enjoyment of paddling and the marine environment. While individual people may question the validity of one or more test criteria, keep in mind that the criteria is not based on any one person's limited experience but rather on the combined experience of thousands of paddlers over the some 60+ years that the BCU has existed.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the challenges one faces to become and stay proficient with this skill set. Many of the vocal critics here and elsewhere would be hard pressed to assess successfully to this standard. The BCU considers this an "intermediate" level. I wonder how many of our resident "internet experts" could dispatch a 3* assessment as handily as they criticize it's validity. I assessed for my 3* in '99 and found it quite challenging at the time, to this day I consider this skill set fundamental to my paddling.

I'm not saying that the BCU system is perfect. What I am saying is that the BCU system attempts to help a paddler qualify their skill level within a reality that includes significant variables in environment, conditions, experience level, personal perspectives, personal goals, boats, paddles and body types. Will there be variations? Of course there will. Do the potential variations invalidate the very foundation and intent of the skill levels? Some may say yes, others may respond with a resounding "NO". My advise is to find out for yourself, make an informed decision.

Bottom-line is that most of those that criticize the BCU system have no personal experience within that system and speak from here-say accounts. I have yet to hear anyone with first-hand experience question the validity of the criteria (except those who were not successful at their assessment). I have heard horror stories about things that specific coaches (against current BCU policy) have done in the past. But the overwhelming majority of the stories we hear are from people telling stories that they heard from anonymous or unidentified sources. Not unlike the famous urban-legends with which we are so familiar these days.

There is no shortage of 4*+ paddlers here and elsewhere, but due to the combination of commitments of time, effort, training and travel required to progress to the upper-levels of the BCU system, they are a clear minority relative to the whole of the paddle-sports community. Don't read this minority status of 4*+ paddlers as indicative of "weaknesses" within the BCU system but rather as an indication that so few paddlers are willing to put their pride and egos aside long enough to invest the time, effort, training and travel required to measure their skills against an established standard of proficiency.

To "make the good the enemy of the perfect" hardly seems appropriate is this case.

Cheers, looking forward to your comments.


Thank you
As there is no legal requirement that individuals meet BCU standards of performance, it always surprises me how heated the criticism can be.

For me, the effort to acheive BCU 3 Star is in order to build skill and confidence. Such an achievement also grants greater access to tours and expeditions in which I would like to participate.

The criteria do not fit WW paddling
There are lots of basic skills that are important to WW that are not on the list and some that are on the list that do not apply. So the claim to being appropriate for any closed cockpit boat is simply wrong.

The fact that sir chris…

– Last Updated: Mar-25-05 11:51 AM EST –

was failed as a three star paddler is evidence that the system (at least at some places and times) needs a bit of fixing. Get him to tell you about the experience some time. I have been advocating videos of students who meet the standards be circulated to coaches. The standards for testing must be more uniform. Don't tell me that he was not a three star paddler at the time he toook that test.

This view needs to be balanced by the fact that I generally agree with what I have seen from the BCU and have benefitted greatly from your generousity.

To the WW criticism: the BCU has a WW program which is different. I'm sure that Jed's quotes come from the angle of sea kayaking, about which he is most passionate and generous.

Think equipment not conditions

At this skill level the BCU model does not attempt to address discipline specific skills. The assertion that these skills are appropriate for any closed kayak is based on non-moving water, non-breaking waves and minimal wind effects. I’m sorry that I did not include the non-moving water part. I will add that language to the original post.

Moving water (WW) and ocean specific skills and techniques are addressed at the 4* and 5* levels in discipline specific formats. To clarify, there is no 3* WW award nor is there a 3* Sea Kayak award. The 3* Closed Kayak award is a general closed-cockpit skill set appropriate for any closed-cockpit kayak in the types of conditions outlined above. Again the intent of this level is to provide for a wide foundation of skills that are applicable across various disciplines. The BCU certainly gets discipline specific, just not at the 3* (and lower) Closed-Cockpit Kayak applications.

I would be interested to hear what skills you feel are not appropriate for WW and what skills are fundamental to WW (boats, not condition specific) that are not included in the original post. I hope this clarifies my original post. If not perhaps you could be more specific?



“…expertise to which
all kayakers should aspire”

Keep dreaming…

Just a few comments.
A WW kayak is not designed to be paddled in non-moving water situations. I do that sometimes just for the exercise but the real skills that are relevant to WW boats require moving water and take advantage of the built in tendency to turn. Ferries, entering and exiting eddies, paddling in an arc, boofing, controlling the turn from the inside of the turn, etc. Only an masochist would consider trying for BCU 3* in a WW boat. And most WW boaters hate those slow, flat stretches on the river.

Rescues Skills Are Also Somewhat

– Last Updated: Mar-25-05 4:34 PM EST –

different for WW, both in terms of the swimmer getting to shore with help, or alone. Rarely is an attempt made to get someone back into a boat unless the person ended in a dead pool. Even then, it makes more sense to go to shore. Rescuing equipment in rapids is not the same as well.

Surf exigencies are more akin to white water than to sea kayaking. Specific surf skills focus more on rail to rail transitions and effective coordination with stern rudders. Whether one use more ocean or shore side stern rudders is also impacted by whether the boat has fins or not.



Jed, did you get a canoe yet?

Dr Disco and Sing . .
Dr Disco & Sing,

That the BCU 3* standards were designed to include WW boats among the “closed cockpit” kayaks is due to the fact that in the UK many use old-school water boats as some paddlers in NA use rec boats, as a gentle entry into the sport. They paddle on slow moving (unobstructed and hence devoid of eddies) rivers, experiment with near-to-shore (and close to home) coastal and small lake paddling etc. My impression is that the BCU is trying to be as inclusive as possible at the 1*, 2* & 3* levels. Compare the conditions specified by the 3* information and to what you might recommend to a rec boat paddler.

I agree with you both that there are many differences between Sea Kayaking, WW and Surfing techniques and equipment. But the 3* skill set is not about the differences between WW, Surfing and Sea Kayaking. It’s about the similarities between these disciplines It is about the foundation skills that allow paddlers to move into any of those specific disciplines and between various disciplines via a solid foundation and understanding of how various designs and types of hulls, paddles and bodies work together to address discipline-specific concerns.

We all learn to walk before we learn to run don’t we? We don’t train our children to play soccer before they can walk. Nor do we teach them a round-house kick before they can stand. By the same token the BCU does not expect a paddler to grasp the concepts integral to moving water or breaking waves before they have demonstrated an understanding and competence relative to boat-handling and safety on non-moving water and non-breaking waves.

I understand many of the differences between WW and Sea Kayaking versus the 3* standard because I have a bit of personal experience in both of those disciplines. I have never paddled a surf specific boat and so would not care to speculate on techniques specific to that discipline. But the basics of surfing presume basic boat handling skills which the 3* standard promotes.

Please keep in mind that the lack of specificity encourages people to explore other disciplines and hopefully to learn discipline specific skills that may carry-over to another discipline, much the way many WW skills relate to long boat technique in tidal races and rock gardens. Does this make sense?



But they are frequently used
for such things. I use them in 3 star trainings and assessments for the purpose of getting paddlers used to long and short boats. Also, they are great to train in and practice techincal skills. People use them in the pool for training all the time.

White water boats are used for surfing, as well. To say that the 3 star doesn’t apply to white water is just silly! The skills needed for sea kayaking, white water, surf, sprint, etc. are all the same at they’re root.

Doesn’t anyone ever paddle…
…any more for the sake and joy of just paddling?



Chris is a fine paddler

– Last Updated: Mar-25-05 6:21 PM EST –


I spoke with Chris soon after his assessment in '03 and again this afternoon on this very issue. Chris and I have been friends a long time and regularly paddle together in varied conditions.

Suffice to say that he has a significantly different take on his personal experience from that day than you have drawn from the facts of that day. I recommend that you talk with him to see how he feels about these things rather than to speak on his behalf.

FWIW, I have the upmost respect for Chris as a paddler and his skills, many of which reach far beyond the scope of the 3* standard and some that reach beyond the 4* Sea standard. But there's a big difference between having a bunch of skills, even at a highly specific level, and being able to demonstrate all of the skills relative to a specific standard on any particular day.

Like I've said before, the 3* standard is tough and challenging and will not be discpatched as quickly as many of those here and else where might like to believe. At any rate, you could never understand the complexity without living through the experience yourself.

KenC made short work of the 3* standard, but he spent some 30 years paddling tough and big WW before he started to play with long boats. You may want to ask yourself why someone with his obvious skill, power and experience would even bother with the BCU system at all. I believe he plans to continue his BCU training all the way to 5*. I'll check with him next time we paddle together.




– Last Updated: Mar-25-05 6:30 PM EST –

Honestly, Jed... I have no argument about 3 star being a base for whatever. I'm just noting that some of the stuff mentioned, like "deep water" rescue is not applicable to river running, at least with the low volume playboats. Even some of the side movement strokes and accompanying body tilt have to get a little specific among boats such a displacement (tour and old school ww) hulls, chine playboats and sharp rail surf boats.

I guess that I tend to focus more on the venue. If someone comes to me and wants to do white water, there are things I would focus on that overlap with the 3 star list and there are things I wouldn't bother with. Ditto with surf. To use your analogy, I wouldn't put a roundhouse kick on the training list for a boxer training for the ring.

Bottom line, is that I personally favor a more diverse approach to stuff, probably in a more roundabout and more freeflowing manner than you seem to pursue it at least with the BCU curriculum. But we talking simply a matter of personal perferences/styles and not so much about validity.


Not yet Scott but I’m working on it
I’m working on the wife on a daily basis.

I think I’ve found a way to “hide” boats in the barn such that she could never know which one’s are mine and which boats are owned by others. And of course these “virtual friends” have all aggreed to let me use “their” canoes when ever I want in exchange for “storing” their boats for them. What do you think? Could it work?

I’m thinking a Bell Magic in white gold to get started. I’m a solo paddler looking to push the limits and use that sucker off the coast of Maine. I’ll need to get TommieT or someone to teach me how to roll one but I’ve got time to practice and warm local water to play on.

“Half the paddle, twice the paddler!”



I don’t recall anyone actually

– Last Updated: Mar-25-05 7:19 PM EST –

questioning the "validity" of any BCU ratings (just consistency), or having any confusion about 3 star being for general paddling (nor one said it was a sea rating), or about the conditions the 3 start assessments are given in.

Defense of BCU is not really needed. Talking down non-BCU paddlers as being uniformed and unable to judge what's useful is also counter productive. Open discussion of the requirements from outsiders should be welcomed. BCU should encourage such interest - unless the only interest is in paying followers.

You would no doubt consider me a critic from my posts, but I ask you to consider that a critique is not an attack. BCU has the best system from what I see - which is why I look at it with a critical eye. Don't defend it - sell it!

As for not being able to pass a 3 star - you may be right (I might be one of those), but wrong to think that means much. From reading the syllabus, anything I couldn't pass in 3 star I really doubt I'd consider important. More about doing things the BCU way than anything else. With some attention to the specifics of what's expected/required, 4 star doesn't look too daunting. Challenging, but reasonably so.

It all comes down to time, money, and what will it really do for me? Like I said, don't defend it, sell it!

I look at it, and see good stuff. Stuff that parallels what I have set out for myself to a large extent. I'm not opposed to BCU in any way - I just don't see them as owning any of these skills or me needing to have their sanction to learn them. If BCU becomes a more efficient path (meaning I have opportunity, time, and $) I'm very open to training and assessment. Until then, I will be content to follow another path.

Or just ignore all that above and just let me second Sing's comment that we're: "... talking simply a matter of personal perferences/styles and not so much about validity."

Adaptability is they key
Yes, some of the stuff in 3* seems arbitrary, especially the “you must do it this way” things. Obviously, there is usually more than one way to do things. Even the BCU themselves regularly tweaks techniques to fit discoveries and realizations based on the collective experience of their instructors and assessors.

But… and a big but it is… the interesting part about passing BCU 3*, IMHO, is that you are a good enough paddler to adapt to the requirements, however arbitrary, and perform as requested. IOW, you are good enough with a paddle and boat that you’re not locked into any one style or set of techniques, but can adapt as necessary. That, IMHO again, is the mark of a solid paddler.

So, you can say… OK, you wanna see it done ~that~ way, then here it is. If that takes you a little practice (as it usually does me) then OK. If not, then you are even better. But either way, you can adapt – you are not locked into a slavish technique.

Tom Bergh is even more radical on this. He says, if the assessor asks you to perform such and such a manuever, and you think there are a couple of ways to do it correctly, then say… OK, here it is one way… and here it is the other. Now which did you want ;-)). All right, that requires some, shall we say, gozangas in an assessment, but the point is well taken.

I do not mean to imply, by the way, that the 3* or any BCU curriculum is entirely or even significantly arbitrary. They are proven and valuable techniques with a ton of high-class experience behind them. But they are not the be-all and end-all of paddling; that’s not really the point.

Besides, as Tom and crew also say, after a while you realize that there are really only two strokes – the one on the right and the one on the left. All else is variation, combination and adaptation to conditions and situations.


Not really.
“The skills needed for sea kayaking, white water, surf, sprint, etc. are all the same at they’re root.” They are actually quite different. I don’t want to create a big argument here. But I WW kayak mostly, and sea kayak some, and intend to surf kayak if it gets warm enough, and it is obvious to me that the skills are quite different. What is the problem with recognizing this? The BCU system obviously has a vision of a touring/sea kayak as the basis of the requirements for 3*. Why not just say that? What is the big deal? The real point is to develop the skills you need to do what you want to do.

How bad are these assessors?
It seems like from what you folks are saying that the assessors are really mean and picky. The local BCU instructor that I know of in North Carolina is like a really nice easy going fella. I can’t imagine him being unclear or a jerk about what the standards are. Don’t most folks take some training during the few days before the test? And would this training cover exactly what is require to past the assessment?

I have talked with him about the day
at some length and that’s all I have to say about the matter here!

You have my number. Hope to paddle with you soon, when my work drops below 60 hours per week. could even use some lessons but we’ll see.

I see your students improving big time! Now that’s produce!