John Dowd's Scourge of Certification

-- Last Updated: Nov-10-04 5:29 PM EST --

In a recent article published in Adventure Kayak Magazine, John Dowd warns of the Scourge of Certification. His assessment encourages some serious debate. I for one, agree with his warnings; particiularily when he states: "Professional certification is a golden opportunity for shrewd business operators and controlling personality types to hobble their competitors, artificially elevate their own personal status, and setup a toll bridge for guides and instructors. Good people reluctantly get dragged aboard out of their fear of being left behind or losing their jobs. Once certified, they are less likely to fight against it."

I would encourage you to read his entire article by visiting:

I'm in no way associated with the author or the magazine--just found his critique to be on the mark.

Always The Other Side Of The Coin…
for outfitters, having standards such as those set my an “external authority” such as ACA/BCU offers some protection against lawsuits and, in some, cases would allow one to get liability insurance in the first place. Anyone doing business without liability insurance these days is crazy.

Secondly some folks need an external goals/validation to be motivated for skills development. This “need” is replicated in many other sports and arenas. Hey, if it works for them, go to it… :slight_smile:


certification of skills
I heard there was an adventure race that required some kind of certification from an instructor that the participant could accomplish “x,y,z” skills. I was asked to sign a fellow to such a thing and declined.

Hey Sing
Aren’t you certified?

or was it certifiable…


great article
the same thing has happened in the food industry . You once upon a time learned the skill from a mentor , applied for a job by sayin where you’d worked in the past and then hit the kitchen and your skills were put to the test . The same thing occurs today cept now they wanna know what college you grad. from . And it is the same in the paddle industry . But then in America all the people with certs an degree’s are all good at what they have a degree in because NO ONE every asks if the doctor they have is any good , or the plumber , mechanic . Even the OB and NOLS learning experience have had thier stories that are not talked about . Was it 4 or 6 people about 6 yrs. ago that died on a one of those courses in Baja ? And here in the states , at least to operate in Everglades Natl. park as a liscenced tour operator is ya gotta have insurance , so the folks are gonna come after you not the Feds .Certs intentions originally were good , and always remember the paper is just that ,paper , are you any good at it .

I have felt this myself!
Letting the Established examine the future competition is a sure way to raise the standards for certification.

You Know…

– Last Updated: Nov-10-04 7:10 PM EST –

it's the latter. I am the wayward child that always pushes the limits. I have to be occaisonally "spanked" back to reality. ;)

According to NHAMC, I am still not rated as a class II paddler. I've never completed the paperwork of having trip leaders rate me. Yet, I helped coach this past spring. Go figure.


Dowd is way off base.
There are lots of people out there who feel qualified to teach and guide who are a danger to themselves and others. I prefer not to give them the “freedom” to bilk and endanger newcomers to the sport. I think the training I have received to become an ACA certified instructor has made me a much better teacher and a safer paddler. Maybe Dowd would advocate letting people practice medicine without passing exams?

So the option
is to take a course or lessons from JD or ?? based on the un-certified whomever who ‘says’ he’s sooooo qualified and his program is sooooo cool cuz why?

GOOD certification like the ACA and BCU has international creditability.

John is pretty ol’ school in his assessment of current standards.


OK, that’s an argument
for certifying instructors, but why the merit badges for recreational paddlers? And for that matter, I’d be more inclined to rely on the fact that an instructor was good enough to get hired by a reputable shop than any credential provided by a certifying organization. Maybe I’m just cynical from dealing with the proliferation of BS credentialism in my work life, but I’d much rather hear something like “I hired this person and stand behind him/her” than “well, if this person is good enough for the ACA or BCU, that’s good enough for me.”

well now
for recreational paddlers it is a skill set achivement with assessment from a skilled coach. This way you can move along the advancement trail on an incremental stepping stone path. Level 1 to 5. If you follow the path you will reach your goal as part of a recognized system. Many GREAT coaches/ instructors have developed this system and the cross pollination of ‘certified’ instructors who exchange techniques and info at skills symposiums and updates (part of the cert process) stay fresh and ‘new school’.

When hiring an instructor or guide, what ‘proof’ do I have to give him/her the ‘good to go’ signal to teach/ guide so I can tell you, the student, you will be taken care of? With a certification process, at least I have a baseline standard that is established. I will still run them thru a check out but at least I have an idea of where they’re at, skills wise.

Liability insurance is another reason to get certified. Nearly impossible w/o.

btw- the government is getting ready to propose regulation of our sport. Look out. we need to be ready.

steve (certified since 1988)

this road has been travelled before
by many folks who want to slam the certification route.

I think it’s great that there is still a diversity of opinion surrounding this subject because it will ensure that if the government does try to regulate paddling that there will be plenty of discussion on whether or not certification is mandatory. I personally would prefer that it was not, but the reality may be somewhat different.

My own thinking is that certification only holds value to those that seek it. For me it held value because I wanted to be paid to instruct through a shop. It also did hold, (and I’ll admit it), external validation from my “peers” for my skills. But the BCU system is not perfect and neither is the ACA. And certainly my BCU awards are not a pedigree for “quality” instruction. But due to the BCU I would say I am a better sea paddler than I was before, I learned alot about tides and navigation that I probably would never have bothered with.

So John Dowd can knock certification all he wants and goobers like me will still pay for BCU certifications.

I still think that a lot of folks knock these organizations based from a fear of failure. If this is the case then that’s pretty sad. If it truly is because you’re a paddling rebel, then booyah to you.

For me, the BCU standards make a reasonable measure for advancing your skills, and the outside evaluation keeps you from kidding yourself. It’s like a casual jogger setting a goal of finishing a 10k race – it gives a definite goal, and a reality check on just how good you are.

The mistake is thinking that the rating means that you --or someone else – is a good, safe paddler. There are some real idiots out there with great skills. It means that you’ve demonstrated a set of skills to the satisfaction of a examiner – nothing more or less.

On the other hand…
…all the * certification tells you is that the person in question was able to perform the specified skills to the satisfaction of one instructor on one day under one set of conditions. It says little about how skilled the paddler is here and now under the immediate conditions. To use the certification system of another industry as an example, I am a certifed “Open Water Diver”. I haven’t been diving in at least ten years, but I’m still certified, just as someone with a BCU certification would be in the same situation. Does that mean I’m still qualified to dive? Not as far as I’m concerned!

Additionally, the lack of a certification doesn’t indicate in any way that a person is not a skilled paddler. I know a lot of people who are better paddlers than I and have no certification.

From what I’ve seen of the BCU syllabus, it strikes me that the certification levels below 4* are pretty much meaningless, unless all you do is paddle flat water, since they’re all about basic flat water skills. Judgement, leadership and skill on rough water (among other things) don’t come into the picture until the 4* level. There is a difference between mechanical skills and competence on the water. The later seems to start at the 4* level.

I can certainly see the point of coaching certification, especially if it must be renewed frequently and a coach must attend classes in new techniques and/or at a higher level than their current certification. However, the ACA’s coaching program apparently has some gaping holes in it, based on what I’ve seen that passes for open water coaches, in some cases. In this regard, the BCU seems to run a tighter ship.

How will Certification affect volunteers

Lots of uncertified folks, including myself, leading trips for clubs. Some more qualified than others.

With many of us already worrying about liability issues, I wonder how the push for certification will affect volunteerism?

The “Certification” Demand

– Last Updated: Nov-11-04 12:43 PM EST –

will pass on down to the volunteer base, if greater regulations are imposed. The more organized and structured the sponsoring organization, the more liability and demand for certification.

The counter to that would be loose clubs that are simply conduits for sho & go's, like Merrimack Valley Paddlers, where no one is proclaimed to be a "leader." People will call a venue and whoever shows will be responsible for their own safety and judgement.

"Idiot rebels", like me, will be there to run the river, surf the wave, or get tossed around in wind and chops. And, we'll love it. :)


Afraid it’s gonna happen regardless
There is a slow tidal wave in the whole outdoor industry, and this has been sloshing into the volunteer orgs as well. The book entitled “Lessons Learned” details how it is inevitable that for profits, and non for profit orgs are all being held to a much higer legal liability standard than previously. Frequently now, courts are finding that volunteer groups must meet similar if not the same standards as professional groups guides instructors and leaders, and ignorance of these procedures, policies, and skills is no excuse.

I do not pretend to know what if anything can be done about this, save, be aware of it for now, and stay away from becoming swept into it by leading a group and something happening. Evidently it can ruin your enjoyment not to mention be a financial mess.

I hope that being ready means ready to fight it, not ready to have the government mandate a steady source of income for instructors and paddleshops. Lessons are all well and good–I had my first formal lesson last weekend, and it was excellent–but being required to say “mother may I” to buy a boat or gear would drive me right out of this sport. I’m on the water to get away from that crap.

on the one point of time issue. A cert MUST be a continuation process. it isn’t a everlasting, needs no maintainence thing.

I do disagree with the below level 4 stuff not needed statement tho. this is part of the incremental stepping stones. granted the BCU has no leadership below 5* which IMO is pretty weak, but the skills learned in 2* and 3* are VERY important building blocks.

I have has numerous folks come take an Instructor training w/o proper 2/3 skills and while they ‘survived’ harder conditions they didn’t have ‘grace and style’.

We’re working on sumthin’out here (West coast) that blends BCU/ ACA stuff and adds leadership at L3. It is very cool and will hit the streets soon.

Off to an 3-day Advanced Open Coast training this weekend at Ilwaco. SPRING tides/ BIG current and med-low (6-8’) swell. perfect combo!


means having our sheet together and having an ‘established’ system of regulating ourselves. If we fight it we will loose. Too much liability, danger, technicality, money, etc. involved as the sport goes mainstream. When Wal-Mart and GI-Joes started selling serious paddle gear and NO back-up of knowlegeable sales staff or routes to EDU we stated down the path of regulation.

all it takes is a couple more deaths and the govt will be take a strong look at us (as an industry) and figure out what it takes (in their humble opinion) to make it safer. It’s already in the wind.

As we speak I’m working with the ACA and BCU in figuring out a pretty cool system! More soon.