Structured Training Programs: BCU, ACA

I lost most of this year to a broken shoulder. My plan was to do regular training with a coach/guide. I hadn’t finalized the strategy before breaking the shoulder. I’m several months into rehab and, provided I don’t crash into anything again, I’m going to try again to devise a training plan.

I’ve read through most or all of the prior threads regarding BCU. I’m left wondering whether committing to a formal plan that includes assessments is the way to proceed, or just find a good coach or two and learn more organically and not include formalized assessments.

I’d love to hear from those that have completed BCU and/or ACA and whether you feel it was worthwhile having the structure and defined assessment points.

I like structure. It can provide motivation to achieve goals. It can also suck the fun out of things. And I recently heard a compelling argument (from the ski-mountaineering world) that structured programs may confine you to a certain way of doing things that might not work in all situations; that self-directed learning may be better for some people and situations.

Also: how do you even find a BCU instructor? Seems they locked down the public site and they want you to join in order to use the search functions.

Both are good sources of instruction and almost all people that make a full or part time living from kayak instruction will be certified by at least one of these organizations. They both offer a wide range of different certifications for different types of kayaking or canoeing. Around the Chesapeake Bay at least, ACA is far more common than BCU. ACA is headquartered in Fredericksburg, VA. You can use the ACA’s website to find local instructors.

In the US, BCU, now known as British Canoeing, has been largely eclipsed by ACA although it continues to be very popular in Britain. BCU training was considered more rigorous than ACA’s, but ACA appears to have a wider range of certifications these days. At this time, British Canoeing does not seem very active in the US although a few outfitters can be found online that have BC certified instructors.

I know several ACA instructors and they are all very good and easy to work with. Many have volunteered to offer free instruction for our Club at times as well as paid classes. Most offer individual as well as group classes. I’ve learned a lot from them, but collecting formal certifications has never been my thing, although it appeals to many others.


Hmm. I expected more replies based on some of the older threads.

Having fractured my shoulder several years ago, I empathize with your situation. Physical therapy can work wonders. A Greenland paddle is also helpful when getting back on the water after such an injury.

I’ve gone through the ACA L1, L2 and L3 kayak skills courses, attended several symposiums which had both ACA and BCU coaches, and had one-on-one coaching with instructors who had both ACA and BCU certification.

I’ve not taken any assessment courses since I have no need for written documentation of my paddling ability.

All the classes were good learning experiences. Some better than others because of the instructor. What’s important to me is the teaching ability of the coach, not the type of certification.

Because I have paddled with a couple of Ninja quality instructors, I’d seek them out for additional coaching.

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I hold an old BCU now useless rating. I and my husband went thru their program and were doing OK. We found it to be excellent training for sea kayaking and I remain grateful for a lot of what I learned. We were advocates and brought a lot of people into the program.

Then they revised the levels and introduced an ill-fated canoe requirement that was in place for all disciplines including the sea kayaking path. The canoe requirement was at best variably assessed and that combined with the other changes left many people (myself included) disinterested in screwing around further with the BCU. (BCU was never strong in the US for whitewater.)

That canoe requirement was at some later point dropped, somewhere a bit ahead of that a North American organization was formed that was the BCU with leadership based on this side of the big pond. That organization however still had to adhere strictly to the BCU requirements from Great Britain. Which basically meant that many of the issues a lot of us had with the stuff from Great Britain was still there. This organization did not survive long term.

(Interesting to note that one result of the canoe and assessment level changes was that a new organization was formed in Scotland. Many very good paddlers there just said phooey. You would think that folks from England would have figured this out by now.)

Unfortunately the moment that the BCU made these disruptive program changes coincided with what was probably the peak of interest in the US for people coming into kayaking that had the interest and the financial resources to train and prep for bigger water. Younger people are not coming into this with the same interest and many of us from that era are paddling safer and more conservatively as we got older.

There are still BCU coaches around but no one is getting younger, and the framework for delivery of BCU training is more expensive and difficult to arrange than ACA. BCU typically offers training and assessment in 3 and 4 day weekend symposiums with coaches etc all present in a concentrated place. The locations where this can be pulled off are simply less than they were. The situation is still solid in at least one area of California and somewhere but I forget the details on the Great Lakes. Venues that have been reliable for many years on the eastern seaboard are getting challenged, for example Sweetwater in Florida. The loss of the person who ran the kayaking shop and program out of there probably makes it harder to put together the February BCU symposium that was held there.

Meanwhile the ACA is chugging along with a pretty solid bank of coaches, an improved sea kayaking program over their earlier years and a delivery mechanism that works well for a lot of people. Two concentrated days over a weekend, near as I can tell everyone walks out with a level assigned or advice on what they have to fix to get to one.


Thank you for the detailed response. To your point about “more difficult to arrange” if my memory serves me, you could go on the BCU website to locate a coach. I’m pretty sure they want you to join BCU in order to see the list. The ACA, OTOH, had its list of coaches accessible from the main webpage. Quite a lot of people across the US; a couple of whom in the Northeast I think are also BCU coaches. But it’s definitely easier to find an ACA course/coach.

Yes, the coaching quality is the determining factor. And to that point, it might be better to ‘mix and match’ between the two programs, the value being that someone who holds an actual level/certification as a coach has gone through a process to learn how to teach the skills. Like you I don’t need certification. I’m not going to start guiding at this point of my life, but wonder if the pursuit of the levels might keep me on track. Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve been watching a lot of Online Sea and practicing the skills on my own. Not the same as coaching, I know, but certainly better than not learning and practicing!

Locating a coach may not help much if the training is intended to be done in the Symposium format. My husband and I found one locally who would work with us privately. But simple loss of coaches has made that more difficulty or near impossible in much of the country. Probably Canada too - the organization over here was actually North America BCU.
Good luck to anyone if you also have to join to see the lists. Web sites out of England remain notoriously bad compared to what we are used to in the US.

One thing that was a point of argument between ACA and BCU for long boating was when the rolling requirement happened. Probably due to the Brits kayaking in the very unforgiving North Sea, at one point the BCU wanted that a level sooner than the ACA. I happened to agree with rolling early and often if you are going to be on big water so that was never an issue for me. But then the BCU changed the levels and I have no recall of where they put it. By then mine was solid.

I agree with you and I’m not on big water…yet. I took rolling lessons years ago (before taking a multi-year break), and knowing how to get upright was a huge confidence booster and made me more relaxed and confident overall. I hope to get to some pool sessions over the winter and regain that skill and confidence working with a coach.

Sounds as if you have a specific goal so I’m curious what the objective of your track is.

Mine was/is to be a competent paddler. Still working at it. Lessons are great but seat time is also an excellent teacher.

One of my favorite activities is to practice the strokes and maneuvers shown in Roger Schumann’s site because they’re fun to do:

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Safety. Competence. Confidence.


My take - I have been around a while and am an ACA level 4 sea kayaking instructor, but I also keep my head down and do my thing and don’t pay attention to some of the politics and changes in systems that much, unless I have too. So may not be 100% correct.

First is a target in how each kind of aims to be (though it doesn’t always work out this way) - BCU has coaches, ACA has instructors. Coaches are ones who should be working with you over long periods of time to improve what you need. Instructors are able to take you for a class or other short segment of time and improve you there, but then if you want to continue learning, the student would sign up for more classes (maybe with a different instructor).

In the right situation (good coach near you, etc.) that coaching can be awesome. You and the coach will be spending a fair amount of time paddling together. But the coaches are doing this to some level as income producing (though none get rich), so there is a financial cost to this. The ACA instructor situation you generally pay for your class, so costs are more limited/controlled, but you are less likely to get long term coaching.

Becoming a BCU coach is a more involved process than becoming an ACA instructor. I’ve heard some call getting a BCU 5 star coach certification the equivalent to getting a university post graduate masters degree in difficulty. Getting the Level 5 in ACA is not easy, but also not equal to a college degree.

Many of the BCU classes also seem to be more involved. For example, I believe the BCU tides and currents class is done over 2 days, with 1 day being all in a classroom. Most ACA tides and currents classes are done in 1 day on the water (or near water, like at launch site, for the theory portions).

A lot probably will come down to what is available to you. It seemed to be that certain areas were more one org than the other. For example, it seemed (10+ years ago) that Seattle had a had a lot of BCU folks, where northern California was mostly ACA. Now at least I know NorCal does have a mix, but is still ACA heavy. If your area (both local for day classes and large area for going to multi-day events) is more one than the other, that might be your best bet.

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Good luck with BCU if you have to join to locate an instructor.

For ACA instructors, I am under the impression that there are continuing education requirements if you want to continue teaching as an ACA instructor. To just get a certification, there are no further requirements. Many camps and venues that have canoe or kayak programs require some sort of certification, not necessarily instructor level, to be hired.

My understanding on it:
BCU focuses on how to do.
ACA Focuses on how to do and how to teach.

That’s just how its been described to me, but I’ve never done anything in the BCU, only ACA.

I would suggest getting your training at the Kayak Academy in Issaquah WA. George will teach you more in one week than the ACA program will in several years.

That’s just about getting it, and also far off. It’s getting it insofar as recognizing that individual instructors have individual talents. It’s not getting it at all insofar as believing that the ACA is going to limit someone’s ability to teach or learn kayaking well. There are many very talented ACA instructors out there. And the ACA seems pretty big on differentiated instruction. The good ones recognize both tried and true best practices, why they have been recognized as best practices, as well as the fun and effectiveness of exploring options in connection with the individual student(s) they are working with. The good ones also recognize the danger of sapping the fun out of kayaking. and actively try to mitigate this occurring. I guess I just don’t recognize that the ACA mandates or recommends a program that limits what a paddler can learn in a week, or what an instructor can teach in a week.

As far as I know, ACA sets minimum requirements on what an instructor teaches for a student to be tested for certification. However it does not limit what they can teach beyond that if they wish. Larger classes with students of varying abilities may necessarily limit what can be taught in a certain time frame, however smaller or individual classes may allow an instructor to go beyond the minimum requirements. It’s up to the individual instructor.

Of course it’s not necessarily in the instructor’s (or outfitter’s) interest to grant more advanced certifications that are not paid for.

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