Photo by Jovan Matic

David Johnston’s motivation as a sea kayak instructor changed when he no longer had to make a living at it. “Now I tell the students, ‘This better be fun because I’m on vacation,'” says the Toronto-based civil servant and Web designer.

It’s not that Johnston didn’t know how to have a good time when paddling was his day job. The 35-year-old got his start teaching kids with short attention spans and excess energy to canoe at summer camps. Shortly after he took up sea kayaking, he accepted the responsibility of administering Canada’s first national certification system in the sport, which was developed in the late 1990s by West Coast star instructors Doug Alderson and Michael Pardy, as well as veteran East Coast guide Scott Cunningham. In the process of working for Paddle Canada, Johnston quickly amassed his own array of certifications and was lucky to learn from the best. “Michael Pardy and Tim Dyer were my mentors,” he says. “Michael is very precise with the technical aspects and Tim is great at making things so entertaining that students hardly realize they’re learning.”

Now, Johnston is one of Ontario’s highest-ranking sea kayak instructors, and teaches courses for Toronto’s Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak and at Dyer’s White Squall Paddling Centre on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. “My favorite students are the ones I get early enough to corrupt the way they think and change their preconceptions,” he says. “I love it when people realize that sea kayaking is way more than they originally thought.”

Through his Web site, Johnston has had the same influence on paddlesports professionals around the world. “Originally I thought it would be a community repository of information—things like lesson plans and teaching tips,” he says. “But a good instructor needs to know way more than just paddling—that’s how you make an emotional connection to students.” – Conor Mihell