Russel Farrow of Sweetwater Kayaks, BCU Level 3 Coach, leads a session at the Southwest Kayak Symposium in San Diego

Michael Pardy envisions the day when an American Canoe Association card, Paddle Canada award or British Canoe Union badge is a recreational paddler’s pass to oceans and rivers. Pardy, a long-time Canadian sea kayak instructor-trainer, author and director of SKILS, a British Columbia-based sea kayak leadership training company, believes that certification—an operator’s license of sorts—will one day be required to paddle. The outfitters who disperse these certificates will be in high demand, if recreational paddlesports are to persist.

“I think we are going to face increased restrictions in our ability to access water,” says Pardy. “We’re seeing dam projects on rivers, marinas on the coast and popular destinations being overrun. When it comes to dealing with governments, it’s best to have structure and systems. We need to develop a culture of advocacy and one of the ways we can do that is to accept some kind of standard in training.”

The tricky thing is that the techniques that high-level paddling instructors like Pardy discuss around the campfire hold little relevance to the masses of weekend rec boaters. While there’s no denying the role of instruction in shaping new sea kayakers, whitewater boaters and canoeists, it’s equally apparent that the United States’ national paddlesports body is struggling to maintain paddlers’ interest. A recent survey of paddlesports training schemes around the world reveals that the way we assess skills and offer instruction is changing. That leaves it up to outfitters, schools and paddlesports retailers to determine the merits of these changes, and, weighing the costs and benefits of implementing them.

The American Canoe Association (ACA) has come a long way since 1880, when 15 canoeists gathered on Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains to form a club with the objective of “the promotion of canoeing.” Today, the 50,000-member strong ACA includes canoeing (river, touring and freestyle), kayaking (river, sea and surf), as well as programs for rafting, adaptive paddling, and safety/rescue training. Since 1972, the ACA’s 4,000 instructors have offered nationally certified courses in these disciplines to over 800,000 people per year. The ACA also offers liability insurance to 300 “organizational members”—a big draw for outfitters like Marquette, Mich.’s Sea Kayak Specialists. “Since we only offer certified courses it’s far more affordable for us to get insurance course by course, rather than having an expensive insurance policy,” says co-owner Sam Crowley.

Whereas the ACA was built on recreation, the British Canoe Union (BCU) was founded (and funded) by the British government in 1936 to support Olympic athletes. Competition remains a key component of the BCU, but the organization also offers a highly evolved and coveted series of star-based paddling “proficiency awards” and coach levels for river, sea and surf kayaking, open canoeing, and other disciplines like marathon racing and canoe polo. Unlike the ACA, whose highest awards are given to instructors, the BCU offers challenging, skill-based awards for paddlers who want to lead trips, rather than teach. One-, Two- and Three-Star courses are tailored to beginner, novice and intermediate boaters; Four- and Five-Star (the highest level of proficiency) paddlers are certified to lead groups in specific conditions and types of water. Jen Kleck, owner of San Diego’s Aqua Adventures Kayak Center, says this full slate of programs drew her to the BCU. “It suits the way people actually paddle—going out with clubs and friends and such,” says Kleck, a Level 5 instructor. “It’s much more in tune with and useful to the recreational paddler.”