By Conor Mihell
Published: February 24, 2010

"It sounds like you're going to get some conditions," Sean Morley says as he greets me at the Oakland airport on a recent, soggy February afternoon.

Morley, the director of the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium, says he’s heard of reports that in the next few days the Pacific will roar with 20-foot swell, strong onshore winds and some of the strongest tidal flows of the year. The ominous forecast has Morley—a British ex-pat, well-traveled expedition paddler and world champion surf kayaker—stoked. He's organized a British Canoe Union 5-Star training course leading up to the symposium and these are just the kind of conditions necessary for the award. "Don't expect Penrhyn Mawr," he says, referring to a powerful tidal race in the British Isles, "but swell and wind against the tide is going to make for some definite 5-Star stuff."

Morley has recruited arguably the world's best-known sea kayak coach for the event—Welsh sea kayak designer and expedition paddler Nigel Dennis. To have a legend like Dennis as my instructor is only part of the reason I came to San Francisco to train for what's said to be the crown jewel of sea kayaking. The complex geography of Bay Area produces some of the strongest tidal streams in North America, and I'm keen to paddle one of only two locations in the U.S. capable of serving up the burly conditions a 5-Star course demands. When I signed up, I envisioned tidal race surfing, scenarios involving multi-boat capsizes and broken equipment, and night navigation exercises further complicated by breaking seas.

In the end, we had our fair share of gnarly conditions—including chaotic 10-foot seas on an ebbing tide beneath the Golden Gate, and a couple of near misses in the surf zone and while practicing tethered landings on a rocky coastline. But all along, Dennis made a point of dispelling the myth that achieving 5 Stars is all about bravado.

"North Americans interpret it as some sort of gobbley award that involves horrendous epics and so on," he says. "We're not expecting you to launch in the biggest surf, to go out and get pasted, roll up, let out a whoop and go out and get pasted again."

Instead, the idea is to make the right decisions so as not to get "pasted" in the first place—that means handling moving water, leading a group, and an exuding a keen awareness of where to draw the line. In Dennis' case, this is all performed with a distinguished, nuanced, and markedly British flair. The revelation is at once relieving and disappointing. The popular balls-and-brawn interpretation of the award, it turns out, is exactly what the 5-Star is not about.

On our last day, Dennis relinquishes and allows me to throw the caution of leadership mode into the wind and venture into the bouncy tidal race at Yellow Bluff, just inside the Golden Gate. The waves are irregular and poorly formed, but after a couple of days of regimented training, surfing my sea kayak has never felt so liberating. Moments later I'm joined by a curious sea lion and Dennis himself, in his element and smiling ear to ear.

Read the full story in the June 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.