Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Making The Grade

(Above: posed rolls in flat water are only the beginning. Photo: Sharon Betteridge)

During skills assessments I always take the time to remind participants of the artificial nature of certification, after all it is the skill and judgement and not the piece of paper that matter. In a tricky situation the most futile strategy would surely be to wave your nicely printed certificate at an angry sea.

Just the same, a valid assessment provides a good opportunity to demonstrate both physical and communication skills in swell, sea and surf. The best rolls happen spontaneously and effective boat control is proven during rescues or other realistic tasks at sea. It is simply not possible to second guess how paddlers with apparently solid skills on the flat will adapt to dynamic water; some paddlers who work with the waves actually look better when it is lively whilst others operate with little or no feel for the sea. To 'keep it real' I often postpone assessments because the day offers too few or too many challenges.

Last Wednesday I drove past twenty of Sydney's favourite ocean beaches through heavy traffic, en route to Barrenjoey. The reason for the extra drive was a heavy 2-3 metre southerly groundswell that was hammering the open coast producing surf way beyond the: ''surf to 1 metre" specified in the award.

The extra driving provided us with a short paddle to surrounding headlands where we worked through rescue and towing scenarios in rebound and a freshening sea breeze. These activities were intensive but not unrealistic when you consider how often rescues, self rescues and towing happen in clusters in real life. At lunch we negotiated the surf at Umina Beach and as planned, the waves were worn down to manageable size by the natural breakwaters of Broken Bay, Lion Island and the reef off the southern point.

Sitting off the point of Umina it was still hard to imagine that the two metre plus mounds rolling under our boats had really lost much power as they pounded the middle of the beach and everyone seemed pleased with the easier landing through smaller surf and reflected waves close to "kiddies corner". After lunch and a stretch we took to the surf to demonstrate support strokes,control strokes and rolls. By this time the break zone had become more erratic with onshore wind chopping up the surface and a few rips cutting across the break to add an element of surprise.

The debrief is always a tough time for me. There are clear guidelines for the assessor and all the boxes need to be ticked for a successful performance. This is easy when you are reading through the document in a comfy chair at home, but on the day, there are always many shades of grey. As always the big hurdles seem to be surf and the reentry and roll in open water. These are also the easiest ones for the assessor; a roll that doesn't finish with the paddler upright is is obviously not working no matter how you view it and support strokes that don't work in small waves are also pretty plain to see. What is harder to measure is the attitude that will make a safe sea paddler. Fellow assessor Stuart Trueman once commented that skills without judgement just increase the ability to find trouble and if we focus on self rescue as the answer to every situation then some paddlers will make their plans based on getting out of trouble rather than staying out of trouble in the first place.

At the end of a long day, despite a generally strong performance everyone still had some work to do to complete their assessment, so it was rewarding that the group viewed the exercise as a valuable learning experience in its own right and a chance to take stock of personal progress. Beyond the piece of paper it is this self awareness that will stand these paddlers in good stead as they "make the grade".

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