Friday, August 26, 2016


I was conducting a paddling skills assessment at a lake yesterday, aided by friend and fellow instructor Jean Kostelich of Two Geeks @ Three Knots. While there, I ran into some other local acquaintances, people who are more skilled paddlers than I, and we got to talking. Our conversation went along these lines:

You got any plans this fall? What about that thing we went to in Groton?

Gotta wait and see about my schedule. I'd love to go. I also want to get some [n] training.

Really, with who?

[name]. I find his style really works for me.

Yes he's good, I only met him last year. You going for your  [n] ?

Maybe, but what would I do with it? Conditions around here are only so much, and very few paddlers are up to that level of paddling.

Yeah. In NYC people say I'm an amazing paddler, but I go up there and I realize where I'm really at. You know, just average at best.

What constitutes amazing? I think it's only human to think in binary terms: I'm a beginner or  I'm amazing. Where one places oneself on that limited spectrum might depend on the events of that day. If you try something new, that pushes your limits, how well you do will color your self-perception.

I for one can say that I felt pretty darned amazing the day I capsized while surfing a three-foot wave and rolled up on my less-elegant side. But then the next day I repeatedly failed a re-entry and roll.

Some folks who keep at their paddling will develop a third model. The wording is always awkward. What's an "advanced beginner" or "intermediate". In my own work I've settled on "improvers", covering a wide range: from "has the basics down" to "can do everything I can and be better at it too."

The truth though, is that paddling skills are a spectrum, and each skill in itself can run on a spectrum. I've seen plenty of paddlers with good forward and turning strokes but weak or ineffective braces. I've seen some amazing rollers who have messy draw strokes. On top of all this, there's experience in conditions. Strokes that work in rough water will work in flat water, but unless practiced correctly, in those conditions, fear in the "brain" part of body-boat-blade-brain will wreck the best efforts of the other three Bs.

Hence, most of the best paddlers I know will say they're "OK". "Just OK," because paddling is a practice. It's an ongoing activity and achievement. I might have an amazing bow rudder one day and a terrible on the next. Or crack six rolls consecutively one day but then muscle one the next.

Amazing? It's all in the eye of the beholder.

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