Training - BCU Week Tybee Island

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Every year in late October, Sea Kayak Georgia hosts a five-day British Canoe Union (BCU) symposium at Tybee Island, Georgia. The 2006 symposium ran from Saturday, October 28 through Wednesday, November 1. It is the second one Rick attended and both have been excellent learning and teaching opportunities. It’s also a great way to stretch out the warm weather/water paddling season.

Tybee Island GA: BCU Symposium 2006
by Rick Wiebush

The Event

While there are several BCU symposia in the U.S., the one at Tybee is the largest, with about 100 participants and coaches. People come from all over: represented this year (at least among the people I met) were California, Texas, Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and, of course, Georgia. Oh yeah, and Canada, England, Scotland, Wales and Israel.

Tybee Island

Tybee – which is about 20 miles SE of Savannah - is a great place for this type of event. It is the northernmost of Georgia’s barrier islands and has access to all different kinds of conditions. You can find very sheltered water in some of the winding rivers and smaller bays; there’s quick access to the open ocean and fairly good surf; and there are a couple of places in the ocean where outrageous “conditions” are routine (e.g., the “zipper”, where currents and waves coming from two or three different directions collide, creating barely manageable clapotis). Late October is also a great time of year down there, with air temperatures typically in the high 70’s or low 80’s during the day, and water temps in the low 70’s. It was sunny every day this year, although on Saturday the winds were a bit high – like 20 knots.

One of the real treats is that there are porpoises everywhere. It seemed like every time I turned around, there would be dorsal fins slicing through the water, typically not more than 30-40 feet away from where we were working. They would frequently circle around whatever activity we were involved in, get their curiosity satisfied (or maybe they saw everyone pull out their cameras) and then disappear just like that.

The Kayakers

The spectrum of sea kayaking abilities at the symposium is striking – there’s everyone from people who just started paddling last summer to Level 5 BCU coaches who appear to be able to do anything in a sea kayak. In general though, it’s my impression that the majority of participants are pretty solid paddlers who are working on skills (or doing assessments) at the 3 or 4 star level. There’s also a sizable group who already are at the 4 Star level and who are refining/expanding their skills and/or are getting trained to be BCU coaches.

One of the great things about Tybee is that it attracts a large number of high level coaches from the U.S. and Europe (e.g., Nigel Dennis, Gordon Brown, Fiona Whitehead). There was a total of about 25 instructors and most of them provided instruction at multiple levels. That is, any given coach might be teaching a 4 star class one day, a 2 star class the next, a 3 star assessment the day after that, and then an introduction to surfing course. This means that people of all ability levels can have access to some of the best BCU coaches in the world. This is true both on and off the water. A whole other dimension to this interaction is the post-classes hanging out at the Sea Kayak Georgia shop, and the apparently-mandatory 9 PM migration to Doc’s, the local dive that hosts hordes of participants and coaches each night.

The Classes

There is a pretty good selection of classes. This year, there were approximately 15 classes every day, including: 2, 3 and 4 star training and assessments; Level 2 and 3 Coach training and assessments; Canoe Safety tests; Greenland style paddling and rolling; long- and short-boat surfing; discovery learning (Nigel Foster); and 4 star trips. There were also several one-time classes, including a three-day 5 star training; sessions on body and boat control, rolling, support strokes, navigation, and core paddling; as well as a forward stroke clinic and a “combination and coordination” session. (For a full list of classes and instructors, go to and click on “BCU Symposium”).

The classes are complimented by evening slide-show presentations, typically by people who have undertaken some kind of major expedition in the past year or two. The two talks I attended this year were on absolutely spectacular, extremely challenging journeys.

The first was a circumnavigation of South Georgia Island that was done last November by the largely British team of Nigel Dennis, Jeff Allen, Hadas Feldman and Peter Bray. South Georgia is the place made famous by Sir Ernest Shackleton, who in 1916 sailed a 20ft boat 800 miles to the mountainous island from his ice-bound ship in Antartica in an (successful) attempt to mount a rescue effort. The British kayaking team did the 400+ mile circumnavigation of South Georgia in 13 days and 8 hours (do the math!). They fought Force 8 winds, very aggressive bull Fur seals and constant near-freezing temperatures. For more on this, and pictures, go to

The second presentation was on the six-month circumnavigation of Japan that Jeff Allen and Hadas Feldman did in 2004. They covered 4,000 miles and averaged about 35 miles per day. (There were days when winds up to 100 mph kept them off the water). Although this was quite a kayaking feat, they emphasize that one of the most rewarding things about the journey was gaining an appreciation for the Japanese people and culture. The journey is highlighted in the kayaking video “This is the Sea, Too”. You can also see Jeff’s written report at

What I Did: Arrangements

Last year Steve Rohrs, Julio Perez and I flew down to the Symposium, rented boats and stayed in a great condo for about $40 each per night. This year was different. First, I went alone. Second, I drove down so that I could use my own boat. Third, I stayed the first two nights in a motel that had rooms that were approximately the size of a large desk, for which I paid $50 a night. The last three nights I splurged and moved all the way up to a HoJos for just $5 more. I instantly quadrupled my square footage and elevated my mood by the same factor.

Driving works. It’s a pretty long drive (about 12 hours from Baltimore) but, in addition to having your own boat, you avoid costs for airfare ($300-350) and boat rental ($235 for a glass boat). HoJos works too. Unless you are under 5 feet tall, weigh less than 100 lbs, are not claustrophobic, and admire cheap wall paneling, I would not recommend the Royal Palm Motel.


Over the past year I have become more and more interested in the BCU coaching track, so I spent 4 of the 5 days doing courses related to becoming a Level 3 Coach.

Coach 3 Training.

Saturday and Sunday I spent doing the two-day Coach 3 training with Phil Eccles (a level 5 coach from Wales) and Jen Kleck (a level 4 coach from San Diego). There were four students, all men, all white, all 35+, and all of whom were 4 star paddlers and Level 2 coaches. As it turned out, the other three guys were way better paddlers than me. Although I didn’t expect – or want – this outcome, one of the most important things I took away from this course was the recognition that: 1) I’m a relatively weak 4 star paddler; 2) I spend too much time paddling on the fairly mild conditions of the Chesapeake; and, 3) I need to go out of my way to find rougher conditions and hone my skills there. It was pretty embarrassing to be in a course designed for people who want to teach others how to handle 4 star conditions, only to get smacked upside the head with the realization that I need to work on my own skills a lot more before even thinking about coaching others at that level.

While some of the course time was devoted to the “how to” of teaching specific skills, most of it was oriented to on-water leadership and management of groups of people who are learning to paddle in 4 star conditions. So, for example, we spent considerable time talking about risk assessment and finding “conditions” that would test people’s skills, but that would not put them in a situation where they would be way over their heads; and that would potentially threaten their safety; or that would impair – due to fear – their ability to learn.

The whole leadership theme also involved several practice sessions that included activities such as organizing surf zone training (e.g, setting boundaries, establishing in/out routes, communication; dealing with capsizes) and, on Sunday, a full two hours of dealing with various open water scenarios that tested both our paddling skills and judgment (e.g., multiple capsizes; getting a shoulder-injured paddler back into his boat; first aid for arterial bleeding, etc.) These exercises were the most fun for me since they involved a lot of action. Although it may be due to the nature of the course, I thought there was generally too much talking by the instructors and not enough “doing” by the participants. Nonetheless, the experience was very worthwhile and a lot of fun.

3 Star Training and Assessment

In the BCU coaching scheme, a prospective Coach 3 has to: 1) do the two-day Coach 3 training; 2) spend 50 hours training others at the 3 and 4 star level while supervised by a higher level coach; 3) assist with several 3 star assessments; and then, 4) pass a two-day Coach 3 assessment.

As I learned when getting my Coach 2 award, getting the required number of supervised hours of teaching is next to impossible for someone from the Baltimore/DC area. There are very few (read “none”) active BCU coaches around here. As a result I ended up running all over the east coast – and spending lots of money doing it – to get the supervised training hours I needed for Coach 2. So I figured I would maximize my time at Tybee by spending a couple of days “getting signatures” for supervised training and assessment.

I spent Day 3 of the symposium running a 3 star training with Lamar Hudgins from Barrier Island Kayaks (North Carolina). It was wonderful. Lamar and I agreed at the beginning that he and I would equally split the teaching responsibilities, simply rotating lead coaching for each successive task. It couldn’t have worked out better, especially since we had never trained together before and didn’t even know each other that well. Our styles meshed and complimented each other’s perfectly. And if one of us left something out – or knew something the other person didn’t – the other person just jumped in and filled the gap. It was pretty much flawless and, based on the progress we saw in the 6 students, and their feedback, the training was extremely helpful to them. I was pretty high afterwards and the experience did a lot to restore some of the confidence I had lost from being the low man on the totem pole the previous two days.

On day 4, I sat in on a 3 star assessment that was being run by Jean Totz from Sweetwater Kayaks in Florida. Mine really was just an observer role, so I couldn’t contribute much. I did get from Jean some good ideas on how to structure an assessment and how to set a tone that lets people relax in what is inherently a stressful situation. We also had a really good conversation about exactly what it takes to pass a 3 star assessment. I was always somewhat unclear about whether and how much slack an assessor could allow a student. Like do they have to do everything perfectly? What if they do 90% of the stuff perfectly and 10% a little less than perfectly? Where do you, as an assessor, draw these lines? As it turns out, there are some skills that are considered critical and that have to be executed perfectly, while there are one, maybe two others on which she will let people slide if they can do it, but it’s a little lacking in terms of effectiveness or efficiency. Jean’s take on this is pretty close to the way I have seen Mark Schoon conduct assessments, so it seems like there is some degree of consistency in this potentially very subjective assessment process.

Two of the three people passed, but one of those just barely made it. In fact Jean told him that he had failed because of: 1) showing up late; 2) not having read the syllabus; 3) failing to bring a tow line; and, most importantly, 4) flaws in his high brace. I think the guy was a little upset, because he just stayed on the water, practicing and practicing his high braces. He eventually got it right and, I suspect in part due to his perseverance, Jean backed off from her other objections and gave him the 3 star award.

Box rescue


I set aside the last day for working on my own paddling skills and for fun. I feel pretty comfortable just playing in the surf, launching and landing, bongo sliding etc, but I can’t actually surf very well. So I did a long-boat surf class. We had about 12 students and 5 instructors. There’s a quarter-mile long bar off the south end of Tybee where, when conditions are right, there is very good surfing - and conditions were right on this day. We had 3-4 ft spilling waves that would continuously reform over a two hundred yard stretch of water before flattening out in deeper water. So we were able get some very long rides and not end up on a beach. You ride the waves in, then just turn around and head back out for more.

Tybee Surf

I got some really good tips on how to simultaneously edge and use a stern rudder in order to make corrections while riding the wave, and that’s exactly what I needed. As a result, I was able to catch some really long rides (the longest of which I estimated to be about 50 yards) and to go very, very fast. At the time, perhaps influenced by the thrill of actually catching a wave and riding it straight, I estimated my top speed at 75 mph. In retrospect, I think that may have been a little high. But it sure felt that fast. It was exhilarating and a great way to end the week at Tybee.

If You Go

No wait, I mean when you go. Look, I think everybody should do one of these BCU symposia. At minimum, it’s a great mini-vacation; but you also can’t help but learn a whole lot, develop a bunch of new skills, and come back a much more confident paddler. You get to meet people from all over the country who have the same interests you do, who are really motivated to learn, who like to work hard during the day, and lots of whom like to party hard at night. You get to work with fabulous – and sometimes famous - instructors and can do all kinds of name dropping when you get back home. What’s not to like?

You can find out about upcoming symposia by periodically checking the BCU North America website ( The ones I’ve been to, or heard consistently good reports about are:

Sweetwater Kayaks Greenland and BCU Symposium. St. Petersburg, FL; late February.

Barrier Islands Kayak Symposium. Swansboro NC; early June. Small (40 people), but very good.

St Michael’s College BCU week. Burlington, VT.; mid-July.

Downeast BCU Symposium. Bar Harbor ME; mid- September. This is Mark Schoon and Mel Rice (Carpediem Kayaking). Also small and also very good.

Sea Kayak Georgia BCU Week. Last week in October. See above.




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