It’s done. Several months of practice and planning (and one aborted assessment due to candidates dropping out) and I’ve passed my BCU 4 Star Sea Assessment. Whilst in the grand scheme of things the 4* leaders award is not perhaps the hugest achievement in the world, when you are head down and focused preparing for an assessment it can easily become all consuming. I felt a degree of extra pressure in so much as passing this award is hopefully the last hurdle for me in getting my BCU coaching qualifications re-instated. I thought I would share some of the things I learned during in the process of preparing and then undertaking the assessment in the hope that it might aid others going through this process.

Assessment Pre-requisities:

Pre-requisites for the assessment are:

  1. An 8 Hour First Aid Course
  2. Completiton of 4* Sea Training Course
  3. Coastal Navigation and Tidal Planning Course
  4. Logged paddling – 12 trips in relevant conditions – 5 as an assistant leader
  5. VR Form – download from BCU, complete and send off to register for assessment

Be aware that it takes a minimum of 2 weeks to turn around the VR form so this needs to be completed and sent off in good time to ensure you have it back from the BCU prior to attending the assessment. Also be aware that if you techy and tend to fill in forms on a computer then print them out, you must ‘hand sign’ the form – a digital signature resulted in my form being returned for signing.

Preparation For Assessment

My thoughts here are based on my own preparations, discussions with other candidates and a few course providers.

Personal Paddling Skills:
Demonstrating polished personal skills is very important throughout the assessment. To a large extent in our assessment it was continuously observed/assessed during the two days as opposed to having specific tasks set for us. You need to be comfortable paddling up to and and I would suggest beyond the remit of the award – F4 or Sea State 4 and in swell/surf.

You will be expected to demonstrate your ability to concentrate on leading a group or deal with incidents/rescues in these conditions you do not want to be struggling with your own paddling skills or at the edge of your personal ability. It is also important to be able to perform skills on both sides so ensure your stroke practice takes this into account.

With regards to rolling I would heavily recommend you have a bombproof roll prior to assessment, and ideally be able to roll on both sides. I finished all my practice sessions with rolling and spent time working on rolling both sides. On assessment, when asked to roll in a narrow, cave entrance I was able to roll on both sides in a polished manner. Only being able to roll on one side would not cause you to fail the assessment if you are a strong candidate across the board, however if you have difficulties in other areas of the assessment could be one more piece of evidence against you.

Self Rescues

With regard to self rescues, I would again suggest ‘polished’ is what you are looking for. In terms of creating the right impression a quick, uncluttered self rescue is required. Thinking through the rationalisation for this – if you are leading a group and did wet exit you need to be back in your boat and able to lead the group as quickly as possible.

My personal preference is a straddle rescue and I practiced these religiously prior to assessment in as rough conditions as I could find. I find the straddle self rescue empties the most water from the boat and is quick to do whilst keeping good visual contact with a group. After a re-entry and roll self rescue there is a large, time consuming amount of water to pump out and the time and effort of setting up a paddle float during a self rescue is an extra hassle. That said, all 3 forms of self rescue are valid for assessment as long as they are performed quickly and efficiently.

Rescues

From my assessment it became obvious that 4 types of rescue were being looked for, with scenarios presented which required each rescue. the three rescues to consider/practice are:

  1. Assisted T-Rescue – standard deep water rescue where paddler has strength to climb in.
  2. Sling assisted self rescue – used where paddler is too tired to climb in unaided.
  3. Scoop Rescue – used if paddler has an injury to prevent climbing in e.g.: dislocated shoulder.
  4. Hand of God – used for an unconcious paddler

One of my scenarios involved a shattered paddler in the water who did not have the strength to climb back in unaided. I actually used the scoop rescue which worked fine and took care of the situation but on reflection, possibly a sling assisted rescue may have been better as it does not leave you with vast amounts of pumping out to do before setting off again. That said, it is quicker to execute the actual rescue part of the process.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, slick execution is highly recommended therefore plenty of practice required prior to assessment. It’s also very important to listen to the entire scenario set up by the assessor as the information they give may dictate wether or not beginning a tow during the rescue/pumping out stage of your response is required.

Towing
There was plenty of towing involved during our assessment – not necessarily for long sustained periods however the number of scenarios we encountered did require constant deployment and then repacking of the towline so being well practiced at this and having a towline design that aids swift repacking is recommended. I’m glad I did not take my Palm Ocean Pro but had invested in a new Peak Towline for the assessment as this is so much quicker to pack.

It’s also worth considering how you set up the tow – something I plan to look at in detail in a forthcoming article. However, make sure you are comfortable with setting up a:

  1. Single Distance Tow
  2. Chain Distance Tow – 2 or more towing
  3. Contact Tow

In addition, consider the ‘clean line’ principle and ensure there are no snag hazards on your towlines . You may also be instructing other members of the group to tow using their kit so keep an eye on any issues you may spot. In dealing with one incident, I asked a group member to start towing whilst I dealt with a casualty. As he was towing 2 rafted boats, I initially asked him to feed his line under my bow deck line and then clip the casualties deck line. I have 1/2 a boat length of clean line on my towline before the float to allow for this type of set up but luckily noticed he didn’t as he was setting up the tow and was able to reverse my decision and ask him to simply clip to the casualties boat – explaining why.

Group Management and Leadership

A whole day of the assessment was taken up with leading a group on a typical ‘in remit’ day trip. From meeting the unknown group, assessing their desires/needs from the day, planning a suitable route, briefing the group and then leading them safely for the day providing an enjoyable experience. Typically, the group will be around 3* standard.

The assessors will watch the whole day, potentially having to move between small groups on the water. The ‘guinea pigs’ you lead may also be asked for feedback on their day to help provide a little more feedback.

Whilst the obvious emphasis was on safety on the water so uppermost in your mind needs to be CLAPT:

    1. Communication – verbal and non-verbal
    2. Line of Sight – keep all group in sight
    3. Awareness/Avoidance – of dangers, potential issues and pre-empting them
    4. Position – put yourself in the position of most effectiveness
    5. Top Tips – helping group develop as paddlers

4* Sea is not a coaching award, however in terms of Top Tips think about setting a range of challenges or tasks during the day to provide learning experiences whilst striking a good balance between playing on features you find and getting round the route in good time.

We were blessed with our group day, having very calm seas, with a high tide but plenty of tidal flow due to big spring tides. This allowed us to paddle from Freshwater Bay, around the Needles heading towards Yarmouth. Along the route we were able to have our group playing in caves, around stacks, playing in rock gardens, trying to keep their boat as close to the vertical cliffs as possible and experimenting with a range of strokes to decide what worked best.

We also had paddlers in a range of boats and using European and Greenland Paddles so could initiate good discussions about different kit as we paddled along.

You may find, as we did, in order to provide opportunities for us to lead a group in an area suitable for the award, you have to step ‘out of remit’. For us, this mean’t paddling in tidal flows above the remit of the award. In this case the situation will be explained fully by the assessors along with their reasoning.

You may also find that although you are asked to plan/suggest/justify a suitable route for your group you may then actually be directed to use a different route simply based on the logistics of having two small groups on the water and the assessors needing to move between them – this would not be possible if both groups headed off to different locations.

If this is the case, think about the route you are being asked to use – are you happy with it and is it a sensible route. On our assessment a purposeful curve ball was thrown in at this stage to see if all assessment candidates would pick up on it and have the conviction to say ‘are you sure’?

Written Papers

There are two theory tests involved in the assessment. A navigation exercise that involves planning a day trip in an unknown area and a general theory paper covering a range sea kayaking topics (buoyage, weather, equipment, navigation, safety etc).

This was my weakest area of the assessment. I was not slick enough with the planning exercise. The route I planned was fine but I faffed about for too long producing it and this was simply down to lack of practice as I had concentrated too much on personal, rescue and leadership skills. I also failed to revise basic buoyage information – again not enough time spent with charts and associated materials. This was my big development action point from this assessment and something I am already addressing.

Conclusion
Apologies for such a long post, however, hopefully with in it are at least a couple of ideas or suggestions that might help other folk who are preparing for a 4* Sea Assessment. At the end of the day all assessments are stressful and pressured and rightly so. That said I absolutely loved this assessment and I think all the practice let me relax on the water and enjoy the scenarios and tasks set. The group day was hugely enjoyable and thanks must go to the 3 ‘guinea pigs’ I got to lead and ‘Toons’ another candidate whom I shared leadership duties with for making it such an enjoyable day on the water.

It’s also nice to leave with a clear set of action points from the final debrief with the assessors.

  • Tighten Up Navigation Planning Skills – slicker, swifter and more confidence
  • Paddle New Areas – expand my experience through new locations

 

The second action point should directly aid the first – by paddling new areas I will need to do the navigation planning that I get away without doing when I paddle areas I know so well. This is something that has been on the agenda for a while and now my growing family are a little older taking ‘time off’ parental duties is easier and will allow me to head further afield.

As ever, I welcome feedback, comments and your own experiences. If you add them as a comment to this post I would be grateful as it shares them with other readers.

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