Jennifer H. Yearley
The Story Begins
“Are you going to do your 5 Star in England?” Bill asked me brightly, as we worked our way into the wind. Bill Vonnegut and I were on a storm paddle together out in Half Moon Bay, all the other participants having begged off. “Uh, I hadn’t thought about it,” I said. I was a good 6 months away from assessing for my BCU 4 Star, and that was plenty enough of a goal to absorb my attention for the immediate future. But I was quite charmed that Bill seemed to assume I’d go on for my 5 Star. “I figure I’ll probably do it in the US” I said, having had a moment to process his question, though honestly, I had no idea what I was talking about. “I don’t think you can!” Bill said. He was right. The only place that one can assess for the BCU 5 Star is in the United Kingdom.
And so the seed was planted. The 5 Star hadn’t even been on my radar. I had no idea what was involved, where I’d have to go, what I’d have to do, but when I got back home after that storm paddle, I started doing my homework. I decided I was definitely going to do it and started laying out plans and timelines. The day after I passed my 4 Star assessment, I signed up for a week long, extended version of the 5 Star training in Wales. A month later, I was in the UK, being put through the wringer in Anglesey. If you know what you want, there’s no sense wasting time.
When I went to Wales that first time, I had three main objectives: to begin familiarizing myself with a venue I could come back to for assessment (though I ultimately ended up assessing in a different area), to get a reality check on the goal I had set myself to assess in 1 year, and to get an action plan for what I needed to work on between now and then, so I could really focus.
At the time, I figured the 5 Star was going to be a fairly small jump, just an extension of the 4 Star into more dynamic environments. These were environments I was already pretty comfortable in, or so I thought from my limited parochial perspective. Not that big a deal. But I was wrong. It was a big jump. And the farther I got along the path, the more I realized the magnitude of the task I had set myself. It is very easy to get lost in the weeds, focusing on the many specific skills one needs to gain confidence with and be ready to deploy. Those are important and they need to be. But they are not where the biggest challenges are. The biggest challenges are less concrete, more mutable and amorphous. As I learned in Anglesey from my trainer Sid Sinfield, the biggest problem people run into in the 5 Star Assessment is not weakness with specific skills. It’s that decision-making in advanced conditions is too slow. Let me repeat that. The biggest problem people run into on the 5 Star Assessment is that decision-making in advanced conditions is too slow. How do you even start dealing with a problem like that?
The biggest challenges of the 5 Star are all of this basic flavor. Rapid multi-parameter integration of information to translate into appropriate action. But, as a regular mortal starting down this path, how do you get from here to there? I will admit, there was a period in my preparations during which this dilemma, on top of all I was doing to try to build out the skills and knowledge I needed, and to build the level of physical conditioning I had come to understand I also needed to do this seriously, that I thought of giving up paddling altogether. I figured maybe I should just go learn to climb mountains and be done with the whole business.
The 5 Star
Stepping back a little bit, what is the 5 Star anyway? The 5 Star (now “Advanced Sea Kayak Leader”) is a leadership award issued by British Canoeing that includes leading in conditions up to and including advanced tidal water. Five Star conditions begin where 4 Star conditions end: wind >16 knots, current >2 knots, open crossings >2 miles, paddling in areas with no landings for prolonged periods, sea state >2.5meters, surf > 1m trough to crest, and paddling in tide races and overfalls.
It is noteworthy that conditions falling under the 5 Star remit have no defined upper limits. Boundaries are set by the judgment of the provider, who needs to integrate what they know about their own skills and capabilities, and the skills and capabilities of the group they are leading. Judgment and appropriate decision-making are of paramount importance at the 5 Star level.
But why would an American want to do this? This is a British award, it requires assessment in Britain, familiarity with British waters (very complex), and development of competence with British systems: Ordnance Survey maps, British buoyage, British tidal current calculation practices, British environmental forecasting resources, and so on. Why? For me, there were two main reasons. The first was simply that I wanted to get better. I wanted (and still want) to do whatever I need to do to become the best paddler, leader, and instructor that I can be. Setting challenging goals helps provide structure and discipline to that process. The BCU Star system places emphasis on areas that are not highlighted elsewhere: traditional elements of seamanship such as navigation and weather, an emphasis on leadership as a complex set of skills distinct from instructing, and what I have experienced as a deeply reflective perspective. Many of the absolute best trainings I’ve had the privilege to participate in, have been BCU. In addition, I also greatly respect the custom I have repeatedly observed, that those who train you do not assess you. For both my 4 and 5 star assessments, I was assessed by people I’d never met before, who had never seen me paddle, and who knew nothing about me. That’s objectivity.
Plas y Brenin
So I did my first 5 star training through Plas y Brenin, one of the UK’s national outdoor centers, in northern Wales.
The majority of time was spent in Anglesey, and I have striking memories of our first day on the water, doing exercises at one of the most famous Anglesey tide races, Penrhyn Mawr. Penrhyn Mawr was a new experience for me. I was quite familiar with our best known San Francisco Bay tide race, Yellow Bluff, and thought I was all set with what tide races were about. Let me state up front: I was wrong. I was wrong wrong wrong. The day we visited Penrhyn Mawr, there was roughly 6 knots of current, about a 30 foot tidal exchange, and swell coming through from a recent storm in the Irish Sea. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The description that occurred to me at the time was “massive”. The sense of power and momentum in the fastest, strongest part of the tide race amazed me. And… to put it bluntly… it kicked my butt. We did a lot of exercises out there, various types of incidents and rescues and towing scenarios, and it was great experience. But I swam twice. TWICE. In one session. It was mortifying. For the first swim, I could conjure up some ego-protecting explanations about having my boat get hung up on a rock so I couldn’t roll, but the second one was a full on, didn’t-even-try-to-roll, psych out, synaptic-overload swim. We were heading out, and I made a bad decision to cross a wide messy eddy line low down. I flipped in a big whirlpool that to my amazement in retrospect I did not even see. I felt myself spinning very rapidly and vigorously upside down, totally could not deal with it, and bailed out. While quite embarrassing, this was one of the most important take-homes I brought out of this training. There were aspects of high speed, high momentum, complex current paddling, especially when complicated with swell, that I needed to get a handle on, so it was important to stick that high on the to-do list. Generating an action plan was one of the main things I had come here to do after all.
On the second day, while I was leading a leg out in a remote cliffy area, I was presented with a scenario in which I had to contend with an out-of-boat, head-injured paddler drifting in and out of consciousness, with paddler and gear surging around in amongst the rocks. I dove in to direct the handling of this incident and was very happy with how I was managing it. One step after the other, delegating to make sure the paddler was scooped back into their boat, towed away from the rocks in a rafted tow, boat pumped out, etc. As I was taking care of all this, our trainer Sid interrupted me and said: Are you going to need a helicopter rescue? This thought had been flitting about in the back of my mind, along with steps that I would need to take with the group when the helicopter arrived. So after thinking on it for a fraction of a second, I said: Yes. He then asked me why wasn’t I setting that in motion and preparing the group for this? I believe I said that I was getting to it. He said: “You need to be doing that in parallel.” I need to stop for emphasis on this. I had been proceeding in a way that I think would have been considered highly competent at the 4 Star level. Very linear, one step, then the next, getting the injured party taken care of. What Sid was telling me was that I needed to have realized right away that this was a medical emergency that required a fast evacuation. That setting that in motion was something I needed to be doing at the same time as I took care of the injured paddler. To add to this, Sid continued: “That fellow over there? He could be finding you a grid reference. That one over there? She could be setting off flares. From the very beginning, when you are on the beach preparing to launch, you need to be reviewing who has what, who looks competent to do what, who can you call upon or delegate what to if there is a crisis. You need to know that from the beginning.” Overall, I think this was one of the most rich learning experiences that I’ve ever had, all crammed into what was probably no more than a 20 minute exercise, end to end. The importance of understanding what the critical priorities are upfront, the importance of initiating separate streams of action in parallel in a crisis, and the importance of having carefully evaluated the resources and strengths presented by the members of your group before you even leave the beach. I thank Sid immensely for that lesson.
By the fourth day, I had developed a debilitating tenosynovitis in my right wrist. By the time we got off the water at the end of the day exercises, it had blown up hugely, turned very red, and become extremely painful. I knew that the only sensible thing to do was to head back to the center and ice it. But we still had our night exercises to do, and I had gone to a very great deal of trouble and expense to do this training. So I was not going to do what I knew was best. I proceeded with the night exercises. In my final navigation leg that night, I completely missed my target. I had misjudged the contour of the shore and blown the identification of the goal I was shooting for altogether. My inflamed wrist, which had been tolerable while we were on the water, had become so excruciating by the time we landed that I could barely breathe. Organizing gear and boats in the dark was almost more than I could manage. But I knew I would be back the next day.
On the last day, in addition to my wrist issue, I blew my neck gasket as we were preparing our gear for launch. We were supposed to be working a variety of rescues. Sid said they’d keep me out of the water, but I told him I could fix it. I ran back and quickly stitched up the gasket with waxed dental floss. Then gingerly, oh so carefully, pulled it over my head. And it held. My right arm wasn’t good for much, but my gasket was just fine for a day of rescue exercises, for which I was very grateful.
At the debrief at the end of the training, each of us got to meet with Sid individually to go over action plans and path forward. Fantastic! One of the most important reasons I was there. We started by talking about when I was thinking of assessing and I said I’d been hoping to do so in one year. To my delight (and at this point not without some surprise on my part), Sid said: “Very feasible!“ He asked if there was anything in particular I’d like input on, and I said I was interested in an action plan to help me prepare. I was expecting a long list of things I needed to work on and was all set to take lots of notes. Nope. He said I seemed to have a good sense of where I was at, with the implication that I was pretty competent at self-assessment and should follow that out. The only advice he gave me was: “Do as much leading in 5 Star conditions as you can between now and assessment.” Just that? “But Penrhyn Mawr! I swam twice!” (that being the mortification that loomed largest). He shrugged his shoulders, totally unfazed, and said “Well. It was quite big that day. I debated whether to bring you all out into the strongest part or to stick to the periphery. But actually, when you weren’t upside down you looked remarkably comfortable out there.” Not the answer I expected. But I still recognized personally that that strong complex current business was something I needed to get a much better handle on.
So, brief as it was, I had my action plan. Do as much leading in 5 star conditions as I could prior to assessment, and listen to my gut about what I needed to work on other than that.
Once I got back to the United States, I began a thorough assessment of my gaps and weaknesses. Taking full ownership of one’s deficits is a hard thing to do. It means looking for and facing down all the ways in which we are not good at something that we want to be good at, including things we mostly try to hide. I had to accept that these weaknesses and gaps represented the reality of where I was right then, and that singling them out freed me to take them as opportunities to be worked on. For each deficit, I came up with a plan to try to bring it up to where I needed it to be. I didn’t do this for all of them at once, focusing instead first on the ones I thought were the biggest problems. But one-by-one, a plan was devised and executed for each.
It’s important to note that while some weaknesses can be brought more or less “fully” up to speed for whatever purpose you are targeting, there are others that, while you may improve them substantially, will always remain weaknesses you need to be extra cautious of, building in mechanisms and workarounds that will help keep them from derailing you. As an example, piloting, a navigation technique in which visual references in the environment are matched up with features on your chart, is something which is challenging for me. In my first navigation class as a student, a 3 day course that I took up in Washington state when I was just starting, I had such difficulties applying this technique that by the middle of the third day I was reduced to tears when asked for the umpteenth time to fix my position, because I didn’t even know what island I was looking at, much less where I was relative to it. I have worked hard at this skill and gotten much better at it, but I still recognize it as something that I can’t take for granted, because I am not naturally strong at it and probably never will be. When I am navigating, this is something I have to make sure I am always carving out at least a little extra bandwidth for. Conscious recognition of weaknesses can allow us to compensate and develop workarounds for those we cannot completely eliminate.
For many of us, leading in advanced conditions is a context where it can be challenging to develop the confidence one needs to be most effective. Risks become more significant, consequences of error become higher, the difficulty of “picking up the pieces” if things go wrong becomes greater. We all have our own internal anxieties and insecurities, and we may have those reinforced by the words and actions of others. For myself, while I have had some absolutely wonderful encouragers and supporters, there are others who have told me I was too weak and slow to lead in advanced conditions, that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was, and that I should focus on leading L2’s in flatwater. While there are critiques one should heed and use as guidances to help improve performance, there are others where the best thing you can do is to disregard what you’ve been told, regardless of how well-respected the teller, and instead follow your own compass. If the critique is not helpful, do not listen to it.
That said, as I got closer and closer to my assessment, I became increasingly aware of my own confidence issues, and the fears I had of getting out of my depth. Like it or not, advanced conditions pose intrinsic challenges that require greater strength, power, and stamina than milder conditions, and I am small and female. As I found myself leading in more and more challenging circumstances, I found myself running up against genuine concerns about my physical ability to handle what needed handling, which made me hesitant and nervous. This was a totally unacceptable state of affairs. A number of people had recommended interval training to me at various points, but I always had something more important to do. At this point however, something really needed to be done. I began a 4 day per week regimen of interval training, making it the single largest component of my now 7 day per week training and teaching schedule. As I began this undertaking, I came face to face with the strength deficit I had not ever fully appreciated, but there was no question that I had. I was at first completely unable to perform anything remotely like a sprint without having my entire stroke fall apart. Not because I got sloppy, but because I was not strong enough to even begin to pull it off. The training was hideously difficult and unpleasant to start with. But it also represents possibly the single most transformative element of training I’ve ever undertaken. I never could have dreamed the extent to which this single training focus, conducted mostly on flatwater, would resolve my confidence issues, and affect all aspects of my paddling, from delicate finesse paddle work, to brute-force, grunt-paddling into stiff headwinds. So many things that had previously made me nervous, I now knew I could handle just fine. In addition to the effects on raw strength and power, this training lent itself to very concentrated and intense work on my forward stroke over a prolonged period of time, something I’d never done before. It was long overdue. While I have greatly ratcheted back the amount of interval training I do at this point, I still make sure to fit in at least one 90 minute session a week. Any benefits as remarkable as these have been, I am not in a hurry to give up.
When I was about 5 months from my assessment, a woman who generously spent a good while talking to me about her own 5 Star journey told me: “The 5 Star is an exercise in the elimination of self-doubt.” At the time, I’ll admit I had some trouble processing exactly what that meant. I pondered it and wondered about the extent to which that might generally be true.
As I got closer and closer to my own assessment and addressed my own confidence issues, the meaning and significance of this statement became increasingly clear and intuitive to me.
A point came where I found myself feeling sure and confident when I know I would previously have been anxious and hesitant. I found myself comfortably moving from one dynamic environment to the next, taking care of the paddlers I was leading or teaching, knowing with absolutely certainty I was up to the task. I stopped being nervous about letting my people play in places where they might get into trouble, when I knew I could get them out of it. I had begun to trust my own competence and judgment enough to be able to to proceed decisively, without hesitation or second-guessing. By the time I reached my assessment, this was securely in place. I was relaxed. I had fun. My groups had fun. We explored an absolutely fabulous, challenging stretch of coastline with an incredible tide race, some great surf, fast current, lots of cliffy, rocky shoreline, some fun winds, and It was a fantastic experience. What a privilege to have been able to do this!
In undertaking this journey, I came a very long way, both mentally and physically. In terms of sheer travel, between two trips to Wales, a trip to Skookumchuck to work with fast current, and a trip to Maine to do a second bout of 5 Star training, I covered more than 30,000 miles in slightly over a year. That doesn’t include any of the miles traveled to and from the coast for teaching, leading and training, or to and from the many rivers I trained on – from California to Oregon to Virginia – because the strongest UK tide races have much more in common with powerful river features than they do with most ocean features. All told, distance traveled would be well over 40,000 miles. I learned more than I could possibly summarize here. I matured as a leader. My skills improved a great deal. With the power and strength training I did, I acquired so much additional muscular mass in my arms, shoulders, and back that many of my clothes no longer fit. There is no part of this journey that I can describe as easy. There were lots of parts that were fun, and many that were rewarding in other ways, but there was also a great deal of difficulty and failure along the way, a great deal of hard work that at times didn’t seem to really be going anywhere, and a whole lot of looking up at one challenge after another coming at me like set waves in a surf launch, where I’d have to just take a deep breath, commit 100%, and paddle like the devil right at them. But for me this ultimately has been a labor of love. There is not any other way I would prefer to have spent that time. My advice coming out of this experience is: Dream big. Try hard things. Don’t fear failure. Seize challenges and run with them. Give them everything you’ve got. Generation of expertise relies on tolerating lots and lots of failed attempts. If you cannot tolerate failure, you will never reach your full potential. When the going gets tough, put your head down and power through it. Keep your eyes on your goal and remember why you’re doing it. It’s the biggest goals that lead to the biggest accomplishments.
I have been very blessed by the many wonderful teachers and mentors I’ve had along this journey. Above all, I need to call out Sean Morley, who has been a supporter, encourager, sponsor, and advocate almost from the first moment I picked up a paddle. If it were not for Sean, I most definitely would not be the paddler I am today. I am beyond grateful. I also would like to call out Shawna Franklin, who along with Seth Albanese and Leon Somme provided some of my strongest early influences, and to me represent the absolute best that the BCU has to offer. I would also like to thank John Carmody for his strong encouragement, for his coaching, and for helping me structure the work that I needed to do on some of my worst deficits as I approached my 5 Star. Thanks also to Ben Morton, for believing in me when I wasn’t at all sure I believed in myself. Last but not least, thanks to Jeff Laxier, who started me down the BCU road with a superb training and challenging first assessment, lighting a fire that still burns today.