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How to prepare for the BCU Four Star sea kayak award

February 10th, 2013

BCU 4 star sea kayak training and assessment courses are listed here. Our top tips for the BCU 4 star sea kayak award will help you get the most from your 4 star sea kayak training course. Learn essential 4 star leadership and paddle skills.

This article isn’t called how to PASS your four star assessment – that’s down to you, and how you prepare, but by following these top tips and ideas written by Phil Hadley it should help you in your consolidation between BCU 4 star sea training and assessment.

The BCU 4 star training course

Sea kayak 4 star leadership training.Jersey.

Leadership training

Your training course will be a good start on your path to a successful assessment, but there is no way, in two days you are going to learn everything required. The training course can only really give you an idea of what is expected of a 4 star leader and help you to formulate your own action plan in order to get you ready to achieve that.

Very few people can turn up to a two day training then rock up to an assessment without doing anything in between and expect to pass – not unless they have lots of prior experience anyway.

Go into your training with an open and enquiring mind, ask lots of questions, engage in meaningful discussions with the provider and the other candidates – be that ‘information sponge’ thirsty for knowledge!

Make sure that your basic skills are honed and that you are at your very best before the training, if you are constantly trying to keep your boat on track you aren’t going to be taking on all the information about leadership and group management. It’s difficult to concentrate on the subtleties of leadership strategies when you’re in survival mode!

Hopefully you should come away from your training with an idea of your strong points, and more importantly what you need to work on. This is where the real work starts!

Make an action plan

sea kayak incident management on a rocky beach.Jersey

Incident management skills

The first thing is to reflect on what you have learned and write down an action plan, formulate some goals and set yourself time limits on when you aim to achieve these goals. (At Jersey Kayak Adventures we make time a the end of the training course to work with clients to develop their action plans).

Be specific – ‘I want to improve my paddling’ doesn’t have the same meaning as ‘I need to improve my draws on the move on my left hand side!’

Keep in touch with your training provider, discuss your action plan and improvements with them, some may be willing for you come along to observe other coaching.

Providers are often looking for ‘mock’ students for assessments (often referred to as ‘guinea pigs’) so offer to be one of these, its a great way to see different styles of leadership, seeing where the ‘bench mark’ is – who passes, who doesn’t, and it’s a great insight into how an assessment works. Don’t be afraid to drop other 4 star providers a polite email, most are more than willing to give advice and possibly assist in your development.

Syllabus, Training Notes, Assessment Notes for BCU 4 star

sea kayak rough water and tide race training.Tour de Rozel.Jersey

Sea kayak skills in rough water. Video analysis.

Go to your Home Nation website (Canoe England, Canoe Wales, SCA, CANI, BCUNA) and download all three documents and read them thoroughly. These are the standards you will be assessed against.

There’s a logbook that you can download, or you can produce your own, whatever format it’s in make sure the assessor can see your personal paddling trips and any leading you have done.

If you paddle different disciplines try to have a section for each one, and if you are thinking about getting into coaching, it’s a good idea to have a separate section for that too.

Personal Skills

You need to get into your boat lots! Practice your basic skills on flat-water to make sure that when you get onto moderate water your fundamental strokes are all intuitive, make sure you practice on both sides, and put as much variety as you can into your drills.

sea kayak incident management on a rocky beach.Jersey

Incident management skills

Get someone to observe you and give you feedback, if that proves difficult set up a video camera on a tripod and self analyse your techniques.

Don’t be afraid to get some more coaching. Just because you are working on 4 star sea don’t assume that you wouldn’t benefit from some flat-water coaching. You need a large repertoire of techniques so that you are able to choose the most appropriate one in a skillful application when the need arises in a dynamic environment.

Paddle other types of boats. Lots of reasonably strong kayakers have found their paddle awareness has improved drastically by paddling canoes while lots of canoeists have improved their appreciation of open water paddling by getting involved in sea kayaking. Slalom is a great way to improve your boat positioning etc….

Find other people in the same position as you, if you haven’t got paddling buddies at that level, get on the online paddling forums and find some.

Get into the habit of observing and giving feedback to your paddling buddies and try to nurture an atmosphere of peer support, coaching and improvement.

Moderate Water!

BCU 4 star leaders.Kayaks in rough water.Jersey north coast

Develop your leadership and sea kayak skills

This should be your playground! You need to be super confident moving your boat around and putting it where you want in these conditions. Again variety is the spice of life so go and explore!

Find out what moderate water means for your discipline, and make sure you have an appreciation for what that means in practical terms especially on the sea and on open water canoeing.

The wider the range of moderate water situations that you put yourself in, the less chance of you having a nasty surprise on your assessment.

Most people who struggle at 4 star assessments often have weak logbooks. Make sure yours shows lots of trips at this level, and lots of experience at leading different types of groups in the moderate water environment.


There are quite a few aspirant level 5 coaches and ‘new’ trainee level three coaches who are looking for ‘long term students’ – offering to be coached by these guys is a great way to get some quality coaching and it is always worth asking around. Again Internet paddling forums, Facebook etc can be very useful.


sea kayak on 4 star training course.Developing paddle skills near rocks

Develop essential paddle skills during the course

Don’t forget that 4 star is a leadership award, so make sure you get plenty of practice at leading in these environments.

Offer to help out on club trips and ask if you can take the lead as often as possible. This is even better if it’s done under the supervision of a more experienced leader who can give you some feedback on your performance and suggest alternative strategies.

Even if you’re just paddling with your friends, it’s good practice to have a leader and for everyone to know their roles in the group, you can switch these roles around throughout the day, but turn every feature into a learning environment by discussing various strategies.

Get fit!

The assessment is often hard going, often entailing long drives to the venue, paddling all day for two days, working evenings looking at plans for the next day, self rescues and rescuing boats in moderate water, on the sea you may find yourself towing for a distance, as well as the emotional stress.

Assessors often see candidates flagging and losing performance towards the end of the two days – make sure you are as paddling fit as you can be.


4 star sea kayak incidents.Damaged sea kayak

Dealing with incidents afloat- a holed sea kayak.

Ensure you have the correct safety course pre-requisites – White Water Safety and Rescue for canoe and white water or Coastal Navigation and Tidal Planning for sea.

Again simply attending the training course doesn’t mean you are going to automatically have all the skills necessary for your assessment. They are training courses, and the techniques taught will need consolidation, there is a huge amount of information to be digested, and skills to be perfected.

here is definitely a ‘use it or lose it’ phenomenon around these pre-requisite courses. Just because you used to be able to throw a throwline, perform a slick X rescue or plot a tidal passage doesn’t mean you will still be able to do it in two years time when you go for assessment. Keep working on these skills and practice them in real conditions.

You also need an up to date 16 hour First Aid. Try to do an outdoors one, like REC or the BCU Aquatic First Aid.

LR form

When you think you are getting close to being ready to take the assessment, and you have all the pre-requisites you need to download a Leader Registration (LR) Form from your Home Nation website.

Fill it in as instructed and send it with the correct fee back to your Home Nation. After checking all the info is correct, they will send the form back to you stamped for assessment. You must hand it to the assessment director on the first day of your assessment.

Go boating!

Phil Hadley in Jersey on 4 star course

Phil Hadley in action

Go paddling as much as you can but don’t forget to have fun! If you make all your trips interesting and exciting then you and the people you are leading will learn so much more!

Put variety into your paddling, different venues, different paddling buddies, different disciplines, different boats all add to the breadth of experience that shows you as a competent, confident leader.

See you on the water!

Written by Phil Hadley, BCU Coach and 4 star Canoe and Sea Kayak assessor

BCU 4 star sea training courses

Remember many sea kayakers attend 4 star sea kayak training courses as a means of gaining more experience of paddling in different waters and conditions. Training courses are not just for paddlers who plan to go for assessment.

You can find more information about our 4 star sea kayak training and assessment courses as well as Coastal Navigation and Tidal Planning here.

Derek Hairon


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