Two years ago, I first heard that the ACA (American Canoe Association) was going to start offering Stand Up Paddle lessons and instructor certifications. I was skeptical. At that point I realized that most watersport businesses saw the booming SUP industry and all wanted to jump in it to make some extra money. I didn’t think the ACA was any different.

While many other organizations and businesses did jump on the SUP wagon and started offering lessons and certifications without much experience or research, the ACA took their time (it would appear) and developed a very in depth course. As many in the Wrightsville Beach area can attest, we’ve seen people trying to give SUP lessons while prone paddling a surf long board and yelling at young women trying to “teach” them to paddle, incorrectly, usually in a windy channel for their first lesson. These businesses just trying to make a dollar are detrimental to the sport.

Even up until my ACA course, I remained skeptical. I assumed they would just take the curriculum from either canoe or kayak and copy and paste it to the SUP curriculum and call it a day. It wasn’t until we were in the class and went through the entire skill set for SUP level 1 and 2 that it became clear that the ACA had done their homework. Some of the paddle strokes on first glance seemed pointless or redundant for moving the board around, however it makes a lot of sense when they put the small parts together for a more advanced stroke. Many times as an instructor, you’ll have a student that isn’t getting something, and no matter how hard you try, “Drop your top arm, straighten you knees, rotate your core… etc.” they just aren’t getting the stroke you’re teaching. The benefit of learning all of the small parts of strokes taught in the ACA Instructor course is that you will be able to catch small problems in your student’s stroke before they get to a more advanced stroke. This makes it simpler to correct and easier for them to digest.

Although a healthy amount of time was spent on safety and rescue, this course was not TOO safety oriented. As an instructor, there are certain responsibilities you have to your students, gear you should have, and external factors you should always consider. This was made crystal clear. What the course did not do is bog the instructor down with what-ifs, too much suggested gear to tote along, or unjustifiable scenarios. Some time was spent talking about ACA-provided insurance, legal technicalities, and what you gain by being an ACA certified instructor. Something they have is years of experience. The ACA and ACA instructors have been brought to court in the past for other paddle-sport related incidents. Every time, they’ve come out fine. Instructors earning an ACA certification are well trained, and backed by a strong, tried and true legal team.

The ACA is working to set itself apart. They do not award certifications to everyone taking the class unless everyone in the class can display the skills required at a level suitable for teaching others. It is more than likely you will pay $300 for the level 1 and 2 instructor course and not get it. That would turn most people off. Who wants to spend that kind of money and not walk away with the instructor certification? This becomes a philosophical argument on my part, “What kind of person are you?” One the one hand, people could not take the course because they are worried they won’t walk away with the certification. They would want to put their money into a course with instant gratification. Fine, they will never carry the label of “ACA Certified Instructor.” On the other hand, an instructor candidate may not walk away with an instant certification, but have to work hard, develop skills they were lacking, and demonstrate them to the instructor trainer to earn their certification at a later date. That person would have to work for the title, and will value the certification because it was something that took time and effort. The ACA certification holds merit.

Our Experience

Corey and I signed up for levels 1 and 2 for a three-day weekend, and then after the ChattaJack31 we went back to the US National Whitewater Center for a two-day level 3. Level 1 and 2 covered a lot of technical knowledge, how to instruct, and the necessary skill set. It was a long three days! We had to break down all of our paddle strokes into display-quality maneuvers, which was definitely the hardest part for me. In the end we earned our titles as Level 2 Instructors. When we went back for the level 3 course, we were running rapids, practicing rescues, and working on displaying skills in moving water. Even though our performance and teaching skills were sufficient, our technical knowledge of the river needed work. We’ve been assigned some homework before we can earn level 3. It’s a certification we’re both looking forward to having.

There will always be some amount of individual variation when people sign up for SUP lessons. Each instructor will be different. There may be some with no formal training that give amazing lessons; alternatively, there may be some with world-class training that give awful lessons. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to have a GREAT foundation. You can also always get better; you can always learn something new. I know that I learned new ways to explain skills, to help some people learn slower, to help some learn faster, and some new tricks for myself. Just yesterday while surfing I used one of my new skills, the “high brace,” for the first time to prevent a fall. It worked.


Corey’s new dry suit.

It’s far from canoe-like