Nick Cunliffe Q&A

The posting below is an interview with Nick Cunliffe. He is a level 5 BCU coach and is based in Anglesey. Nick will be taking part on the Sea Kayak Leader Training (4*) & Paddler Development course that Roger Chandler will be running in November. Nick runs Kayak Essentials in Anglesey.

I was keen to know a little bit more about Nick's passion for kayaking and coaching. I was also keen to ask questions of someone who has been coaching and assessing sea kayak leaders for a long time. I hope the questions below give candidates a little help and support on their journey.

-      Tell us a bit about yourself. Why do you paddle and what is it like coaching in Anglesey?

I’m Nick Cunliffe - I live in North Wales and paddle on the Anglesey coastline, my home waters. I’ve been sea kayaking and sea kayak coaching for the last 25 years - mainly in North Wales, but also Pembrokeshire, Scotland and Ireland. I’ve also been fortunate to sea kayak in many other exciting parts of the world, including Alaska, Canada, Chile, Greece, Norway and Australia.

I love the variety of experience that sea kayaking brings - dramatic locations, wilderness environments, and the ever-restless ocean. I’ve been involved in a lot of outdoor sports, but sea kayaking retains a strong hold on me - I love the challenge it offers.

I also love sea kayak coaching in Anglesey waters - the island is compact, with short driving times to an immensely varied range of venues. We have offshore islands, surf beaches, cliffs and rock gardens - and, of course, the fantastic tide races that form off every headland. With 360 degrees of coastline and the protected Menai Strait, there’s always a great place to paddle.

-      What do you think are the benefits an extended training course that goes beyond the usual 2 or 3 days can bring to participants? 

I think that many people benefit from the opportunity to develop their skills, confidence and experience through repeated exposure to suitably challenging conditions and exercises.

Across an eleven-day program, there is the real chance to experience change, and to make tangible progress towards paddling objectives. There is also the added advantage of undergoing a process of reflection and goal-setting with an experienced coach. Time and opportunities can be lacking on shorter courses.


-      As someone who has been teaching for many years, can you give us an insight into your experience of training and assessing Sea Kayak Leaders (4 Star)?

o   In your opinion, what are the qualities of a Leader? 

From 3 April 2017, we will simply call the 4* holder a ‘British Canoeing Sea Kayak Leader’!
The award remains the same, only the name changes. Key 4* / Sea Kayak Leader qualities include:

1. Personal competence in a sea kayak in moderate sea conditions
2. Enough experience to make good decisions, factoring the conditions / abilities of the group
3. Good communication skills; a desire to place fellow paddlers at the centre of the experience

o   I have heard of many cases where people fail because they are not ‘ready’. What’s your advice for candidates who are considering going for assessment?

1.       Check your current experience and background against the prerequisites for the award:
a minimum of 24 qualifying days, paddling independently on the sea in moderate conditions.

2.       Do your homework - be able to plan moderate water sea kayak trips in the area you have chosen for assessment - tidal picture, coastline, weather patterns, likely conditions.

3.       Consider your experience of leading other paddlers on the sea - you will be asked to take responsibility for approx. 4 other paddlers, displaying good planning, communication,
route choice and positioning to ensure the comfort, challenge and safety of the group.

o   What are the key things to prepare before assessment?

1.       Sort your leader equipment and kayaking gear - it’s completely within your control.

2.       Sort out your paperwork well before the assessment - you can then focus on what happens on the water during the next two days.

3.       Test your skills objectively before the assessment - for example, you will be asked to roll successfully in moderate conditions. You will also be asked to perform a self-rescue, and to paddle your kayak confidently in moderate conditions.

4.       Practise your navigation skills - following a coastline, fixing your position with map and compass. Do lots of trip planning exercises for the area in which you will be assessed. Practise your rescues - be capable.

All these above skills can be practised and developed well before any planned assessment date.

o   What tips do you have for candidates for dealing with their psychological barriers?

1.       Goal setting - consider the above advice, add your own personal key points; then create a series of short term goals: specific, measurable, realistic, timed. If you focus on goal-setting in your preparations, you'll arrive at the assessment confident and prepared.

2.       Planning & Anticipation: remember that you will be asked to lead others and to solve group problems afloat. Follow good frameworks such as CLAP and you will be well-placed to handle your assessment tasks. The knowledge that your are prepared and logical in your actions will give you greater confidence.

3.       Ask questions! If your assessor asks you to complete a task, ask for clarification if necessary. Assessors also ask questions - don’t panic, it’s simply to check our information and improve understanding. Remember to breathe! Relax and smile - it’s only kayaking…

o   What are the most common reasons why candidates fail during assessment?

1.       Inexperience: paddling skills in moderate conditions, being responsible for others in those conditions, being comfortable enough to focus on the group rather than yourself.
Without this experience and confidence, it’s hard to operate effectively as a sea kayak leader.

2.       Decision-making: problem-solving - fixing rescues, swimmers, landings etc. in moderate conditions.

3.       Communication - if communication is good between the leader and the group, things always go much smoother.

o   Any other tips for a successful assessment?

Review all the above advice - compare your current skills with those you will be asked to perform at assessment - set a series of suitable goals - review them regularly.

-      What are the top 3 safety tips you would give paddlers?

1.       Plan every trip carefully - compare expected conditions with group abilities - be realistic

2.       Talk to each other - before / during / after the trip - communication is key -
share information, concerns, aims, everything…

3.       Stick together - start as a group, finish as the same group - problems get worse when groups split up.

-      And finally, how do you maintain your passion for kayaking over the years?

1.       Learning: the ocean is powerful and complex place that offer constant learning moments.
I value each new revelation and remain humble.

2.       Play: surfing, moving water skills, tide races, rock gardens - all offer me chances to paddle my boat better and have fun.

3.       Explore: in home waters and far away. Last summer I paddled a 150-mile section of coastline in British Columbia for the first time; last week, I explored an Anglesey bay that I had always cruised by in the past!

The next Sea Kayak Leader Training & Paddler Development course starts on November 13th 2017. For more information contact or click this link.

For Nick's sea kayaking instructional videos follow this link.

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Twitter: @exploraexped