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A, B, C: American, British, Certifications

Because I hold guiding and instructing awards from the ACA (American Canoe Association) and BC (British Canoeing), I gets asked two basic questions on a regular basis:

  1. What’s the difference between the ACA and BC?
  2. Why should I get a certification?

Because writing is a good way to say the same thing repeatedly, yet only once, I put together this page.

Years ago, Bonnie “Frogma” posted a bit about ACA and BC. In that post there’s mention of how standards in both have changed, and that much is true today.

The American Canoe Association and British Canoeing

If you’ve been involved with paddlesports for more than fifteen minutes, you’ve probably heard of one of these organizations. The one you heard of first will probably depend on who you paddle with. For me, that was British Canoeing (then the “British Canoe Union”, or BCU) when I started paddling at the Downtown Boathouse.

There is a third association, Qajaq USA, which focuses more on the Greenland or traditional kayaking skills. I’ve not had any direct experience with them so I can’t write about them. There are other national or regional paddling associations that appear from time to time, but with the exception of Paddlesports North America, which sought to become a delivery center for British Canoeing, I haven’t had any experiences. It’s just been the ACA and BC for me.

Both organizations update their curriculum and membership programs periodically, and both went through major updates in the past two years (2017-2018). Both organizations are, directly or indirectly, involved in their respective nations’ competitive paddlesports training, as well as in supporting recreational and adventure disciplines. Both organizations support memberships outside of their respective nations, and many clubs and guiding providers use their standards to guide their own.

Importantly, I’ve known great coaches who trained in to organization’s standards, but the coaches I learned the most from were highly rated in both.

American Canoe Association

The American Canoe Association (ACA) dates back to 1880 and has come to be the predominant paddlesports association in the United States. There’s a lot of very interesting history on their own website. Presently (2019) I hold a sea kayaking instructor certification from the ACA, and I sit on the ACA Atlantic division’s committee as the competition chair.

The ACA also offers inexpensive insurance for clubs and instructors. Clubs and instructors can offer activities relying on the ACA for coverage, so long as the activities are within the remit defined by the ACA. Generally, you also have to be either an ACA member to participate, or pay a supplemental fee for the event if you are not a member.

Starting January 2019, the ACA made major changes to its membership scheme, boiling down a plethora of membership classes and add-ons to basically $25 per person per year, with additional fees for competitors and instructors. There are also club memberships, where a club can be a Paddle America Club, listed on their website and able to leverage the ACA to insure paddlesports activities. You can join the ACA at the website.

Members can enjoy some ACA-exclusive properties, including Lake Sebago, about an hour’s drive from New York City. ACA-affiliated clubs can have cabins and hold classes there as well. ACA courses and certifications serve as shorthand for a participant’s paddling ability, and many paddlesports events, relying on the ACA for insurance, become accessible or less expensive for ACA members.

For competition purposes – and here I’m referring to organized, sanctioned paddlesports competition, not the more common for-fun club competitions – The ACA is the National Federation organization for the United State within the International Canoe Federation, and its recent acquisition of USACK makes it the National Governing Body for United States paddlesports competition in the Olympics.

To sum it up, the American Canoe Association offers its members services, facilities, and a “road map” for paddling skills development, as well as support for professional and semi-pro competitive athletes.

British Canoeing

British Canoeing (BC) has been around since 1936 and, more recently, became the umbrella organization providing standards and guidance to the “home nations”, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, each of which has their own paddlesports organization delivering services from British Canoeing.

You can join British Canoeing here.

Presently I hold a Sea Leader award and a Paddlesports Instructor award with British Canoeing. Until recently BC was the “British Canoe Union” or BCU, and many paddlers who have heard of it but not involved in BC will still refer to it as BCU.

For paddlers outside of the home nations, they can either join a home nation or British Canoeing International. The latter is a relatively new option which basically acts as a “home nation” for the rest of the world. Yours truly has both BCI membership as well as SCA (Scottish Canoe Association), which I picked up before BCI became a thing. That’s not necessary, and makes paperwork a little redundant, but I’ve got the window sticket for SCA on my car so hey, I’m committed to the Scots.

British Canoeing recently made a thorough revision of their skills, guiding, and coaching awards. It’s a lot to go into, especially if you’re new to BC in the first place. The key points are: support for new disciplines such as SUP; leadership awards have been renamed Sea Leader and Advanced Sea Leader, instead of 4 and 5 Star; there are new personal performance awards for those who wanted more than a 3 Star but didn’t want to become leaders; a simplified coaching scheme that both extends certifications to volunteers supporting club programs, as well as makes it easier for paddlers with guiding credentials to enter the coaching track, without having to start over in proving their skills.

There are few material reasons for joining BCI for US-based paddlers than , other than to pay a little less on BC-based courses and assessments, for example if you’re going for your Star awards, or guiding and coaching tracks. That said, the coaching arrangements BC makes available are exhaustive, especially after the updates.

One distinction in approaches is British Canoeing separates coaching processes from personal performance and leadership awards. No matter how good a paddler you are, or experienced a Sea Leader you are, a dedicated “Coaching Processes” course is require to start down the path of coaching.


With all of that out of the way, here’s what I have to say about certifications.

Pursue the skills, and the awards will come.

There are many paddlers who have been paddling a long time with no formal training. They learned from others as they paddled, rightly or wrongly, and are doing alright. Certification is not required to enjoy the sport.

That being said, taking a course or two to either learn the fundamentals of paddlesport, to learn more advanced techniques, or simply gain practice in more challenging environments, is worthwhile. A good coach will help you identify what you’re good at and what needs improvement, and guide you through activities to cement good habits in place. Practice makes permanent.

Having an official certification is not only an indication to others that, at some point, you were able to meet the criteria for a specific award, but they can provide a source of accomplishment. I remember my first award, the “old” 2 Star, taken on a weekend course with an instructor at the Downtown Boathouse. Looking back, I know I was only learning the fundamentals, but the awareness and “arousal” as the Brits refer to it, were put in place. I felt like I earned that award, and that gave me confidence to take on journeys and pursue awards that seemed out of reach before.

Of course, most of these skills are perishable. If you go all-out and earn an L4 skills award, and then stop paddling completely for three years, don’t expect to be an L4 paddler when you pick it up again.