Friday, August 27, 2010

A Guide's Progress

You’re probably wondering about that story that began on this blog back in early May- when we began training to be Maine Sea Kayak Guides. It has been a longer story than I anticipated. We took the class, as well as the first aid classes, finally scheduling the exam in mid-July. We’d studied plenty- we thought- and left at five one morning to make the two and a half-hour drive to Augusta. It didn’t go as well as we’d hoped. We both did well on the hour and a half written test, but failed the oral exam. On the navigation section, Rebecca neglected to mention one word- magnetic, and wasn’t allowed to proceed further. I didn’t cover enough material on my pre-trip briefing.

We didn’t feel too bad about it- plenty of people fail the first time or two. It’s supposed to be tough. It should be tough. We scheduled a re-take and continued studying. We practiced the pre-trip briefing again and again, which could take over twenty minutes if they don’t cut you off. This time, we scheduled the exam for an afternoon. We felt ready.

Hypothetical scenarios make up much of the exam. You’re essentially role-playing with the examiners. We stare at the chart as they throw us into these situations where things go wrong, and they’re waiting to hear what they think is the right answer, and how we go about problem-solving. They interrupt us frequently, asking questions, often incredulously: you’d do what? It’s hard to tell if they’re just trying to make you doubt yourself and not stand your ground, or if there’s really some other thing you should be telling them.

As far as we can tell, the examiners may have never been in a sea kayak in their lives. They’re Marine Patrol and Inland Fish & Game people. So it seems they’re waiting to hear very particular things from us that qualify as correct answers. Theoretically, the candidate has plenty of paddling experience and can actually perform these rescues that we demonstrate with model boats, but there is no practical, on the water part of the exam, and it is possible to lie about your experience, talk the talk and sound convincing enough without ever having paddled a kayak.

We’ve paddled a good deal more than a lot of other candidates, and we had a difficult time. In the end though, we both passed. We have our licenses- even patches and decals that identify us as Maine Guides. For now, mine are magneted to the refrigerator door.

But maybe the real test came two days later when I had my first chance to guide a trip out of Old Quarry. A detailed description would sound pretty much like one of the scenarios from the exam: a group of nineteen clients in ten boats led by a co-guide and me, wind & waves, a client’s broken paddle... For a few moments, as the events seemed to unfold in slow motion, I could almost hear the scenario in my head, like a hypothetical exercise devised by a sadistic examiner... the tandem with the broken paddle lolling in the surf zone off the point. And I could hear my response. I clipped on and towed them away from shore, gave them my spare paddle, blew my whistle to round-up the others. This scene may have inspired half the group to re-think their desire to head out into the waves off the point, and the other guide took them back while I took four tandems out to Russ Island. As conditions grew worse, Old Quarry’s power boat, The Nigh Duck, arrived and took us back. As far as I could tell, the clients didn’t seem to think any of this was out of the ordinary, and had not only a good time, but an adventure. It’s certainly a new adventure for me.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on passing the Maine Guide exam. I know a very competent, smart kayaker who flunked. There was, to my mind, a somewhat arbitrary element to the process, with a lack of real world kayaking experience on the part of the examiners.
For example, "A lobster boat is bearing down on you. What do you do?" Apparently the correct answer was a VHF call on channel 16. The rejected answer - wave your paddle vigorously. I'll stick with waving the paddle, myself, having been on lobster boats, and having noticed that the radio is hard to hear, especially over the rock and roll station that might well be playing.
I really appreciate this blog. I've been reading it for several years. It's been fun to watch you guys develop. Also, I live in Brunswick, but have been paddling the Stonington waters for 15 years, and small boating on them for longer. It's nice to be able to stay in touch with my home waters.

Speedbumps said...

Thanks for reading and responding. Yes, there is something wrong with the exam. When BCU and ACA have training and assessment programs already developed, it seems like it would be smart for Maine to just adopt that as part of the Guide licensing process- the way it adopts the Red Cross First Aid classes. It all felt like more of a hoop to jump through than a meaningful way of ensuring that I would be a competent guide.

That "lobster boat is bearing down on you" question was on my written test, and I probably got it wrong, because waving your paddle is the only thing that makes any sense at all... although I liked one of the other multiple-choice answers: "everybody count to three and roll"! said...

congratulations to you and rebecca for passing your guide exams! :-)

Caroline said...

Congratulations to both you and Rebecca for passing the Maine Guide exam. It was interesting to read about it since the Licensed Maine Guides who give presentations like to make it sound *very serious* indeed.
My limited experience up there indicates that waving my paddle is definitely the best action.
Did you learn things other than which answers are the correct ones while taking the course? I know you are very capable paddlers with lots of experience.

Caroline from New Jersey

Paddle2See said...

Congratulations again for passing the guides test. It took me two tries too. The first time I made the mistake of asking a question during the lost client scenario...I asked what the current speed was. They picked a number out of thin air (I suspect) and told me it was 4 knots! That threw me completely. What the hell was I doing paddling clients out in a 4 knot current? That's insane. So I got smart the next time I took it and didn't ask questions...just focused on group management and communications and passed. There does seem to be a lack of kayaking experience in the people giving the test - I agree that there is probably a better approach.

Thanks for the great stories...we paddle Stonington a bit ourselves and love the area.

amaineguide said...

While there is supposed to be a sea kayak guide plus a Department of Marine Patrol officer giving the exam that doesn't always happen. Be assured that the revised exams were written by a long-time member of MASKGI. Maine Association of Sea Kayaking Guides and Instructors. visit:

Michael Daugherty said...

Alice, thanks for reading and responding; you obviously understand the exam process well (I like your website and blog).

I don't know anyone who had a sea kayak guide for an examiner, but it seems like a good idea. At this point, I can't quite summon the passion to delve too deeply into how things ought to be, but for me, the guide's exam was a hoop to jump through more than a meaningful assessment.

On the positive side, some effort is being made to use some aspect of the ACA Trip Leader assessment to address the practical, on the water issues. It's kind of a problem though, for big outfitters wanting to recruit inexperienced paddlers and give them a crash course to become guides. My guess is that such change may come slowly, if at all.