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How defining your ability level is essential to better boating

How defining your ability level is essential to better boating

While was on a boating expedition to the Ubaye River in Southern France we met up with a kayaker named Guille (Pronounced GEE-yay). Guille is the type of calm cool and collected paddler you read about in boating magazines, with an attitude that comes from 3 decades of boating throughout the world. We were locked deep in the Royal Gorge of the Ubaye with one raft and Guille C1ing his kayak. It was amazing to see a solid class V kayaker on his home turf while I was fumbling around in a 12 foot baby elephant which I had to keep half deflated to fit through some of the tighter slots in the gorge. While we were in some of the slower water Guille gave us a genuinely great compliment in the way only a supremely confident and well-seasoned boater can. With neither a hint of sarcasm or arrogance:

“You guys are doing great, it’s nice to see you can handle a raft out here.” –Guille

Ubaye First Drop.jpg

This sprung us into a long discussion about determining skill levels punctuated by big class IV+ drops. Guille had a funny story about American boaters from his time on the Futaleufu and although he was speaking to kayaking the trend is, in my opinion, worse in rafters.

“I used to work at a place that did kayak rentals in Chile. We would get many American kayakers, especially from California. Before we would let them take the boat we would make them do a test on some easier class III paddling. I was shocked. People would come in and say that they are a class V boater then in the first class III rapid they would flip and swim out of their kayak. Incredible” –Guille

Ubaye Royal Gorge.jpg

Guille’s anecdote raises a lot of questions and red flags especially when we translate this to the world of rafting. First any beginner or non-rafter can jump in a boat with an experienced guide and run Class IV whitewater. Further a highly skilled guide in the top 10% of all boaters can and regularly does take inexperienced people down very tough whitewater. Just look at any commercially run Class V river and you will find clients in well over their heads without their guide.

This can lead to inflated egos and perspectives which are skewed your perspective to the higher end of the spectrum. With all that in mind how does a boater accurately communicate their skill to another boater?

 Your ego vs your true skill level

To dig deeper into this we need to take a look at ego. The ego is a defining and complex feature in the life of a boater which I have previously written about. When you run a lot of hard clean runs your ego tends to pump you up. This is a purely emotional response to the endorphin rush and feeling of accomplishment from paddling hard whitewater. 

“If you run a class IV river 10 times in a row a Class III river doesn’t look as big, when you run a class V river 10 times in a row a class IV river doesn’t look so big” – John Kosakowsky

John’s words are a double edged sword, the perspective you get is invaluable and it helps to put you fears into perspective. The other side of that coin is that the emotional response of your ego can cause you to lose perspective of where your ability truly is.

Remember Ego is by definition emotional and the only way to combat the pitfalls of that are through calm, objective, and rational discussion. So how do you define your skill?

How do you define your skill?

The text book definition of skill is the ability to do something well; expertise; competence; mastery; aptitude or artistry. All of these definitions carry the following implications:

Your skill level is a spectrum. That spectrum covers a broad range however there are some things you run consistently and some things you run inconsistently. This spectrum also covers multiple disciplines of rafting like big water, creeking, river running, multiday, rowing, paddle guiding, waterfalls, raft racing. Since I can only truly attempt to assess my own skill from my perspective I would put it something like this:

This is how I define my spectrum, yet another boaters skill spectrum will be wildly different

This is how I define my spectrum, yet another boaters skill spectrum will be wildly different

The way in which a person asks about your skill level can say a lot about that person’s mastery level. At times we need to get straight to the point so boaters will ask if you are a class V boater for example. It is important to note if the person is doing this for brevity because of a time constraint or they are legitimately asking that specific question. An experienced boater will more likely ask something like this: So, do you feel confident on this run? Does this seem like something within your skill level?

Your skill may encompass a wide range, but it is defined by what you can do consistently. Saying you are Class IV or Class V boater is an oversimplification. As an athlete’s skill increases so too do the degrees of specificity needed to define everything you interact with. You have a special set of skills drawn from your experience. Naturally you will find you can consistently perform at a certain level well in a given field and not so much in other realms of boating. The critical element here is that there is nothing wrong with that. You have to embrace it.

How to spot wise boaters?

A knowledgeable boater is one who is honest about their skill and doesn’t sugar coat things. The best boaters in the world realize these issues with ego and typically respond with cryptic answers that leave you guessing as to if they are even boaters. Anywhere you go there is always a bigger badder boater who knows the run better. Many people say that this is about humility, but confidence and experience have a way of tempering a boater’s Ego. The best boaters that I have ever met will commonly seem humble in their ability and oddly yet specifically gaurded in their remarks.

Double Trouble.jpg

“Yeah I’ve been on some stuff” “We boat stuff like this back home” are common types of statements you might hear. What is critical is what comes next though. Good boaters will turn the questions around and start pumping you for beta on the run from your perspective. What do you think are the tough parts? Have you had any carnage there? They do this while maintaining a calm, detached, tone of skepticism in their voice. Their entire line of questioning end up being extremely pointed toward specific actionable items on the water while they blatantly ignore conjecture or subjective emotional assessments. Experienced boaters come from a place of knowledge and understanding gained through serious beat downs. The best boaters tend to let go of the emotional hype and approach the situation as a logical problem to be solved.

Here are a few tips for discussing your skill level with others:

  1. Never over simplify your skill level, always err on the side of greater specificity
  2. Put your ego in check by looking at your boating from an emotionally detached state
  3. Remember there are always more skills to learn and develop
  4. Acknowledge that there is probably someone who boats harder and better than you on any given run.
  5. Accept that perfection is an illusion, but strive for excellence in all things.

If you are asked about your skill you should try to give an honest assessment. This is usually accompanied by what rivers you have seen. Another important element to being a good boater is keeping an accurate river log. Memories can get fuzzy, but written logs can serve an objective frame of reference. If you can look at your river log and say that you have put in 100 days on class IV every year for 5 years that helps to objectively define your skill level.

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