Whitewater Kayaking is Dying. Could Sea Kayaking be Next?

Friday, 07 August 2009
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Extreme Kayaking - Photo Credit: www.jfoto.com/Kayak.htmThe latest issue of Outside Magazine has an eye opening analysis of the rise and subsequent collapse of whitewater kayaking.

Below is a quick snippet:

Whitewater kayaking is in serious decline, with American paddlers spending some 50 percent fewer days on the water than at the beginning of the decade, sponsorship dollars drying up, and the once-raging pro freestyle tour all but gone. For elite athletes, launching huge waterfalls may be the new frontier, but it's also one of the few remaining ways to scratch out a living in a boat.

It's been a long, hard fall for a pursuit that used to define adventure-sport cool. The boom cycle really took off in 1997, when designers at kayak manufacturer Wave Sport popularized a radical new boat, the X. It had a flat-bottomed hull, like a surfboard, and it enabled paddlers to spin and slide sideways on river waves. Freestyle river rodeos began drawing huge crowds and big-money sponsors like Subaru and Nike. In 2001, Outside put then-19-year-old kayaker Brad Ludden on the cover, teasing a story about the dream life of pro paddlers: "Take two hotdoggers, hand them the keys to a brand-new Subaru, stock it with boats and cash, and send the lucky bastards off with two words: Find water. Wouldn't you want to be a rodeo kayaker?"

Making matters worse, the dominant marketing strategy during the boom period was to sell kayaking as extreme. It made for some gnarly catalog covers but likely drove away a large crop of weekend warriors put off by the idea of drowning upside down in a tiny boat.


It got me thinking. If it happened to whitewater kayaking, could the same thing happen to sea kayaking? Kite boarding and windsurfing also extremed themselves out of oblivion back in the mid nineties. Are we potentially going down a similar path?

On one hand, I believe that as a sport, sea kayaking sits on a much more stable foundation than whitewater. We probably won’t ever fall victim to the extreme hype due to the fact that the sport is much slower overall and the average age of participates is older but on the other hand, we do need to be careful on other fronts. In particular I feel the cost of entry and poor boat designs could easily be our downfalls.

Let’s face it, sea kayaking is a hugely expensive sport compared to many others. Of course one could always rent a boat forever or could go out and purchase a much cheaper recreational kayak but if anybody is halfway interested in getting involved seriously, they will need to depart with several thousand dollars from their bank account just to get kitted out. Compare that to other recreational sports and this could easily be a major factor in the decision of participation.

Manufactures have always offered both high and low end product lines and that makes good business sense. I can accept the fact that a cheaper, low-end boat won’t be built with the same bells and whistles as higher end models but my problem is that most manufactures sacrifice quality boat design in favour of a cheap ticket price.

Imagine a brand new paddler interested in sea kayaking. Sue isn’t rich but committed so she goes over to the local kayak shop and buys one of the great low-end models on sale. Things go well until she puts the boat on the water and isn’t as happy as she thought she was. Sue doesn’t know why but it seems like a whole lot more work then she thought it would be when watching other experts on the water in their sleek longer (more expensive) models. Sue blames her weak arms, gives up and goes bowling.

The blame shouldn’t be with her arms; the blame should be with the manufacture who built the boat and the shop that sold it to her.

The same thing happens with cycling. People try commuting back and forth to work for a couple of days then give up because it is so much work. It isn’t that biking is a pile of work, it’s because they have a cheap, crappy bike that isn’t designed to be efficient but rather; designed to be cheap.

Go to your local paddling shop and you will see a whole pile of cheap, short and wide kayaks all designed to be stable but go nowhere fast. It doesn’t take long for the new paddler to get bored or frustrated and give up thinking it’s them when rather it’s a poorly designed new boat.

If we don’t start focusing on developing economical, entry level boats that are a pleasure to paddle then we very well could be wondering where everybody went and why are they all bowling.

Photo Credit: Jay Carroll

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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