Monday, August 10, 2009

Whitewater Kayaking is Dying. Could Sea Kayaking be Next?

David H. Johnston, who runs the always interesting blog Paddling Instructor raises an interesting issue following the latest issue of Outside Magazine who publish an eye opening analysis of the rise and subsequent collapse of whitewater kayaking largely because of extreming themselves out of mainstream.
David agrees with this and that touring does not face the same threat. But at the same time he argues that beginners should buy faster, narrower and less stable kayaks.

Hey Papa, you want to try this? Photo: Jay Carroll

I have given this issue a lot of thought but have arrived to a contrary conclusion than David. I follow him regarding windsurfing and white water who extremed themselves out of oblivion. Windsurfing started as an easy sport with large stable boards that almost anybody could learn to master.

Windsurfing started like this

It was extremely successful. Even my dad learned how and bought a board and it was easy and lots of fun.Then things got more complicated. To be cool you needed a smaller board. You needed to jump.

and went to this...
My father bailed out. After 3 years I finally quit when, with my last board, I had to start from under water and had a very hard time holding against the wind. My jumps where pathetic compared to the magazine covers. It just became to hard to master.
Not Papa...

When comparing with windsurfing, touring paddling has seen almost the opposite development. Seakayaking (or touring) was born by extreme users paddling in narrow, unstable and fast boats in rough British seas. Wedged into impossibly small, round cockpits hard men with beards, preferably with icicles hanging out their noses, cruised the seven seas all but alone. Then something happened. The sport developed to easier to use products. Wider, more stable boats with larger cockpits that almost anybody can consider trying. With sit on tops the feeling of claustrophobia was totally eliminated.
yours truly not with Sue

This I consider the key to the lasting and long term viability of touring. That Sue cannot follow David in speed is not important. Sue would have never gotten into a narrow claustrophobic kayak in the first place. Sue doesn't like the feeling of slow drowning, trapped upside down:-) I am glad that most public images of seakayaking look inviting, calm and easy. This attracts new users to the sport. The more extreme cousins of touring have the problem of images of massive waterfalls, impossible jumps ect to fight. Given, it is fun and exciting to look at (from a safe distance).
This is not Sue but it could be

Here all you seakayaking instructors out there have a responsibility. Rolling and paddling upside down when doing public appearances is fun and attracts the folks to come watch. But they would rather be dead than put themselves in your cockpit. So show them also how easy a stable boat with a large cockpit is to use. Stand up in it (but don't fall in). Edge it, turn it, go sideways. Show them how easy it is.

Some of all those Sunday paddlers will want to progress and will learn more and exchange their stable, slow boat for something more exciting.
While many a sport take a long time to master before you can flush yourself down a waterfall, hurl yourself down a slope or balance a snow/wind/surf/skate/kite -board, touring is so easy you can head out on a full day paddling adventure your very first time.

Bring a friend, have fun, be safe!


David H. Johnston said...

Awesome post. I'm excited a manufacture responded!

I will need to rake over my posting as I have given it a bunch more thought. I’m going on vacation so I will see about posting a follow-up next week.

Personally speaking, I'm not a boat snob and don't advocate that the whole world switch over to tiny, skinny British style boats as they are really only appropriate for specific types of paddling. I have nothing against rec boats as I feel that they serve the needs of a huge amount of paddlers that would never get in a skinny mini boat.

My issue isn't that rec. boats should be pulled or anything like that, it's that manufactures need to make sure that design is super important. A good (but small) example, I recently saw a plastic sea kayak on the shop floor that was so rough that it cold have been sandpaper. Not sure why that boat couldn't have been molded smooth when it would have gone through the water much smoother.

I really just looking down the road and saying, we need to be aware of these potential threats as other sports failed to see the pitfalls. Not to say that they are even real issues, just could be become issues if we are not careful.

I also think that there are a bunch of other issues that could kill sea kayaking long before boat design including, emphasis of instruction, community building to develop long term paddlers, water safety issues, government intervention (or lack of), etc.


David J.

Richard at Point 65 said...

I will be most interested in your response. As a manufacturer I see a danger in instructors projecting the sport as more difficult and dangerous than it is in the interest of their commercial interest (filling classes). At the same time I am extremely pro skill-learning, safety etc. It's just that when listening to some instructors they make it sound as paddling is an extremely difficult thing and that one needs to take collect all these starts before being fit at even looking at a kayak. I think this is the wrong aproach to get people to appriciate learning more about paddling. Thats why I find Nigel Fosters concept "Fun with Foster" a much better way of a) getting people on the water and b) getting people to sign up on classes. Carrots work better than sticks.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.I think another reason whitewater seems to be dying out is the availability of area's to go.Let's face it touring/sea kayaking you can head out on a lake,river,ocean.Not ever paying a fee.More and more white water is being developed into adventure tourism that people can only afford or do once in a while.

At the end of a white water run (which is exciting) what do you do?You go back to do it again.Covering the same ground and rapids again.
Finding flat water or open sea is easy and provides the kayaker with the ability to do day long trips,short after work excursions,or multi week long expeditions,never seeing the same area.

I dunno I didnt catch on with whitewater as I saw the learning curb too high.However with sea kayaking I could pick good times to slowley develop from flat calm of a lake to breaking waves in the Atlantic.

I never really thought of the people promoting the sport.And I do think it's a very valid point.While I can picture what stereotype a whitewater kayak instructor is... I cannot for sea kayaking.
I believe sea kayaking has embraced a mosaic of different people with different skill sets,however is more forgiving to the beginner...or a person who just wants to paddle point A to B...not learn 40 different types of rolls.

Not that there is anything wrong with developing your skills!Just some do it for different reasons.

...Sorta like the windsurfing

Anonymous said...

I guess the folks that were so lazy that they needed to be flushed like turds finally got even more lazy and stay home.

Sorry, I just have a really hard time respecting people making a huge carreer and fuss about flushig down a waterfall or jumping of a cliff with skis on for that matter. It's just stupid.
Sure it does make a slightly more interesting picture to look does a picture in the tabloids of a motorbike that is runover by an 18wheeler.
These sports come and go...

Meanwhile, I am looking forward to this weekend as I will pick up a SUP board in Varberg ;-) Typical exampel how some smart guys found a way to suddenly get a very large group of people standing on surf boards. I tried it in Holland, and decided it is definately something that may not be missing in my arsenal.
I am sure that in order to be fast and competitive these boards also will soon become verry narrow so that only the pro's can still race them, and thus create the normal suicide as most of these sports do...but meanwhile I am looking forward to paddling hard here in central town and perhaps hang ten riding some boat wake at best...

At least I know that they can't make a Surfski any more narrow that they least both bums should fit right?

Paddle on!


Playak said...

That's in interesting perspective Richard, and it's sounds like there's a lot of truth in it.

Btw we also have this discussion going on on Playak, if you're interested in reactions from the Playak community:

Richard at Point 65 said...

Yeah, I saw that. Interesting that most of those guys don't seem to be picking up on the "kamikaze waterfall syndrome". Only natural I guess as they probably are pretty extreme paddlers. And they seem not to agree that there is a decline in ww.

Anonymous said...

In contrary, kayak courses in white water have grown 20-30% for us this year in Sweden, but there is a shift from freestyle and competing to just paddling for fun. Many on courses are from sea kayaking backgrounds wanting to extend their skills. We also see more than before continuing renting or buying boats. But I have to say white water kayakers have been good at getting a lot of attention for a small sport so manufacturers may have got the wrong idea and over produced and now have lost interest it seems eg Perception.

James Venimore

Richard at Point 65 said...

James, I know Lina, Erik and Staffan took some classes so that explains the 30% growth LOL LOL

Rob said...

Been kayaking for 8 years and have never rolled a kayak. Tried it a few times in training sessions but there was too much free space for the hip snap to work properly. Who wants to be trapped in a kayak with no free space to move the butt around in?

Why should I have to learn to roll a kayak to be a certified kayaking instructor of some level? The key to safety is to remain upright in the kayak and to know how to use the paddle in a variety of ways. If one is having difficulty keeping their kayak upright, they have bought the wrong kayak or they are not adept with their paddle. In my lust for speed, I once bought a "narrow" kayak but soon sold it because it was too unstable. I didn't want to lose my camera and felt it was just a matter of time before I capsized.

I could have 40 years of kayaking experience and the Unions and Associations would say I'm an unskilled kayaker because I can't roll a kayak and don’t have any of “their” certifications. That is understandable because it's how they make their money. These Unions and Associations help promote the sales of unstable kayaks and then for a price, put on classes to teach people what to do when their unstable kayak flips upside down. The Unions and Associations are political entities that don't like changes. Recent kayaking bills in Massachusetts, USA are causing an uproar throughout their kayaking school organizations. It seems the new law would require kayaking instructors to have several safety certifications. All this kayaker/instructor certification business wouldn't be necessary if unstable kayaks weren't manufactured. Sadly, an unstable kayak in cold water is a recipe for deadly disaster regardless of a kayaker's skill level.

On group paddles, people often say to me, "You look so comfortable in your kayak," as I pedal with a camera in one hand. Why would anyone want to get outside on the water and be uncomfortable? I've never have any problem keeping up with a group of paddlers in my "stable" kayaks.

Sea kayaking will never die because there are kayakers like me that love the wide open waters and waves. Kayak clubs serve to build the local kayaking community and they are showing no sign of going away. Organized group paddles are helping to increase the popularity of recreational kayaking.

What may die out is the sales of unstable (unsafe) narrow kayaks and that may be the result of legislation and lawyers. If anyone manufactures "unstable" kayaks, don't be surprised if the lawyers come knocking.

The million dollar question is, at what point is a kayak defined as "stable?" and suitable for the masses? 18" wide? 21" wide? 24" wide? 27" wide?

I'm a bit confused by your indication that whitewater kayaking it is dying out. When was it ever an activity that the masses participated in? Due to high risk of death related to whitewater kayaking, it may be increasingly difficult to gain access to whitewater areas. My philosophy is if you can't paddle up it, don't paddle down it.

I'm wondering about the XP18. The website says the initial stability rates about 4.4 out of 5 which indicates it is a really stable kayak. The stability makes graph makes it sound like I can close my eyes and relax in it. It'll be interesting to try one out.

Merry Christmas!

Richard at Point 65 said...

interesting points Rob. I think we can agree that there are all kinds of people and different kinds of preferences. Check in with Sound Kayaks, our US Distributor on how where to try the XP18. Happy Paddling! Richard