The Death of Sea Kayaking?

Amy and Dave Freeman of the Wilderness Classroom paddle past Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

Every year about this time, when the Internets are abuzz with northern canoeist and kayakers jonesing for open water, we hear about how sea kayaking is dying as a sport. We hear that the numbers are dropping, only graybeards kayak anymore, symposiums (which according to the arguments tell you how many people sea kayak) are on the decline and with a Sea Kayaker Magazine going under, it’s only a matter of time before the world of sea kayaking proverbably evaporates and we all lose our favorite pastimes. We hear this: Every. Single. Year.

Except that it’s not true. Sea kayaking is growing and has been for years.

But. But. But. It won’t be for long because only older people kayak and they’re going to die and sea kayaking is going to die off with them. But. But. But. Stand up paddleboarding is growing faster, therefore sea kayaking is going to die. But. But. But. There are more recreational kayaks sold and all the big box stores only sell rec boats, therefore sea kayaking is going to die. But. But. But. With the growth of kayak fishing, sea kayaking is going to go away.

Except that it’s not true. Sea kayaking is growing and has been for years.

kayaking ice cavesHow do I know that a quick icy death isn’t coming to sea kayaking? Because the numbers tell me so.

Here’s what the Outdoor Foundation’s 2013 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report has to say about sea kayaking and paddling in general.

Average Year-to-Year Change in Participation, 2009 to 2012

Whitewater kayaking: 13%
Sea/Touring Kayaking: 12%
Recreational Kayaking: 10%
Canoeing: -1%
SUP: 17%
Kayak fishing: 14.5%

Number of Outdoor Participation by Activity in 2006

Whitewater kayaking: 828,000
Sea/Touring Kayaking: 1,136,000
Recreational Kayaking: 4,134,000
Canoeing: 9,154,000
SUP: 0 (it wasn’t tracked)
Kayak fishing: 0 (it wasn’t tracked)

Number of Outdoor Participation by Activity in 2012

Whitewater kayaking: 1,878,000
Sea/Touring Kayaking: 2,446,000
Recreational Kayaking: 8,144,000
Canoeing: 9,839,000 (had a high of 10,553,000 in 2010)
SUP: 1,542,000
Kayak fishing: 1,409,000

Youth Participation 2006 vs 2012, Ages 6-17 (from the 2013 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report)

Whitewater kayaking: 244,000 vs. 432,000
Sea/Touring Kayaking: 124,000 vs. 333,000
Recreational Kayaking: 1,189,000 vs. 1,743,000
Canoeing: 3,515,000 vs. 2,735,000
SUP: 242,000 (2010) vs. 290,000
Kayak fishing: 96,000 (2010) vs. 220,000

Median Age of Outdoor Participants (from the 2013 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report)

Whitewater kayaking: 29
Sea/Touring Kayaking: 32
Recreational Kayaking: 32
Canoeing: NA
SUP: 28
Kayak fishing: NA
USA: 37.2 (CIA The World Factbook)

Can we now stop pretending that the death of sea kayaking is upon us? Thoughts?

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  • What I missed from the stats you gave was the relative age of all these fresh participants in the sport. I don’t doubt that sea kayaking has seen a bit of a growth cycle. A larger, corresponding drop in participants has been experienced by the sailing segment, and those folks probably went somewhere for their waterborne interests besides the SUP market.

    Sailing is very much the sport that is taking it in the shorts right now. Consumers have been trending to lesser expensive water sports for a little more than a decade and there’s no let-up in sight. Marinas all over the USA are now showing slip openings for what used to be long waiting periods. So, I say gear-up, get out on the skinny bad boys and have a blast.

    Very well paced piece, by the way.

    Chris Ostlind
    Lunada Design

    • I meant to include that, but got so excited that I forgot to actually write it. I added the ages.

  • Define sea/touring kayaking. Paddling a long boat? Multi day trips? Does the day paddle I take in my Assateague count as sea kayaking? Or if I paddle it on a small lake is it a recreational paddle? I’m not sure how you differentiate one from the other as easily as the terms used in the survey.

    • The way these participation reports work is by self reporting, so the person answering the questions reports that they participated in sea kayaking if they believe they participated in sea kayaking. The sample size was 42,363, which would give a high level of accuracy even if some people were considered wrong by any likely definition that we could come up with. You can read the methodology in the report.

      So, to answer your questions: if you think the day you take your Assateague counts as sea kayaking, it does. These reports also count the number of days in which people participated in outdoor activities, but I didn’t want to get into that because the data isn’t readily available by sport.

  • Since it’s self reported I wonder how many rec boat paddlers are classifying themselves as sea kayakers and if this can skew the numbers? It might not matter, but the number of subaru’s driving around my region with 10 ft boats on them has exploded. Does the boat make the sea kayaker or does the water type/destination?

    We have a club in our town that consists entirely of recreational boats and I bet 80% would consider themsleves sea kayakers. I attended one of their monthly meetings with a buddy who was asked to do a presenation on kayak sailing (I was there for moral support). As part of the discussion we talked about touring and all the things you needed to be on the water for a week or more. Afterwards one of the attendees came up to me all excited and said “I’m so glad you are here, I want to do what you guys do!” He started rattling off all his gear, “I have this tent, this sleeping bag,” etc. etc. He followed up with, “how do I get in with you on your trips?”

    I didn’t know this guy from Adam, but after briefly talking about safety and having the conditioning to be on the water for a week or more, I got the sense that the guy had more spirit than ability. I asked “so what are you paddling, something in the 15-16ft range?” His response was, “I have this great 10ft sit on top kayak, its’ stable, I’ve never fallen out, I wear a wet suit, I have dry bags for my gear,” etc.

    At that point in the conversation, I winced not wanting to go into all the reasons, he’d have a hard time joining on a true sea kayak touring trip. I also didn’t want to ding his enthusiasm for paddling but I wished him well, asked him if he’s paddled to a couple of neat places in the region and I mentioned he might want to give a sea kayak a try and gave him my email address. I haven’t heard from him, but nonethless, I guarantee that guy is a “sea kayaker.” If he reaches out I’ll gladly show him the ropes.

    • I suspect that with the sample size anything like this gets ironed out within the error rate, and because the methodology has been the same since 2006, we’re getting as accurate numbers as possible for comparisons. Sea kayaking is growing.

    • I’ ve paddled open coastal areas in California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. Done 2 to 4 day trips in the San Juan and Gulf islands in Wa. and B.C. Paddled in Lake Superior on 2 to 4 day trips. Paddled into countless caves. I do this on a 15 foot scupper sit on top with two gear hatches. I wear a wet suit and have capsized plenty of times in surf . Apparently I am not a sea kayaker though I paddle on the sea. So what am I?

  • I love stats. It’s a nice reminder that how things look in your neighbourhood at a particular time of year isn’t exactly how it might be nationally.

    David J.

  • I don’t care if it is declining. More room on the water for me without all the Sunday drivers clogging up the ocean.

    That said, sea kayaking in particular is expanding rapidly all around the Irish coastline. Lots of very active clubs, groups and individuals.


  • Thanks for these numbers to dispute the popular misconception. Being in the paddlesports business, I view the health of the market as an important issue. But I wonder why participant sea kayakers would worry about it. There’s certainly no prospect that they won’t be able to purchase good gear: while some suppliers may occasionally drop out of the market, great new equipment is still introduced regularly, and I’m not aware that it’s become difficult to find it or buy it. (OK, my local paddle shop has squeezed the SK selections to make room for SUP, but they’ll still special order anything you want.) As a non-team, and largely non-group sport, the number of other people out there on the water is (or should be) irrelevant to a paddler’s enjoyment. I tend to view sea kayakers in general as rather independent, and many treasure the sport’s solitary nature, but are some worried about engaging in an activity that isn’t hip and hot?

  • Confirmed.. not dying.. growing and fast..
    people are not only willing to paddle more distances, learning new skills but they also invest in faster and better boats.. winter gear and at extreme even learning to build their own boats..
    Future is bright.. it’s not for everyone but those who seek the path of the waterman.. are tremendously rewarded.. Yes, younger people prefer SUB’s and WW because they are easier to transport.. on WW there might be more adrenaline rush but if you get into surfing with kayaks it’s almost if not better than that.. Sea Kayaking is not sport.. it’s a way of way of living and life

    Owner and co-founder of New England Kayak Club

  • We’re seeing more rec boats on our Wisconsin lakes this past summer, and at Canoecopia in 2012, there weren’t many 16-17′ boats on the floor. Lots of 10 – 14 footers though.
    Count me among the “gray beards who will still be paddling my Necky Chatham 16 for many years to come … and still spending disposable income on apparel and gear each year. I love this sport!

  • Interesting article. I have been paddling for 16 years and I have heard this virtually every year as well. I live in Michigan and I have heard the argument that because attendance in the various symposia have declined it is a sure sign that the death of sea kayaking is around the corner. What is missed, I believe, is that the number of symposia have increased in our area over the years and perhaps to the point of exceeding adequate demand to sell out the symposia. Will sea kayaking decline eventually? Likely as the Boomers exit paddling but this is the same for all similar hobbies and sports.

  • One of the best ways to ensure the future of our sport is simply to get our kids involved…they usually love it!

  • I posted this question on another string and wanted to bring it up here for discussion. I agree about getting youth more involved, but is this a segment of the population missed by the major manufacturers? There isn’t really readily available quality gear from boats to pfd’s that properly fit a teen or pre-teen. We could also have a whole seperate conversation about age and maturity releated to beginnings sea kayaking. I have two young kids who I hope will follow dad onto the big water someday, but are they doing it in gear that fits? I know I can build someting, but for the average person, this is a stretch. There has been a movement towards shorter boats and even boats geared towards women because those groups became vocal about having gear that fits or fits a need.

    I’ll suggest that if we believe involving more youth is the answer to developing tomorrow’s sea kayakers, we need to adovcate with the manufacturers to meet our needs. It’s like downhill ski gear. Companies make youth sizes and I see 4 yr olds zipping around the slopes with skill and grace. In paddling you wouldn’t stick a gangly 12 yr old in an 18 ft Nordkapp and expect him/her to excell. The average 12-13 yr old doesn’t have $2500 for a nice sea kayak, plus additional $ for the gear. It’s mom and dad who have the buying power to influence the market.

    How are we defining “involvement?” Is it letting them puddle around at the local reservoir in a pungo and waiting until their feet can touch the foot pegs in a true sea kayak? Is it taking them canoing so they’re around paddlesports and then bring them into sea kayaking when their age and physical abilities fit the gear? We’ll let a 12 yr old stand at home plate and have another kid hurl a baseball 50+ mph at their heads, and strap shoulder pads to our boys and let them crush each other on the football field. Both have loads of properly fitted and sized gear and they are nurtured from an early age. Maybe the industry is confident in the future of paddlesports and this doesn’t concern them? Maybe this isn’t an issue and I”m making too big of a deal? I guess I could always spend $5-6K for a custom boat my kid(s) will grow out of in a couple of seasons?

    • Eric

      There are a number of manufacturers that make smaller plastic boats. I think that is the way to go for kids due to cost and durability… second hand they are often quite reasonable..

    • All the major manufacturers that I know produce kids gear, i.e. paddles, clothing, gear, etc…

      Finding kids specific kayaks is a bit of a problem, but there are boats designed for smaller people that work for kids and a few companies make kids kayaks. It’s not an issue in canoes. Kids paddle full-sized canoes just fine.

  • Bryan, Are those figures world wide or for the USA? If you run a google analytic on the word “seakayaking” you’ll find a growth in the number of hits in a number of countries. However, the the USA isn’t one of them. Any thoughts?

    • These are numbers for the U.S.

      I’m not sure how Google Analytics collects its data, so I don’t really have any thoughts on it. Some of the ways that Google presents data has to do with a comparison to total global searches and as global searches have increased in other areas, the search words for kayaking shows a downward trend as a percentage. It isn’t an accurate gauge of actual growth or decline. I suspect the same is going on with analytics, but I’m not sure.

  • Interesting post. Good comments. We are having a similar discussion on our post about the demise of Sea Kayaker magazine. Why did the magazine fold? Where did the readers go? It seems the sport is growing, but it also seems there are variances in how we define “sea kayaking”. If anyone’s interested we’re at

    • I think the magazine folded because it was stale. It needed a fresh, new editor to stir up the editorial content. Instead, it was the same story, in the same forced voice, in issue after issue after issue. The only reason that I kept subscribing to it was because of the kayak reviews, but just before it folded, I decided that I had read the exact same thing over and over in issue after issue that it lacked value. I didn’t renew.

  • I can speak about Italy: here it is a growing sport.
    I started in 2004 and since then I have always seen more kayakers every year.
    Level is going up, gear and boats coming from everywhere in the world (expecially from UK)
    With such a beautiful sea as the mediterranean sea once you have started it would be crazy to stop.
    Actually more and more sailing friends are coming to kayaking.
    So, good news from the south.

  • […] to provide Search and Rescue and the 10 to 25 million canoe, kayak and SUP participants (see The Death of Sea Kayaking?) helped pay for those 11 missions with our tax dollars. When one of us gets into trouble we […]

  • I am approaching my 63rd birthday, and am still an avid sea kayaker, canoe paddler, sometime whitewater paddler and occasional flatwater and sea kayak racer. My mother took up cross country skiing in her late 60’s and continued into her mid-80’s (she died at 98, having lived independently until she was 96). I don’t really give a flying s&*it what someone thinks about “the future of sea kayaking”. If every sea kayak manufacturer goes out of business, I will find a club and lay up my own kayak, as I did in the 1960’s. I paddle because it is liberating, a fantastic way to exercise, and a hoot to compete in. So yes, I guess I am the poster girl for all those “old people” who still sea kayak, but I have seen in my local club a number of men and women and their 20’s get involved and hooked on the sport. So write of the death of sea kayaking; I certainly don’t care. When I paddle through my beloved Puget Sound in the summer months and camp at the many water trails kayak camping sites interspersed throughout a most glorious place, I laugh at people who have nothing better to do than write of the demise of sea kayaking.

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