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This vs That in Kayaking

A kayak on the shore of Cascade Lake at sunset.

Over on PaddlingLight’s Facebook page, I posed a question and some thoughts about paddling sponsorship. Basically, I noticed that more sponsored paddlers are getting sponsored without having to go out on expeditions. I wondered what that does to the look and appeal of paddling (from a manufacturer’s standpoint, it may make sense this way: you get your gear out to the influencers;  they influence the hard core paddlers who buy your gear; the hard core show it off to their friends who buy it; and then it trickles down from there). My thought was that I’d rather that sea kayaking look like National Geographic instead of some kind of extreme sport.

That got me thinking about why I got into sea kayaking and what appealed about sea kayaking to me. What attracted me was the sense of adventure that I saw in the advertisements, retail posters and the adventures I read about in the magazines. I liked the idea that you could go kayak camping anywhere around the world. I had no idea that skills were needed to survive some of those places. It just looked like a great, easy-to-learn and calm way to explore. I bought a sea kayak and explored. That’s what I still do in sea kayaking and offering that joy of exploration to others is one of the reasons that I decided to start a kayak guiding business.

Keith Wikle wrote on Facebook:

Expedition paddling is just not as technical or athletic as other endeavors. It’s not knock on any expedition, or paddler, but even within kayaking, a freestyle white water paddler, a surf kayaker, or a creek boater requires more athletic and competitive nature than sea kayaking. That said, sea kayaking is changing too, with more people becoming interested in park and play tide race surfing and so forth. Maybe one of the cool things about sea kayaking is that anyone can pick it up, learn the skills, do some trips and become a superstar?

Or in other words, a beginner can get into expedition paddling and excel at exploration even if that exploration is just down the road, but I disagree with the notion that anyone can pick up park and play tide race surfing — that takes fitness, skill and lots of practice. On a personal note, I loved paddling the rivers in Iowa in my first kayak, and it was amazing to explore the backwaters of the Mississippi River. Turning ever corner felt like an adventure.

Sea kayak depicted two different ways. On the left, it's about relaxing, unusual exploration and discovery. On the right, it's about hard-core adrenaline, which is anything but relaxing.
Sea kayak depicted two different ways. On the left, it’s about relaxing, unusual exploration and discovery. On the right, it’s about hard-core adrenaline, which is anything but relaxing.

What I’ve been seeing in sea kayaking lately is an emphasis on rough water paddling and the athletes that participate in it. If you page through the most recent issue of Sea Kayaker (December 2012), you’ll see that in ads that depict sea kayaking, eight show it in rough water and twelve show it in the calm (I didn’t count classified). Only four or five actually show amazing scenery that makes me stop in my tracks and say, I want to go there. And I’ve been to one of the locations before, the Apostle Islands. In the rough water ads, the rough water could be anywhere, nothing makes it standout from any wave in any other place.

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And rough water isn’t the reason that most kayakers paddle. The motivation for kayaking for the majority of kayakers according the the most recent Outdoor Foundation’s Special Report on Paddlesports is because “It’s relaxing.” Here’s the percentage breakdown of motivation:

  • It’s relaxing. 68%
  • It’s a great way to get exercise. 63%
  • It’s fun. 59%
  • I enjoy discovery and exploration. 54%
  • I want to be healthy. 51%
  • I get away from my usual routine. 46%
  • I like new experiences. 42%
  • I can participate in outdoor activities near where I live. 36%
  • I like challenges. 34%
  • I get a feeling of accomplishment. 33%
  • I can spend time with friends. 31%

According to the Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report 2012, from 2009 to 2011, we’ve seen growth in sea kayaking, recreational kayak and whitewater kayaking, but the biggest growth comes in recreational kayaking and in the last year of the report, both sea kayaking and whitewater kayaking saw a decline of 4 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Whereas, recreational kayaking saw a 27 percent increase in participation rates. While, I don’t think we can deduce whether or not ads are making these changes, I think that we can say that people want calm, they want to explore and discover and to get away from the usual. To see the growth rates in recreational kayaking compared to sea kayaking, I got to believe that some of the extra growth is because it’s depicted more calmly — just look at Sea Kayaker’s December 2012 issue again: the cover shows surf and the inside cover ad shows surf. Those things are definitely not calm and relaxing. That’s not going to appeal to the 68 percent of kayakers that do it because “It’s relaxing.” Plus, it doesn’t even look like the paddlers are smiling, i.e. having fun.

How does all this add up to me: let’s depict sea kayaking like National Geographic with calm, beautiful places to discover and explore that aren’t usual. Let’s stop depicting it to look like whitewater. Maybe if we do that, we can get some of those recreational kayakers to take up sea kayaking and attract more of the public.

Side note: The cost of sea kayaking is significantly higher and the income demographics may suggest that higher income paddlers are more likely to get into sea kayaking and lower into recreational kayaking. This may account for the growth levels, but the crosstabs aren’t available to look further into this. And this is a whole other story that doesn’t negate anything that I suggested above. If anything, it makes it more important to depict sea kayaking like National Geographic.


  • Yes, I like the calm relaxing nature of sea kayaking exploring beautiful places – the ‘national geographic’ moments.

    But also enjoy surfing, sailing, rock gardening, tide races in my sea kayak.

    Many different ways to relax and have fun…. even when you’re not smiling.

    Sea kayaking is cool, but anywhere with paddle in hand, I think that’s cool too. This and that – all cool.

    You mention income demographics but I think another interesting correlation could be general fitness.

    It’s ironic that more extreme sports and activities are attracting eyeballs and media and sponsors, while folk in general become more sedentary….. and less inclined to be active.

    Need another Red Bull before I can get off the couch……

    • General fitness levels would be an interesting thing to track. Not sure if anyone is doing that though.

  • I agree with you Bryan, and I enjoy expeditions for the same reasons you do. Yes, I have some skills, but when I go with others of mixed skills and experience I would rather not take chances with their lives, and look for beauty and safety at the same time. That being said, weather can change, so I practise the three P’s: Prudence, preparedness, and paddling skills, with prudence being the most important one.

    • No doubt. I think my point is that when I got into kayaking, I saw it as something anyone could do, because the ads and pictures, etc… made it look easy and fun. After I was into it, I became more interested in rough water, surf, etc. But, to me kayak is exploration.

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