The perceived image of Whitewater kayaking and the shrinkage of an industry.

If you mention to someone that you like kayaking, some people will visualise an open canoe, while others will think that you pootle up and down a flat water river. After all, you wouldn’t be mad enough to do that whitewater thing, would you?

When they find out that you do in fact take part in whitewater kayaking they will often be amazed at your apparent recklessness. People who do not take part in such sports are rarely aware of the differing grades of whitewater. If you told someone that you liked surfing at the beach, nobody would question your hobby or motives. They would probably think you were a pretty cool dude, as it were. Other sports such as mountain biking and climbing are also acceptable. The sheer number of indoor climbing walls available has made it very acceptable to do, with families often taking their kids to do such things.

Likewise most of us at some time or another have owned a bike. Mountain biking can mean everything from a fitness based ride across a hilltop, through to fast and dangerous downhill courses. Yet nobody will question your sanity even if you told them that you did the latter!

Despite the horrific injuries associated with climbing and mountain biking our comparatively safe sport of whitewater kayaking is often frowned upon in a societal sense. Sure, whitewater kayaking most certainly has its risks, but we take every precaution to reduce them. The vast majority of the time if you come out of your kayak you will simply get wet and a bit tired. Most of the time with a bit of experience and you will simply roll up again. What other sport can you do that in?

Compared to a mountain bike or climbing where a slip or a fall means full on skin grazing at best and broken limbs, severe concussion, or death at worst, kayakers have it pretty good on the type of water that the majority of people paddle on. We practice safety religiously and are always looking out for our compatriots, even if they may not be part of our group. We set up safety when running more complex rapids, the equivalent of our friends setting up big soft bouncy walls and floor for us on an MTB run! We take our safety gear seriously too. Contrast this with the way that top rock climbers are always shown without a helmet, and the fact that there is a lot of peer pressure not to look “uncool” wearing one. And yet it is our sport that often has image issues. Why is this? Perception is everything.

First and foremost many people do not want to try kayaking because they perceive it as being cold and wet. It is true that it can be in our rather eclectic UK climate, but you can just as easily have a boating weekend away in sunny and warm Slovenia for less than the cost to go to somewhere like Scotland. Some people, though, will never be attracted to the sport.

The second is perception of danger and risk. Climbing is generally perceived as something that anybody can try. Most towns and cities have an indoor climbing wall you can just turn up and pay for a session on. Mountain biking is as easy as going to a bike shop and getting some gear. Skiing, too, has a perception that anyone can try it, with many ski resorts being geared up for the full holiday experience. It is seen as a lifestyle thing, and people will flock in droves to do it, even though you can become quite cold and wet! The marketing of skiing is clever in that the dull cloudy day where you get cold and wet is never portrayed. Instead we see blue skies and beautiful people in sunglasses and designer ski wear standing on a balcony on a mountaintop enjoying glasses of wine after a great day on the slopes. The broken limbs, strangely, never make it into the brochures. I would wager that there are not that many people who are reading this who do not know of someone who has broken a leg or other limb while on a skiing holiday!

Whitewater kayaking on the other hand is always marketed on the fringe. No kayak company makes any real money from selling whitewater kayaks. The only reason why whitewater kayaks continue to be produced is because their sales are subsidised by sales of fishing kayaks, touring kayaks, sea kayaks, and most of all the plastics production of completely non kayaking related products. Even Jackson Kayak are not solely producers of kayaks. Their plastics expertise is used to make products for lots of different companies who want plastics products. Although I do not know specifics, the type of thing I am thinking of are companies like Fisher Price, Lego and the like.

In short the whitewater kayak market exists purely because of a labour of love on the part of those who make them. How small is the market? Well, from one person “in the know”, the sales of whitewater kayaks worldwide from all the manufacturers combined totals only around 20,000 boats per annum. Even between ten manufactures that is only an average of 2000 boats, worldwide, each. When you factor in the R&D for each boat, the continued mould costs (they can only be used a finite number of times and cost around £20k each), employee costs through the production chain of each boat and so on, and you make the realisation that the ROI for a whitewater boat is absolutely tiny. If you want to make money then producing whitewater boats is most certainly not the way to go about it!

You can perhaps see why, when a manufacturer has a good proven design on their hands, such as the Dagger Nomad, they will not update it until they really have to. Jackson are a different case and I do not know the business modelling behind their constant updates, but I am sure EJ knows what he is doing. This is an exception to the rule, however.

Whitewater is currently a very small niche, but it needn’t be. In the UK the dire river access situation does not help matters, but given that this problem of having such a small market is worldwide there must be a solution. I have long held that manufacturers, while rivals, need to team up in a concerted effort to promote the sport in a more positive way. It cannot be left to small canoe and kayak clubs or organisations with limited resources. Clubs are at the end of the marketing chain, when people have already made their mind up to take up or have a go at the sport. The marketing needs to start well before that stage. Look through any magazine that covers the whitewater scene and you will be bombarded with images of Class 5 paddlers going off huge waterfalls or through dangerous rapids. It is at odds with what the majority of paddlers do.

When I have mentioned this to people involved in the industry or coaching I have always been told that it is because such a presentation of the sport is “aspirational” and that showing the lower grades is “dull”. I beg to differ on a monumental level. Certainly if you focus on a general view of a kayak going down a massive drop it will look impressive. However if you were a beginner or a person who had not really considered paddling before, and you were not already part of the adventure sports world, what would be more attractive to you? A shot of someone doing something that looked incredibly dangerous, or a photograph of a kayaker on a fun looking rapid or wave with the emphasis on the smile on their face?

The fundamental thing to consider here is that marketing solely to people who are already hardened adventure sports participants is not the way to go. They are the minority, the people who already have a part in it, or who may have grown up with the sport, or other adventure sports. Such people rarely need an introduction to what is possible in whitewater kayaking. Instead manufacturers should be focussing on building the grass roots and portraying their products in a way that looks good to the outside world. In other words to appeal to people who might not have otherwise thought about trying it.

I am not suggesting for a moment that they should forget about the top 5%, just that their marketing budget is seemingly aimed at the smallest market of potential purchasers. There’s a whole world out there, from people who simply want to find a hobby, to people with disabilities. Put a leg amputee into a kayak for example, and immediately they are equal to everybody else in a boat. There aren’t many adventure sports that this could be said about them.

This is an aspect that Jackson Kayak have done very well. Their promotional videos for their Fun series of kayaks for example emphasises the fun aspect of paddling on lower grades of rivers. It looks family orientated, and something that anybody could try.

Unfortunately things are looking a bit dire in general, though. A while back Fluid Kayaks started making their boats in the UK. Not a bad thing in itself, but their sales model changed to selling direct. This had two effects. The first is positive in that Fluid passed on the cost saving of doing this to their customers, a very good thing indeed. The downside is that the boats are not visible in retail outlets, and demo boats are difficult to come by. Recently Liquid Logic announced that they, too, are moving to this sales model. It remains to be seen how this will affect UK availability of the boats.

This could have some quite detrimental effects in the long term. If other manufacturers decide that they are going to move to this model, especially if those that already have done so are offering a substantial saving on the price due to no requirement for a retail margin, then this could leave retailers with no show or demo stock. This would be very bad indeed because it would mean that whitewater kayaks will be even less visible to the public than they already are. Such moves could prove to instigate an irreversible shrinkage to the whitewater kayak industry and place it even more on the fringe.

With SUP boards becoming ever more popular, this too could mean that whitewater kayaking is moved well and truly to the extreme minority of participants. A place reserved for only the most hard core of people, with Class 2 and maybe even 3 to an extent being dominated by SUP boards. Accessibility and ease of use and participation is everything. Ask anyone in the Hang Gliding world how Paragliding affected their sport for confirmation of this.

SUP boards allow pretty much anyone to have a go. The perception is that if you fall off you get wet. Yet the reality on whitewater, even at low grades could be rather different! Here we go again with perceptions. Despite falling off a SUP board on whitewater being potentially far more painful than falling out of a kayak, the SUP wins on the marketing stakes. You can buy inflatable models that are easy to transport, and have much of the performance of their solid brethren. Fitness, too, is featured heavily in the marketing of SUPs.

Whitewater kayak manufacturers need to learn from this. SUP doesn’t suffer from issues such as the idea of being trapped inside the kayak (false perception though that is). SUP also has surfing connotations and all the “coolness” of image that goes along with that, even though paddling on a UK river, especially in Autumn and Winter really does require the same kind of kit as a kayaker, and certainly doesn’t involve a tan!

One way that whitewater kayak manufacturers could change this is marketing perceptions, as I have already mentioned. Another way is to look at producing more accessible boats. Sit On Top kayaks have been quite popular at the beach. They perform terribly, but people buy them to have a mess around at the seaside. The great thing about a Sit On Top kayak is that they don’t have the issue of an enclosed cockpit that puts off a lot of people from trying normal kayaking.

Fluid realised this and made the “Do It Now” kayak. A Sit On Top that was based upon the hull from their Bazooka creek boat hull. This is certainly a step in the right direction, however having tried one out I can say that there is a long way to go. The Do It Now is inordinately heavy. I mean REALLY heavy! I’m sure that I have carried big bags of sand that weighed less! There is no easy way to carry it, which makes the weight even more apparent. It is also a very large boat with a high centre of gravity. I had trouble even reaching the water with my normal paddles.

Dagger have announced a similar concept, and although it is said to be designed for use on whitewater it still looks large and more suited to flat water touring. Pyranha, too have announced one that is aimed at whitewater, based upon their Fusion hull. Although I haven’t paddled it, once again it looks rather big with a high centre of gravity.

All of these new SOT models are rollable, with some effort, but they are big and unwieldy. Instead companies need to come up with a truly revolutionary SOT design with a much lower centre of gravity, and much more manoeuvrable hull designed for Class 2-3. A SOT that is designed with performance and fun in mind, easy to transport, and light. There is no reason why curled over knee bumps/thigh braces cannot be incorporated into the design either for better connectivity and also ease of carrying rather than the flexible straps seen on current models. Such boats do not need big storage hatches such as those presented on the above boats because such a kayak will be used by beginners, and most safety equipment will be being carried by their co-paddlers.

In short we need to see a SOT kayak that can be seen as a really cool thing to own and to use. Something that could be used on a Class 2-3 run as part of a group, and also for messing round on a local wave. Key, though, should be a concerted effort on the part of manufacturers to preach to the un-converted, and to show the full breadth of the sport rather than focussing almost solely on the extreme side of things.

3 thoughts on “The perceived image of Whitewater kayaking and the shrinkage of an industry.

  1. Excellent post ! Very well written. In your list of Whitewater Sit On Top kayaks you didn’t mention the DAG SX 285 and it’s kid’s version the SX 230 (both well worth trying) ; and the Liquidlogic Coupe (I haven’t paddled). I very much agree with what you wrote and would like to add a few things. The fact that most of the WW kayaks and all WW SOT are rotomoulded for cost reasons also means that it is hard to make them light if you want them to be tough. And, if WW SOT are big, it is because you need volume and width to keep buoyancy and stability on this type of crafts. I agree with you on the fact that it would be nice to be able to use a WW SOT but a good surfing shape is hard to combine with a very forgiving shape needed for bringing confidence to beginners. As you said R&D and tooling costs are expensive on PE-made kayaks that’s why you don’t see more WW SOT models on the market. Still I hope your post will help to convince the bosses of some kayak manufacturing companies to do as you wrote. But that will only work if kayak clubs focus less on competition and more on fun…
    Have fun paddling
    Vincent Duculot
    Kayak designer for the DAG and RTM brands

  2. Great article and I agree that too much emphasis is on the g5s it’s impressive to watch but often just makes you feel like you are failing since you know you will never get to that level. And to add salt to that wound there are video clips out there that, although they are very funny and somewhat true, make you ashamed of being just a “club boater”. I love paddling it is the first sport I have ever loved and started this at the age of 35. I’ll never be really good at it and doing a g3+ well and hitting every eddy is pretty much the best I could hope for (although I have done the odd 8mtr drop – not too great an experience when you can ‘t boof) but I love watching people paddle stuff where i can see the line and that makes me think…hmm I can do that. So yes I agree we need to start bringing more attention to us “club boaters” and try a bit harder in getting more people involved in this amazing sport. and the fact is since we tend to have every day jobs we also often have more money to spend on gear than the dude that gets to paddle 300 days out of the year 😉 …so that is something to think about

    • For what it’s worth, I’m writing this from an American’s perspective. It seems that most young people here get their first exposure to WW (and paddling in general) either from paddling parents, or the Scouts. Many adults’ first encounter with WW is usually by rafting, as was the case with myself and many of my paddling friends. I remember being on an 8 man raft thinking, “Wow, this is great!” Until I saw a kayaker go by, and realized how much more freedom he had. I thought, “Why am I in this school bus when I could be driving a Ferrari???” So I bought my first kayak, and life has completely changed – for the better!

      I have no idea what the rafting industry is like in the UK, but I think expanding that will only lead to an expanded WW boating community. Based on comments in this article, it appears we in the US have much better access to rivers thanks largely to groups like American Whitewater, that lobby the government, power industry, and environmental groups for sustained river access, protection and recreational releases. Does such an organization exist in the UK?

      And to Martina – I started paddling after I turned 40, and eight years later, am paddling Class IV regularly, and Class V when I’m feeling it, and am still advancing. If running difficult ww appeals to you, don’t sell yourself short!

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