Sea Kayaking – Where Are All the Young People?

Gelo - young, paddling, and showing off his new cliff-rash

Gelo – youngest member of Team Fat Paddler, showing off his new cliff-rash with a smile

There’s something about paddling that’s been bothering me for a while – I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I just sensed there was something missing. Recently, whilst reading other people’s paddling blogs, I came across the following “Wanted” notice on Eric Soares’ blog about the future of the Tsunami Rangers. The opening paragraph went as follows:

“The Tsunami Rangers are looking for new members.  Ideal candidates will be strong, bold, courageous, fun-loving, adventurous and love water, kayak well, be proficient at many outdoor activities, be individualistic and a team player, a fast learner, and a true friend.  And young—18 to 21.

Those final words grabbed my attention as I realised what it was that had been eating away at me about the sport I love. There aren’t any young people in it.

roth, Friends and Fun! Now if only someone could make a cool looking helmet!

Froth, Friends and Fun! Now if only someone could make a cool looking helmet!

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. Why does paddling seem to be made up largely of older people? Is it the access to funds for kayak purchases? Is it seen as boring? Are the skills required too difficult for young people to pick up in the shorter attention span they are alleged to have? Are there too many rules and certifications? Are there just not enough people giving their time to take young people out for a half a day’s paddle? Or does it just look too uncool with pics of people in dry-suits or legionnaire hats??

When you look at other water sports you see that there are plenty of young men and women out there. They are surfing on our beaches, sailing on the Harbour,  running whitewater in Penrith, paddling their SUPs along the coast  or racing their ocean skis at sea . They are getting involved in water sports of all shapes and sizes – all of course, except sea kayaking.

All this bouncing around and adrenalin and stuff. It has another name. Fun!

All this bouncing around and adrenalin and stuff. It has another name. Fun!

So why is our sport so devoid of young men and women. On the 1st of April the California Kayaker Magazine Facebook page ran a tongue in cheek April Fools status that said the following:

“Big News! Cal Kayaker Mag is changing. Sports Illustrated has shown that photos of girls in bikinis can improve any magazine. Kayakers in CA seem to always be in cold-looking locales and bundled up in unflattering dry suits and PFDs, where SUPers are in bikinis in tropical locations.  So no more kayaks, and instead now we will be focusing on SUPs (and tropical bikini girls).”

I admit I fell for it at first (it had been a long day!) but after having a good laugh, I wondered if there might be a little truth in it. Is our sport the ugly friend of the more sexy water pursuits like surfing,  SUPs and ski paddling? Is there a fundamental image problem? What does the average sea kayaker look like to an outsider?

The exact moment when Gelo got swamped and tipped into the cliff

Gelo getting his adrenaline fix in the froth and bubbles of ocean whitewater

The average sea kayaker has bunches of gear stashed on deck, an array of clothing that looks fit for exploring Antarctica, and a bizarre face smothered in zinc cream whilst hidden under a hat with flaps of material hanging to the neck. Not only are we not sexy, we’re down-right bizarre. And not in the strange-but-somewhat-sexy Lady Gaga sense of the word.

What about what we do, is that boring also? Sure, ask any paddler and they’ll wax lyrical about the zen-like properties of sea kayaking. They’ll talk about being one with the ocean, the joy of sea salt in the face, the bliss of being completely focused on the present and how the world’s stresses and problems dissolve away. But to an onlooker, the same kayaker will look much like a grey-nomad cruising their campervan too slowly down a straight highway. Hardly inspiring stuff.

Then last but not least, we’re a risk-aversive bunch.  I’ve been involved in many past-times, both on the water and off, that actively promote people to push their boundaries. In sea kayaking we insist on safety above all things: make sure you have the right gear,  make sure you learn the right skills, make sure you earn the right certifications, make sure you only go to safe places. And if you get past all of that, then maybe, MAYBE fellow paddlers might refrain from frowning at you as you slowly plod your way out into the blue waters along our coast. Read the letters section of Sea Kayaker magazine in the US and you’ll see all manner of people outraged at the risks others have taken in previous stories. Outraged!

Gelo being thrashed in the break zone before finally swimming out to safety

Gelo’s frothy swim – unexpected, exciting, watched by team-mates in case he needs help

But all is not lost. There are small pockets of resistance out there that captivate and thrill us with their wild antics and risk taking. The extreme coastal kayakers the Tsunami Rangers are a classic example, who much like their contemporaries the Banzai Bozos and Force Ten would relish the extreme environments of surf and cliffs for their kayaking exploits. Today younger extreme paddlers like the Hurricane Riders continue the tradition with amazing feats on the tide races of Skook or the rock gardens on North America’s west coast. Even our homegrown surfers up in Queensland, Gnarlydog and his crew, are having a blast surfing and rolling their boats in the breakers. Sure, there will be people who disapprove, who point and shake their finger, but it is these paddlers who push boundaries and inspire the young to take part, that show these generations that sea kayaking can be an exciting thrill ride if they look at it the right way.

Last week Team Fat Paddler took the opportunity to learn from extreme kayaker Jim Kakuk on the joys of paddling amongst breakers and rocks and made the realisation it not only felt fun, but it looked fun. Paddlers coming past stopped, watched and laughed. People fell out in the bubbly froth and had to make a swim for it. Laughter, bragging rights, and rock-rash were the highlights of the day. And finally we felt like the sport of sea kayaking was rediscovering its youth. Who knows if this “fun” thing will catch on, but rest assured we’ll be having as much fun as we can manage! Cheers – FP

Kayaking can be fun it you let it be fun. Even more so with friends!

Kayaking can be fun if you let it be fun. Even more so with friends!

(Thanks to J. Kakuk and P. Grummett for use of their photos)

The Fat Paddler by Sean Smith