Having been elected as chairman of our club recently (Likkewaan Canoe Club in Parys), I took part in an informal CSA meeting via Zoom a few days ago. The main focus of the meeting was the effect of the Covid-19 lockdown on paddling. The discussion also covered the general decline of participation numbers at races and club memberships. I added my few cents during the meeting, but gave it a lot more thought afterwards. This article is a summary of my thoughts on this subject.

Over the years, I have met many people who tell me, when they hear what I do for a living, that paddling is not for them. Invariably, they would tell me that they have tried paddling before and just couldn’t keep the boat upright. Further probing always reveals that they’ve been put into an unstable K1 by some well-meaning friend, and not surprisingly, they were unable to balance it. A small number of people decide to persevere and to keep trying until they get it right, which is why we still get new members into clubs. However, the vast majority of people are completely put off and never try again.

The sad thing is that paddling is so much more than paddling unstable racing kayaks. It is a disservice to both the competitive paddling body (CSA) and to would-be paddlers of our country that this misconception has become so entrenched in the South African psyche.

At this point, let me be upfront and make it clear that apart from my love for the sport, I have a commercial interest in the sport too. But then I would also argue that it is precisely because of my commercial interests that I have studied the paddling market and its driving forces perhaps more than anyone in the country. As much as we would like to think of paddling as a pure endeavour of mind and body, there won’t be a paddling sport if there were not manufacturers to provide the necessary equipment.

So, a full disclosure follows, which I think is relevant to the gist of this article. I started my first kayak company 18 years ago (Fluid Kayaks), which I left 5 years ago. After that, I helped developed and manufactured plastic surfskis for Epic Kayaks (the V5 and V7) for two years. Two years ago, I launched a new kayak company (Vagabond Kayaks) with partners who are paddlers too.

Over this 18-year period, I have manufactured roughly 40,000 recreational kayaks, whitewater kayaks and surfskis. About half of these kayaks were exported, mostly to Europe and North America. More importantly, the other half of these kayaks were sold in South Africa.

Why are these numbers relevant? Because less than 1% of the paddlers who bought these thousands of kayaks are currently involved in the type of paddling that falls under the umbrella of CSA.

It is absolutely true that not all people who buy recreational kayaks ever intend to become paddlers in the real sense. They buy these kayaks for their holiday home or for their annual break somewhere at the sea or next to a dam or river. But, many of them do aim to become regular paddlers. Inevitably, most of them do not. There are multiple reasons for that, but one of the biggest reasons is that recreational kayakers are not particularly welcome in the larger CSA body of clubs and races.

In healthy sports, the pyramid of participation looks something like this:

However, in South Africa, paddling looks like this:

There is virtually no cross-over between the recreational side of paddling and the competitive side of paddling. It is completely nonsensical.

How is  this problem solved? My suggestions below are not the only answer, but I have no doubt that these points are part of the answer. Before I get to my actual suggestions, I will first mention some specific examples of what has been done already:

  • Races at Likkewaan – In 2019, we ran a monthly series of short races from our club. Race distances were 2km and 5km. Entries were open to anyone, and to all types of craft. We had paddlers rock up with K1s, touring kayaks, sit-on-tops and even inflatable rafts. Most of the paddlers who entered were not members of any club, and they had never competed in a paddling race before. Great fun was had by all, and many paddlers did more than one race throughout the year.
  • Over the last couple of years, a number of paddlers have done the Fish Marathon in Epic V7s. While a beast to carry past the dam wall, once on the river, these plastic surfskis (which are practically fast sit-on-tops) showed their advantages.
  • Earlier this year, two intrepid members of the Rhodes University Canoe Club did the Dusi Marathon with Vagabond Kasai sit-on-tops. Gavin Shuter and Chirs Matthews did the Dusi unsupported, meaning that they carried all their supplies with them for three days, making their boats incredibly heavy from a racing point of view. Because of their loaded boats, they paddled around almost all portages too. This is an extreme example, but it is safe to say that they most likely had a bigger adventure than any other entrants to the race, and saw sections of the Dusi and Umgeni rivers that few paddlers have ever seen.
  • In the Western Cape, two races already have a ‘short course’ for plastics and SUPs: The West Coast Canoe Challenge (WCCC) and Stanford Canoe Festival. Both have out-and-back courses where the racing snakes do 15km or 20km and the plastics and SUPS are encouraged to do 5km or 10km. The principle works and the WCCC is the best supported race on the WC calendar because of it.

There are probably more examples from all over the country that I’m not aware of. The reality is that these isolated examples show that there are many ways to help recreational paddlers bridge the gap to become more competitive paddlers. Opportunities need to be created that will benefit all parties.

I recommend the following steps to create these opportunities. While I know that some of these suggestions will not be met with much enthusiasm because of entrenched ideas that already exist in the competitive racing community, I still hope that those in the hot seats will give this some thought.

Open clubs to all paddlers

In theory, I know that most clubs are already open to recreational paddlers to join. However, I also know that recreational paddlers are actively being pressured to move to faster (read: unstable) kayaks as soon as they join. That is the fastest way to discourage recreational paddlers. Not everyone wants to become seriously competitive.

Open flatwater races to all types of craft

This is a no-brainer. Anyone who paddles any type of craft should be allowed to paddle flatwater races, as long as basic safety requirements are met, such as the use of approved PFDs and the use of sufficient buoyancy in the craft of choice. The safest type of kayak is a sit-on-top, as it won’t fill with water when capsized, and paddlers can climb straight back onto the boat without having to swim to the side to empty the boat. It boggles my mind that sit-in-tops are not being actively promoted as the craft of choice for beginner paddlers.

Open river races to many types of craft

It makes no sense that races on class 2-3 rapids are organised almost exclusively for the most inappropriate craft available for the job. I’m talking about fibreglass racing K1s, of course. While it is a subject of pride for South African racers that virtually no-one else in the world tackles rapids with these craft, there is good reason why no-one else does it. There are much better craft available on the market for the job, and unless you are going for a win, most paddlers would be better off in something more stable.

Offer shorter options at established races

The South African racing scene has a well-established tradition of long distance races. I know that the ‘other craft’ that I promote in the previous points are slower than the fast racing K1s, and that race organisers and marshals may not be so keen to wait a few more hours for the slower paddlers to finish. An easy solution is to offer shorter options too. For instance, on river races, have a shorter-distance start further downstream, so that all competitors finish at the same venue.

One option could be to let all craft under a certain length, say 4m, do the shorter distance.

Organise short races

Here we have a very obvious example: consider what parkrun has done for running in South Africa! Not everyone can or wants to paddle 20km or 30km in a race. But almost anyone who is reasonably active can do a 5km race. The races we held at our club last year, with 2km and 5km options, showed that it is a format that works for everyone. The 2km races were preferred for young children, and some adults, with short, slow sit-on-tops, enjoyed this distance too. The 5km races were a good workout for paddlers on longer sit-on-tops, while the few racing K1 paddlers who entered approached it like a time trial. Because of the short distance, even the slowest paddlers completed the course in an hour, after which everyone enjoyed a picnic or a braai at the club.

In terms of speed, here is a practical example: a Vagabond Kasai, which is 4m long (compared to the length of 5.2m of a racing K1), is an extremely stable sit-on-top that anyone can paddle. A paddler that is reasonably fit can do a 5km flatwater race with the Kasai in about 35 minutes. Considering that the World Record for a K1 over 5km is 18 minutes, and few K1 paddlers can do a 5km paddle under 25 minutes, there is no reason why stable sit-on-tops should not be openly welcomed to join in the fun.

Club and CSA membership

I deliberately did not mention club and CSA membership in the suggestions above, as this is an important subject on its own. Here is a basic truth: not all paddlers who want to join clubs want to do races, and not all paddlers who want to do races want to join clubs. There are many reasons for that, but it is how it is.

My personal opinion is that CSA membership should be open to anyone, not just members of clubs. To force people to join clubs is not the best way to grow clubs. People should join clubs because the clubs add value to them, not because they are forced to. Value can be in the form of access to water, boat houses to store kayaks, showers to use after paddling, social interaction with other paddlers, time trials, and so on. If you can’t attract new members without forcing them, your club is probably not adding much value to its members.

On the flip side, I think that social membership of CSA should be a prerequisite for entering any race over 5km. The reason for the 5km is to allow beginners and children to enter the short races that I proposed in my previous point. Maybe introduce an inexpensive, no-strings-attached day fee that goes to CSA for non-CSA paddlers who enter these short races?

These suggestions, if implemented, will not change the culture of racing overnight, but in the long run, I believe this is the best way to grow numbers in the sport, and to create a solid base from which the truly competitive paddlers will emerge.

Author: Celliers Kruger

This article was originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of The Paddle Mag. This digital magazine is free to read and is published every second month. View it (and other editions) online on Issuu or use the Issuu mobile app.