Is Sea Kayaking a Commercial Sport?

Is Sea Kayaking a Commercial Sport?

I was asked by my good friend of Aeron Bergman’s father a good number of years ago when was still in action if I felt that the internet was over-saturated with content. It was a really interesting question. I didn’t really have the context at the time to answer the question, it was 1999 for pities sake.

In the sea kayaking blogosphere and especially in the expedition blogs there seems to be a plethora of dynamic people creating top flight content. Unfortunately it seems mostly created out of misery, breakups, arguments, failed partnerships, failed romances, divorces, but surrounded, if not wrapped like a falafel sandwich in the pita bread of spectacular paddling trips and seasoned with heroic efforts. Of course people like Shawna and Leon break that rule.

Greg Stamer has created his first Blog for his trip around Newfoundland as a sponsored paddler. In his post on blogging he stated that he doesn’t enjoy reading blow by blow travelogues of kayaking trips. I can understand the aversion to the gory details. But I also wonder if this is also an aversion to the medium due to the seeming over-saturation of kayaking expeditions to the same four places: Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, and Newfoundland. Do we need another one?

Who wants to read another blow by blow of a trip round New Zealand? Chris Duff pretty well had that covered in his spectacular book, Southern Exposure. I wonder though if Chris might have been tempted to blog if it had been available as a mass consumed medium in 2003. In five years so much has changed about the web. Certainly the overused phrase of Web 2.0 and consumer generated content is paramount here.

Sea kayaking has seemed to me; as an athlete of both running, cycling, and soccer a sport that is horrifically uncompetitive. Before this comes off sounding terrible, there are some very athletic, talented sea kayakers that are very impressive. But in order to become sponsored as a runner, or a cyclist, or as a soccer player, one would have to be so much better than everyone else that it would stagger you to think about it. I’ve played soccer against a few semi-pro and professional players in pickup matches and I can tell you that despite years of training the difference between us was night and day. Running and cycling again are perhaps even worse. My marathon time of 3:40 while quite fast for an amateur and a first marathon is still one hour and thirty minutes slower than the guy who won the race. Cycling again is so competitive that in order to stay in the game performance enhancing drugs have become the norm not the exception.

So where am I going with this? I think with Greg Stamer stepping into the realm of professional kayaking, his blog, and his trip Sea Kayaking might be entering into the realm of professional athletes. As strange as this might sound to Greg, I see this as the end of amateur night. For better or worse. And before you say it this is not so much about Greg, but about the trend. Greg whom I’ve never met, and only emailed with occasionally when debates got heated on forums. He seems to me to be a terrific person and a very dedicated paddler, and who is a great ambassador for paddling in general, not just traditional paddling.

Justine Curgenven’s This is The Seavideos over the last few years, Brian Smith’s Pacific Horizon Video all lead to an increasing marketing push to fund bigger and better trips for more people over a year. This is great in that it brings visibility to the sport, but maybe sad in a way. I think it may eventually lead to a decline in accessibility to good informal training from people as great as Greg Stamer, Leon Somme, Shawna Franklin, Justine Curgenven, Jeff Allen, and Simon Osborne.

Because I help plan a small symposium I’ve noticed that most of the professional paddlers in the years between 2003 and 2006 were fairly accessible and inexpensive to consider, as the years have gone on there are more and more symposiums every year, and a growing number of great paddlers with very booked social calendars. This is great! But also I fear the beginning of the end for smaller local symposiums with low budgets.

For those that might not know this, these symposiums have traditionally been run by local clubs with no profit at the end. The object is to net out at 0 so that the symposium pays for itself. And this may be how all symposiums are run, certainly no one is getting rich, not even the sponsored paddlers. There aim is solely to get their name out to do more symposiums, support their sponsors, and because it is fun. My worry is that the little, out of the way symposiums, in non-glamorous places like Muskegon Michigan may no longer be part of the whirlwind tour. I hope I am wrong.

William Gibson said at the release of his previous novel (2003), Pattern Recognition, that life these days doesn’t seem to be so much about the avoidance of marketing, but the inevitability of it. And for Sea Kayaking that time may have come. White Water paddling has certainly been there for ages with a small number of inapproachable stars who compete for small pots of cash at events. Eric Jackson being the most notable. Surf Kayaking also has its stars, note the wrap up of the Santa Cruz Surf Kayak Festival.

Because Sea Kayaking is more about journeys than pulling of sweet tricks in a hole, (this is the sea notwithstanding), I think climbing may be a more accurate partner for the commercialization of sea kayaking. Who knows perhaps it is this approachability to the amateur that makes Sea Kayaking so great. Anyone can get in and do it. And unless we really are talking about circumnavigating Iceland it is a relatively low impact, easy going sport with little risk.

The people I’ve met through paddling have been some of the greatest I’ve ever met. I certainly am not calling up old soccer buddies to crash on their couch and play pick up games when I have free time. But I certainly will call up just about anyone I’ve met paddling even once to go paddle, sleep on their couch, eat their food, and vice versa.

I think this may be that moment for paradigm shift, or a nodal point where everything seems to change, but who knows maybe some people saw this moment 10 years ago. Paddle sports are quite unusual.


  1. good post. . . what you said! 🙂

  2. Are ypu guys speaking da english? Wow I selfishly checked out Keiths site to see if I could find a Ubeercross link for a job interveiw and I see all this recent crazy posting. Are you all enjoying paddling? Isnt that how one gets good enough to become a representitiive of the sport? Maybe not. Most of the sea kayaking customers I dealt with in the industry were selling themselves out to a ideal rather then shopping for needed gear. Cant we all just enjoy the sport? Havng a finger on the pulse of the outdoor industry Ive aways felt that if someone wanted to make themselves known as a top knotch athelete in the industry, sea kayaking provides one of the easiest door to fame. This is because so many of the few people that own the unusual and expensive equipment actually use it. Call me crazy but I think ones focus should always focus on their enjoyment and pure uncommercial passion of what they are doing rather then fluffing our feather as the obscure freaks that we are. Lets go have fun and look out for each other.


  3. Even if a great divide develops between paddlers with names and those without, I imagine you'll always be able to find top notch no-name paddlers who are willing to head to teach at symposiums. I know a few on the North Shore of Lake Superior who are outstanding paddlers, who love to teach, but just don't have the name recognition.

    My point: you'll always be able to find talented people to instruct formally and informally at symposiums. Heck, Roy is that you? Get Roy!

  4. Roy/Greg

    First, thanks for reading.

    I agree at this point no-one, and I mean no-one is getting filthy rich on paddling. I think it's more that the professional paddlers, expeditions, and blogging are upping the ante on what was once an unplowed field of amateurism.

    My hope is that the approachability never changes. In running, cycling, and soccer there is an impermeable layer between the amateurs and the professionals that seems to exist and makes the world a smaller uglier place.


  5. Kieth

    Interesting points, except no matter how good someone gets. They still don't make much of a huge living doing symposiums or paddling around anywhere. Even with sponsorships, it's a bleak paycheck and the sponsorships only alow the paddlers money to go a very small amount farther, and give a little more margin of safety on their trip. I don't think that any of the paddlers I've ever met are in it for the money and many use the travel expenses payed by symposiums to be able to afford to visit family in the areas of the where the symposium in being held.

    Paddling in of it'self is the addiction, not profit. If profit were the main factor, they would surely pick a differant venue.

    I doubt that we will ever see a point where the "elite" paddlers will be too expensive but rather we could see them being too broke to be able to travel to some symposiums because of the time away from work and the economy eating away at the pay we all make. The ones fortunate to be able to take the time to travel, will of course possiably be too busy with all the new symposiums that keep cropping up.

    The real key is to make sure that who you want to have at any symposium, has close family in the area of the symposium as an added incentive to pick your area for any particular weekend. I doubt that pay has ever been the incentive to do any symposium.

    Just my thoughts

    Best Wishes


  6. Keith,

    I read your comments with interest. Just to clarify my point, I have never enjoyed travelogues, and not because of a recent invasion of kayakers around New Zealand. By that I mean a written story where the author concentrates on mundane details, instead of the big picture. For readers old enough to have heard Cheech and Chong's "What I did on my Summer Vacation", you might get my drift. Please note that I'm not talking about kayakers blogging their trips either. That is interesting in its own right to me, because it is live.

    With the feeling that the major "firsts" are taken (which is subject to debate), there may be a growing trend to be the "fastest around". Expect to see more wing blades and Valley Rapiers and similar kayaks. While I also like traveling light and fast I'd hate to see the main emphasis on long trips to be competition. Of course we are not bound to follow trends and can follow our own path…

    Regarding commercialism and sponsorship, I'm not sure that we are on the verge of a new wave of sea kayak commercialism — but there are certainly many more people getting into kayak "expeditions". That's a good thing, IMO. Generally a long sea kayaking trip still involves a high amount of personal sacrifice (emotional and financial ). The experience is the reward.

    One great thing about kayaking is still the accessibility of kayakers at all levels of the sport. Fortunately, I don't see that changing anytime soon.