West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium attracts experts, but few beginners

The West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium held in Port Townsend, Wash., from Sept. 17-19 attracted 1,518 registered paddlers this year, down from a reported 1,700 last year. Much of the dip is attributed to poor weather conditions which kept away walk-in registration that the event relies on for up to 60 percent of the overall attendance figures.

The West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium held in Port Townsend, Wash., from Sept. 17-19 attracted 1,518 registered paddlers this year, down from a reported 1,700 last year. Much of the dip is attributed to poor weather conditions which kept away walk-in registration that the event relies on for up to 60 percent of the overall attendance figures.

We had a SNEWS® reporter on the scene for the weekend event to bring you the following observations:

A bit of background
The West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium bills itself as the oldest sea kayak symposium in the United States. The roots of the event go back to 1984, with an event that mirrors what folks see today — a gathering of paddlers out to try new boats and learn new skills. One could hardly imagine a more beautiful or accommodating setting than Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend. (Readers can place a visual of the venue by recalling the Richard Gere movie, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” which served as the shooting location.)

Indoor registration, classrooms, retailer displays and great food were only a stroll away from the on-water demo. Every attendee that we spoke with was thrilled with the caliber of speakers, presenting every topic under the sun from “How to Demo a Sea Kayak” to “The Celestial Mechanics that Drive Tides and Currents.”

On the downside, Port Townsend is a bit off the beaten path, requiring either a several hour car ride and/or ferry ride from Seattle. It’s relative geographic isolation (getting from Point A to Point B in Puget Sound is rarely an easy matter with the Sound’s many bays and inlets) and the $120 event entry fee ($60 per day), tend to keep all but the enthusiasts away.

Enthusiasts in droves, but where were the beginners?
And did we see enthusiasts! This event has got to be the single largest gathering of people dressed in Kokatat Gore-Tex drysuits in the country. However, a number of manufacturer reps that we spoke with indicated that few entry-level buyers actually stopped by their booths. This was confirmed by attendance at on-water workshops where those that addressed advanced level skills were booked solid, while more entry-level courses had weak participation.

Despite the lack of beginning paddlers, sales reps told us they were genuinely pleased with the event and level of participation and attendance at many on- and off-water educational opportunities. And on the positive side, while Saturday’s weather turned on-water demo conditions to “sporty,” it did provide advanced paddlers with an opportunity to really test equipment.

Chris Mitchell, executive director for the Trade Association of Paddlesports (TAPS), and the organizer of the event, told us that seeing more enthusiasts than beginners is what they hope for.
“Our strategy has been that the enthusiasts drive sales in the sport. They stay with the sport for years and continue to develop their skills and purchase gear.”

More experienced paddlers upgrading gear
Among the trends that reps and retailers reported were an increase in sales of non-ruddered performance touring boats. Andy Bridge from Werner noted that paddlers seem to be after a more active experience of lively boats that respond to dynamic boat leans and higher performance paddling. Others noted an overall scaling up — starting with higher performance recreational boats from manufacturers such as Liquid Logic.

Trends and paddling aside, some discussion turned to unification
No outdoor activity, that we are aware of, has so many factions and strong points of view as sea kayaking. The industry can’t even seem to agree on a suitable, universally accepted name for the activity — sea kayaking, coastal kayaking, touring, open water paddling, whatever. Any gathering of sea kayakers (or whatever you want to call them) seems to pit the various camps against one another, thus dividing what could be a more unified community.

While it seemed that everyone had an opinion at this event, and every one of them who spoke with SNEWS® felt their way was the only right way to go, one effort to build unity was evident. The American Canoe Association (ACA) and TAPS hosted a round-table discussion the day before the event to discuss ways that the different instructional factions in sea kayaking can work better together.

ACA’s director of safety education and instruction, Gordon Black, who traveled from the hurricane-stricken southeast, summed the meeting up as, “A very big success,” with 28 instructors representing the Recreational Canoe Association of Canada (RCAC), ACA and British Canoe Union (BCU).

According to Black, different needs and approaches were discussed, with the single biggest issue being the difference between the ACA and BCU certification processes. While the ACA measures the ability of only instructors, the BCU “grades” or “positions” everyone from beginning students to master instructors — or Five Star in the BCU system.

While the need to stratify everyone’s ability may seem excessive, the resulting reporting to a national office does lay the groundwork for national organizations to objectively measure how many people they touch. Why is this important? Due to the changes in the regulatory climate that are being experienced in the United States (i.e., state boating law administrators), there is likely going to be more regulation of things like mandatory PFD wear for all boaters and the registration of all boats to fund those regulatory issues. Black said, while commenting on legislative impacts on paddling, “I don’t fear it, I expect it.” It makes far more sense for paddlers to be sitting at those legislative tables, outlining what the sport is all about to people who may only read statistical analysis, so that paddlers actually have a say in those regulations and how they effect their enjoyment of the sport.

Is getting butts in boats enough to grow the industry?
Even in light of this successful event, it appears that an increasing number of paddlesport industry leaders are beginning to examine the role that such events play in growing the industry. Few will debate that demos, paddlesports symposia and rendezvous events do help get “butts in boats.” And from SNEWS®’s perspective, once someone has a great experience in a canoe or kayak, if they can make the boat go where they want it, if they feel the addictive glide of hull on water, you’ve hooked a paddler.

However, in light of the lack of entry-level participation evident once again at this event, a number of industry people we spoke with were quite vocal in questioning TAPS’s roll in the paddlesports world. It was noted that the association’s only output seems to be the West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium and the on-water demo at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, which one person told us, “Could be put on by the local Boy Scout troop.” While we feel that view represents the extreme, it does indicate that with sales of boats generally slowing from the rampant growth that was experienced five years ago, industry leaders are thinking of ways to best rally paddlesports for continued growth, even if an actionable plan is conspicuously absent at this time.

Mitchell defended the role of TAPS pointing out that the association serves its 300 members well through its websites — and — by offering credit reporting discounts, by promoting the commerce of paddlesports, and by putting on these events.

“Simply putting ‘butts in boats’ has a very poor conversion,” asserted Mitchell. “The most effective way to increase conversion is by demos that are instructional in nature. People’s No. 1 fear is that they will tip over. Instructional demos need to educate and help people get over their fears. When they get over their fears, they are ready to buy complete outfits — not just a boat.”

SNEWS® View: The West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium was certainly a success from one standpoint — despite the inclement weather, SNEWS® saw plenty of happy people and exhibitors were relatively pleased with attendance. However, while Fort Worden State Park is extremely spacious, it could barely contain the egos present. One industry person that we spoke with even claimed to have been personally responsible for the tremendous growth of sea kayaking in the United States. Many of the highly opinionated have formed camps with themselves as the pied piper leading their merry band of paddlers — and quite small bands at that. It is clear to us that the different factions in paddlesports just need to quit spending so much time preening feathers and begin working together to form some actionable unity. All factions of paddlesports suffer from diminished access, the degradation of the environment, and legislative bodies that don’t know the front end from the back of a canoe or kayak. As one industry principle pointed out to us, “I read somewhere that the average new automobile launch is in the neighborhood of $300 million. Our entire industry isn’t even worth that much and we have something like a half a dozen organizations vying for some sort of control.” With the threat of greater regulation, it is in the best interests of the entire paddlesport industry to stop talking and start doing — together. As for getting butts in boats, we humbly disagree with Chris Mitchell. If all TAPS does is play to the interests of the enthusiast, then we have an industry association that is serving only a fraction of the existing market and not even addressing the potential. We believe in education, but we also believe in the power of inspiration and the market potential in providing experiential opportunity. We need more beginners — no question about it. We need more folks who fall in love with being on the water. Expert or beginner, TAPS must begin to align itself with all levels of paddling skill and interest, or TAPS will continue to field questions of worth and value. We did run across one grizzled paddler at the event who simply stated to us, “Paddling is paddling. It’s all good. Just get out and do it.”