The newest – and best – tactic for reaching the unreachables

By Jim Emmons

For more than five years, I’ve been trying to learn exactly how so many people perish while enjoying paddlesports. According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2019 Recreational Boating Statistics report, 613 Americans died while boating. Of them, 167 died while participating in canoeing, kayaking, standup-paddleboarding, row-boating and on inflatables. While overall boating deaths have declined for three straight years, paddlesports deaths have increased!

By comparison, paddlesports doesn’t involve high rates of speed, spinning propellers, dangerous carbon monoxide or flammable fluids like its recreational powerboat cousin, yet horrifically, nearly one-out-of-every-three boating deaths are paddlers.

With the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Water Sports Foundation determined that, of paddlesports deaths, nearly 75% of paddlers had less than 100 hours of experience (when level of experience was known) and the figure remains just below 45% for deaths where the paddler had less than 10 hours of experience.

This information supports the theory that the majority of paddlesports accidents and deaths occur with paddlers who have very little paddling experience. It makes sense, right? More experienced paddlers understand the inherent risks involved in paddlesports and they mitigate for them. It’s probably also true that, in general, more experienced paddlers visit paddlesports pro shops, are members of paddling clubs and consume paddlesports media content.

But newcomers to the sport who have not yet joined a club or subscribed to paddlesports content makes them nearly impossible to reach. In fact, one recreational boating safety specialist refers to them as the “un-reachables.”

Over the past 10 years paddlesports has seen explosive growth, especially in kayaking and stand-up-paddleboarding. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s most recent Outdoor Participation Report, in 2018, 34.9 million Americans participated in paddlesports. This figure represents a 26.9% increase over 2010 participants, which were measured at 27.5 million.

Much of this growth has been fueled by relatively inexpensive kayaks and SUP’s being sold through discount big box and club stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Tractor Supply, Walmart, Sam’s Club and Costco just to name a few.

Earlier in the decade, as manufacturers found ways to mass-produce kayaks at low price points, the big box and club stores saw an opportunity to cash-in by selling them. It’s not absurd to think that many of these purchases were made on an impulse and no research was involved.

The problem is that millions of new paddlesports participants were fed onto our waterways each year with no instruction on safety such as, understanding the U.S. Coast Guard carriage requirements including the need for an approved life jacket, the importance of taking a safe paddling course or, simply understanding the inherent risks of paddlesports.

For more than 10 years the Water Sports Foundation has been a recreational boating safety outreach partner with the U.S. Coast Guard. And since 2011, the WSF has received more than seven million dollars in non-profit federal grants.

The funding is specifically designed for outreach campaigns that are designed to increase awareness of safer boating and paddling practices. During the period, nearly 200 video PSA’s were developed and distributed by America’s most popular boating and paddling media companies producing nearly one billion media impressions.

Most recently, the WSF embarked on a new safety crusade to invite executives of America’s top retailers to join the conversation on paddlesports safety. On June 8, 2020, 44 letters were sent to top executives and board members of 10 of the nation’s largest re-sellers of recreational paddlesports equipment including stores that you likely recently shopped. They include Academy Sports & Outdoors, Bass Pro Shops, BJ’s Wholesale, Cabela’s, Costco Wholesale, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dunham’s Athleisure, Sam’s Club, Tractor Supply, and Walmart.

The letter was co-signed by five independent recreational safety organizations including the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), BoatUS, the American Canoe Association (ACA), the Life Jacket Association and the WSF.

The letter includes a supporting quote from Verne Gifford, U.S. Coast Guard Office of Recreational Boating Safety Division Chief who said, “Our direct-to-consumer outreach campaigns are changing the boating culture and in recent years they’ve helped to reduce the number of fatalities, but newcomers to paddling who have not yet joined a club, an association or subscribed to paddle sports content are very difficult to reach. Having retail partners that are willing to help inform new paddlers of basic safety knowledge would be extremely helpful for our continuing efforts to reduce casualties.”

The letter goes on to share details on the number of America’s paddlesports deaths and then encourages the retailers to join the safety conversation and to help reduce senseless deaths. See the entire letter on Facebook.

Results of the effort are not yet compiled as tracking notifications of delivery have only recently been received. The WSF has high hopes that one day, representatives of the world’s largest kayak and SUP retail establishments will get involved and help develop solutions that avoid senseless paddlesports deaths.

The campaign’s internal motto is “Repeat Customers are Good for Business!” With some luck and a little help from others, perhaps this will be the year that the trend in paddlesports deaths will be reversed.

Jim Emmons is the Non-profit Outreach Grants Director at the Water Sports Foundation. For more information or to join the fight to reduce paddlesports casualties, you may contact him at 407-719-8062.

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  1. Very good article Jim. Your Statement following is so true, “as manufacturers found ways to mass-produce kayaks at low price points, the big box and club stores saw an opportunity to cash-in by selling them. It’s not absurd to think that many of these purchases were made on an impulse and no research was involved.”

    I have the same issue across the board. as I am an inflatable water park designer and builder along with my floating water toys named inflatable-islands. As all my products are built Heavy Duty using material that is the same in River rafting boats/. The problem is in my business that the Chinese factories put out these flimsy, light, plastic toys but try to pass them off as “High Quality” rafts. Then they flash a price of under 100 dollars. Everyone is so brainwashed to see the low price and look at the very high graphic pictures and run around and brag about this super deal they found.
    However, reading your article proved that death is very close by if people don’t realize that most of these cheap floats and boards are actually not suitable for a lake device.

  2. Peter, thanks for the kind words. It’s sad that cheap, inferior, overseas products are chosen over more expensive higher-quality products — especially if there’s a safety deficiency.

    Our issue isn’t the quality so much as the fact that big box and club stores offer no point of sales assistance. Paddlers are buying these low-priced vessels and they get hurt or drown when they haven’t been educated on the inherent risks. We are just asking the retailers to join the conversation about safety AND perhaps an amicable solution will surface.

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