The new lines of kayaks and canoes this year have one mission in common: to lure new converts.
“Most of the manufacturers are coming out with boats that are more beginner and intermediate friendly. This is a push to get more people involved in paddling as new boaters have been declining for the past decade,” said Robert Bone, a boat expert at Nantahala Outdoor Center. “They realize we have to grow this market segment. To keep it viable for the manufacturers, they have to get new people involved, thus the new designs.”
There’s been a decline in paddling for the past eight years, Bone said. Thousands flock to NOC’s courses each year to learn how to paddle. But if newcomers can’t get the hang of it, at least enough see a light at the end of the tunnel, they give up.
“The learning curve is very steep in the first several years,” Bone said.
While it’s more fun for boat makers, who are often world-class paddlers themselves, to design high-power, high performance boats tailored to other experts like them, the NOC crew has help pushed designers into considering the beginners.
“For the beginning paddler you need something that gives them a lot of confidence on the river. They need to get on the river and feel like they can really do it and then they’ll come back and turn it into a life time sport, so that’s what I wanted to do more than anything,” said Wayner Dickert, a world-class paddler and instructor at NOC.
There’s a trade-off when designing a boat — a kayak with high maneuverability for experienced paddlers versus one more likely to stay upright. NOC staffers kept asking the manufacturers for a more forgiving boat, and they finally responded.
“It is nice to have the manufacturers listen to you and develop a boat for your specific market,” Bone said. “We really appreciate that.”
The boat companies are also pitching boats this year that can multi-task. The expert paddler has an arsenal of boats to fill every niche of water imaginable, whether it’s the best boat for making fast tracks on a lake or barreling over class V waterfalls on narrow creeks. Play boats are even tailored toward the type of trick they perform best for, with some handling best for enders and cartwheels and the others for stern squirts and spins.
Dickert has eight boats from that came out in 2008 alone, and doesn’t consider it a lot.
“I am actually pretty lean on boats right now,” Dickert said.
But those just entering the sport haven’t built up their stockpile of boats yet.
They need cross-over boats that aren’t so tailored to just one kind of paddling.
“They’re manufacturing boats to fit a wider range, that caters to that beginner boater who wants to do some of both,” Bone said.
A unique twist on luring more people into paddling is a new two-person kayak by Jackson Kayak. The tandem kayak is the first of its kind in more than a decade and will hopefully help get people hooked.
“You will have somebody experienced in the back of the boat and some one who has never kayaked in their life taking them down river and hopefully get them excited and hopefully get them to buy a boat,” Bone said. “It is all about trying to increase the participation in whitewater paddling.”
There’s another trend Bone sees in boats this year.
“It seems like everybody has kind of gone back to retro designs, little longer designs for river running and stability,” Bone said. “The steam has been dropping from the play boat scene for a while now. That has taken a bit of a backseat to plain old river running in the last couple years.”