Paddlesports has a safety problem. The number of paddling related deaths in the United States has increased every year for more than a decade — from 98 in 2004 to 167 in 2016. Though paddling is not a particularly hazardous sport relative to other activities — it falls modestly between hiking and bicycling on the danger scale — it does have inherent risks. And while your social media feed may be full of extreme races, rough seas and waterfalls, the research shows that most paddling accidents take place on flatwater involving participants who are inexperienced and poorly equipped.
In other words, most paddling tragedies can be averted. We can agree that making paddling safer is in the best interests of manufacturers, retailers and outfitters. The question then is always: How can paddlesports, as an industry, best share this message?
Jim Emmons thinks he has the answer. The president of the Water Sports Foundation, Emmons has run a boating safety education program since 2011, initially focused on powerboats. The effort is funded through the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, which generates about $650 million annually from taxes on motorboat fuel and fishing equipment as well as import duties on pleasure yachts and fishing tackle produced overseas. About $5.3 million of this revenue is earmarked for nonprofit grants and administered by the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 2014, Emmons attended a meeting of a federal advisory panel where lifejacket guru Dr. Dan Maxim made a presentation. As Maxim parsed boating safety statistics, Emmons had a come-to-Jesus realization: Paddlesports had a higher per capita accident rate than powerboating.
“I realized these numbers are going in the wrong direction and we’ve got to turn them around,” Emmons says.
Until that point, Emmons had been spending all his grant money on powerboat safety education, mostly through the Bonnier Corporation, a publishing house with a large portfolio of boating magazines and websites.
After studying the statistics to confirm that paddlesports was in fact contributing a disproportionate number of boating accidents, Emmons redirected about $64,000 from his powerboat campaign to put toward paddlesports safety. He then set about devising a plan and building an industry coalition to get behind it.
“Most of the deaths were coming from paddlers who were beginners to the sport,” Emmons says. “They were people with very little paddling experience and they somehow got themselves into a paddle craft and got in trouble and either got killed or injured.”
Emmons realized that readers of paddling magazines and websites typically know and follow safe paddling guidelines. He needed to connect with newcomers and saw manufacturers as the best way to reach them.
Working with The Enthusiast Network, he convened a meeting at the 2015 Outdoor Retailer show. Senior executives from six of the largest manufacturers of entry-level kayaks attended. They agreed to put their marketing muscle behind a series of educational videos featuring ACA-certified instructors Paul and Kate Kuthe. The companies—Confluence, Johnson, Pelican, Emotion, Sea Eagle and Advanced Elements—also provided boats and gear featured in the videos, which rolled out during the 2016 paddling season. The brands promoted the videos on their social channels, as did three major paddlesports media outlets: Rapid Media, Paddling.com and TEN.
It was an impressive show of unity in the paddling industry. Emmons followed it up this year with a similar program focused on SUP and kayak fishing. The new series uses humor to drive home basic safety messages—always wear a lifejacket, dress for immersion, don’t drink and paddle. Six of videos feature SUP and two focus on kayak fishing.
If you use social media, you’ve probably seen them. The videos are distributed to about 150 brands, which are encouraged to share them on their websites and social platforms. Emmons says the adoption of the safety coalition is gaining momentum. Industry leaders will meet again Outdoor Retailer 2017 and Surf Expo, as well as at the new Paddlesports Retailer.
Though Emmons does not yet have the numbers to prove it, he’s convinced that the need for paddlesports safety education is stronger now than ever. So far, the Coast Guard is inclined to agree. The agency renewed the paddlesports safety grant for 2017.
The future is less certain. Remember that the grant money ultimately comes from taxes on powerboat fuel and fishing equipment. There is no comparable levy on paddlecraft and some state administrators are asking why paddling is getting a free ride.
This article was first published in Paddling Business 2017. Read it here.