Rock the Boat: Paddle Clubs that Don’t Suck

It’s the height of the paddling season and I’m chomping at the bit. I check the calendar of a local paddling club and find…nothing. Zilch. Naught. Nada. By contrast, a casual social media group has four paddles scheduled—all beginner flatwater.

Paddling clubs are dinosaurs. Their stereotype is that of a fusty group watching slideshows about paddling, while not actually getting on the water all that much. They’ll cite cumbersome procedures, declining participation and tempest-in-a-teapot internal politics. Caught between the devil of liability and a sea of seat-of- the-pants social media invites, paddling clubs occupy the netherworld between professional instruction and friends going out for a paddle, with the benefits of neither. It’s time to re-envision paddling clubs. It’s time to become Scottish.

I Googled my old paddling club from when I lived on Scot- land’s east coast. They offer two weekly pool sessions, river trips, weekly surf sessions, kayak polo and slalom tams, two formal balls and they take over a local pub twice a week. They supply the gear, just bring lunch and your “paddling costume.” This, in a town of 17,000 souls, compared to my current home of 2.2 million.

At their best, paddling clubs play three functions. They generate new paddlers, connect existing paddlers to other paddlers and disciplines, and build a social bond.

Social media formats like work for novice-friendly paddles, but become problematic when they venture beyond easy trips. Their spontaneous nature seldom vets skills properly, putting too much pressure on organizers. Unlike clubs, casual get-togethers can’t insure their leaders or subsidize skill development. Paddlers will grow out of them if they aspire to more than flatwater.

Even formal clubs, which often succeed at turning new paddlers into more frequent or better paddlers, usually fail at attracting new recruits. If we want the sport to grow, this is precisely what we need. In Scotland, with no gear, the fact that all I needed to provide was a sandwich allowed me to participate in a sport I couldn’t afford. Two decades later, I’m still thoroughly addicted — to paddling, not sandwiches.

North American clubs could mimic this initiation by establishing a fleet of boats and gear, partnering with paddling shops to provide storage, bulk rentals and instruction—things shops do already. Like clubs, shops have a direct interest in getting the vast numbers of hikers, cyclists, fitness enthusiasts and skiers to add paddling to their quiver.

My city has three separate clubs, one each for sea kayakers, whitewater canoeists and whitewater kayakers. Each has its own vibe, but it means paying multiple dues to join all or missing out on experiences. Paddling clubs should merge, or at least collaborate. The multi-disciplinary Scottish club gave me a chance to paddle whitewater, ocean, surf, and play polo, as well as meet people passionate about each. Combining also offers economies of scale on storage, classes, equipment and insurance.

Let’s take a cue from the Scots. Let’s trade our spray skirts for kilts, speak in thick brogues and make our clubs what they should be: the epicenter of paddling culture.

Neil Schulman lives in Portland, Oregon, and is a regular contributor to Adventure Kayak. He first paddled whitewater on the Tay River in Scotland many years ago. After a long swim, he ended up borrowing a paddling costume.


This article first appeared in the 2014 Annual Paddling Buyer’s GuideDownload our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it on your desktop here. 




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