The first appearance of kayak racing in the annals of organized sport was in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in the form of 500- and 1000-metre flatwater sprint races. Single flatwater kayaks (K1s) are up to five metres long and weigh only 12 kilograms. It can take up to two years to become totally comfortable paddling one of these boats, which are so narrow that a novice would be hard pressed to take even a single stroke before tipping over.
Other kinds of kayak racing include marathons using lightweight kayaks that can be easily portaged, or ocean racing using sit-on-top surfskis, vessels of Polynesian origin that are the choice of Australian lifeguards. These high-performance kayaks are, like Olympic kayaks, designed more for speed than for recreational paddling. With boats that are so specialized and difficult to paddle, kayak racing didn’t stand much chance of becoming popular until about 15 years ago when sea kayaking took off in Canada.
Slow but sure growth of kayak racing
In sea kayak racing, competitive boating merges with the world of the recreational paddler. Even so, typical early sea kayak races failed to attract a critical mass of paddlers. Bob Vlug, owner of the New Brunswick kayak store Eastern Outdoors, tried to run a sea kayak race in the early 1990s. “About ten years ago we introduced some coastal kayak racing but the interest was not there,” he said.
Sea kayak racing is now finding its legs in Canada partly due to the phenomenal growth since the mid-‘90s of adventure racing—multi-stage, multi-sport races like the famous Eco Challenge. Canadian adventure races like the Mind Over Mountain series on Vancouver Island or the cross-Canada Sea To Summit races all feature sea kayak sections, drawing out more sea kayakers for training paddles and competition. Kayak racing on the East Coast revived in the form of multi-sport, according to Vlug.
Multi-sport races pave the way for kayak-only races. Many adventure racers excel in the trail running or mountain biking events but have never kayaked. Sea kayak races give novice paddlers and aspiring adventure racers a field for training and competing over longer distances—typically eight or ten kilometres for shorter races and over 20 kilometres for longer ones.
Kayak racing flourishes in the Vancouver area
Last summer in B.C., a race series sponsored by Necky Kayaks helped launch sea kayak racing into the mainstream. The Necky Race Series included two weekly evening sea kayak races from April through August that regularly drew up to a hundred Vancouver-area paddlers.
The races were hosted by downtown Vancouver’s Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre and the Deep Cove Canoe and Kayak Centre, which organized its first race four years ago. Ecomarine also hosts the annual, 10-kilometre B.C. Marine Trails Ocean Kayak Marathon.
Deep Cove race organizer Paul German says the weekly races are becoming more popular every year as adventure racing raises the profile of competitive kayaking among recreational paddlers. “In the first year we had maybe 20 people out,” he said. “This past summer the Ecomarine races were drawing about 40 racers while the more competitive Deep Cove ones regularly saw a hundred or more.”
“The races are open to anyone and we are seeing people of all ages and abilities,” said German. “Anything you can paddle is allowed to be used in this race.” There are no restrictions on boat length or weight.
Mostly you’ll see single and double ocean kayaks but German says there are also outrigger canoes as well as some serious kayak racers using surfskis or one of the new longer racing kayaks.
On Vancouver Island, the Ocean River Sports Paddling Club hosts two races—the 17-kilometre Island Iron Race and the shorter Bridges Race, which takes most paddlers under half an hour to complete. The races traditionally attract outrigger paddlers, but race director Rosemary Henry is seeing an increase in participation by kayakers.
The trend in sea kayak racing is toward fun and fitness rather than elite competition. A big part of the draw at B.C.’s weekly Necky races is the social atmosphere, offering kayakers a chance to meet new paddling partners and enjoy a good work-out without the pressure of a serious race event. Clarke Hanna, race organizer for Ecomarine, says they are promoting their races as much for fun as for fitness. “Usually we meet at a local pub for dinner and a beer after the race,” says Hanna.
“There are draw prizes to give out and people have a great time.”
Paul German of Deep Cove agrees: “Kayak racing out here is for young, old, pro, beginner alike. We have theme races, long races, short races and multi-sport ones. They are about friends, food, fun and a little sweat also.”
Most paddlers finish the weekly five- or six-kilometre races in under an hour and many use them as training for longer, 30- to 40-kilometre races. The ‘Round Bowen Island race in June and the BC Championships around Gabriola Island in September both circumnavigate Islands in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. These races take between two and five hours to complete.
“Kayak racing out here is for young,
old, pro, beginner alike.”
Safety is paramount in sea kayak racing
Weather conditions are a significant factor in longer races, requiring paddlers to have better preparation and more advanced skills. Bob Vlug, who plans to organize long-distance races on the Bay of Fundy and the St. John River next summer, advises paddlers to wear wetsuits, paddling jackets and fleece.
Accidental mid-race swims are not unusual when strong summer winds pick up. But Hanna of Ecomarine says most paddlers take it in stride. “We’ve had people dump, but with a practiced self-rescue they can get themselves back in the boat and finish with no problem.”
Races feature rescue motorboats and sweepers to ensure that no one is left behind. And paddlers are always willing to help a fellow kayaker in distress—it’s even a rule in international kayak competition. Kayak races offer safety in numbers and the bonus of a faster learning curve from training and racing with more experienced paddlers.
World-class equipment for world-class athletes
The ultimate training goal is the Sea Kayak World Cup. Held amidst over 180 islands in the province of Manus, Papua New Guinea, the rigorous 10-day event has been held each October since 1998. Last year’s race included 15 teams of four from countries including Costa Rica, Australia and Canada.
Now that sea kayak racing is taking off, the expanded pool of competitors is bringing the sport full circle, creating a new generation of elite paddlers interested in specialized racing kayaks and paddles.
Dave Norona of Vancouver, who spends much of his time competing in adventure races, has been training and racing a high-performance Current Designs Speedster for four years. The 20-foot boat was designed by Olympic double-gold medallist Greg Barton to “take the rough stuff” in the open ocean. At only 18 inches wide, it requires more refined balance than some other racing kayaks—like Necky’s Looksha. The Looksha II is 20 feet long and 20 inches at the beam and is made for racing in big swells on open ocean.
“Traditional sea kayaks are great for touring,” says Norona “but overkill when it comes to racing. More manufacturers are now designing racing boats that are stable enough to be used in open water but don’t have extra features like hatches and bulkheads that just add weight.”
Wing-blade paddles will get you moving
Now the wing-blade paddle—evolved in the mid-80s for sprint, marathon and downriver events—is the latest technology scooped from traditional racing by sea kayakers who have discovered a need for speed. A wing paddle looks like an elongated scoop and is hydrodynamically designed to perfect the efficiency of a racer’s sole obsession—forward paddling. At the expense of other techniques like bracing, wing blades increase forward-stroke efficiency by at least four or five percent over conventional paddles. That doesn’t sound like much until you talk about racing distances of 20 or 30 kilometres.
“I never used to see recreational paddlers using things like wing paddles, but more and more I do,” said Norona. “They make sense; they’re lighter and force the paddler into a more efficient stroke.”
More kayakers now have access to lightweight racing kayaks and wing paddles through rental facilities and clubs. Both Deep Cove and Ecomarine in Vancouver offer half-price rentals to racers, more than 80 percent of whom rent boats.
To accommodate the technological innovations in sea kayak racing, longer races include four boat categories. Kayakers in specialized race kayaks like the Speedster enter the High Performance (HP) category while a long, narrow sea kayak like the Looksha II competes in the Fast Sea Kayak (FSK) category. Most recreational sea kayaks fit into the Sea Kayak (SK) grouping and all double kayaks are in the Double Kayak (DK) category. These categories were borrowed from U.S. races like the San Juan Challenge in Washington State, a highly popular event that is the model for many Canadian races.
“I never used to see recreational paddlers using things like wing paddles, but more and more I do.”
Kayak racing pushes into the mainstream
Kayak racing was once very specialized, requiring fine balance and high-tech equipment. Now, enthusiasts like Norona see the accessibility of the sport leading people to new technologies that make racing, and simply staying fit, more fun. It’s as if kayak racing slowed down so the masses could catch up, and now the sport is picking up the pace again and bringing sea kayakers along for the ride.