How do we grow paddlesports? Also a few words about kayak/surfski innovation


Is it up to boat manufacturers and their representatives to build boats that appeal to a broader audience and to conduct general outreach or is it something else?

The issue of whether and how boat manufacturers and their distributors should promote and grow the sport arose in one of the kayaking-related Facebook groups I’m in.

The particular discussion was innocently enough touched off simply by somebody posting a plastic surfski for sale. That then turned into a particularly interesting conversation regarding the potential role boat manufacturers play in promoting the sport by bringing new people into the sport through new boat designs.

My view is nuanced.

OK. Maybe not so nuanced.

I quite possibly have a totally unique perspective.

One the one hand, maybe some new, affordable boat designs might bring some new people into the sport, but on the other hand, the costs and overheads associated with designing, creating a mold and manufacturing a boat are very high and manufacturers are not going to go down that path unless they see a market big enough not just to recover their costs but to make a reasonable profit, too.

I’ve researched the market because I want to bring my own marathon racing design to market, but the costs of entry are high and the profit margins are relatively low. I believe I’ve got a great combination of design aspects and features that will appeal to the niche market of marathon and ultra-marathon racers.

It isn’t a terribly attractive market from a business perspective when you consider its size, current available offerings (a very good if not excellent array of boat options!) and price sensitivity.

I will build my boat out of cedar strips and then see if anyone else might be interested and go from there, but there is no way to guess how many people might want such a boat and most people want to see and paddle a boat and/or wait for early reviews first before they make their decision.

When I attempted to gain some support for the project I was met with push-back and negativity from “the paddling community.” The essence of the feedback was, “Go prove it and then come back and show it to us. There are already enough great designs to choose from. There is no need for another boat design.” And I was only asking for a minimal amount of donations to help offset my costs and gauge interest and then I was going to share my design with anyone who supported the project.

In that respect, I guess the project was a success as I got a clear indication of interest and support, or lack thereof, for true innovation.

So I will go execute it and prove it in a shroud of secrecy.

I’ve now got my final design, strongback and cedar strips and will proceed at my own pace and take my sweet old time. If it turns out to be a great design I might just keep it to myself.

Sad, but true.

But that also illustrates the problem.

I did not take any money from anyone for this project

I understand it. Everybody wants to see, touch and paddle what you have first.

I observed one boat designer announce a new design (actually an iteration of an older, existing design) and said he’d required 100 people to pre-order the boat before he would move it into production.

I’ve never met him but he must be a very smart guy.

I don’t know anything about him or his company, but it is probably a fairly reasonable guess that 100 boats is at or moderately above his break-even point for creating the molds and putting into production (in China) a plastic boat.

The market doesn’t support high profit margins so that means any boat manufacturer would have to design a boat that appeals to enough people to sell high numbers of units to make any sort of reasonable profit.

We engage in a niche sport/market once we graduate beyond plastic recreational boats that have mass appeal.

Very small market niches already saturated with minimally-differentiated designs/products/boats with high cost of entry and low margins is not a recipe for innovation and risk-taking.

Even the big guys introduce only slight variations on existing designs to try to appeal to a certain niche of paddlers or try to get folks to upgrade to the next stepping stone boat. By doing so they are also minimizing their risk by only slightly modifying existing designs with which people are already familiar.

As a result we are beginning to drown in a sea of minimally-differentiated boats with too many letters and numbers on them.

Don’t believe me?

Go pretend boat shopping at any major manufacturer’s website and tell me how quickly it takes you to get confused between models and how long it takes you to start figuring out how many centimeters difference there is between designs.

I’ve had a little more time to reflect on this topic since the Facebook group discussion and would like to share some more of my thoughts.

Let’s talk about innovation and growing the sport.

Epic Kayaks did an absolutely wonderful thing when they introduced the V7 to the market.

That boat has definitely brought new people into the sport of surfski paddling who otherwise would have experienced a bit too high of a price and skill barrier. It was a brilliant move. Epic knew they could introduce a low-cost, beginner’s ski in plastic and then hope to “move people up the ladder” into their their more advanced models as paddlers’ skills progressed.

The smartest move I’ve seen since?

That would be Nelo introducing smaller skis such as the FutureKids Ocean skis and Mini Viper. That is also an absolutely brilliant move on their part because Nelo understands those designs will get people into an approachable/affordable ski at a young age and they’ll have a chance to build brand loyalty very early and then move people up their brand ladder into bigger, longer skis as they grow and their skills progress.

I’ll also throw Cobra Kayaks/Aquatx into the mix for their Cobra Viper kayak design roughly a decade ago. I was one of the first in the U.S. to buy one of those boats because it was a truly innovative, multi-sport racing boat done in plastic, the likes of which was not seen since the Wavehopper. The Cobra Viper was a great boat, but so few people here in the U.S. bought them it is now considered a rare boat. It is also no longer in production and the company no longer in operation. I’ll likely keep my Viper forever, but it was a very, very niche boat and so it died a quiet death.

Be sure to note, the Viper was a truly innovative design, not just a scaled-down version of an existing design or a familiar design made out of a different material.

Back to the Facebook discussion.

I posited the theory that at many race and paddling events here in the US, paddlers tend to become very tribal about the brand of ski/kayak they paddle. You usually see a group of people wearing Epic Kayaks gear and another group wearing Stellar Kayaks gear, because if you don’t live near the coasts in the U.S., those are the two major, visible surfski players for anyone objective and paying attention.

When they all wear team gear and just talk amongst themselves in separate groups, that looks very intimidating to outsiders and lesser experienced paddlers who might be attending their first race or event and those people feel intimidate by all the “professional” paddlers hanging in separate clusters with their expensive, fancy racing boats.

I understand that because, largely, that was/is me.

I’m not tied to or financially or emotionally invested in any brand or manufacturer for any reason.

But here’s the rub.

I come from a marketing and branding background and if I worked for one of the boat manufacturers or one of their dealers, I’d be trying to build my own tribe of customers who are loyal to my brand of kayak or surfski and I’d do everything I could to fence them in so they don’t have a reason to look elsewhere for their next boat purchase.

Call it building brand loyalty, call it customer-centricity, call it whatever you want, but it is their job to sell their brand and keep people loyal to their brand first and foremost.

Next they also want to expand their market, but with such a fragmentation of the sport/fitness/racing market, there are so many different niches and so many different existing boats to appeal to those niches it is hard to envision a scenario where a new boat style or design would significantly expand the market.

So then it becomes about growing market share at the expense of the competition.

Once in a while a radical new boat design might come along that has major impact on the market, but those are going to be the exceptions rather than the rule going forward. We mustn’t wait on them.

Radical innovation is also probably not going to be immediately embraced by the paddling community, either.

(Re-read that last sentence and accept it. I’ll wait.)

So therefore radical innovation is also not likely to come from the big manufacturers at this point.

The last time I recall it happening in any impactful way was with Doug Bushnell at West Side Boat Shop in New York.

Doug designed his own boats and handcrafted them one-at-a-time and his boats dominated the racing scene here in the U.S. for a number of years because his marathon racing designs were very innovative.  They are still some of the fastest boats available, but Doug had to build a few and get them into the hands of capable paddlers first and then allow word-of-mouth to take effect to reach his market.  He had to design and build incredibly fast boats and then allow the market to hit critical mass for demand once paddlers were able to see and paddle (and probably lose to) his boats.

As a one-man shop, he enjoyed the luxury of being able to truly innovate and change the complexion of the sport without having to sell 100 units to break even.  Getting control over his manufacturing was a short walk out to his barn to build another boat, not hopping on a plane and spending months in a factory in China.

To this day I believe Doug is vastly underappreciated in our sport.

Back to tribalism.

The boat manufacturers and their reps have done a good job defining their “tribes” and they are usually the ones who sponsor and do the heavy lifting to put on local events to further expose their brand.

I have no problem with that and applaud it! I’m actually surprised more dealers don’t do it.

Same argument with food companies who fund nutritional studies. Sure, they might not be 100% objective, but if they don’t fund it nobody else will.

Jack Welch from GE used to say if you want to compete in a market be #1 or #2 or get out. I think that is the issue here.

Racing/fitness paddling, surfski paddling in particular, is such a small market with no long tail there isn’t really room for a #3 (in this sense I am talking about “entry level” skis or any particular style/class of boat whatever that means to you.) There is usually the one who is new or who innovates, the one who follows and mimics or slightly betters to provide an alternative, but usually no room for anyone else in such a small market.

The general thought is if one product is a success and you want to develop something that competes with it, either be significantly better or be significantly less expensive. There isn’t really much of another position that will be compelling to people unless it is a very large market and then you can brand on some “softer” features and benefits (radical paint schemes, awesome outfitting, etc.)

We’ve seen this with plastic skis. Cobra had the Eliminator, Spirit had the PRS, Pyranha/Think the Octane/Nitro, Epic the V7 and Nelo the 510. The latter two are the only real players left and my eyes tell me Epic is dominant with the V7. I just don’t think the market can support a third option–unless it comes from a small, craft boat builder who builds buzz one boat at a time and only builds boats one at a time until he/she sees what market uptake will really be.

So there isn’t a great deal of latitude for boat manufacturers to just try introducing new boat designs to see if they catch on. In fact, most likely those designs will just take other, existing market share from somebody else or cannibalize sales from one of their own existing boats rather than grow the market and sport.

Boat manufacturers are in an unenviable position.

As paddlers without a horse in the race, we should be the ones trying grow our sport by being more approachable. It certainly isn’t up to the manufacturers or dealers. They need to hit sales targets and numbers in the short term with their existing products. That is how companies and corporations work.

The flip side of the argument is that if we grow the sport as paddlers and make it more approachable to new paddlers, then the manufacturers will respond with something that appeals to each segment of it, especially if it can support a #1, #2 and #3 offering. Trust me, if the market is there they will be there.

As I mentioned above, I’ve attended many inland racing events here in the U.S., and there is almost always the Epic Kayaks huddle of people and the Stellar Kayaks huddle of people and then a whole bunch of other people staring at the spectacle of the whole thing trying to figure it all out. Either that or they are standing alone at water’s edge just staring at the water because they feel intimidated and nobody seems very welcoming to them.

We need to reach out to those people, make events less intimidating, and be evangelists for our sport.

So next time you are at a race or event, engage those people in plastic recreational boats who might be paddling their first race. Talk to those cedar strip kayak people and ask them how and why they decided to build their boats.

Almost always you will uncover an amazing story and make a new friend.

And almost always you will lower the barrier and make it less intimidating for somebody new to join and love our sport.

# # #


If you appreciate anything I’ve said or done, please consider making a small donation to help support this site.

Oh, and be sure to keep a “starter” boat or two on hand to introduce people to a different style/level of paddling.



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