Fresh idea aims safety at new paddlers through manufacturers


Traditional paddlesports, such as kayaking or canoeing have been identified as one of boating’s less safe activities. This fact was first noticed in statistics from the United States Coast Guard’s Boating Accident Report Data for 2014. An alarming number of accidents and deaths were being attributed to paddlesports. Further analysis proved a trend showing that paddlesports accidents and deaths were increasing while power boating stats were decreasing in the same period. At first blush, one would have disputed these numbers because most people consider human powered paddlesports to be much safer than its higher speed, motorized power boating cousin.

child in canoeThe Water Sports Foundation (WSF), a nonprofit division of the Water Sports Industry Association has managed a public outreach grant for the U.S. Coast Guard since 2011. The project strictly follows the USCG’s Recreational Boating Strategic Plan, which states in Objective 2, Boating Safety Outreach – Deliver effective boating safety messages through various educational resources and media to reduce deaths and injuries of recreational boaters.

In 2015, the grant project’s efforts had primarily been targeted to the segments of power boaters and sailors where the majority of deaths are attributed. In 2014, there were 610 boating accident deaths of which 450 (73%) were attributed to power boating/sailing, but an alarming 167 or 27% of the total deaths were attributed to accidents on human powered vessels. Moreover, additional research from BARD reports for the previous four years shows that human paddle deaths are increasing during a period when most considered boating to be safer than it had been previously. Armed with this information, the Water Sports Foundation through its outreach grant titled Increasing the Awareness of Safe Boating Practices set out to make a difference.

WSF’s outreach project gained popularity from the very beginning by proposing widespread use of boating media as the primary vehicle to reach boaters with safety messages – a novel idea that until 2011 had never been attempted on a large scale. Safety messages began to radiate outward from boating stalwarts such as Boating Magazine, Boating World, Yachting, Salt Water Fishing, Field & Stream and Sailing World. Over its life, 20 of the world’s most popular boating media brands have assisted in reaching as many as 54 million boaters with high-value boating safety messages – 17 of the brands were provided by the world’s largest boating media company, Bonnier Corp. As a result of this and other safety programs, we’ve seen recreational boating produce its safest 36-month period (2013-2015) in the history of boating accident recording.

In 2014, WSF launched a new effort targeting paddlers through The Enthusiast Network (TEN), publishers of Canoe & Kayak, Kayak Fish and SUP magazines and websites. WSF assembled a task group including members from the American Canoe Association and the National Safe Boating Council to help design the messages. Ads were produced to alert paddlers to the need for increased life jacket wear that included the popular Wear It! moniker. A final design was drafted and then approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and soon ads began to land in the inboxes and mailboxes of faithful paddlesports subscribers – but WSF wanted to do more.

tip overNew Paddlers Need Assistance
In 2015, frustrated over news that most paddlesports accidents were being caused by relative newcomers to the growing activity, WSF sought a completely new strategy. It was further exposed that most of the deaths were from newcomers that bought a canoe or kayak at a big box retail outlet or club store where consumers get little to no assistance in the purchase process. Due to the lack of sales assistance and instruction on safety at the point of purchase, the term K-Mart Kayakers, used to describe this growing group, was bantered among safety advocates.

Buyers that shop at pro shops or professional paddlesports and outdoor stores get purchasing assistance and advice about the need for life jackets and other safety equipment. It’s just a natural part of the sales process for certain retailers. Unfortunately, with reduced staff, this just does not happen at club stores and big box retail locations. Over the past decade or so, new manufacturing techniques allowed kayak prices to plummet and these products have become more attractive to the non-traditional retailers looking to cash in. As a result, paddlesports popularity has grown tremendously. This means on any given sunny Saturday consumers are walking out of their favorite club store with an impulse kayak purchase and no information about paddlesports safety, and then, one-day… tragedy strikes.

Past experience taught us that newcomers to any activity were not necessarily on an enthusiasts media provider’s subscription list (print or digital). It’s part of the “participation life cycle” that participants typically discover media, such as those mentioned above, after spending longer periods of time participating in the activity. In other words, newcomers to paddling generally have not yet discovered Canoe & Kayak, Kayak Fish or SUP media offerings. A continuation of outreach efforts through these channels would not necessarily reach large numbers of new paddlers. Over the years, this theory has been proven in many special interest markets.

orange kayakPaddlecraft Builders Tapped
WSF suggested that new paddlers are most readily accessible through the manufacturers that produce the products they used for paddling. Foremost are those that produce canoes and kayaks. At the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City on August 6, 2015, WSF hosted a meeting with the largest manufacturers of entry-level paddle craft. At this meeting, Jeff Hoedt from the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety gave a brief but detailed presentation on the safety of paddle craft in America. Upon seeing the stats, the attending manufacturers were in complete denial because like most people, they too, believed that paddlesports had to be safer than power boating. How could it be that paddlesports accidents and deaths were increasing while the same stats for power boating were decreasing? The numbers don’t lie – the U.S. Coast Guard’s paddlesports accident and death stats were trending in the wrong direction and there was no dispute.

Now that we had the manufacturers attention, WSF asked them two questions. First, if we produced safety messages designed to help newcomers to the sport be safer, would you, as manufacturers, help us distribute them through your channels? After all, the manufacturers have several great communication channels available to them such as warranty card registration lists, electronic newsletter lists, social media, and their own websites. Secondly, we asked them, if you agree to distribute these messages, how should they be built so that you will be more likely to distribute them once they are created?

if foundThe answer to our first question was unanimously, “Yes!” For our second question, as one would expect in today’s world, the group focused on video messaging as the best way to communicate. Eight safety subjects were identified and it was decided that a series of eight instructional videos should be produced and delivered over the next boating season. At this point, with things going fairly well, WSF shared a potential problem that would cause each manufacturer to pause – would they distribute a video that used, that is, “featured” a competing brand’s products in the message?

Again, the group responded unanimously, but this time they said, “No” and that’s when Jim Marsh, Group Publisher for TEN stepped up to say, “What if we produced a custom video for each manufacturer for each of the eight subjects, would that make a difference?” Did he really say that? Was TEN actually proposing to produce 48 separate cuts of these videos? If so, this was a monumental task and a hugely generous offer that suddenly changed the game. Especially considering that WSF had already given TEN a firm budget figure, so there were no additional funds to make this happen. The room was quiet with anticipation, and then, one manufacturer spoke up to support the concept and quickly the others also agreed. At this moment, it occurred to everyone that we had the consensus needed to push this unorthodox outreach project forward!

kayaks on the beach2Engaging NASBLA for Consensus
By late 2015, Canoe & Kayak editor Jeff Moag had drafted the first version of the video scripts and in an effort to gain as much support and added-value distribution for its project, WSF invited members of the NASBLA Ad Hoc Committee on Paddlesports to assist in editing the scripts. The idea was to eliminate future reasons for objecting to distribute them before the shooting even began. The Ad Hoc committee led by NASBLA’s Pam Dillon and the state of Washington’s boating law administrator, Wade Alonzo, was instrumental in helping the scripts be as accurate as they could be. The Ad Hoc Committee was also very complimentary of the project and insisted that, if designed properly, state agencies everywhere would want to help with distribution. In addition to this group, WSF shared the scripts with the original manufacturers and gained full approval before the first frame of video was recorded – again, in an effort to eliminate any possible reason for objecting later.

In another brilliant move, TEN’s executives had the sensational foresight to hire award-winning video producer, Trip Jennings of Balance Media to produce the project. Jenning’s team brings an unparalleled sense of professionalism raising the quality standards at every turn. Paul and Kate Kuthe, ACA Certified Instructors from Oregon, were tapped to be the on-screen tandem talent and in early March 2016 an army of product engineers, camera operators, extras, grips, a drone pilot, and video editors descended upon the waters of southern California for the weeklong video shoot.

sit on kayak 5Video Messages Now Ready for Distribution
Fast forward to May 2016 and WSF, with the assistance of TEN, has produced eight videos with custom product edits for six manufacturers (inserting the use of each manufacturer’s product in each of the eight videos) creating an astounding 48 video cuts. Paul and Kate Kuthe do an outstanding job of taking the audience down the path to safer paddlesports. The video’s sequential subjects are 1) Life Jackets, 2) Wearing the Proper Attire and Cold Water Immersion, 3) Safety Gear, 4) Paddling How To, 5) Filing a Float Plan, 6) Paddling Navigation, 7) Capsizing Management, and 8) Seeking Emergency Response. A distribution schedule has been set for summer 2016 that includes releasing one of the eight videos every two to three weeks. The distribution model includes the use of manufacturer channels described above as well as those produced by TEN and Bonnier Corp. Additionally, WSF expects NASBLA to endorse the videos for use in every state’s paddlesports safety program.

Point of Purchase Education Piece Added
A side project that was suggested by Cheri McKenzie, vice president of Confluence Water Sports, during the manufacturer’s meeting is to produce a product hangtag pamphlet including the same safety information and graphic treatments that is presented in the videos. WSF had abandoned this idea due to its cost – printing millions of pamphlets would cost hundreds of thousands, but WSF let the idea progress. Soon all the manufacturers had agreed to help distribute these pamphlets as product hang tags, or inserts in warranty card packaging.

A 10-page “Z” folded five-inch by five-inch printed piece using eight of its panels to reinforce the subjects covered by the eight videos was planned. The remaining two panels would be devoted to front and back covers. The expanded piece would be 25 inches wide by 5 inches tall and have content on both sides of the paper. The panels will fold in a “Z” pattern making them easy to include with a new kayak or canoe. This project has a lot of merit and dovetails perfectly into the plan to reach new paddlers with entry-level product point-of-purchase materials in non-traditional retailers such as club stores and big box retail outlets. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard became excited about the idea and Jeff Hoedt, branch chief, volunteered to use a special printing budget, unaware to WSF, to have enough pamphlets printed for two-three years of paddle craft. Everyone was elated to hear this exciting news! Early estimates are for as many as 3 million copies and project engineers expect to have them available beginning the summer of 2016!

life jacket woman and childLooking forward, WSF plans to host another “invitation only” manufacturer’s meeting at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in August 2016. The goal of the meeting will be to expand on current paddlesports safety efforts and to look for more ways that the community can make paddlesports safer. The U.S. Coast Guard has already pledged to attend and meeting coordinators are exploring invitations for more groups like NASBLA’s Ad Hoc Paddlesports committee, the Stand Up Paddle Industry Association (SUPIA) and additional paddlesports media providers.

For more information on the Water Sports Foundation’s paddlesports boating safety outreach project, please contact Jim Emmons, WSF’s nonprofit grant outreach director, at

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *