Kayak, Thinking

Has Freestyle kayaking lost its mass appeal?

In its journey from being something paddlers did to have fun and impress one another in their river boats to a serious, technical competition in the latest specially designed carbon fibre kayak, has Freestyle lost its appeal to the masses?

I recently listened to an opinion piece which discussed the merits of allowing ever narrower boards into SUP racing, a still relatively young sport.  It made the interesting argument that if the trend continues it will open up a gap between the top elite paddlers who can balance these boards and the everyday racer who can’t keep up with the technical developments, essentially making the racing elitist and risking a consequent reduction in participation numbers and stunting the growth of the sport.  It got me thinking, is this exactly what has happened to Freestyle Kayaking?

Let me take you back to the start…

I am old enough to remember the grassroots start when Freestyle was referred to as ‘hot dogging’ or ‘rodeo’ and as an emerging discipline it had an energy and accessibility that inspired.  You could give it a go in pretty much any river boat and the skills required were mostly simple extensions of your existing river running repertoire.  We stopped just paddling down the river and started queuing in eddies to play on the river.

We stopped just paddling down the river and started queuing in eddies to play on the river…

It wasn’t long before the ‘playboat’ became the dominant market force and the glory years of freestyle followed with many paddlers, including myself, choosing a playboat as their only river boat.  These were boats that could, in the right hands, do amazing tricks but an average paddler could still run rivers in them and play on their way down.  Now, I will readily admit that my array of tricks was neither wide nor impressive, but I had fun trying and believed I could improve!  But slowly and surely, competitions became regulated, formalised, more professional and less accessible to anybody but a specialist.

There was a time when a ‘playboat’ was my only boat…


Then in the late ‘noughties’ the balance shifted and river runners re-emerged.  But, looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, I question whether this was because people wanted boats in which to run harder rivers or just because the freestyle boat had become a specific tool for the job and had less utility outside the park and play environment.  In an effort to optimise the craft for the newest moves, the best paddlers or specific feature types, the boats lost versatility and became your ‘other boat’.

Now you may question why you would listen to a guy who doesn’t know his ‘lunar orbit’ from his ‘phonics monkey’, but I guess that in itself makes my point.  I have every admiration for the capabilities of the best freestylers and fully respect the countless practice hours they put in to put together mind blowing routines.  But the standard is now so high that most people watch and think ‘that’s amazing, I could never to that’ rather than ‘that’s amazing, how can I do that?’…


I want to play in the boat I have…

The final supporting point I would make is the rapid growth of new competitions that can be enjoyed in a standard river running boat.  Starting with the Green River Race and Adidas Sickline, Extreme Racing is expanding fairly rapidly (and in turn becoming a bit less ‘extreme’ to encourage participation) and Boater Cross events are popping up all over the place.  People like to compete, but they like to do so in an accessible way, ideally with their mates and using the equipment they already have…

Moriston River Race, Scotland
Searching for my inner competitor at the Moriston River Race…

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’ve overlooked some factors.  Or perhaps, what I’ve described above is simply the natural, inevitable progression of any sport.  But, if I am right, now would be a really good time to start putting some meaningful limits on the development of competitive Extreme Racing boats before they become miniature Wild Water Racers and something you only bring out for races.  Oh, and please put a limit on the minimum width for a racing SUP too, I’m only just catching up on the front…

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter…

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1 thought on “Has Freestyle kayaking lost its mass appeal?”

  1. Reblogged this on WetandMucky.com and commented:
    Interesting read, I also have a playboat in addition to my “River” boat and have found especially over the last 12 months that the playboat invariably spends most of it’s life in the boat store and not getting wet. I think I have paddled it once in the last 6 months!

    Liked by 1 person

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