Is Ocean Paddling Becoming Pay to Play?

Maybe it’s just me but, it seems to me that ocean kayaking has become a “pay to play” kind of a sport on a larger and larger scale. I have noticed it in several different regions to a larger and larger extent.

More and more it seems that if you want to paddle in rough water, surf, do longer open water trips, multi-day trips, etc, that you need to either pay to paddle at a symposium attend a symposium or pay one of the increasing number of folks who charge people to paddle with them.

I find that frustrating because it makes it harder to find competent paddling groups / partners, and because I don’t need or want paddling instruction. Many of my former paddling friends have moved away from paddling with friends and with groups for fun, and now approach paddling almost strictly as a business and charge people to paddle with them.

And…some of those folks who are charging people to paddle with them are not what I would consider to be superb paddlers. They are more competent than the people who are willing to pay to paddle with them, but many are what I would consider intermediate skill level. I don’t want to pay someone to paddle with me, especially if they are of the same or lower skill level that I am. Many of these folks are certified instructors through the ACA, but if you are willing to pay out the cash that certification can be easily purchased in most cases…not in all cases, but in many it seems based on some of the folks I have seen who have higher level certification levels in the ACA. Reminds me of a story about one fairly well certified instructor who charged a group of people to go on an overnight trip and then got lost and another who charged a bunch of folks to teach them to surf, but according to one of the students in the class the instructor was not able to catch any more waves than they were.

The few times that I have broken down and paid to go on trips with people I have been fairly disappointed as there was little coaching to be had and the activities of the group were limited by the skill level of the weakest paddler. Why would I pay for that again?

I paddle whitewater, canoe and mountain bike with other folks, and in none of these other sports do people charge you to go with them, and there is an

abundance of groups and friends to go with. I can also say that most of the whitewater instructors I know of are pretty highly skilled so maybe the ACA holds them to a higher standard than sea kayak instructors. It seems that a lot of sea kayakers achieve a solid intermediate level of skills and then run out and get an ACA instructor certification.

Has anyone else noticed this?


really different problem

– Last Updated: Jan-31-13 2:27 PM EST –

I _might_ know what you mean. I've noticed fewer who are both skilled and active sea kayakers in my area. With more it's easy to get a group to do whatever the group is able to do. But as the number goes down and you have no buddies via clubs or random friends then you migrate to paid tours with guides.

Other sports I've done a lot such as mountain biking and skiing were such that I wished fewer were doing it as it was so crowded. But in my area for more challenging sea kayaking I'm wishing for more so that on any given day there are likely a few good paddlers to join.

I suspect this varies a lot by region.

pay to play
I haven’t noticed that to be the case in my area, but in general I do find the “younger generation” is more willing to shell out $$ for “spoon feeding” of their adventure, no matter what flavor it is - caving, climbing, yakking, you name it. Myself, I find I am more willing to shell out some green to paddle an area I’d likely never get to on my own. Just my 2 centavos.

Liability rears its ugly head

– Last Updated: Jan-31-13 3:38 PM EST –

Loose knit paddling groups face safety issues and
could face litigious backlash when it all goes wrong.
Some highly certified folks stay away from casual new paddlers,
for fear of getting sued in an unfortunate event.

People need to have some "personal responsibility"
for their skillset and take classes, learn, evolve.

Does one say no to the person who shows up in the
"wrong" boat, "wrong" clothing, etc., etc. or
do they tag along anyways for a group paddle ?

Not really…
The problem I see is a simple lack of folks that are paddling at a level I would trust to handle a problem on open water. Period - with or without certs or a desire to make money out of it.

I am not necessarily talking alphabets or numbers here, just people who are serious about learning skills and keeping them tuned up so they’d be of any use in a pinch. What I see more is that people either decide they don’t want to learn the skills to handle emergencies - rescues and paddling in more difficult conditions - or they go to one class but never practice it again. So it isn’t really there.

So the conundrum becomes how to paddle safely with a group. For example, I know I cannot handle an unlimited number of panicked paddler emergencies in a timely fashion if shit happens well offshore in open water. It’s sheer physics - my own, or lack thereof. So others have to be able to handle problems, or better yet be skilled enough to avoid them in the first place. If we can’t find that kind of pod, the choices are either stay nearer shore or pay for someone who has set up a well-supported paddle.

We vacation in a place that is a paddler’s dream - uncrowded access to a lot of islands, a lot of choices to stay sheltered or be in more open water. There are plenty of paddlers - we know of and have encountered a decent number. But even on the edge of the ocean, the majority that we have tried to hook up with are not a match for what we want to do. Recreational paddlers in Tupperware who clog narrow channels for the fishing boats, people in sea kayaks who are afraid of using a skirt, folks who will go out in pea soup fog from a working harbor with no lights or fog horn… we are surprised every year that we don’t hear of more fatalities or near misses. There are days that it is easy to see why some fishermen hate kayakers though.

If there were a robust supply of open water paddlers who had prudent attitudes about safety, getting a pod together would be easy. But from what we’ve seen, there just aren’t enough paddlers like that. Too many people don’t want to learn, or get wet or try to overcome their fears to be a better paddler.

I can appreciate this
I can appreciate where you’re coming from. I continue to be somewhat surprised by the seeming lack of interest in more performance-oriented sea kayaking.

We’ve decided to get more active.

We’ve actually teamed up for an event this spring with some terrific ACA instructors with an overall goal of making coastal paddling more easily accessible.

The idea was an early season, low cost, rough water paddling event, with follow-up paddles on-going after getting the opportunity for some exposure to rough water. You get the opportunity to meet and paddle with peers with the same interests, get good instruction, and build on it through on-going free club paddles and continued instruction on your own should you choose.

One thing I have noted is that many beginning and intermediate paddlers prefer to seek out paid instruction prior to advancing their activities. So I hope this event will create a win-win between ACA instructors, and folks like you and I who also appreciate those free-of-charge informal open water paddles. I think we all benefit by building the coastal kayaking community.

We’re doing this through Carolina Kayak Club, and the weekend is May 17th to 19th. It’s the weekend after Mother’s Day, the weekend before Memorial Day. The weekend’s paddling activities will be held at Carolina Beach Inlet, Carolina Beach, NC. Carolina Beach State Park will be the campground, a short paddle from the inlet. It’s a nice campground in the woods along the ICW. We couldn’t put this together for free, but $120 to $140 includes 2 nights camping, and we have 6 ACA instructors committed. We are reserving the open spots for introduction to surf and rough water for local area members, and they will have specific introduction to surf and coastal paddling ACA instruction. So if you’re from NC/SC interested in some intro to surf classes, this is a great opportunity. But we also want to make this a nice rough water event for intermediate/advanced paddlers who may not be so interested in more formal class sessions. So the idea is to form pods, say 5 intermediate paddlers and an ACA instructor, and have a rough water inlet session, shoals surfing session, beach launch and landing session, following seas session, rough water rescue session - just taking advantage of the skill level of the pod and the conditions that happen to be afforded us that weekend. We’ll have 6 hours of mid-day flooding tide into the inlet, which will give us a nice safety cushion should things offer some quite challenging conditions. We’ll have the opposite late afternoon and evening for some change in conditons if that makes sense for some folks. And we have full ability to choose the level of waves by moving further into the inlet, or further out into the shoals. I plan to set up shade tents with coolers for drinks and snacks for breaks on the beach. It should be a pretty great set-up for a day of beach play.

Now this is a coastal symposium, so it may be exactly what you’re talking about not wanting to do. But I recently paid $73 just for a campsite for 2 nights, so I think it fits more in line with paying for camping for the weekend than paying more expensive symposium prices. My personal thought process was similar to yours when we started talking about this. Why is it that the only way to get into open water sea kayaking is through paid classes, or going it solo? I think the classes are important, but I think peer-based learning is also important. We want the added benefit for our local beginners to be more formal surf zone introduction, and the fun for intermediate/advanced paddlers to be peer-based rough water paddling. We all get to meet and share the weekend. You get an annual membership to Carolina Kayak Club (CKC) as part of the price, which is where you will learn about the posted coastal paddles for the year. And hopefully we can create an annual rough water event that continues to offer low cost, safe accessibility to beginners as well as intermediate/advanced. And hopefully both the free lance paddlers, and the instructors, will benefit from our efforts to build a stronger coastal paddling community.

That was a lot of stuff, but I’m interested where this would fall from your perspective. Does it sound promising, or just another pay-for-paddling situation? Keep in mind, we can, do, and will continue to post free coastal paddles on CKC’s calendar, so the regular free postings aren’t all talk. And our local area is quite extended, as the club is based out of Raleigh, and it’s with a lot of help from the Wilmington members that this has been put together.

As long as I’m at it, I would love to have some of the intermediate paddlers from P-Net sign up and join us for the weekend. So please chime in and e-mail me if you would like to attend. I think at the price point, and given the coastal inlet location, safely organized rough water paddles and ocean beach time would make this well worth the affordable sign-up cost and a bit of travel.

Have never noticed it and

– Last Updated: Feb-01-13 5:20 AM EST –

would never as long as I live charge someone to paddle with us.
The only time I would ever pay myself is going on a guided tour to some remote place where I couldn't bring my own gear and boat.
We have friends up and down the east coast, and when we are in their vicinity we get together and paddle with them.
We have guided many people here in the keys and as long as they can hold a paddle, can swim, and can make their own lunch, they are welcome

Jack L

IF you had none or very few capable folks to paddle with anymore would you gravitate to joining more guided trips (either do remote or local or symposiums). Or would you do more easy trips knowing you have more newbies available. Or would you just paddle alone. Or stop paddling.

Paddle alone…
I would paddle alone. That is the boat I am in now…which sucks because we all know that it’s not very safe to paddle in cold / open water with big conditions without some other paddlers.

I am not going to pay big money to paddle at a symposium and take classes I don’t need or want, especially with instructors that are not of the caliber of guys like Dale Williams, Sean Morely, Ben Lawry, or any of the top Brits that sometimes come over. But even then you are taking some basic level class most of the time and the group is limited to the ability of the worst paddler in that class.


Not really …
People do make kayaking a business, and the money is located in older folks who can afford seakayaks.

Get into surf kayaking and you can paddle with the best in the world at no charge.

I wonder if the sport has maxed out what it will bare though. This year the Southwest Seakayak symposium is being scaled back without “Expensive Big Name Instructors” … at least something I saw in my email a while ago.

SD symposium
partly it was scaled back because they added

San Diego isn’t great for rough water classes compared to playing in the rock gardens in Baja. Combine that with dwindling attendance and the result is migrating the more serious stuff to just the Baja event.

Younger generation…
Are either professionals incredibly busy nowadays working long hours, or not working/broke and unable to afford recreation. So I’d suspect it’s the ones on a quick power vacation who are shelling out bucks to get out and play, and learn as much as they can, to whom you are referring…

Jack, you’re from NC
We both have been willing in the past to pay for paddling events. That type of nominal fee, such as the fees we’ve paid to sign up for race events, is what we’re going for to make this coastal NC event happen. Myself and the other Wilmington organizers are all paying the same event fee as everyone else. I know it may not be your type of event, but if you get the chance to read my long post above, does it sound reasonable, or does it actually give you the impression that you would be paying to paddle with someone more than paying some nominal fee for a few hour race does?

some replies–
thanks for all the great feedback.

I will clarify, as I am not sure that I made myself completely clear.

What I am referring to is that many of the intermediate or reasonably advanced paddlers that used to perhaps be buds that you might paddle with have abandoned paddling with groups of like-skilled friends in order to paddle solely for pay. I have seen this in a few different areas of the country now. Seems that there used to be clubs and groups of skilled intermediate paddlers that got together to paddle in bigger conditions, etc. for fun, but not so much anymore. The result is that there are fewer and fewer intermediate groups to join up with. Plenty of beginners looking to paddle with others, but not a lot of more skilled paddlers, as they have turned to paddling with the beginner paddlers for money in many instances.

Now I don’t want to pay $500 or $600 to go to a symposium and take classes like “introduction to surf” etc. taught often times by some guy who is not really that good of a rough water paddler himself.

However, I may be willing to pay a MODEST price to participate in a TRUE GATHERING of paddlers like is described above by CapeFear.

In other words, a gathering with groups of folks just going out to paddle and not in some super controlled instructional venue where you are on a short leash by the timid instructor who is worried that the winds are gusting to 20 knots and that he needs to move the group to a sheltered location lest someone can’t handle the conditions or…that someone ACTUALLY needs to be rescued.

Many of these symposia teach all these rescue skills, etc, but then no one actually goes out and paddles in the big conditions where you may actually need to execute a rescue.

I am talking about a gathering where there would not only be students of beginner or intermediate skill, but intermediate and advanced paddlers wanting to play in rougher conditions as a group…and for a modest price.

$600 for three days or four days just to paddle…like they charge at most of the symposia is not worth it to me, unless you are guaranteed to have a like-skilled group of paddlers to paddle with along with a top notch instructor like Nigel Dennis, etc, and with a low teacher to student ratio. But that is never the case.

I would pay some money to attend a “paddle palooza” kind of event.

They have lots of events like that in the whitewater community…like the Cheat Fest. But it’s paddlers coming together for a good time to paddle together, and not some intermediate paddlers who went out and got an ACA certification and are making money charging $600 a head for people to paddle with them.


lost good paddlers but not to $$
In my case some of the more skilled switched to surf skis (from ocean sea kayaks). Some got old and either don’t paddle or stay near the harbor ever refining various rolls. Some moved away. But only one or two in the last ten years I think left to paddle for pay.

But the results the same pretty much in that it’s hard to find others if you feel like a day of long distance or rough water or bigger surf launches. I now have a couple at my same level that get out pretty regular, a couple others less often and none better that could help guide/push me to the next level. I need to join pay type events to paddle with those better other than some rare exceptions.

A question of critical mass

– Last Updated: Jan-31-13 8:48 PM EST –

In my area there are not enough sea kayakers who would enjoy or are capable of rough water, expeditions, etc. There are quite a few, actually and they do team-up for such outings several times a year. But not enough so I could just post or call and get company when I can be available...

For paid events - people either plan ahead or make the time and these tend to happen only a few times a year too...

For White Water, however, the situation is much better where I am. Even in freezing waters there is always someone in the local run or play spot. There are several large clubs too, who regularly and quite often organize free or nominal fee outings at many skill levels.

There are also competitively or performance oriented flat water clubs that for your membership fee offer a lot of opportunities to paddle with your peers and even get instruction as part of the membership perks.

Those who paddle for money I can understand will not want to "waste" time to do the same for free if they can get paid. Nothing wrong with doing some business while enjoying their time on the water... In a sense, I can appreciate the model - if you don't know the paddler personally, them wanting to pay for your time for a specific type of instruction shows some level of understanding and commitment that might be harder to gauge otherwise...

agree - critical mass
I agree with the comment that it is critical mass.

If you have people in your area who like the same stuff you do, no need to pay to play. But if you don’;t, then hiring someone to help you may make sense. But, it can be challenging, as you have noted, to make sure the person you are hiring is going to provide what you want.

We have a good community of ocean paddlers here in NorCal. Definitely have that critical mass. One of the challenges for people not part of the group, though, is to get in with the group of more advanced people so you can paddle with them. Many think it is cliquish. But in reality is is that liability issue. These advanced paddlers understand that not everyone paddles at their level, but they want someone that they know will paddle within their level. Not everyone does.

The way in is often a bit of paying to play - most of these advanced paddlers are the instructors at local shops, and if they see you can control yourself in the class (taking appropriate risks, avoiding extreme risks), they may invite you on other paddles.

“The way in is often a bit of paying to play - most of these advanced paddlers are the instructors at local shops, and if they see you can control yourself in the class (taking appropriate risks, avoiding extreme risks), they may invite you on other paddles.”

With our group of somewhat advanced paddlers we invite in new folks by also having more moderate days that reveal a lot. For example before I will invite folks for rock garden outings I invite them a few times to safer surf outings to see how they handle their boats in various directions in breaking waves. Or do moderte distance paddles and see who seems eager for more miles.

But I’m lacking others to do the same for me for the next level up.

– Last Updated: Jan-31-13 10:08 PM EST –

Time to move from SoCal to NorCal!

Actually, I should have expanded some. There are other opportunities that aren't pay for play. Some of the Bay Area Sea Kayaker group paddles come to mind as non-pay to play ways to make inroads with the higher level paddlers.

I travel year round for work
so I see a lot of different areas. I have found it to be pretty easy to hook up with local paddlers. I use the internet in most cases to locate the “locals” or go to a paddle shop and just ask. I often just go up to strangers and ask.

It is pretty easy to find us, we have racks on our vehicles, and the back seat is crammed with paddles, pfds, dry bags ect… I have found that most kayakers are very inclusive as a group.

I do not want to sound like a snob, but if your paddle costs more than the other guys boat/equipment you may not have as much fun. It is a good gauge of skill levels, how many of you out there have an assortment of paddles much like golf clubs, depending on what the trip of the day is?

Having said that, I have opted out of invitations because I knew the trip of the day would be above my skill set. I hope others would act in this manner as to not endanger, or have a negative impact on the outing.