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Floating Your Own Boat

3 minute read
Anita Hamilton

Plunk yourself down in a small plastic kayak with nothing but a paddle, and you might think you’ll need Hulk-like strength to do anything more than bob gently downstream. But that’s a myth that Anna Levesque, 33, is helping to debunk. A professional white-water kayaker and instructor based in Asheville, N.C., she says, “Kayaking isn’t about strength; it’s about finesse.” And once you get the hang of it, “you get a real sense of accomplishment,” she continues. “You are the master of your craft.”

That could help explain why more landlubbers are picking up oars. Participation in the U.S. has doubled to nearly 8 million people over the past decade, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, and women enthusiasts are among kayaking’s fastest-growing groups. “I love the quietness of it,” says Linda Weinmann, 36, of Winona, Minn. “It makes you feel like you are a part of your surroundings.” Smarter lightweight designs are making kayaks easier to carry and maneuver. Meanwhile, the free lessons that kayaking outfitters offer along urban waterfronts in places like Baltimore and New York City, man-made white-water parks inland, and myriad kayaking festivals and expeditions let newcomers get their toes wet before sinking what is typically about $1,000 (but can run up to $5,000) into a boat and accessories.

Just as participation in many group sports has declined, individual sports like archery, snowboarding and kayaking have seen steep increases in recent years. After all, why hang out in the outfield waiting for a ball to head your way when you can be the star player in your very own craft? “It’s really part of this greater trend of people wanting to self-express themselves,” says Mark J. Penn, author of Microtrends.

At Wenonah Canoe, one of the largest canoe and kayak makers in the country, kayak sales outpaced those of canoes four years ago, according to president Rich Enochs. While canoes typically seat two people and are harder to steer, most kayaks are built for one, and after a 30-minute lesson, even novices can go faster than they could in a canoe. New activities like kayak fishing, in which fishers explore narrow creeks and waterways in specialized boats with more legroom, have helped boost sales. And Wenonah’s Current Designs line features smaller vessels that are easier for shorter adults to control. Most kayaks are still made of plastic, but some newer ones, like the $3,350 Suka, come in stronger, lightweight Kevlar, which can shave up to 20% off the total weight.

While kayaking is a solo sport, it’s hardly for hermits. The Washington Kayak Club, based in Seattle, boasts some 700 members and sponsors everything from fall outings on the Cedar River to viewings of the sockeye salmon swimming upstream to clinics at local pools on how to roll your boat over in the water. Year-round festivals include the weeklong Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, which starts Oct. 27 in Fort Myers, Fla., and features more than 50 group paddles. You’ll always be the master of your kayak, but it’s more fun when a paddling buddy comes along for the ride.

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