Lessons from the 2016 ACA National Paddle Sports Conference

Flying home from Sausalito, CA, I had a few minutes (in fact more than 300 minutes in flight) to reflect on the conference. Let me start by saying how incredibly nervous I was to even go in the first place. Why? Well, I had submitted a presentation and it was accepted, so I was speaking. Normally talking to a group is not a big deal, but for some reason speaking to this group of incredibly experienced and well-known leaders in the paddling community was intimidating. I mean, I am just a club boater from Birmingham, AL. What in the world could I share with folks who have traveled the world teaching all aspects of paddle sports – the answer, how about my 20 something years of experience in communications.

My presentation was on how to use social media to attract customers. And, I was slotted for Sunday morning (the morning after the big ACA dinner and poolside beer reception) Yeah – sleepy, foggy headed boaters! Just kidding. All-in-all I believe my presentation went over well. There are some businesses in the paddling community that have embraced social media for their brands, but there are still smaller outfitters and individuals who are trying to figure out how to make it work. Regardless, I think I gave a few pointers that will help.

My biggest takeaways were related to my anxiety and to the different styles of paddling I was exposed to.

First my anxiety. There was absolutely no reason for me to be so worked up about this conference. Everyone there, regardless of how many credentials they had, what position they held with the ACA or their organization, showed not one iota of pretense. Everyone, of course, had their opinions, but it truly was a group of genuine individuals who respected each other's abilities and the fact that we were all there to learn.

Second, let’s talk coastal kayaking. As a whitewater kayaker, instructor and instructor trainer who has really just done whitewater and swift-water rescue training. I felt like a beginner in a sea kayak! These boats were long and harder to turn, but they went fast. One of the sessions I participated in on Saturday was “Leadership Beyond Group Management” with Michael Gray of Uncommon Adventures. I didn’t know what this was going to be about, but I liked the sound of it. During the session we worked through some rescue scenarios. First on land, then we moved into the bay. On land, I was okay, but once we moved into the bay and started talking rescues, I was immediately nervous. Michael said we were going to do a t-rescue. In my head I’m thinking a whitewater t-rescue where I tap the side of the other person’s boat with my boat, they grab the front of my boat and right themselves. Guess what, I was wrong. In sea kayaking the person comes out of the boat, then there is a way to pull the boat across yours, empty the water, then buddy up next to the boat, and stabilize it while they get back in. Kind of what I would consider a boat-over-boat rescue in whitewater. During these scenarios I did everything I tell my students not to do: I got in the way of the rescue, almost flipped over while getting a swimmer on the back of my boat, and lost my paddle! What the heck! But, as we ran through the progressively more difficult rescues I learned so much about the different techniques. In addition, it reinforced with me the importance of communication in a rescue. And, reminded me that in a training situation with other instructors it’s important to give feedback, then provide an opportunity to repeat the situation and improve on it.

My final takeaway. There is so much more to paddling than just whitewater! Even though I’m longing for rain and local rivers to come up, there was so much peace in paddling that long boat in the bay. In talking to other whitewater enthusiasts there we need to remember that not everyone wants to do Class III, IV whitewater. In fact, most just want to paddle recreationally and have a great time with their family. It’s important that we tap into that and help provide the education for people to do it safely.

Next year’s conference will be at the NOC Oct. 18-21st. I’ve already booked my cabin, and I hope a bunch of my fellow boaters from Alabama will join me!

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