« 38 - Annual Events | Main | I Am Not Nice »

American Pie: Anyone For Kayaking?

...But of all the fads and crazes, the one that is most difficult to explain is kayaking. It has been the sport with the longest gestation period, and its recent increase in popularity cannot be identified with a movie, or a personality who gained prominence in the Olympics, or anywhere else for that matter. Other than the specially constructed slalom courses that have been built in some high profile locations such as inner cities, the current population of kayakers do their thing unseen by most of the rest of the population...

John Merchant points out that 350,000 kayaks are sold annually in the USA - a mere splash in the ocean compared to the 18.2 million bicycles sold in the USA in 2006, but it is clear that the craze has reached critical mass.

For more of John's eminently readable columns please click on American Pie in the menu on this page.

About every five years or so, the American consumer marketing people need a big new fad or a craze to work on. The germ of an idea almost always is spawned by the consumers themselves, and often spends years incubating before suddenly blossoming like a plague after fertilization by the marketing pros. Classics from past decades include the hoola-hoop; the Lava Lamp, so beloved of pot smokers and LSD poppers; tennis, skateboarding, bicycling, and, every dog loves them - frizbees.

In many cases, the spark that ignites these explosions of mass marketing is struck by an aficionado who excels in some endeavor to the point of making the national headlines. An example is Lance Armstrong, the unlikely winner of the Tour de France bicycle race. Prior to Lance, every American kid had a bicycle, which was almost always either passed down to a sibling at age 9 or 10, or consigned to the annual garage sale.

After Mr. Armstrong’s first win, the minority interest sport portrayed so beautifully in the movie “Breaking Away,” that had been something of a cult pastime, suddenly became mainstream. Equally rapid was the evolution of the standard, kid’s bicycle into an array of hi-tech, specialized machines. So now there are mountain bikes, racing bikes, dirt bikes, touring bikes and so on. In the summer time, if you drive for an hour on a major highway, inevitably you will see a car or truck with one or more bicycles strapped to the back or roof.

Skateboarding went through a similar evolution, and probably would not have gained the prominence it has were it not for its cousin, snowboarding, being accepted into the Olympics. Snowboarding bestowed respectability on a pastime that had been considered the province of “outsiders” and social misfits. To a large extent, skateboarding still suffers from that image. The construction of skateboarding courses in parks has imparted some legitimacy to the sport, but I suspect the move was more to do with getting the “boarders” away from the shopping precincts and sidewalks, than a recognition of legitimacy.

But of all the fads and crazes, the one that is most difficult to explain is kayaking. It has been the sport with the longest gestation period, and its recent increase in popularity cannot be identified with a movie, or a personality who gained prominence in the Olympics, or anywhere else for that matter. Other than the specially constructed slalom courses that have been built in some high profile locations such as inner cities, the current population of kayakers do their thing unseen by most of the rest of the population.

The sport has much to recommend it, but rarely is that the reason such activities become fads or crazes. It is healthy, inexpensive, relatively easy to master, can be practiced on any body of water from a village pond to a raging torrent, and by young or old, male or female. What more could you want? Now, just like the bicycle, a kayak isn’t just a kayak anymore. There are single, two and three seaters, inflatable and even folding models.

The history of the kayak reaches back into the mists of time, when the Inuit of north Alaska and Canada first designed these beautiful streamlined craft for hunting and fishing. At that time the boats were fashioned from a wood or bone frame covered in slick sealskin. Since the Inuit were unable to swim, the water being too cold to take a dip, their kayaks needed to be unsinkable, and this was achieved by attaching a jacket or apron that fastened around the kayaker.

To the Inuit, the kayak represented life and death – no kayak, no food or clothes, no Inuit. But once the folks south of the ice pack discovered it, the kayak became more than just a means for survival, and went through several stages of evolution before becoming the sophisticated, playtime product it is today. In large part that transition came about through the availability of new materials and methods of construction.

Probably the most common is the low-cost, molded polyethylene plastic version, but more hi-tech models are available in Kevlar, fiberglass, and carbon fiber, with prices ranging from $900 to $5000 in the US. Styles vary according to purpose, but probably the strangest concept is the “sit on” rather than “sit in” design. The “sit on” kayak literally turns the design inside out. The paddler reclines in hollow contours on the deck, shaped approximately to fit a human body. At the foot end of the leg hollows are two peddles to operate a rudder via cables, and other declivities are provided to house camping gear, food etc., held in place by crisscrossed bungee cords. It’s hard to imagine what motivated the design, other than the opportunity to get an all-over tan while paddling.

Currently, some 350,000 kayaks are sold annually in the USA, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association; a mere splash in the ocean compared to the 18.2 million bicycles sold in the USA in 2006. But it is clear that the craze has reached critical mass, so just give those marketers time. One has to wonder what a smart Inuit patent lawyer could make of that.

# #

Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.