I first started coaching sea kayaking ten years ago and back then, from a personal perspective, the female participation in the sport was about 5%. Over the years there has been a steady increase in the numbers and I now get about 25% or so on my Sea Kayaking Anglesey courses. While this is a positive move in the right direction I think the ratio can and should be closer to 50%. So why isn't it?
Palm are very proactive in promoting women in paddlesports and last weekend for the second year running they supported the Ladies Paddle Symposium. This excellent event is organised by Fran Kohn-Hollins who also happens to be the captain of the Palm sponsored GB Women's Rafting Team. While Fran actively sought out the best female coaches in the area and beyond, with over a hundred participants at the event and a coach to student ratio of 1:4 a few male coaches were required. I was thrilled to be invited to help and thought I would give a male perspective on the event and female participation in paddlesports in general.
On the first day of the event I was working with an intermediate sea kayaking group and one of the stand out features of the day was a discussion on kit. We were lucky enough to have Rowie from Palm with us and she had brought a selection of womens specific kit, which some of the ladies were very excited to try, as well as different boat and paddle sizes. Having the right equipment for the job is a luxury that us blokes take for granted.
On the second day I had an introduction to sea kayaking group. Whilst some of the ladies were beginners, some had been kayaking for quite some time but felt there were things holding them back. They had various past negative experiences that had knocked their paddling confidence down to the point that they wanted to revisit the fundamentals, but was that the answer to their problem?
Learning paddlesports is undoubtably difficult. Any wannabe paddler needs to find the right people, get the right gear and get over the initial intimidation factor to learn the fundamentals. These difficulties don’t separate men from women. I think the differences come from the negative experiences. These often come from the swims and perhaps there is a difference in how men and women deal with these experiences.
During one of the evening lectures at the event, experienced paddler and coach, Deb Pinniger brought up an interesting issue about the emotional vulnerability that swimming puts us all in. We have to trust our paddling companions to rescue us, but is this rescue just a physical action? Men tend to shrug off a swim after it happens, at least externally, pretending it wasn’t a big deal. Whereas perhaps women want more than just the physical rescue. Its possibly that they reflect more deeply on the negative experience so need rescuing emotionally as well as physically. A hug and reassurance that the swim doesn’t make them a worse paddler.
I think we need to accept that men and women are different and learn how to deal with these differences. To help women to take up and persevere with the challenges of learning paddlesports they need to have the right paddling companions. As paddling is still a male dominated sport I think it is down to us males to be proactive in this and be supportive when anyone is feeling insecure, takes a swim, or has an off day.