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Ten people died while paddling in Virginia last year, compared to two the year before

It’s an alarming spike in deaths for paddle sport enthusiasts, who attribute it to newcomers to the sport

Kayak and canoeing exploded, but 10 people died, compared to just two the year prior.

Kayaking and canoeing exploded last year as people looked for new ways to get outside. But participation wasn’t the only number that went up, as ten people died while paddling compared to just two the year prior.

At Roanoke Mountain Adventures, they’ll be the first to tell you it was a busy season. Owner Jeff Todd said people flocked to him trying to beat the COVID lockdown.

“On every level, safety is incorporated into what we do and I think if you’re doing any kind of recreating, especially on the water, safety should be something you do at the outset,” Todd said.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and industry groups said paddle sports have exploded and 2020 was a big year.

But the newly released 2020 state boating incident summary packed some alarming numbers. Numbers local paddle sports enthusiast and instructor Travis Overstreet saw first hand.

“It was nice that we saw a lot of new faces on the water,” Overstreet said. “But things that we’re seeing is mistakes just due to lack of information.”

In 2019, 20 people died in boating incidents, with just two of them involving paddle craft. In 2020, the overall deaths stayed flat at 21 deaths, but the number of deaths involving paddle craft spiked to 10 between kayaks and canoes, and one for stand-up paddleboards.

In our area, one man died on the Dan River while in a canoe. Another woman died near Balcony Falls on the James River in Amherst County, just one of many rescues made in the area over the summer.

Overstreet’s paddling friends were at Balcony Falls the day the woman died.

“She had a lifejacket on at first but not sure quite why but she removed her life jacket and that’s when the situation happened,” Overstreet said.

Overstreet said he and his friends saw plenty of other close-calls too. He said most can be avoided with a life-jacket and basic knowledge.

“It can be the best day of your life or the worst day of your life, because there are many hazards on the water,” Overstreet said.

Getting that message out is the crux of the problem, as the barriers to entry are incredibly low. A kayak can be purchased off the shelf at a big-box retailer and dropped in the water with just a short drive.

VA DWR is working on an education and outreach campaign to communicate safety and information to try to combat the spike in paddle craft deaths. Agency spokeswoman Paige Pearson said it’s harder to communicate with paddle craft users since they don’t need to register their boat or apply for a permit. That factored in with general inexperience on the water and a lack of life jackets can make the problem worse.

At Roanoke Mountain Adventures, safety is already the first priority. But Todd said they’re doubling down on education, training and preparedness to make sure his customers, particularly his rental customers who are primarily novices, stay safe.

The entire 2020 boat incident report can be found on the DWR’s website.