ATHENS — The Georgia River Network is hosting introductory kayak classes in August and September to help train new paddlers who are finding their way to Georgia’s rivers as an outdoor escape from the pandemic. Recent increases in paddle sports participation also have resulted in increases in accidents and fatalities. Georgia River Network wants to help paddlers enjoy the state’s waterways more safely and for many years to come.

Introduction to Kayaking: Sept. 12, Lower Chestatee River, $75 per person plus optional kayak rental,

Classes will focus on basic paddling skills, trip planning and prevention, as well as skills like how to climb back in your boat if you capsize in the middle of a lake, how to read the river, and how to identify and avoid hazards.

“As this pandemic drags on, it is more important than ever that we have safe opportunities to connect with each other outdoors,” Rena Peck, the Georgia River Network’s executive director, said in a news release. “We are so lucky that Georgia has a longer paddling season than a lot of places. We want to help folks explore these gorgeous resources safely and come to love them as much as we do.”

Last month the U.S. Coast Guard released the Recreational Boating Statistics for 2020 and it was no surprise to see that boating activity increased significantly in 2020, which also resulted in an increase in accidents and fatalities. Across all types of boating, fatalities increased 25.1 percent and accidents increased 26.3 percent compared to 2019.

Paddlecraft consistently comprise about one quarter of boating fatalities. In both 2019 and 2020 the data held steady at 24 percent of all fatalities represented by canoe, kayak, standup paddleboards and inflatable craft. According to the USCG, paddlecraft fatalities nationwide jumped from 149 in 2019 to 182 in 2020, a 22.1 percent increase.

A more detailed analysis of paddling trends is available in reports from American Whitewater, a national nonprofit that tracks river-related paddling accidents and fatalities. The underlying cause of growing paddling fatalities nationwide is attributed to the increase in activity among paddlers with little to no training having accidents on easier waterways. According to American Whitewater, in 2020 there were more incidents for paddlers on flat and Class I rivers than there were on classes III, IV and V rivers combined.

“The pandemic spawned an explosion in interest in paddle sports,” Joe Cook, the Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia coordinator, said. “Kayaking, in particular, has really taken off. Now we want to help folks paddle safely whether they are joining our trips or leading their own.”

Georgia River Network traditionally hosts more than 300 people during an annual weeklong river adventure known as Paddle Georgia held each June, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year the group organized a series of 15 small-group river adventures that have highlighted all 14 major river basins in Georgia.

To lead these classes, Georgia River Network is bringing in Andrea White, a kayaking instructor certified by the American Canoe Association, which is considered the gold standard in paddle sports curriculum in the United States. In fact, GRN is currently supporting a prize package for the ACA instructor who teaches the most beginners in Georgia between Memorial Day and Labor Day 2021 as part of a national contest by ACA designed to encourage instructors to train more beginners.

“Nationwide we are seeing a huge jump in participation in paddle sports without a commensurate increase in training and safety education,” White, currently serving in a volunteer capacity as the ACA Tennessee State director, said. “Georgia has a particularly long paddling season and we want to help folks make the absolute most of it. Just a few skills and a little prevention can go a long way toward giving you more boat control and making your paddling more enjoyable for years to come.”

Founded in 1998, Georgia River Network is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that serves as the voice of Georgia’s rivers and works to empower everyone to enjoy, connect with and advocate for economically vital and clean flowing rivers.

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