BANGOR, Maine — Jeff Strout and Karen Francouer walked into city council chambers on Thursday afternoon minutes apart, glanced at the assembled crowd, a few reporters and a TV camera and had the same reaction.
“Something’s going on,” said Strout, the BDN’s former outdoors editor. “They must have had another meeting here before us.”
Strout and Francouer had grown accustomed to working anonymously, you see. Over an 11-year span they, along with Brad Ryder, had met periodically with a few others to plan the Paddle Smart Safety Symposium, which will be held for the 12th time sometime early next year. Their working groups were small. There were no TV cameras.
On Thursday, that changed — Ryder had set his colleagues up. This wasn’t a typical Paddle Smart organizational meeting. Instead, it was a chance for the U.S. Coast Guard to recognize the efforts of the three Paddle Smart founders.
Capt. Chris Roberge, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, presented public service commendations to Strout, Francouer and Ryder, marking the program’s work to promote safety to paddlers and boaters in Maine. Roberge also said the group’s work has been adopted across the country, where Paddle Smart is being used as a model.
“Karen, Brad and Jeff have been the driving force for over a decade in developing Paddle Smart, from an idea into a nationally recognized program,” Roberge said.
Roberge said Paddle Smart has served as an essential safety program during a paddling boom.
“Paddle sports just continue to explode in popularity. During the 2000s, roughly 1.5 million canoes and kayaks were sold in the northeast alone,” Roberge said. “Upward of 20 million Americans participated in paddle sports last year, and sea kayaking specifically increased by 21 percent between 2009 and 2010. Perhaps most significantly, at least 25 percent of the public who used kayaks, wind surfers, board sails or stand-up paddle board equipment in 2010 were doing so for the first time in their lives.”
That scenario, Roberge said, presents a huge risk of accident among inexperienced paddlers.
“Countering that risk, Karen, Brad and Jeff represent the team in Maine that provided some of the first-time participants with the tools and skills they needed to enjoy in those activities safely,” Roberge said.
Francouer said there have been changes in Paddle Smart over the years, but the basic safety message has remained.
“The goal then was exactly what the goal is now,” said Francouer, the owner of Castine Kayak Adventures. “To promote paddle safety. We were seeing a lot of people not really understanding the right boat for the right location. We saw a lot of people paddling unsafely. We saw the risk to people, to families and children. We were the experts, and we wanted to gather other experts together. It’s so empowering when people have knowledge.”
Ryder said Paddle Smart originated as he, Francouer and Strout started seeing some alarming trends as a paddling boom took off a decade ago.
“If you go back about 10 years, that was kind of the beginning of the real spike in kayaking,” said Ryder, owner of Epic Sports in Bangor. “Everyone had to have a kayak. We realized that a lot of people were buying kayaks — little kayaks and big kayaks — and they were taking them out on big water and really didn’t know what they were doing.”
Strout said that while Paddle Smart symposiums targeted a specific audience and were not attended by thousands in any one year, the message continued to spread over the years.
“Maybe we reached 250 people a year at the symposiums that we had, but the messages through the media and through word-of-mouth were thrilling,” Strout said. “Part of the key of this is to get powerboaters, paddlers, sailboaters, jet-skiers, to be aware of what’s on the water and how to share [the water].”
Ryder, Francouer and Strout each singled out Al Johnson, recently retired recreational boating safety specialist for the Coast Guard, for his efforts in helping to spread the Paddle Smart word.
“He took what we created, our workshops and our framework, and he took that to Connecticut and motivated other people to do the same thing that we were doing,” Francouer said.