A decade ago, top sponsored whitewater kayakers were making $100,000 a year and competitions were booming at venues like the world championships in Graz, Austria. Lately, though, the sport has fallen on hard times. According to the Leisure Trends Group, there are half as many whitewater paddlers today as there were when George W. Bush took office. Sponsorships have dried up; the few pros who remain are lucky to make $10,000 a year.
Patrick Camblin, a 30-year-old kayaker from Ontario, thinks he knows how to fix the problem: send the world’s best paddlers down insanely dangerous whitewater and broadcast it online. “I want the world to see what the best kayakers are capable of,” says Camblin, who launched the Whitewater Grand Prix last year on six flooded rivers in Quebec.
The encore happens this month in southern Chile, where 30 boaters, including Czech Vavrinec Hradilek, slalom silver medalist at the London Olympics, will compete in five stages. The contest will likely include a mile-long race down 30-foot drops on the Rio Gol Gol, a time-trial-style competition through Class V rapids on Patagonia’s massive Futaleufú, and a “best line” contest over a 70-foot waterfall on the Rio Palguin. The idea is to air highlights from the event online and generate buzz—a model that’s been perfected by the Billabong XXL surf contest. Clips from last year’s inaugural Grand Prix racked up nearly a million views on Vimeo and YouTube, and the winner, Dane Jackson, now has a coveted Red Bull sponsorship.
“Camblin’s footage rivals stuff coming out of Billabong’s XXL,” says Corran Addison, founder of Riot Kayaks.
Trouble is, the industry has yet to hop on board—the Whitewater Grand Prix has no prize money or sponsors. “The coverage of waterfalls and other extreme stuff scares the crap out of a lot of sponsors,” says Shane Benedict, cofounder of kayak manufacturer Liquid Logic. Says Addison: “These guys are running some of the burliest whitewater that’s ever been run, much less competed upon.” Indeed, in Quebec, athletes swam from their boats 12 times. (Most paddling competitions see zero swimmers.) For Camblin, that’s the appeal. “Athletes support the Grand Prix,” he says, “because it’s putting the best parts of kayaking on the biggest platform in the world: the Internet.”