There’s a kayak revolution going on in Northeast Florida and if you hop in a kayak and paddle your way along the black current of the mighty St. Johns river, you are bound to find one of the sport’s biggest promoters in the region, kayak expert and outdoor extrodinaire Joe Crespi. From his time spent as a guide on the French Broad and Nolichucky rivers to running his business, First Coast Outfitters in Jacksonville Beach, FL, outdoor conservation, awareness and exploration are passions Joe lives for. After spending time tearing up the white waters of western North Carolina, he paddled on down south to calmer seas, where he noticed an alarming change in attitudes towards sea kayaking and a growing generation gap that has emerged between paddlers.
In 2011, Joe started The River City Challenge (RCC), a single day event geared towards promoting outdoors sports and conservation, featuring a paddle sports race, outdoors expo and music festival. It is gaining momentum and just wrapped up it’s third successful year last April. Joe sat down to chat about the event and how it is slowly helping to raise awareness to put sea kayking back on the map for the youth of Southeast America.
What is the River City Challenge?
The River City Challenge started as a kayak race to benefit the North Florida Land Trust, a non-profit organization that raises funds to preserve land [in Florida] adjacent to waterways. Over the pass 2 years RCC has evolved in to a full blown Outdoor Expo, Music Festival, and world class race with attendees like 2x U.S. Gold Medalist Greg Barton and Reid Hyle one of the nations fastest paddlers, convening for one day with paddlers from all over the Southeast to challenge the mighty St. Johns River. Besides working towards raising money for the Land Trust and raising awareness towards how we treat our river, we have been able to introduce the sport of kayaking to a whole new generation of paddlers. From there we were like why limit it to kayaking? Let’s introduce paddle boarding, biking, scuba, kite boarding- anything that represents a healthy living lifestyle outdoors.
How did the Eco festival portion come about?
The festival portion came from my love for music and paddle sports. The whole concept of merging the worlds of paddle sport races and music festival’s was foreign and non-existant as far as I knew until recently! Think Bonaroo meets Outdoor Retailer meets River City Challenge . I was lucky enough to have meet Kristi Finigan of Hype Promotions out of Atlanta, GA a year ago who shared a similar vision as far as how to grow the event, and come up with a way to draw more people and introduce people to a healthier way of life, so we gave them beer. Lots of beer, thanks to Sweetwater Brewery who was one of this years major sponsors…oh, and music from some of the nations biggest acts! Our outdoor vendors, shops, and local outfitters filled the event with tons of gear, with sales opportunities as far as the eye could see, and the Non-profit organizations shared a wealth of information to the community with all of the amazing outdoor opportunities and waterways North East Florida.
What shaped your vision for the River City Challenge?
I wanted to accomplish a couple different things with RCC. The first being to create an event for the community that celebrates all of the amazing natural resources we have at our disposal here in North East Florida, and the second was to make an even that was fun for the whole family and offered an opportunity for all of the local outfitters, dive shops, bike shops, tackle shops to represent themselves to the community, and to have Jacksonville represented as a paddling mecca, and home to one of the biggest paddle sports races in the country one day.
How is kayaking in the southeast different for younger generations than in other parts of the U.S.?
It all depends on where you live and what water conditions you have. Florida for the most part is all flat water paddling, except in East North and Central Florida where we are blessed with some of the states best surf breaks and inlets hosting nice soft sandy bottoms, perfect for composite sea kayaks, where as in Western North Carolina you have mountains, which have raging rivers with rocks, ledges, rapids, and waterfalls, perfect for small plastic boats. I’ve noticed a large gap in age groups between white water kayakers and sea kayakers around the U.S. Your more likely to find a pretty good age variety in the ww kayaking community, but when it comes to sea kayaking the majority of paddlers are over 40. It’s a trend that I see changing as the sport evolves. Towns like Bellingham, Washington and Seattle are great examples of cities that have embraced the paddling way of life, which in turn has turned the sport of paddling on to the youth. Jacksonville is on the right path, and having a Mayor who kayaks helps!
Since the River City Challenge have you noticed any changes in attitude towards kayaking for young adults in Northeast FL?
I have noticed that the number of Northeast FL kayakers has been growing exponentially over the past couple of years. I think events like River City Challenge help educate people on the sport and the importance of safety, and with that comes growth. Any activity you do in the outdoors has an element of risk, and people will always find a way to make it more interesting. It’s an ever-evolving sport much like biking, surfing, or skate boarding. Young adults grew up in the generation of the X-games, and extreme sports, other than whitewater kayaking, stuff on the coast has been slightly docile until recently.
What advice do you have for beginners looking to get out on the water?
I would highly recommend anyone interested in getting into kayaking to take some sort of introduction to kayaking course from a qualified instructor. There are a few organizations out there like the American Canoe Association (ACA) and British Canoe Union (BCU), which are responsible for the safety standards most kayak instructors teach these days. On either web site is a list of qualified instructors found around the U.S. and calendar dates for their classes.
What would you recommend for an affordable yet quality kayak for those who want to get into the sport but feel they can’t afford it?
I would highly recommend buying a kayak based on your needs. If you have been out shopping for a kayak, and found them to be out of your price range all together, I would recommend checking out web sites like Craigslist or Paddle.net where you can find decent used kayaks. A lot of shops like us are starting to sell used boats. I would say the #1 question I get when a customer comes into our store is, “Do you sell used kayaks?” If you have the money to spend, I would recommend doing your research and avoid big box retailers that don’t have the expert knowledge you can get from a specialty paddle shop.
Hypothetically, if you happened to find yourself in a situation where you could only go out in a kayak one last time for the rest of your life- where would you go and why?
The Bahamas. It’s flat water, not a lot of waves but what’s fun is the beauty and island hopping. I like to explore and find a new place- it becomes your island, you don’t know who was there or what’s out there. It’s one of my favorite little places to paddle.