Club History

The Sea Kayak Association of BC has its beginnings in the 1970s. We started compiling this history in 2019 --special thanks to Rick Davies, Heather Harbord, Dan Lewis, Mercia Sixta, Harald Riffel, Shelley Lear, Simone Avram and Tony Clayton. Click the links to see their full writeups.

Your writeups, details, anecdotes and corrections can be sent to webmanager2@skabc.org


In the 1960s, Harald Riffel built his own kayak when he was 16 years old. It was a fabric covered wood frame that he worked on with his boyhood friend Steve Schleicher, founder of Nimbus. In the 1970's, Rick Davies was living in New Zealand when he saw some guys in Norkapps and became interested. He moved to BC at the time when ocean kayaking was first taking hold here.

"There were very few sea kayakers...If you saw someone driving around town with a kayak on their car, you knew who it was. The whole culture was very intimate". Rick Davies

In 1978, avid paddler Jim Berta was teaching ocean kayaking courses in Vancouver through the Canadian Hostel Association. By the end of the summer, Jim had taught quite a few people and proposed starting a club so the group could continue paddling. This club met informally in the basement of the Jericho Youth Hostel to look at charts and talk about doing trips. The group held several pool sessions in North Vancouver. Jim lead the first club trip (around Bowen Island) and provided most of the kayaks (Eskies) for that first year.

"No-one wanted to lead trips due to concerns around liability. I was only 20 and was penniless, so had no clue as to why anyone would care about such things—I just wanted to go paddling! Not having a car, I soon realized that if I offered to lead the trips, someone would have to give me a ride. Trip leaders had to do a reconnaissance trip; so I got to do a lot of the trips twice!" Dan Lewis

When Jim Berta moved away, Heather Harbord, Sherri Thurber, Dan Lewis and Ian Somerville took over leadership of the club. They decided on the name Vancouver Ocean Touring Kayak Association “VOTKA”. Heather was the first president and Dan sent out newsletters. Dues were $5. The original mandate was to bring enthusiasts of this little-known activity of “ocean kayaking” together to share safety techniques.

"I asked John Dowd (of Ecomarine) to give a talk on his recent honeymoon trip in a double Klepper from Venezuela to Miami. He suggested I book the free meeting room at Pacific Press and send a press release to the Vancouver Sun. Eighty people arrived and VOTKA was on its way". Heather Harbord

Styles of kayaks being used in the ocean varied greatly during the early days. In the early '80s there was a “famous meeting” between Derek Bamforth, owner of Pacific Canoe Base in Victoria, an outfit that sold only Nordkapps, and John Dowd, who had paddled extensively in Kleppers, and others. Norkapps and other rudderless English-made boats had small cockpits and hatches therefore some felt they couldn’t accomodate much camping gear, whereas people packed the wider hatch-less Kleppers through the large cockpit with gear in waterproof bags that doubled for flotation.

"This was the great Nordcapp vs. Klepper argument. Derek had told provincial government officials that only Nordcapps were safe to paddle on the sea … It was after that impasse that we realised we had to get political and I wasn't prepared to do that so I exited the presidency and we got Gary Sixta in to cope. He had lots of government contacts in Victoria because he'd been the City Planner for Surrey". Heather Harbord

1980s

Under the leadership of Gary and Mercia Sixta, the name was changed to Sea Kayak Association of BC and it was registered under BC ‘s Society Act. Through diligent recruiting with the goal of legitimacy in the eyes of the province, the club grew to around 300 members. Gary and Mercia, who were trained in kayaking through the British Canoe Union (BCU), were asked to be a part of a group looking into provincial course standards. However the two were soon convinced that certifications didn't make the sport safer and that people didn't learn as well because they were afraid to fail. So Mercia, Gary and the SKABC executive at the time started developing course material for the club based on the BCU courses.

“Since we didn’t like certification we had to put a training program together ourselves... We took what we liked and left out what we didn’t like from the program... Not only kayak skills but camping skills, as well as how to survive off the sea, fishing were all part of the program... There was no failure.” Mercia Sixta

The club continued meeting at the Pacific Press meeting room in the early 80s. When numbers grew too large for this room, Bernie Epting arranged for the club to meet in a classroom at his kids' school -- Bayview Community School. Long time members have fond memories of sitting on tiny chairs and the smell of chalk dust while guest speakers were presenting.

"We had a cooking demonstration (Tony would remember) in that room at Bayview. Stoves were going and we all brought in our favourite kayak food. The fire department would have had a fit if they’d known I’m sure. It was a great evening with amazing food". Rick Davies

In the 1980s, the club became involved in some public initiatives. They were part of putting outhouses in the Broughtons and the Broken Islands, the protection of Haida Gwaii, and in limiting the licensing of the aquaculture industry in BC. Ray Pillman, club member and chair of Sport BC lead a group of club members to work with the provincial government to come up with sites that were suitable for fish farms and also sites for camping.

Between 1985 to 2005, Mercia spearheaded the Coast Kayak Symposiums that turned out to be a major part of the club. In 1986, famed North Sea kayaker Derek Hutchinson came from the UK as a guest speaker. Most of the symposiums were held on Thetis Island on the May long weekend for 5 days. The club chartered the MV Britannia from Coal Harbour and many as 400 kayaks and people and were dropped us off at Thetis. The kayaks were pulled up the side of the ship using a system of pullies and ropes.

"Top instructors in the province taught for free and kept coming back. Instruction expanded into 20-30 topics going on at once -- in water and on land...It was an opportunity for people to meet from all over the province and get involved. It was huge.” Mercia Sixta

There was lots of fun to be had on these weekends including trying out different kayaks, catered food, a swimming pool, evening lectures, group parties and bonfires. And everyone who recalls the symposiums mentions the cardboard kayak race.

"We divided into small groups to each design and build a cardboard kayak in 3 hours or less. After building the kayak, a member of each group would race the cardboard vessel with all the other cardboard kayaks. The boat and paddler that went the furthest distance before sinking, was the winner!" Simone Avram

1990s

The club had around 350 members in the 1990s. Training events, as well as Thanksgiving and Easter weekend rescue practices were often held at club member Errol Fisher's campground on Mayne Island. At Christmas, they had a party in Vancouver with turkeys, a potluck, and a bottle auction to raise money for the rental of the hall.

Kayaking was growing in popularity and the club's mandate had evolved to include a comprehensive training program. The club received a grant to create a kayaking safety video for the provincial government. In addition to the video, the symposium, and other courses, the club held rolling practice and rescue sessions at local pools -- Lord Byng, Ron Andrews, Newton Wave Pool, and Bonsor.

“We’d book Bonsor at 11:00, 12:00 and 1am and the programs would be full”. Mercia Sixta

The Coast Kayak Symposium eventually grew into such a major event (up to 500 participants, a very large budget, and a lot of volunteer energy needed) that the club made a decision in the mid 1990s to run them under a separate umbrella. At around that time, Mercia stepped down as president and Graeme O'Neill took the job. Mercia went on to start another kayak club (PIKA) out in the Fraser Valley where she worked. (The last Coast Kayak Symposium was in 2005. “I killed it because I couldn’t find anyone to take it over”, said Mercia. She said that different companies in the kayak industry wanted to run it but she didn’t want to let that happen.)

During these days before the internet, the club had a post office box in downtown Vancouver for club mail. There was also a club telephone number with voicemail for impromptu trips. The main way that members found out about club activities was through The Paddle Newsletter, which was mailed to members and available at meetings. Newsletters included trip narratives, photos, paddling tips, information about club activities, and classified ads.

"I have fond memories of trading articles on floppy disks or handwritten copy. The final newsletter was copied, stapled, folded, stuffed and stamped at a print shop. I then printed the mailing labels and stuck them on each copy. There was often a last minute 'hold the presses' request for an extra, important article". Shelley Lear

Writing articles for the newsletter was a major part of the club culture. and editing the publication was a big job. Shelley edited the newsletters for several years. Another dedicated editor and contributor to The Paddle in those days was Derek Spragg.

"Derek had a unique character and typical British sense of humour. A bit of a non-traditionalist which showed in his several years as editor of the club’s newsletter. A completely left turn addition was his stories of 'Definitely not Kayaking' as a takeoff on the CBC program 'Definitely not the Opera'." - Rob Leeson

In around 1998 they moved the meetings to the False Creek Yacht Club and used this location until prices were hiked out of their budget. During these years the club had a large executive and there was a lot of enthusiasm around club trips during this time.

"Tony Clayton organized a popular kayak cuisine camping weekend. The objective was to share information on food planning, storage etc. for long trips. Tony purchased all the food and provided recipes for a hands on learning experience. This event continued for many years (up to 2018) and was always full... Terry McGinnis was a member of the trip committee in 1999 and he led many long trips over the years. Terry was famous for bringing lots of gear, including a folding umbrella which he used as a wind sail". Shelley Lear

2000s:

"The SKABC Philosophy is that we are a "group of common adventurers." Paddle Newsletter June 2002

In the early 2000's SKABC held its monthly meetings at the Maritime Museum in Vancouver. Membership dues were $40. The club would run ads in Wavelength Magazine to attract new members. Course offerings and curriculum continued to be improved. Rick Davies, who joined the club in 1983 and helped instruct at the symposiums, developed more kayaking course material, as well as curriculum and laminates for all of the SKABC courses. Harald Riffel, an instructor, trip leader and former club president started offering a Currents Course with Graeme O'Neill and the Surf Course with Mark Kelly. For decades, Rick, Harald, George Prevost and Peter Kearney have been the core of a dedicated team of instructors.

In around 2001, the club set up a website for the public to find out about the club, then quickly evolved to include a members' log in area. The Paddle Newsletter was still an important way for members to coordinate and report on trips, including international destinations.

"I teamed up with Terry McGinnis who was an experienced paddler and trip leader. For over 10 years, Terry and I coordinated trip after trip for club members and paddled to different destinations all summer long. We even organised trips to Belize and Baja". Simone Avram

The old tradition of having rescue practices at Thanksgiving and Easter at Errol Fisher's on Mayne Island faded away in the early 2000s. The club had Thankgiving at Camp Stillwood near Cultus Lake where people could stay in cabins in instead of camping because of the cold weather for a few years. The dinners became the main thing and George Shepherd made Thanksgiving dinner for the club for a number of years. At around this time, Rob Leeson started organizing an annual Labour Day weekend trip at Errol's called The Mayne Event.

In 2003, the club moved its meetings to a bigger venue: The Museum of Vancouver / Planetarium and raised its dues to $45 per person. This was an outstanding venue for guest speakers. That year, long term SKABC member Don Griffiths, who completed several long trips along the mid-coast of BC, gave a memorably entertaining discussion with his tips for kayak touring.

"His quirky sense of humour and story telling skills were amazing. The most unusual thing I heard was that Don takes a microscope in a wooden box on kayak trips so he can examine flora and fauna up close. There was also a hilarious tale about camping on an island when the water rose above the level of his tent during the night – complete with the information that Don sleeps in the nude. Who can forget Don’s detailed demo of the pee funnel he made for his wife, Nan. His maxim was: cheap can substitute for waterproof". Shelley Lear

In 2003, SKABC instituted the Orca Award (at first called the Tsunami Award) as a way to recognize people who have made significant contributions to the kayaking community. The early recipients of this award were:
2003 Orca Award: Harald Riffel, President, Instructor
2004 Orca Award: Ray Pillman, Sport BC, Club Executive
2005 Orca Award: Rick Davies, Instructor, President
2006 Orca Award: Tony Clayton, Trip Leader, Club Executive
2007 Orca Award: Cindy Dopson, President, Newsletter

The 2000s were also when SKABC became a founding member of the BC Marine Trails Network Association. The club started doing a Spring paddle to Thwaytes Landing which has evolved into the annual Spring Fling. Also during this time, the club starting having a "Thank You Party" in the Fall -- hosted at Peter Kearney's home -- to recognize volunteers.

SKABC held a 25 year anniversary celebration in 2007. Founding member Heather Harbord was awarded a lifetime membership in the club.

"I proposed Heather’s honorary membership on the occasion of SKABC celebrating 25 years. We had a celebratory paddle launching by the Maritime Museum. It was an awful wet day in June and we were glad to adjourn to the Billy Bishop to get warm and dry out after the paddle". Tony Clayton

Starting in 2008, the club Executive gave Silver Paddle Awards to recognize contributions of volunteers. The first recipients were:
2008: Gayla Shulhan, George Prevost, Kallie Cunningham and Peter Kearney.
2009: Bob Maher and Maureen Benzon

A Paddle Newsletter archive from 2002 - 2011 is kept on the website here: Paddle Newsletter Archive. It in itself is a treasure trove of club history and kayaking wisdom.

Recent History: 2010 - present:

Club news since 2010 can be explored on our website through the "News Archives" sidebar on the Club News page.

With the popularity of groups on the internet, the SKABC executive looked for ways to evolve and attract new members. In 2015 President Randy Chatterjee created and fostered the Friends of SKABC group at Meetup.com. People joined Randy on paddles, came to club meetings, then joined the club. That same year, forums were added to our club’s website so members could post informal call-out paddles, buy and sell gear, and post topics related to kayaking.

Silver Paddle Award winners 2010 - present:
2013: Richard Jensen and Susan Jensen
2014: Karin Hartner, Nick Heath, Rob Leeson
2015: Mick Allen, Shirley Brunke, Simone Avram
2017: Roy Smyth, Inge Zegel, Bruce Pickwell, Randy Chatterjee
2018: Graham Lorimer, Bob Salo, Steve Best, Chantal Ethier
2019: Sue Johnson and Calvin Sam

In 2017 the club entered in a partnership agreement with the Recreational Sites and Trails BC to be stewards of six BC Marine Trails recreation sites in Howe Sound. Steve Best was SKABC’s first Howe Sound Steward. That same year, monthly meetings were moved to the Sunrise Community Association Hall since the Museum of Vancouver raised their rates.

In 2018, SKABC awarded an Orca Award for the first time in many years:
2018 Orca Award: Nick Heath, Conservation, Treasurer, Club Executive

Updated by Susan Jensen in 2019. If you have anything to add, email webmanager2@skabc.org.