David Hughes has instructed whitewater kayaking since 1998, beginning with a high school program called Adventure Quest. Five years later, he founded his own kayak-oriented high school program, New River Academy. In 2010, Hughes founded Patagonia Study Abroad, a kayak program in Chile for gap year and college students for which he continues to serve as the program director. Hughes found his passion for whitewater instruction after studying education at the University of Tennessee and spending many years competing at the professional level in kayak freestyle and racing.
Jesse Metzger: You’ve introduced hundreds of young newcomers to whitewater kayaking so far in your career. What is the most important thing a student should do if they are interested in learning to kayak?
David Hughes: You’ve got to have fun. Unfortunately, some instruction can be really rigid. The gist of it is, how do you go to the pool session in the winter and have fun with it? I donated some kayaks once to a high school in Santiago with an indoor pool so the kids could get introduced to kayaking. When I came back a few months later, the kids were flipping their boats upside down, crawling into them underwater, and hand-rolling up. They progressed because they were finding ways to have fun with it.
The kayak is a craft that’s awesome to have fun with in the water, and the more you know how it functions, even if it’s just in the pool, the more fun you have. When you’re on whitewater that feels too easy for you and you’re getting bored, you find a way to make it more interesting. Can you catch every eddy? Can you catch the eddies backwards? Can you make a really tight, creative line? That’s a great way to progress.
JM: What types of rivers should beginner kayak students seek out?
DH: I like rivers with features. Seek out rivers with simple eddy lines (where stagnant water meets the current), which are great for practice. Waves are also fantastic. If you have a river with a wave, you can spend not just hours but entire seasons learning and progressing on that feature. Try to think of the river as a playground. As you improve, you open up more and more parts of the playground.
JM: What resources should beginners look for?
DH: They will need to find roll sessions, which will probably be pool sessions. If you’re lucky enough to attend a school with roll sessions, go to them every week. It’s also super economical to join a local whitewater club.
JM: And what should they look for in terms of kayak gear?
DH: If you can find someone that knows something about whitewater, there is so much great old gear out there. If you want to start buying brand new gear you can, but you don’t have to. There are kayak designs that are eight years old, and they are remarkable. If you look around, you can find deals.
JM: You are especially familiar with kayaking’s steep learning curve and the many hurdles that can deter newcomers. Bad first experiences are common. What might you say to students and their instructors to help overcome this tendency?
DH: I’m always looking to define success in specific ways. It’s common to see people unable to roll their kayak at first and then not like kayaking at the end of the day. If you define success with smaller objectives rather than just the big goal of being able to roll, for example, people can walk away knowing they’ve progressed and feeling successful. Success should at first be just keeping your head down while you try to roll.
JM: What do you see as the benefits for college students of getting involved with whitewater sports?
DH: The river is therapeutic. It’s really easy to stay parked on the couch, but your boat gives you a vehicle not only to get off the couch but also to have this daily adventure and to explore. You’re also sharing the river with other great people from all walks of life. I think kayaking brings people together like that more than most other sports.
JM: For college students interested in involving an outdoor pursuit like kayaking in their career, what can you recommend as first steps to take?
DH: If you’re trying to make something like whitewater, or snowboarding, or even music your livelihood, you’re one of the lucky ones who has realized their passion. Now, you have to commit to that more than anything else. The ones who win in life are the ones who commit the most.
JM: You’ve mentored many student kayakers who have progressed remarkably, including a number of today’s most respected boaters. Are there any traits or practices that these former students have in common?
DH: They have a learning mindset. It doesn’t matter what level you are—if you’re just beginning or if you’re training for the Sickline World Championships. Progress comes from this mindset of always continuing to learn and being open to new things. It takes confidence.
David Hughes currently lives in Chile and teaches students kayaking through his program, Patagonia Study Abroad.