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WNY kayak instructor talks safety, sharing Buffalo waterways

Andrea Vaillancourt-Alder started paddling as a child on Lake George and began teaching paddle sports in the Chesapeake Bay as a teen while living in Norfolk, Va.

She has since canoed or kayaked on the Thames River in London, in the Celtic Sea along Cornwall, on the southwest tip of England, and with hippos and crocodiles off the Coast of South Africa.

“I’ll paddle anywhere there’s water and where my boat will fit,” said Vaillancourt-Alder, a Grand Island native who lived in Great Britain for two decades before returning to the Buffalo area in 2012 to care for her ailing mother.

After her mother died, she decided to stay – and try her hand teaching similar kayak safety and educational courses that she handled overseas.

“My extended family is here and there are so many new places to paddle,” she said. “Fresh water is wonderful. My equipment lasts so much longer because it’s not in salt water.”

[RELATED: See a 2016 story, A rising tide of interest in kayak lessons]

Vaillancourt-Alder, 48, lives in Derby. “We have a boat barn and I’ll be building a pond soon,” she said. “It’s 5 minutes from Lake Erie. I’m an ocean paddler, so the lake is my inland sea.”

Vaillancourt-Alder established Seabirds International in Cornwall in 2009 to raise awareness and training opportunities for paddle sports. It continues to thrive in England. Meanwhile, she has created a U.S. chapter, which provides kayak instruction, safety training, instructor training and sales. She will teach training and safety sessions, and host guided tours, across the country this year – most of them in Western New York. They will include free Rescue Roadshows from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 18, July 2 and Aug. 13 at Gallagher Beach, and paid events that include Women’s Wednesday skills sessions in Irving, Niagara County and Buffalo, and safety and rescue sessions June 14 and July 12, also at Gallagher Beach. For rates and more info, visit

Q. How do you suggest someone interested in paddling look to plug in?

They should go to an event early in the season. They should check with local instructors and do a course. In some of the state parks, Tina Spencer has a Smart Start program she runs throughout the summer that’s free to beginners (call 282-5154 to register). Take a paddling class. ... I’m training people for their end game. If you’re taught wrong at the start, when you go to use those skills, your brain sometimes goes back to what you first learned and it can be a challenge. You think, “I know how to roll,” but freak out in rougher conditions.

Q. Can you talk about keys to paddling safety?

"Know your limits. Plan, plan, plan - and plan to fail," says Andrea Vaillancourt-Alder, left, pictured going over drills with two of her volunteers, Eileen Grew and Renee Gardner, off Gallagher Beach in Buffalo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

You need a properly fitted life jacket - not a Jet Ski jacket. You need to make sure you have the correct boat for what you want to do. For the lake, minimum recommended is a 12-foot boat. You want to have the right gear for the weather. With cold-water paddling, you need a dry suit, and they’re expensive. You need shoes and layers and skull caps and helmets. You need a lesson to get you started and a rescue class so you know what to do if you come out of your boat. One of the things we demonstrate is coming out of the boat.

Knowing rules of the road is key: How to travel around motorboat traffic and big shipping containers. Know your limits. Plan, plan, plan - and plan to fail if you fail to plan. Give someone your paddle floating plan. There are wonderful websites for those from the Coast Guard and American Canoe Association, and both have apps for that, too. There’s safety in numbers. You should try not to travel alone and if you do, you need to give someone your paddle floating plan.

And attend safety events and demonstration rescues. You can't apply the "never say never" attitude to this sport. Never say never means it's probably going to happen.

Q. Motor boat enthusiasts expressed concerns during last boating season about kayakers using Buffalo Harbor. That use is only expected to grow in coming years. How can motorized and non-motorized vessels share the harbor in the safest manner possible?

The should not be an “us and them” thing. It’s not helping us resolve the challenges. … People don’t know what they don’t know, so we’re trying to encourage them to learn as much as they can.

Everyone has a right to be there. I appreciate the frustration but it’s a double-edge sword. Boaters and fishermen have had the waterway all this time but the kayaking sport has exploded. I would encourage motor-boaters to rent a kayak, take a course, and I would encourage kayakers to take a motorboat ride on a busy day and see what’s going on.

We all should be seen as waterway users, as one community, and work together. Kayakers should understand the rules of the road. The local outfitters are working hard to address this, encouraging paddling on the right side of the river and not crossing the main area of traffic. The American Canoe Association encourages drinking after paddling, not during, because alcohol can reduce your senses. And your life jacket is your seat belt. Working together and respecting other users of the waterway is huge. So is being aware of your surroundings. Be visible. If you’re out there on the water at night, make sure you have lights on your boat. Wear bright-colored clothing during the daytime. Put a label inside your boat so if you get separated from it, somebody knows who it belongs to.

Q. What kinds of vessels do you own?

I have a couple of plastic sea kayaks to get students started. I have a fleet of Nigel Dennis kayaks. They’re called NDKs. Like shoes, they fit all different sizes. They range from 15 to 17 feet in length. They’re designed for ocean paddling but work perfectly well at Allegany and Sunset Bay and other places where I work. I have Pungo 140s, a wilderness system boat, for my adaptive paddling program. The seats and foot rests have been taken out of those and we foam them out depending on a person’s needs. It’s a sturdy boat and can keep up with other boats. I’ve tried paddle boarding and I like it but I don’t have enough time.

Q. What are some of your favorite places to paddle here?

Barcelona on Lake Erie, near Westfield. That’s beautiful. There’s a mini waterfall down there. Kinzua Reservoir. The Hudson Valley is beautiful. One of my very first paddles when I got back to the states was in Cornwall on the Hudson because I lived in Cornwall in England, which has a similar landscape. They have a Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium on Lake Superior. This year, I’m working a woman’s only event called Ladies of the Lake for that. I’m very honored to be asked to work there.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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