To say that 2020 has been an extraordinary and challenging year is a massive understatement.
It is hard to credit that when I sent my best wishes to all our members at the close of 2019 we were full of optimism for a magnificent 2020: Olympic and Paralympic Year, the year that we were to host the European Canoe Slalom Championships and final Olympic Qualifier and to host the Freestyle World Cup at Nottingham.
We had exciting development plans to support our recreational paddlers. As a board we were full of satisfaction at the progress we had made in 2019 and looking confidently, optimistically and enthusiastically to 2020.
And indeed 2019 began well with ambitious targets in place for trails, Go Paddling, our digital transformation agenda, our member services, our coaching qualifications and the general effectiveness of the organisation.
The first hints of trouble to come emerged towards the end of January and by the time we held our AGM in March we had had to put Pandemic contingency plans in place.
It was a wonderful AGM weekend with a significant member turnout despite the gathering clouds of Covid19. It is even more wonderful in retrospect as it was the virtually the final, in person, event of its kind that could be held as the country quickly moved into lockdown.
That we were able to celebrate our fantastic volunteers and servants to our paddling community, dine together and celebrate the progress of British Canoeing has taken on an added significance as the events of the last nine months have unfolded.
Within days we had moved to ‘home working’, begun the task of unpicking our event hosting and had to cancel participation of our many teams in all disciplines in international competition. It was very necessary – but also heart breaking for those competitors (in particular those at the upper end of their age category as juniors or U23s) having worked so hard through the winter to have their competitions cancelled.
It is massively to the credit of athletes, coaches and volunteers across all disciplines that they have put in as much effort and commitment to help manage disappointment as they do to ensure our competitors always have the best support.
The challenges that we have faced were complex and demanding, yet I am delighted to be able to report that your organisation has met those challenges, made huge progress in so many domains and will be closing the year in a strong position to raise our momentum and our ambition in 2021.
So what were some of those achievements that have set us up so well for the future? First and foremost we are all extremely pleased to have welcomed record numbers of new members. The desire to get outdoors and the benefits of water based leisure as lockdown eased was translated into record interest in paddling and that turned into new members. We finish the year with almost 63,000 members. It is also important that we were on the front foot in keeping our members safe and well and ensuring that our guidance was always timely and appropriate.
The Go Paddling website really came into its own during the year, with around 400,000 unique visitors during the year, up from 117,000 in 2019. Having this web site in place, with great content about places to paddle, licensing and membership was one of the keys to the membership growth and a huge asset to assist those new to paddling or returning to it.
Translating interest into membership was in large part down to the digital capability that we had invested in as an organisation. Beyond our immediate member facing digital capability we also launched a staff intranet, an athletes’ intranet, Paddles up Training as a new resource for learners and providers within England and the Clubhouse which is a new intranet for club administrators.
Each should have a very positive impact for our members over the next few years. This has enabled us to produce an efficient organisation and kept communications to members and clubs of the highest quality. This is an investment to serve our members and our clubs better.
We were able to build on the Clear Access Clear Waters campaign with political attention being drawn onto paddling through our work to influence the Agriculture Bill. We know that easy and uncontested access to rivers and lakes is a top priority for our recreational and challenge community.
The engagement of paddlers across the country in ‘clean ups’ and work to eradicate invasive non-native species was again inspiring. Despite lockdowns, various Tiers and the need to always keep safe our volunteer clean up community have been sensational this year. As the year closes we have reached our target of 10,000 signatures on our petition to extend access in our Clear Access Clear Waters campaign. A huge step forward on an agenda that is central to so many of our members.
In a normal year I would be able to share with you the performances and achievements of our talented athlete community – this will have to wait until next year and I am confident that I shall have some fabulous stories to share.
In the last few months of the year we received significant external recognition from several external bodies.
We were also on numerous shortlists for awards recognising organisations both within and beyond sport. It was particularly pleasing to be shortlisted for Individual Member Organisation of the Year at the Association Awards and to be shortlisted within the European Sponsorship Association Awards for Rights Holder of the Year (alongside Paris St German FC and others!)
External validation of the quality the organisation has to serve its members is vital to us. We want to be best in class in how we run our organisation and serve its members and stakeholders.
It really was a very different and difficult year, but we have come through it strongly, worked hard and collectively, never let Covid-19 be an excuse and have put some very important developments in place.
We also finish the year in robust financial health. Our community of staff and volunteers - centrally and in all parts of our paddling community -have served us extraordinarily well this year.
In drawing my message to close, I would like to say, for myself and on behalf of your board, a huge thank you and to send our best wishes for the New Year, to you and the thousands of volunteers in clubs and committees who are the beating heart of our organisation. It is a pleasure to serve you.
We hope 2021 is a much better year for all of us. We look forward to seeing you, meeting you and to working together to build a brighter future for British Canoeing. In the meantime stay safe, keep well and let us all look after each other.
Professor John Coyne CBE: Chair, British Canoeing