Canoeing or rafting in the Czech Republic for many is more than a sport or pastime it is a way of life, a tradition going back decades that is capped on summer evenings with bonfires, pork sausages (špekáčky), music and beer. Web developer Igor Lobovský, an avid canoeist himself, earlier this year launched a no-nonsense website called Vodáci sobě helping users navigate among the country’s many boat rental companies. The aim was not only to help users get a good deal but also to help smaller companies get broader attention; that, as well as the tradition itself, are discussed in our interview.
“Canoeing and kayaking began in the country in the early 20th century and I would say it must have been a little bizarre for some! It became really popular even later, especially in the 1970s after the Soviet-led invasion when the Normalisation period set in. The people were living under a totalitarian regime and tried to escape any way they could: back to Nature, for example, which is why it was so popular. Tied to that, also is a long tradition of so-called trempink or tramping and scouting. Freedom, nature, campfires and cookouts, guitars and songs, those were things that were valued.”
Today, how do most people pick up the sport: through their families, school trips, university?
“It’s a bit of everything. Nowadays it’s of course easy to get into the sport, it’s everywhere. I think usually people come to it through friends but in elementary schools there are already trips on the rivers. A lot of parents also take their kids on the river when they are young, so they continue when they get older.”
Is a lot of emphasis put on safety and learning how to paddle properly? There are points on Czech rivers where canoeists for example have to know how to “shoot” through a sluice or disembark and deportage briefly...
“Czech rivers are by-and-large not that dangerous but of course you need to know what you are doing. What is most important is that those in the boat follow instructions and signs, for example, not ignoring a sign when a sluice is closed and some. For the most part, Czech rivers are calm and not dangerous: the only bigger dangerous are sluice. Some you can’t got through and you need to know about them.”
“I would say there are only a few, mostly the upper reaches of some of them, such as the Vltava, and then I would say they come closer to wilder water only in the spring. We don’t really have the same kind of white water sports canoeists or kayakers may be used tom elsewhere.”
What other ways does canoeing or kayaking here differ from areas where there is true wilderness, like Canada or the USA?
“For one thing, everything is close by! You don’t have the same kind of wilderness, obviously, and a pub or site is always within walking distance. It’s common on the river to pass cultural heritage sites: a castle or chateau, some many on the river combine culture and the outdoors. And of course, pubs play a role too. Some canoeists or rafters of course stop off for what is effectively the Czech national beverage, beer! That has a place to. Those are things that are specific to the Czech setting.”
What was the main reason you founded Vodáci sobě?
“The aim of the project was to give canoeists or others interested in renting boats or rafts an overview of the different rentals that are in operation. It was also to allow smaller, more traditional companies a chance to compete with larger, more commercial operations. There are a lot of different companies now offering different deal, so it is a tool to inform people what they can choose.”
How does the auction system work? Does the interested party chose from different sites?
“The person interested in renting types in details of the river he and friends would like to travel and firms operating there provide descriptions of their service. Sometime the cheaper offer can be chosen but many people are looking beyond price but also other factors such as sites, support and so on. Often traditional venues attract.”
On the website you stress that you are not competition for rentals but the opposite... how many have registered with you?
“We have 54 rentals registered which is around 66 percent of the market by my estimate.”
How is your service paid for, how does it pay for itself?
"It's completely free for consumers, boat rentals pay five percent from every successful rental."
In the long run, do you think that Vodáci sobě helps improve or at least maintain good practices?
“I think it does have a good influence. For one thing, there is feedback on the website so that firms that offer good services get a good rating. We have a growing community and I think that if you get a good rating, it’s worth something. Also, the website increasingly provides a forum for different users so this is something I’m happy with. I myself am a canoeist – I have been doing it for about 15 years and my friends and I really enjoy it. I wanted a site like this to exist for small companies were at a big disadvantage so my company Online Apps focussed on this to provide a tool for how to inform consumers. That was the main idea.”
For more information please visit www.vodacisobe.cz.