COMPANY WEEK: Founder Scott Shipley is the wizard behind whitewater parks all over the globe

by Chris Meehan on April 15, 2019, 10:25 am MDT

When London needed a world-class whitewater park for the 2012 Summer Olympics, they turned to a former world champion kayaker to build it, and the company delivered something entirely new when it made a course with the future in mind.

Shipley won the ICF World Cup three times and competed in three Olympics between 1992 and 2000. He subsequently launched S2O to create whitewater parks, both in-stream and pumped, as well as river engineering projects.

Shipley estimates that the company has worked on a total of roughly 150 projects, which are often completed after up to eight years of work, and help towns and cities revitalize both rivers and riverside economies.

For instance, the S2O designed the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has hosted the U.S. Olympic team trials for whitewater sports, and is the largest pumped whitewater course in the world — generates roughly $22 million a year in income for the city and another $40 million a year in external effects like lodging and dining, according to Shipley.”When you talk to the economic director of Charlotte he’ll tell you that they . . . were a NASCAR and a banking town, and he’ll say, ‘Now, our number-one attraction is whitewater,” he says.

The company has also developed in-stream projects in Durango and Vail in Colorado. Shipley says the Durango Whitewater Park “has about a $9 million economic impact for that town and rejuvenating that whitewater park was a huge thing for them economically.”

S2O rethought whitewater park design and created the patented RapidBlocs system, which debuted at the London park for the 2012 Olympics. “When we got into designing the 2012 Olympic course, there was some pressure there to meet this objective of having that course be state-of-the-art 10 years into the future,” Shipley says. “So how do you forecast what it’s going to change to? That became the big question. What we came away with was you don’t you you create a course that can change with it.”

Previous designs of whitewater parks would only allow course setters to change about 2 percent of a course. Made by a U.K.-based manufacturer, RapidBlocs are rotomolded polyethylene blocks and shapes secured by standard, 18-millimeter bolts that allow for constant tweaks.

“This obstacle system we made allows you to completely reconfigure a course so that the Olympic course people raced on in 2012, they can go in and change where all the eddies are, and where all the waves are, where all the features are,” Shipley says. “So it allows the course to evolve with the sport. It has is tertiary benefit, you can tune it to exactly what you want. And also you can tune it down, you know later for people like rafters who are going to be want to come out and do easier whitewater.”

A seven- or eight-foot drop-off can be reconfigured into a minor rapid or eddy in less than a day with little more than a speed gun and different RapidBlocs. Shipley notes that if they’re in a water park and people keep having issues at the same feature, designers can quickly change the feature.

They’re now being used in every announced Olympic whitewater park. “They’re just being installed in Tokyo — we actually have a guy over there right now,” Shipley notes. “They have already been installed in what will be the Paris 2024 games course.”

The company also redevelops rivers and streams for flood mitigation projects or to reclaim riparian habitats and the wildlife in them. Shipley encourages communities to take a nature-based approach.

“The river restoration side is a lot of people calling up and saying we analyzed our river, it’s concrete on both banks. We shoved it into it a canal and it’s killing the fish and it’s killing the environment here,” he says. “We can do that restoration and bring the fishing back and bring back the the riparian habitat and at the same time tie that into a recreational master plan that allows for stream-side access.”

Customers often come to S2O with projects on existing dams; they want fish and recreational passage, but want to keep the dam. “That’s an ideal scenario for a whitewater park,” says Shipley. “We’ve got a couple of those were doing right now and they’re fantastic projects because if you’re solving a ton of problems.”

Shipley estimates that the company’s breakdown of projects is roughly about a third in each category: whitewater parks, in-stream whitewater parks, and flood and other river engineering. “That distribution changes from day to day. We’re doing a lot of public stuff right now, but at the same time actually we’re building a lot of in stream right now, and we’re designing a lot fun stuff. And so it really evolves from one to the next.”

S2O is evolving its approach to building whitewater parks to how people are recreating. That includes paddle boarding and river surfing. “We’re coming out with a bunch of new RapidBlocs designs that will allow us to put in standing surf waves for surfers on rivers,” says Shipley. “That’s been a big challenge for us and we’re spending a ton of money on that and doing a bunch of research on that kind of out of our own pockets. In this industry that’s never happened before.”

Challenges: “We are evolving in a way designed to match how the use of these parks changes,” says Shipley, noting that will include the development of new RapidBlocs offerings.

Opportunities: Growing the whitewater economy. “We’ve learned that the casual user will come and go rafting and go,” says Shipley. “But if you can create a resort experience around it, they’ll come, go rafting and then they will go to the restaurant and they’ll rent that cabana and they’ll start to try some of the other activities like zip-lining or climbing walls, and mountain biking, things like that. Then we draw them into an all-day experience which is all about healthy active outdoor lifestyles, and so for us, those are kind of two things that we’re really pushing.”

Needs: “There’s a really uncomfortable growth from 10 [employees] up,” Shipley says. “Right now, frankly, we’ve got so many projects that we kind of got our heads down on a bunch of this stuff and are just working away at it. I suspect when we get a little more breathing room, we’ll attempt to think about some of those things.”