Kayaker's Guide To Avoiding Injury & Paddling With
Disabilities, Sports Injuries & Joint Pain
MARNA POWELL is an ACA Open Water Coastal Kayak instructor with the
Adaptive Paddling Endorsement. Before founding Kayak Zak's, she
was the lead kayak instructor with North Coast Adventures for six
years. She has taught both on-water classes and been a speaker at
the West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium in Port Townsend, WA, but she is
most proud of being able to have offered the very first on-water adaptive
class at this national event. Marna was one of four organizers of
the Trinity River Freestyle Rodeo under American Whitewater, and chaired
the races for HSU's Humboldt Bay Paddlefest for it's first
four years. She is also an EMT with an interest in wilderness first
aid. She says her two claims to fame are "being the person who
brought cardboard kayak racing to Humboldt County" and "helmets
to local sea kayakers!" Both endeavors initially took a lot of
peer pressure and arm-twisting before becoming popular. She often
tells her students "I will never be the world's greatest
kayaker, but I may be able to teach you to be that person!" Her
passions are promoting kindness to animals, and getting people on
the water who never dreamed they might be able to kayak.
Kayak Zak's mission is bring kayaking "...to
persons of all abilities..." or in other words that they have
the skills, training, and experience to take almost anyone kayaking
pretty much anywhere there is water.
Kayak Zak's is one of the only all-inclusive
outfitters on the entire west coast - as most programs either take
only "disabled" persons or else only take those who can
adapt themselves to the outfitter's program. In many instances
one family member has a disability or medical condition and he or
she has the choice of staying behind or going with a strictly adaptive
group. Kayak Zak's is unique in that they will take the whole
family--disabled or not!
by Marna Powell founder of Kayak
Paddling is all about adapting kayaks, paddles, gear, and techniques for
persons with disabilities, sports injuries, preexisting conditions, and
There are very few restrictions as to who can get in a kayak and go for
a paddle; but it is a water sport and there is always danger of capsize,
injury, or drowning. At the very least, you must be able to close your mouth
and hold your breath (seal your airway) for a minimum of thirty seconds
and you must be able to turn your face up to breathe while floating in a
properly fitted PFD (life jacket). There are also weight limits as to what
capacity each kayak can handle.
one of us should be adaptive paddlers. Outfit your boat to fit
your body. Learn to paddle with good form and technique! Proper posture
while kayaking will solve and prevent many physical discomforts. I also
can't say enough about the benefits of an occupational or physical
therapist, or a personal trainer. Learn how to use your body correctly,
how to build needed muscles, and what not to do while performing certain
tasks so you don't get injured. Whether you chose to work out in a
gym, or get exercises to take home, it is imperative that you keep your
body as strong and limber as possible. Finally, get excellent kayak instruction.
I have an obvious bias here. Make sure the instructor has been certified
with a recognized organization such as the ACA, BCU, or CRCA. These folks
have had training and experience in teaching you how to kayak. If possible
take instruction with someone who is familiar with your needs & abilities
and has the training to help you.
All Kayakers Should:
- Outfit their cockpit to fit their body. You need supportive points
of contact at the hips, lower back, thighs, and feet. Carve mini-cell
foam to fit your body or check with a local kayak retailer to see
what is available for outfitting your kayak. See Kayak
Customization & Care Articles Index here at TopKayaker.net
- Stay in the "Paddler's Box". Always...even out of the
kayak. Keep your hands in the plane of your shoulders. (See Paddling
Straight or visit TopKayaker.net's
Forum for questions on paddle stroke techniques.)
a relaxed grip, rather than a "death grip" on their paddle
their forward stroke to the best of their ability. Don't "bicycle"
with your arms. Use major muscles, leverage, and torso rotation. Take
The numbers on the following paragraphs refer to specific advice regarding
these areas of concern:
2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 12, 16
,2, 5, 6, 14, 15
or WRIST 1,
3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14
- HIP/SCIATIC NERVE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 15, 16
3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 16
OF TORSO STABILITY 5,
6 ,7, 12, 16
2, 3, 4, 5, 6
- BACK, FOOT, HAND or WRIST, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE, SHOULDER, KNEE:
Sit up straight or lean slightly forward. Do not slouch or lean
back. Replace a hard kayak seat back with a back-band or carve mini-cell
foam to fit your back. Try a self-inflating lumbar support between
your back and the seat back or band.
- BACK, FOOT, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE, KNEE: Use under-thigh supports.
There are several on the market. Some inflate and others are made
of foam. You can carve your own foam or roll up a sleeping or yoga
pad and place it under your thighs. Be sure the support is easily
removable or flattens down out of your way to avoid entrapment in
- BACK, HAND or WRIST, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE, SHOULDER, KNEE: Engage
your lower body while paddling. Push gently with one or both feet
as your paddle catches the water to get leverage in your strokes,
achieve better torso rotation, and use your larger muscles (glutes
and quads) to help push the boat forward. Relax that foot as your
paddle exits and you wind up your torso for the catch on the other
side. Your forward stroke will improve and blood will flow to your
lower body. It's sort of like doing isometric exercises with your
quadriceps and gluteus maximus muscles. Exception: DO NOT PERFORM
TORSO ROTATIONS FOR BACK PROBLEMS UNLESS YOUR PHYSICIAN AND PHYSICAL
THERAPIST RECOMMEND THEM.
- BACK, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE, SHOULDER, KNEE: Try raising or lowering
your seat bottom. Try a gel or foam seat pad. If you remove the stock
seat you may have to make some side supports to hold the kayak's structural
integrity. Carve ethafoam, line it with neoprene, ensolite or mini-cell
foam and wedge it in at your hip area between the deck and the hull.
- FOOT, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE, LACK OF TORSO STABILITY, KNEE: Replace
uncomfortable foot pegs with a whitewater style bulkhead or carve
ethafoam to make a bulkhead, experiment with the best angle (normally
one's toes should be slightly forward). Place a float bag between
the existing bulkhead and your new foot brace bulkhead. Wedge the
ethafoam in place and duct tape secure. You can pad it with softer
mini-cell or ensolite foam.
OF TORSO STABILITY, FOOT, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE, KNEE: If
you have a rudder you need your foot pegs. You can do the above method
behind your existing foot pegs., just raise the middle portion of
your new bulkhead to rest your feet on when not using the rudder.
Another option is to make a larger, softer foot peg with mini-cell
foam. Sand the foam to the best angle and shape for your foot. Use
contact cement to adhere it to a rigid piece of sheet plastic or epoxy-impregnated
marine plywood. Drill a hole in your kayak's foot brace and screw
the new pad in place on top of the existing one. Photo: Clients
and Staff from Making Headway a traumatic brain injury support group
enjoy a Kayak Zak's program on Big Lagoon.
BACK, HAND or WRIST, SHOULDER, LACK
OF TORSO STABILITY: Purchase the lightest
paddle you can afford.
HAND or WRIST, SHOULDER: Try a different
paddle or technique. Try a foam core, bent-shaft, or Greenland style
paddle. Smaller bladed paddles will carry less load and be easier to
use. Try a shorter or longer paddle. Try changing the angle of your
paddle shaft (more touring or power stroke angle). Try unfeathered .
or WRIST, SHOULDER: Pipe foam insulation can be taped to
the shaft for a larger grip.
or WRIST, SHOULDER: Modify strokes.
i.e.: slide the paddle blade towards you rather than a "wrist flick"
to retrieve your paddle from a brace, sweep roll rather than C to C.
INJURY/MEMORY: The art of kayaking relies on kinesthetic
memory. Get good instruction. Get on the water and have the instructor
help with good technique and form. Verbal instruction should be simple.
Do on-land exercises that reinforce good technique. Get good technique
into muscle memory. It's like learning to eat with a fork. Once
you learn to eat with a fork you don't think about how to pick
it up or use it. You just eat.
OF TORSO STABILITY:
Carve foam, use folded camping or yoga pads to wrap behind
and at your sides to add torso stability. Try a neoprene back or lumbar
SHOULDER: Wear wrist braces to keep your hands
aligned with your forearm.
HAND or WRIST, SHOULDER: Attach a piece of bicycle inner
tube to your paddle shaft with zip ties (it will look like an inch worm)
to keep your hand in place. You want to be able to slip your fingers
under it as you grip the shaft. Make sure it is loose enough to easily
slip your hand out again.
- FOOT, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE: Pad under your heels for cushion and
support using neoprene or soft foam.
- BACK, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE, SHOULDER, LACK OF TORSO STABILITY:
Try a kayak with a lower deck to drop your hands lower in your lap.
more Adaptive Paddling hints purchase Canoeing
and Kayaking for Persons with Disabilities Instruction Manual from the
American Canoe Association (ACA) by Janet Zeller and Anne Worthem
Author's note: Kayaking is dangerous. You can drown in an inch
of water. The above suggestions may or may not be suitable for your individual
needs. Check with your physician before undertaking the sport of kayaking
or making outfitting adjustments to paddles or boats. 2) The above suggestions
and adaptations may or may not work with recreational, sit-on-top, or
whitewater kayaks. 3) Be sure you are properly trained in the use of tools
and materials before making any adaptations. 4) You can ruin your kayak
if the wrong thing is cut or drilled. 5) Always use your best judgment.
You are the expert when it comes to your own body, health, and capabilities.
Adventures provides a nationwide index of Adaptive Sports &
Recreation Programs for a variety of sports available by state. See
See also "Outfitting
A Kayak For Paddlers With A Disability" by Mark Theobald of