TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Kayak Customization & Repairs

Marna Powell
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!

Kayaker's Guide To Avoiding Injury & Paddling With Disabilities, Sports Injuries & Joint Pain
by Marna Powell founder of Kayak Zak's

Adaptive Paddling is all about adapting kayaks, paddles, gear, and techniques for persons with disabilities, sports injuries, preexisting conditions, and joint pain. 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.

Every 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.)

    Sitting straight
  • Have a relaxed grip, rather than a "death grip" on their paddle shaft.
  • Perfect their forward stroke to the best of their ability. Don't "bicycle" with your arms. Use major muscles, leverage, and torso rotation. Take quality strokes.

The numbers on the following paragraphs refer to specific advice regarding these areas of concern:

  • BACK 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 12, 16
  • FOOT 1 ,2, 5, 6, 14, 15
  • HAND or WRIST 1, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14
  • HIP/SCIATIC NERVE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 15, 16
  • SHOULDER 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 16
  • LACK OF TORSO STABILITY 5, 6 ,7, 12, 16
  • KNEE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  1. 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.

  2. 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 a capsize.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Adaptive PaddlersLACK 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.

  7. BACK, HAND or WRIST, SHOULDER, LACK OF TORSO STABILITY: Purchase the lightest paddle you can afford.

  8. BACK, 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 .

  9. HAND or WRIST, SHOULDER: Pipe foam insulation can be taped to the shaft for a larger grip.

  10. HAND 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.

  11. BRAIN 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.

  12. BACK, LACK 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 brace/corset.

  13. HAND or WRIST, SHOULDER: Wear wrist braces to keep your hands aligned with your forearm.

  14. FOOT, 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.

  15. FOOT, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE: Pad under your heels for cushion and support using neoprene or soft foam.

  16. BACK, HIP/SCIATIC NERVE, SHOULDER, LACK OF TORSO STABILITY: Try a kayak with a lower deck to drop your hands lower in your lap.

For 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 Weber.

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.


Adaptive Adventures provides a nationwide index of Adaptive Sports & Recreation Programs for a variety of sports available by state. See http://www.adaptiveadventures.org

See also "Outfitting A Kayak For Paddlers With A Disability" by Mark Theobald of DisabledAdventurers.com

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