Adaptive Canoeing

CanoeingGliding over rolling waves, cutting silently through flat water, or racing with a team in a national competition, canoeing has something to offer everybody from first-timer to Paralympic athlete.

Often no adaptations are necessary for paddling equipment; however, accommodations can be made to make a participant feel comfortable. With the right supervision, beginners can start paddling almost immediately. Individuals with at least one lower limb can learn how to control a kayak with foot-operated rudder controls; individuals with bilateral lower limb amputation/impairment can learn how to use paddle strokes to control direction of a kayak or va’a.

Outrigger canoeing offers competitive and recreational opportunities. An outrigger canoe is a long, thin canoe that is supported by an outrigger or “ama” that provides stability to the boat. It originated from the Polynesian islands and is commonly paddled in Hawaii and the Pacific islands because it can be paddled through ocean waves. To prevent a capsize (huli), canoes used in adaptive programs are rigged either in a double-hull catamaran configuration or the single hulls are rigged with the addition of a safety “ama” attached to the right side of the canoe. Double hulling is common and is a race category even in international sprint races. Cape Ability Outrigger Ohana, a chapter of DSUSA, started using the concept of the safety ama on its single hull boats in 1997 after seeing that sailing outrigger canoes use a secondary flying ama to prevent the boat from capsizing when turning. This is not commonly used by able-bodied paddlers.

“Outrigger canoeing is safe and fun and the equipment used is adaptable to accommodate people with disabilities from all five major disability groups – amputations, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, intellectual disability and ‘les autres (others),” says Jan Whitaker, President of Paralympic Sport Club, Western New York and Cape Ability Outrigger Ohana, Inc. (CAOO), West Henrietta, N. Y. Whitaker also is a member of USA Canoe/Kayak Paracanoe Committee; chair of the United States Canoe Association Adaptive Paddling Committee; and USA Canoe/Kayak Paracanoe coach.


For the first time, the Paralympics will include paracanoeing competition in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janiero. USA Canoe/Kayak is the National Governing Body for paracanoe and the Olympic sports of flatwater sprint and whitewater slalom. USA Canoe/Kayak is also the U.S. Member of the International Canoe Federation and the Pan American Canoe Federation. Bob Lally is the USA Canoe/Kayak Board of Director’s Chair.

“USA Canoe/Kayak is truly excited that paracanoe is now a Paralympic discipline,” Lally said. “Our focus and goal over the next four years ramping up for the 2016 Paralympic Games are equal to all our other Paralympic disciplines and that is to compete and win on the world stage. Our main challenge is to grow our base and increase competitive participation. The more dedicated, competitive paddlers we have, the more dynamic the sport will become and with that we will start pushing the envelope on what the possibilities (i.e. world class performance) will be for our elite athletes. That being said, paracanoe gives opportunities for paddlers with physical disabilities to participate and compete at all levels (local club, national and international level). It goes without saying that the characteristics and attributes of water in itself are therapeutic. Our vision is to give all our disabled men and women the opportunity to paddle on our nations’ lakes, ponds and/or rivers. We believe once these athletes are on the water and they catch the Paddle Now!* fever, we can then begin to mentor, train, educate and coach like any other world class or college sport those paddlers who have the desire and heart to push their own boundaries.”

*Paddle Now! is the USA Canoe/Kayak’s national campaign to get people on the water with a paddle in their hand. It combines a variety of innovative ideas, programs, and events into a single primary objective for the sport – introduce more people to paddling. For more information click here.


CanoeingParalympic competition at this time consists of single person kayaks (K-1) and single person va’a (V-1) with one male and one female paddler in each of the three classification categories (See Classification Sidebar). Races are 200-meter flat water sprint races in lanes nine meters wide.

The K-1 is modeled on Danish Touring Class Rules and the same length as an International Canoe Federation (ICF) sprint boat; maximum length 520 cm. The K-1 allows steering rudders as well as decking.

The V-1 consists of a rudderless hull and an ama (outrigger) connected by two ‘iako (spars). Ama can be on either side of the hull if design permits; maximum length 730 cm. Either sit-in or sit-on-top va’a may be used.

Both kayak and va’a racing boats are narrower than recreational boats to gain speed.

“Anybody who has balance issues might find it easier to select the V-1 because they have a stabilizing float on one side,” Whitaker said. “The ama is traditionally rigged on the left, but many of the V-1s are made so the ama can be switched to the right side for a paddler with a unilateral impairment.”LakePlacid

Va’a sprint racers use a bent shaft or angled paddles, which allow the body to be used in a more mechanically efficient manner.

“When paddling a va’a, the paddle is switched from side to side, based on the necessity to control the boat and travel in a straight line. For example, a paddler with quadriplegia or unilateral impairment can elect to stay on one side and use corrective strokes to keep it going straight,” Whitaker said.

Paracanoe kayak paddlers use the same carbon fiber wing paddles as their Olympic counterparts. The scooped and twisted blade design provides a solid catch and then angles away from the hull throughout the stroke, allowing the paddler to use strong trunk rotation instead of just the arms.


There are many adaptations available to paddlers. “Seating is of prime importance in getting paddlers positioned correctly and safely,” Whitaker said. “Seats are available for V-1 and K-1 that provide support where needed – buttocks, back, pelvis, and torso.”

A resource Whitaker frequently consults is Kevin Carr, owner of Chosen Valley Creating Ability, and designer of adaptive paddling attachments. “In addition to seat adaptations, Kevin designed a socket attachment for paddlers with above-knee amputations,” she said. “For example, one of our paddlers has only four inches of residual limb, so we created a socket that fits over the side of the boat that she can slip into to enhance boat control and maximize performance. That’s important because when paddling, you are not just rotating from the shoulders but through the whole body and hips as well. So when she rotates her hips forward and her limb is in that socket, she can actually get some forward thrust when she strokes on her dominant side.”

“Paddlers with quadriplegia can hold themselves upright in the boat by using a spray skirt, a device that is worn around the waist using a gasket that seals out water. The “skirt” is the portion that goes from the torso to cover the cockpit to keep out water,” she said.

For upper-limb amputations or muscle weakness there are a variety of grip adaptations to keep the hand on the paddle, as well as allowing for a quick release when needed.


Making the transition from recreational paddling to elite player involves committing to intensive water and dry-land training year-round. In the summer, competitive athletes are concentrating on water time, doing boat handling skills, paddle technique, race tactics, and speed and speed endurance as well as interval training.

During the winter, athletes do weight training to work towards strength and muscular balance. Dry-land training also includes use of a stationary rowing machine, the Concept2 with an adaptor attachment that simulates single-blade paddling. Instead of a seat that moves backward with each pull, as in rowing, a stationary seat located in the back of the machine is used. Paddlers stroke with a regular paddle shaft, the bottom of which is attached to a rope that is fed through four rollers, allowing the connecting chains to go straight in and out of the ergometer. The paddler’s amount of work performed is measured, such as distance and stroke rate.


Individuals who would like to try paddling should go to or check with their local DSUSA chapter for paddling programs. Once a paddler wants to advance, they should become involved with flat water sprint clubs or contact USA Canoe/Kayak ( for help in locating a performance coach.

Whitaker said she is currently recruiting paddlers, even those with no racing experience. “The clock is ticking for us,” she said. “Va’a is still a little known sport unless you are in California, where it is very big. Right now, we don’t have an athlete in every classification category so it is important for us to recruit and get potential competitive paddlers interested.


Canoeing“There are two approaches to talent detection,” said USA Canoe/Kayak’s Lally. “First, we promote grassroots promotion of the sport such as paddling demos where anyone can try the sport (at no cost) and partnerships with other national paddling organizations such as the American Canoe Association and Team River Runner, a DSUSA chapter that offers widespread, easy-access paddling opportunities through our network of clubs and club coaches. Additionally, we are increasingly focused on targeted recruiting where we work with partners to host events that test prospective athletes to see if they meet certain benchmarks that indicate they might have the disposition to compete as an elite paracanoe athlete. An example of this is a pilot program we’re planning with USA Canoe/Kayak sponsor Chesapeake Energy and their Health & Wellness Team. We plan to run a “USA Canoe/Kayak Talent Detection” event at their corporate wellness center at their Oklahoma City headquarters targeting employees who are U.S. military veterans with injuries to see if they display characteristics and competitive values common with top international paddlers. Ultimately, we need to utilize both types of Talent Detection to reach our mission and goals.

“We look forward to watching our brightest athletes as they train and compete in preparations for USA Canoe/Kayak’s Paracanoe 2013 National Championship,” Lally said. This year’s paracanoe events will include Men’s 200-meter K1 LTA, TA, A; Men’s 200-meter V1 LTA, TA, A; Women’s 200-meter K1 LTA, TA, A; and a Women’s 200-meter V1 LTA, TA, A. In addition, USA Canoe/Kayak is looking at including a paracanoe distance race in each classification.


Like any other sport, the goal of competitive paddling is to win. But Whitaker said off-water, there is much camaraderie.

“I do think there is a strong feeling of camaraderie among the paddlers,” she said. “They are very competitive against each other, but at the end of the day, they are comparing experiences and exchanging information about adaptations.

“There is a lot to the sport – more than numbers on the scoreboard, the human side to this is a very powerful experience and I think all the para-athletes can appreciate that they are working to help each other. It brings countries and people together in a marvelous way. Even as a coach I find at the international level this has been an asset to the growth of paracanoe worldwide.”


  • Legs, Trunk, Arms (LTA) – Minimum physical disability – loss of three full fingers on one hand; amputation of tarsal/metatarsal of one foot/ loss of strength and range of motion of one limb (10 pts) or two limbs (15 pts); typically amputee, spinal cord injury S1, Cerebral Palsy Class 8.
  • Trunk and Arms (TA) – Cannot apply continuous and controlled pressure to the footrest due to significant weakness to the lower limbs; bilateral around knee amputations or significantly weakened lower limbs; typically spinal cord injury, Complete L3 or Incomplete L1, Cerebral Palsy Class 5.
  • Arms (A) – No trunk rotation, arms and shoulders only; Complete lesion T-12; Incomplete lesion T-10; Cerebral Palsy Class 4; Likely to have poor sitting balance – probably needs adaptive seat back with lateral supports with the higher lesions.
  • USA Canoe/Kayak 2013 National Paracanoe Sprint National Championships, Aug. 8-10, Oklahoma City
  • USA Canoe/Kayak 2013 Paracanoe Team Trials, July 6-7, Lake Placid (New York) International Regatta
  • United States Canoe Association Paracanoe National Sprint Race Championships, Aug. 6, Newago, Mich.
  • International Va’a Federation World Sprint Championships (bi-annually in even years), 2014, Brazil
  • USA Canoe/Kayak Team Trials for International Canoe Federation World Championships or United States
  • Canoe Association’s National Paracanoe Championships are open to everyone and do not require qualifiers to compete.