Adaptive Kayaking

Looking to spend a quiet afternoon enjoying the outdoors and scenery?  Perhaps you’re more of a thrill seeker wanting to make your way down Class IV rapids. No matter your reason for getting in a boat, kayaking can be a great way to spend the day with family and friends while getting in a core workout.  Don’t think you can get started because you aren’t near a large body of water, or live in an area where the weather isn’t very warm?  Consider checking out indoor kayaking in a large pool to hone your skills before you hit the open water.

Joe Mornini, Executive Director of Team River Runner, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA dedicated to kayaking and paddle sports, believes kayaking’s appeal lies partly in its ease of access.10408789_1112842075407838_8951875562416424456_n  “When you go skiing, you need to find a mountain and cold weather,” he says. “You don’t need anything special to start kayaking.   Kayaking is just down the road.”


A Boat for Every Paddler

If you’ve never been in a boat before, the first thing to do is find a local adaptive program.  At your first lesson, you’ll likely head to flatwater, a kayaker’s term for a pond or lake with little to no current, where your instructors can help you get fitted into the right boat, show you any adaptations you’ll need, and teach you the basic techniques of launching into the water, paddling and water safety.

After you’ve found a program, you’ll want to ask yourself what are your ultimate kayaking goals?  Do you want to remain a recreational kayaker in mostly smooth water?  Are you looking to compete in kayak races?  Do you plan on taking a week-long trip through rough rapids?  Your answers will determine which type of boat you’ll need.

The most common boats are white-water boats, recreational boats, sit on tops, inflatable kayaks, tandem kayaks and sea kayaks.

White-water boats are the boats used most often in Team River Runner’s programs, because they are small, very adaptable, and can easily fit into a pool.  The boats can also be used in a variety of water conditions from smooth ponds to Class V rapids, so a kayaker doesn’t have to learn a new boat each time they head out.

Recreational boats are best for easy calm days, and are good for the casual kayaker.  They are less reliable in open water or with heavy currents and can be hard to get out of if flipped.

Sit on tops are a nice choice for beginners as they’re a bit wider, which makes them a bit more stable, and are easy to get out of quickly due to the kayakers positioning on top of the boat.

Inflatable kayaks are great for camping trips or those with little storage space, as they can be deflated and transported in a backpack, but they can be a little more difficult to paddle for beginners and they’re less rugged than a traditional kayak.

Tandem kayaks have space for two paddlers.  They can be a great choice for younder kayakers who aren’t ready to head out alone, or for athletes with severe disabilities that might not be able to safely paddle a boat without assistance.

Sea kayaks are designed for open water paddling, sit lower in the water to reduce cross winds and have smaller cockpit openings.

No matter the boat, the fitting is generally the same.  Three points of contact should be maintained at all times between the kayaker and the boat to ensure you’re well balanced and getting the most out of your stroke.AAD 2015-325

1) The small of your back should be tight against the seatback,

2) The balls of your feet should touch the foot pedals while keeping a slight bend in the knees,

3) Your bent knees are in firm contact with either side of the boat.

You should be tight enough in the kayak to maintain control at all times, without being so tight that you can’t exit quickly should if needed.


Launching In

Now that you’ve gotten fitted into your boat, you’ll want to launch into the water.  Mornini recommends a zero entry launch for your first time in a boat.  A zero entry launch means that you’re entering the water from a shoreline that is nearly level with the water.  This will help you maintain your balance as you enter the water.  Once you’re floating comfortably, your instructor will teach you the basic paddling technique.  Using a relaxed grip on the paddle, you’ll hold on with your hands over and thumbs under.  Remembering your torso is the main source of power, twist your torso evenly, placing you blade parallel to your foot.  The paddle will come out of the water once your hand reaches your hip, and you’ll repeat on the other side, moving the paddle deeply and evenly.


Adapting the Boat and PaddleD3B_6132-X3

If you aren’t able to easily hold a paddle or maintain the three points of contact within the boat, several simple adaptations can be made to the boat or paddle to ensure the stability of the kayaker within the boat, the rigidity of the boat and the mobility of the kayaker to escape from the boat if necessary.

Amputation  – For lower limb amputees, special prosthetic sockets exist to help you stay within the boat and maintain the three points of contact while paddling.  Other options include strategically placed foam or airbags to help you with balance and push more evenly.  Arm amputees may find that a hammerhead hand adaptation is required, or a one armed paddling rig which can be mounted on most boats.

Spinal Cord Injuries and those with balance issues – Depending on your level of injury, a special seat might be required to ensure you remain upright in the boat.  Other adaptations include outriggers and strategically place foam and airbags to help keep you balanced inside the boat.

Other Severe Disabilities – If you are unable to paddle a boat by yourself, or just want some help your first time out, a tandem kayak is a great option.  It allows you to have another paddler along to help keep the boat headed in the right direction.

Visual Impairment  – Tandem kayaks can also be used for athletes with visual impairments.  Mornini says he typically keeps kayakers with visual impairments in a solo boat if they are able to safely paddle independently, opting to have guides in separate boats.  Guides can transmit directions, warnings and other pre-determined information to the athlete with a visual impairment through a radio system or via a less high-tech call and return system.  A ratio of one guide to one visually impaired kayaker is the minimum, but Mornini recommends at least two guides to every one VI kayaker, perhaps more for beginners.

Mornini recommends reaching out to your local Team River Runner chapter to see if they have any of these adaptive pieces of equipment or contacting Kevin Carr of Creating Abilities ( to discuss which equipment might work best for your individual situation.


What to BringIMG_1519

Other than the boat and paddle, your instructor will also make sure you have a personal flotation device (PFD) and a helmet if water conditions are choppy and require one.  A throw rope and a whistle are also fairly standard safety equipment to be kept on hands at all times.

Make sure you dress appropriately for the water temperature.  It is likely you will get a bit wet.  Quick drying clothing is recommended.  You might want to consider picking up a ‘dry bag’ from your local outdoor equipment store to put items like your phone and keys in while you’re on the water.

If you’ve had several lessons and feel comfortable heading out without an instructor, always bring a paddling buddy.  Not only can you enjoy the day together, you’ll have someone around if weather conditions turn bad or the water is rougher than you expected.


Already a Pro?  Learn to Teach

If you’re an experienced kayaker looking to learn more about adaptations and becoming an instructor, check out the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Adaptive Paddling Workshop.  Since 1990 the ACA has led adaptive paddling workshops and they currently offer an adaptive endorsement which can be used as a supplement to their standard certification.  The two- or four- day workshop involves both hands-on and classroom learning and focuses on disability etiquette, legal context, cultivating integration into existing programming, adaptive outfitting concepts, and mechanics of adaptive paddling.


Finding a Local Program WarfighterSports241-X3

Team River Runner, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, has 51 programs in 30 states that provide a variety of kayaking opportunities for those interested in starting.  To find your local Team River Runner program

More than 30 other Disabled Sports USA chapters offer kayaking through out the year.  To find the chapter nearest you with a kayaking program, type ‘kayaking’ in the search bar.

Thank you to Team River Runner for contributing information to this article.