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  • Meg McCall

How to Choose the Right Adaptive Paddling Equipment

This is the third in a seven part blog series describing the Juballa family's experience in getting a fully adapted kayak for their young adult son, Raymond. Go to the end of this post to see other articles in the series.

Based on Raymond’s initial consultation, all agreed that adaptive paddling was definitely an achievable goal for him. After a few more phone and email exchanges to work through the details, Raymond and Rosanne were armed with a preliminary set of desired adaptive paddling equipment.

For many paddlers, this would be the point at which they would go out and purchase the equipment. Raymond, however, took things a step further. He had planned to apply for grants to offset the substantial costs of his needed equipment. One of the funding sources, the Kelly Brush Foundation, wisely asks applicants to test out the equipment they are looking to purchase before applying. They must then provide documentation (e.g., photos or videos) that the equipment worked as expected and will, in fact, be a good fit for them.

kayak transfer bench
Testing Equipment at BORP Adaptive Sports & Rec.

Living in the San Francisco Bay area, Raymond was fortunate to find an another adaptive recreation resource less than an hour away from his home, BORP Adaptive Sports and Recreation. The family, the BORP staff and I all met on a beautiful sunny day so Raymond do some hands-on testing of equipment and get properly fitted. Because the visit was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was unable to actually test the systems on the water. Instead, he tried a variety of equipment on dry land.

Note: It will be important for Raymond to practice a wet exit in a controlled environment so that he, and his kayaking companions, know what to expect and how to get Raymond back in the kayak or bring him safely to shore.

Product Tradeoffs

The testing day was very informative and shed light on a number of issues. Chief among them is that there are often multiple ways to achieve the same objective. It’s a question of tradeoffs. The tradeoff is generally between a manufactured product and a Do It Yourself (DIY) method, but there can also be a tradeoff when it comes to the affordability of different manufactured products. In one category, there may only be one option. In others, there may be multiple products, ranging significantly in price. Some of the most affordable manufactured adaptive items work as well as the most expensive ones, but you have to know what options exist.

adaptive kayak transfer bench

Here's an example of a tradeoff. Raymond required assistance transferring from his wheelchair into the kayak. That transfer could’ve been accomplished through multiple methods, including use of a patient lift. In this case, BORP had a small wooden transfer bench. Raymond was able to move himself from his chair to the bench and then slide across the bench into the seat of the kayak. Was it a seamless transition? No. We had to adjust the location of the bench, adjust the height of the kayak, and assist Raymond during the transition. But if a lift is not available or is out of reach financially, other methods, such as a bench or a portable sling, do exist.

Padding and supports are another example. Because Raymond has no feeling in his lower extremities, it’s very easy for him to unwittingly get abrasions or blisters from his skin rubbing against the sides of the kayak or even from prolonged sitting. Products such as seat cushions, thigh supports, inflatable bags and other types of padded material are commercially available. But for those who don’t want to shell out an extra $30 to $150 dollars for such items, simple foam supports may do the trick. BORP had a wide range of differently shaped foam blocks that were tucked alongside and between Raymond’s legs and torso.

If you review the adaptive paddling equipment list later in this series, you’ll see examples of where multiple alternatives exist.

Ordering the Products

Raymond’s list of essential equipment was sizeable. He and Rosanne had done most of the legwork to price and source the products up front for their grant application. They learned in November of 2020 that Raymond was one of the recipients of the Kelly Brush Foundation (KBF) awards, so soon after they began ordering the various pieces of equipment.

It made sense to start with the kayak since many of the other adaptive accessories were chosen based on their compatibility with a particular model, in this case, a Wilderness Systems Pungo 120. The Pungo is ideal for adaptive paddlers because it has a generously sized cockpit, good stability and is a nice mid-priced quality kayak. In any other year, finding a kayak would be easy but this was at the height of COVID-19, so most retailers had them on back order. As a result, the family had to do a lot of additional research to find one online and have it shipped since they couldn’t secure one at a local retailer.

They were able to get most, but not all of the items, on their equipment wish list from multiple manufacturers and online stores, as well as a few trips to local retail locations.

spinal cord injury kayaking

The KBF grant covered much of the basic adaptive equipment, but the family also received generous donations from family, friends and the NorCal SCI group, which enabled them to acquire other essential accessories like the PFD, safety flag, patient lift and balloon-wheeled kayak cart.

Continue reading...

Choosing the Right Adaptive Sports Equipment (you are here)


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