and other thoughts
The British Influence
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Some of the obvious equipment design changes in the sport can be easily seen in the boats that are now available. The British seem to have been given the credit, and I think rightfully so, for much of the newer boat designs we now see in North America. The boats are narrower, with more thoughtfully designed cockpits, and features like recessed deck fittings and waterproof hatches. Their overall designs are, in my opinion, cleaner and more seaworthy than some earlier boats that were clearly intended for inland sheltered waters. The availability of the higher performance boats now on the market allows paddlers of almost any size to take the time to find a boat that truly fits both their skill level and body type. It has always been a puzzle to me to see a man or woman with a small frame or short torso sitting in a boat whose cockpit cowling comes half way up their rib cage. The boat appears to be swallowing them like a Venus Fly Trap. It doesn't matter how skilled one is; a poorly designed or ill-fitting boat will result in frustration and increased risk in challenging conditions. It still is and always will remain the responsibility of the paddler to match his or her skill level to the water conditions, but at least now the paddler has better tools to make paddling safer and more enjoyable.
Once a paddler finds a boat that truly fits, the next most important piece of equipment to choose is the paddle. The paddle is the crucial link between the paddler and the sea and it has to fit in the same manner as the boat. Like the boat, it can be too big, too long or too heavy. One size definitely does not fit everyone. Most of the time, our bodies will let us know when something is not right. The sore shoulders, the knuckles that hit the side of the boat, the wrist or forearm that swells with tendonitis, the general fatigue at the end of the day, or just the inability to "keep up," could be signs that maybe the paddle is the culprit.
Over the past ten years or so, paddle lengths have been getting shorter as the boats get narrower. In the past, a 230cm paddle was fairly common regardless of what boat one paddled. To be sure, if you are paddling a wide double kayak, then a long paddle is what you need to reach beyond the gunwales and get a purchase on the water. But "reach" can develop extreme stress on the shoulders, forearms, and wrists of even the stoutest paddler. Now that we’re matching body types to boat designs, paddle manufacturers are stepping up to the plate and making equally exciting and effective design changes in their products. As a result, we are seeing a higher degree of paddling proficiency and more satisfied and enthusiastic paddlers.
So how do we custom fit a paddler to a paddle? There are many factors to consider. For example, what type of paddling is the person interested in: floating in protected calm waters, or paddling in more demanding open water where conditions can be predictably rougher? How wide is their boat? Have they had any shoulder, arm or wrist injuries? Is the paddler interested in more advanced paddle strokes such as bow rudders, hanging draw strokes etc.? What paddle are they using and what problems seem to crop up with this paddle? These are but a few of the first questions I have for a paddler when asked the seemingly simple question, “What length paddle should I use??
One measurement that doesn’t often get much attention when selecting a paddle is torso length. A paddler may say that he or she is of such and such a height. But no paddler that I know really looks at his or her sitting height. The length of our legs certainly helps in properly fitting a boat to the paddler: deck height at the cockpit affects the position of knees and thighs, and inseam length determines where we need the foot pegs. However it is torso height that we should look at when we’re considering paddle length. For example: My girlfriend is 5’ 5? with a short torso - not an uncommon ratio for woman. When Lisa sits in a boat her shoulders are much closer to the cockpit rim than if I - with a long torso - sit in the same boat. If she uses a 210cm high angle paddle in a 21 inch wide boat, her high hand is going to be higher than her eyes - not very efficient - and her low hand is going to be submerged in an effort to get the paddle as close to the boat as comfortably possible. Because of her frame, the 210cm paddle would be the equivalent of me (at six feet tall) using a 230cm paddle. In each case, the paddle doesn’t fit the paddler and a tremendous amount of energy is being wasted both in the initial “grab? and well as the exiting of the stroke. Fatigue will creep in and this makes shoulder and arm injuries more likely.
Atlantic Kayak Tours, Expert Center
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