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Whitewater Kayaking

Current Connections #3 – You and the Boat

By Amanda Major

Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the sport of kayaking by looking at how forces are transferred to and from the water. These forces travel through a chain that includes our bodies and equipment.  We have discussed the connection between the water and paddle and between the paddle and paddler. Check out those previous posts One and Two. This week, we will discuss  the connection between you and your boat.

Your boat allows you to feel and redirect the energy that exists in the river.  Even the slightest positional change of your boat can greatly alter how it interacts with the forces present in the river.  The more powerful these forces are, the more we need to treat our boat like the precision tool that it is.  It is too often that paddlers respond to powerful whitewater with powerful paddling. In doing so, they run the risk of mentally and physically pitting themselves against the forces of the water.  Once we realize that our boats have the capacity to transform the river’s power, we see that our relationship  with the river feels more like a partnership full of opportunities than a mine-field full of challenges.

A more effective response to increasingly powerful whitewater is intense focus and precise boat control.

This idea highlights the topic of this week’s blog: the connection between you and your boat. The forces of the river and precise boat control are only possible if you have good contact with your boat and are positioned properly inside it. Think of your boat like a mountaineer’s boot.  It must be snug enough to ensure that it will not shift position while in use but loose enough to avoid discomfort and distraction.  

Be sure to check the weight ranges that a boat will accommodate and take the time to outfit your boat properly… it will make a difference! Here are some steps to take while outfitting your boat to your body:

  1. Begin by centering your weight. Most modern outfitting will allow you to move the boat’s seat pan and bulkhead to achieve a proper trim. 
  2. Install bulkhead foam both for comfort and to close off hazardous gaps where feet may become lodged. 
  3. Add/remove/reshape/re-position hip shims.  Very often, poor hip shim placement can lead to lateral femoral cutaneous nerve impingement in the short term and a longer term condition known as meralgia paresthetica could develop. That’s a fancy medical name for the pain and numbness felt in the legs and feet–”My leg is asleep! Pins and Needles!” 
  4. Many paddlers like to install a seat pad. Even a thin pad can change the way a boat feels.  This allows more torso mobility, particularly for those who feel like their range of motion is limited by the cockpit rim.
  5. Adding foam to protect the knees and to provide secure contact with the thighs can also increase comfort and fit of the boat.  Aftermarket thigh hooks like Pyranha Kayak’s “Hooker Thigh Hooks” or Jackson Kayak’s “Bees Knees” may be a great addition to your boat’s outfitting.
  6. In an ideal world, paddlers should strive to sit on their ischial spines (more commonly known as the sit bones or Sitz bones).  This can be done by rolling the pelvis forward resulting in better spine alignment.  Proper spine alignment will greatly improve both stability and mobility.  Unfortunately, this simple action is often much easier said than done.  Many of us spend much of our time seated and prolonged sitting tends to weaken the muscles and tendons associated with proper spine alignment. Many paddles (author included) struggle to maintain this ideal posture for long periods of time and may find themselves relying too much on their backbands to support their torsos while sitting on their sacrums.  This is especially true early in the season after a long winter.  Make good posture a practice this year. If you’re really motivated, try committing to a stretching/strengthening routine to help improve your posture.  Your paddling will thank you (and maybe your back, too).

You don’t need to be an expert to know what a good fit feels like, you just need to be willing to experiment. While outfitting your boat, try to balance your physical and mental comfort with performance.  Your outfitting process has likely gone astray if it involves tolerating discomfort or concerns about timely egress. 

Finally, as an instructor, I find demonstrations to be very effective tools for teaching. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for students to see what is happening inside my boat while I’m kayaking. To communicate this information, I find myself talking about how I apply pressure to my boat: where I’m pressing, which muscles I’m using, how much force is needed, and coordinating it all in a way that makes sense. If you haven’t given thought to how you apply pressure from inside your boat, it’s a thinking exercise that is well worth the effort. Not only will it be easier to communicate about your kayaking to others, it will be yet another lens for understanding your connection to your boat. It may be that little missing piece that helps you dial the second half of your spin, maintain your bowstall, or initiate that illusive effortless unicorn of a roll that comes around all too infrequently.

That being said, think twice before passing up an opportunity to try different boats. Trying different boats is a great way to develop perspective and unlock a new appreciation for the river and boating techniques.  Check out Zoar Outdoor’s DemoFest this June 24-26, 2022 if you want to give some different brands and styles of boats a whirl. We will be stoked to see you there! Happy paddling! 


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