The Next Wave in Paddling: Adaptive Equipment and Accessible Docks

The overarching goal of PEC’s Water Trails program is to allow more Pennsylvanians to enjoy the natural water resources that abound in the Commonwealth. To do that, we work with our stewardship partners to lower the barrier to entry. Barriers can take many forms; from lack of public access to lack of useful signage to understanding the needs of the broader community. PEC’s Amy Camp offers some insight and local examples to make sure the waterways can be enjoyed by all, regardless of ability.

Adaptive sports open up possibilities for the people who need them most.

It doesn’t take much time spent on Pennsylvania’s favorite land trails to spot hand cyclists whizzing by, but how can people with disabilities better enjoy our waterways?

I sat down with Larry Gioia, founder of the kayaking school, Dynamic Paddlers, to discuss such opportunities. Gioia is a long-time kayaker and an instructor with the American Canoe Association. He has spent the past two years developing Dynamic Paddlers, with a focus on adaptive kayaking. Gioia views water as the ultimate equalizer as he and his team are on a mission to introduce people of all abilities to the sport of kayaking.

Dynamic Paddlers logo“There are a multitude of organizations around the country offering adaptive paddling programs,” Gioia said.  “Given the hundreds of miles of ‘paddleable’ waterways in our region, I was surprised to learn that there were not more opportunities for people with disabilities to enjoy the water in our region. I jumped at the opportunity to share my passion for paddling, community building, and advocacy.”

But he was also quick to point out that there are other efforts taking place in our region that complement and support Dynamic Paddlers’ mission.

For example, Pittsburgh-based Venture Outdoors is making a push to introduce adaptive equipment into its biking and kayaking programs. Moraine State Park maintains a small fleet of adaptive kayaks and public programs, while the Pittsburgh Adaptive Sports Network is a new consortium which aims to bring together dozens of people and organizations who offer adaptive recreation in our region.

Dynamic Paddlers provides personalized one-on-one instruction customized to the individual’s needs and preferences. No two paddlers are the same, each being truly dynamic in his/her own way.

“Our programs are intended to serve as a natural bridge towards true independence – affording paddlers the opportunity to try, explore, and learn in a safe and fun environment before going out on their own,” said Gioia.

Amazing Adaptations and Market Opportunity

We talked about all sorts of adaptations that day, everything from adaptive seats, hand/arm adaptations, to outriggers (aka kayak training wheels) for balance and stability. For example the Bellyak enables people to experience the water up close, similar to how they would through freestyle swimming.

Docks with integrated transfer benches and rollers can eliminate or reduce the need for a paddler to be transferred by others (key word: independence). The EZ Dock® was installed at Point State Park in 2014, replacing a stop along the Three Rivers Water Trail that previously included steps down to the water. Additionally, Point State Park also features an accessible floating dock and kayak launch.

Accessible docks may be just as important as the equipment used out on the water in terms of opening the sport to more people. Accessible launches are a critical part of attracting a broad audience of paddlers. To all of the water trail managers out there: this is a market opportunity. Just like any other athlete, many paddlers who need accessible launches are always looking for new challenges and scenery.

A common concern around accessible launches tends to be the cost. Relative costs run the gamut, from ADA compliant sites to those that are generally accessible. Simply complete a web search for universal access kayak launches to get a sense for available products.

One resource to help get started is a Water Trail Accessibility Webinar offered by American Trails. The recorded webinar covers some of the basics of accessible paddling, challenges of getting people into their boats, assessing existing water trails for accessibility, and examples of accessible launches.