Sea kayaking: Another great outdoor activity for amputees

Playing in the surf along the Welsh coast
Playing in the surf along the Welsh coast

No Need For Legs In A Kayak

Throw back to the summer days: Summer comes along with endless opportunities for being active in, on and around the water. While water sports are generally great fun, they are especially well suited for lower limb amputees: They offer the added advantage of the water carrying most of our weight. An advantage not to be underestimated for many amputees. 


Swimming, snorkelling, diving, kayaking, surfing - no matter which one of these activities you fancy, they are all great fun and well worth a try. Even more so as they often allow you a completely new perspective on this beautiful planet of ours. There is a whole new world often just a few feet below the surface of the ocean. Feeling the force of a wave carrying you back to shore is a humbling experience. And any coast looks completely different when seen from a kayak.


Over the last couple of years I was lucky enough to enjoy several sea kayaking trips along the Welsh coast. And what a stunningly beautiful coastline that is. I got hooked when I first kayaked on the Irish sea just off the Isle of Anglesey. I had to acknowledge defeat when facing strong winds and big waves far above my pay grade in Pembrokeshire. And I couldn‘t stop being in awe of mother nature‘s beauty while paddling along the Gower peninsular‘s south coast with a seal being my on-and-off companion for the greater part of an hour. I loved each and every one of these experiences; don‘t wanna miss a single one of these experiences. And looking back I often wonder why it took my so long to actually get started. 


Start In A Way That Feels Right For You

In my university years  - read 20odd years ago - I did a bit of paddling on slow running rivers and lakes. Flat water with plenty of easy entry and exit points. And over the years I often thought it would be nice to get back into this kind of outdoor activity. But what I was really interested in was sea kayaking and white water kayaking. I just knew I would love it. But still, I kept on procrastinating.


As an above-the-knee amputee I just wasn‘t sure of how to go about it in a safe way. Would it be best to kayak with or without the prosthesis? If I wear my artificial leg, what are the safety issues I need to be aware of? Should I use a standard kayak or modify it to fit my needs? What would be a good way to deal with longer stretches of carrying the boat - and the gear, if we stayed overnight - especially when it‘s low tide? Loads of questions. And while all of them are relevant in one way or another. But looking back it feels as if I partly used them as an excuse. And it wasn‘t until I heard about the „Introduction to Kayaking“ course offered by Plas Y Brenin, the UK‘s national mountain centre in Snowdonia/Wales that I finally got my act together. Five days of high quality instruction in a small group. With only three kayaking novices in the group, we are talking amazing student to teacher ratio.


This course was just what I needed. It offered a great mixture of sessions in the pool, on the lakes of north Wales with Mt. Snowdon as a backdrop, on the Irish sea as well as on easy grade white water. I had the chance to try out various types of boats and paddles, I learned simple rescue techniques and picked up basic knowledge about wind and weather, currents, waves and tidal charts. These five days at Plas Y Brenin laid a sound foundation in terms of skills and gave me the needed boost to my confidence to finally take up kayaking again, this time as an amputee.



Sea Kayaking In Pembrokeshire

After the course, one of my first weekend trips brought me to Pembrokeshire. Together with a friend, I headed out to the small village of Abercastle. The harbour, so we were told, is an ideal place to get the boats into the water and start exploring the coast. 


For this first trip I decided to paddle without my prosthesis. No need for two legs in kayak. Being pretty much a novice to the sport, I didn‘t want to run the risk of capsizing, getting stuck with the artificial limb and drowning right away. My friend offered to get my boat down to the beach and back to the car later, so one-legged paddling it was.


Paddling out of the bay and along the coast, we started playing around the cliffs, running the boats through narrow channels, whizzing in and out of caves, manoeuvring them around the hundreds of rocks that break the surf at low tide. We soon got into a routine and felt confident on the water again. Confident enough even to practice a few rescue routines - which obviously meant getting into the cold Irish Sea. Ten, maybe twelve degrees, I guess. A kingdom for a wet-suit. And it we do any trips in a colder season, another kingdom for a dry-suit.


After a few hours on the water - all tired, but happy - we dragged the kayaks back to shore. What an amazing day; what an amazing stretch of coastline. 


Later that day and over a pint of lager in the local pub we studied the maps of the area, the weather forecast, the kayaking guide books, the tidal charts and soon settled on Porthclais for the following day. According to our guidebook the area around the small harbour of Porthclais is another breathtakingly beautiful part of Pembrokeshire. „Sounds like a good plan,“ I thought when I crawled into my sleeping back later that night. And within minutes I was asleep.



Know Your Limits

And a good plan it was. At least for more experienced paddlers, but not for us. We had westerly winds, an outgoing tide and a swell that was beyond our comfort zone. So barely 15 minutes after leaving the sheltered harbour we decided to head back. The open waters were just too rough for us.


Over a cup of coffee it was time to look for another place, more sheltered, and maybe with more exit options in case we have to abort the trip somewhere along the route. Soon our eyes settled on the coast west of Newport.


What can I say: An inviting, nice, white, sandy beach, a sheltered bay, stunning cliffs with lots of caves, plenty of marine wildlife and water birds to watch. And every once in a while a small bay ideal for a break, a quick snack and a bit of recovery time.


It‘s amazing how time flies when you are in your kayak, paddling along the coast, being one with the movement of the ocean and marvelling at nature‘s beauty. While we headed back to land, I found myself wondering: This spectacular stretch of coast is only three, maybe three and a half hours from where I live. I have my own kayak and other paddling gear at home. I have access to a car with a roof rack. It‘s beautiful. It‘s good for mind, body and soul. And it's definitely good for me. Why did it take me so long to actually get here; so long to actually get back into kayaking?



Lessons Learnt

Getting your gear in and out of the water

I can be pretty stubborn and I was always keen on my independence. This obviously means carrying my own gear; means being able to get my boat and everything else I need in and out of the water by myself and without anyone‘s assistance. Over the years I have dragged my kayak behind me while walking on crutches over a long stretch of sand during low tide. Not ideal, not very elegant - but possible. I have pushed my boat - with all the camping gear in it - while hopping one-legged behind it, wearing all my kayaking outfit. Again, not ideal, not very elegant - but possible. And I have carried all of my staff while wearing a simple waterproof prosthesis. So far the best option, if you ask me. And once I had proven to myself that I can get my things from the car into the water and back, I now find it easier to accept the assistance of others. 


Kayaking with or without the prosthesis

Again, I have tried various options. The one I said „No!“ to pretty much right away was wearing my prosthesis in the kayak. As I still don‘t know how to roll my boat and come back up again, I need to make sure that I get out of the kayak once I flipped it. And the idea of getting the artificial limb stuck and being unable to escape safely just wasn‘t appealing to me. I generally like to wear the my socket when I sit as it offers me more stability - even if the actual prosthesis is not attached to it. So for me the best option is to wear my leg to get things from the car to the edge of the water. I then detach the leg and stow it away safely somewhere in the boat. I then get into the kayak and push myself into the water using my hand the one side and the paddle on the other. Pretty much the same method two-legged kayakers use. In the beginning I had my crutches with me next to the seat. But it‘s a safety issue and until I have modified the boat to be able to store them differently I leave them in the car.


Kayaking by yourself or with company

As I mentioned earlier, I try to find ways to do things independently. Despite my amputation. I just don‘t like asking for assistance. Especially not until I have figured out how to do it alone. Once I know that I can do it by myself, I find asking for/accepting assistance much easier. Call it stubbornness. Call it arrogant. That‘s how I am. But when it comes to kayaking out on the open sea and further away from the shore, I think going with with a friend is a must from a safety point of view. Flipping your boat a couple hundred meters from the shore, in rough conditions and bad visibility, in strong winds and with an outgoing tide, not being able to get back into the boat and sensing that exhaustion will soon set it, then hypothermia and panic just is too shitty a scenario to experience it. So yes, for me sea kayaking means heading out with a friend.


Modifying the kayak

So far I have not modified my kayak to suit my special needs as an amputee. I am still assessing different options, playing around with various ideas that will allow me to control my boat better. And I am likely to change the set-up for the knee pad, bring it back quite a bit so that I can use it with my residual limb. Otherwise there is not much modification needed.



Post by Bjoern Eser, the creator of The Active Amputee.