Ingenuity Opens New Doors for Disabled Paddlers

At the SportsAbility event held in Tallahassee in April 2018 by the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association, attendees were able to experience the joy of getting out on the water on an iSUP thanks to Tom Weldon who designed an amazing device to allow those with disabilities to paddle safely. Tom is pictured here with Maxim Davis. Photo courtesy of FDOA.org

By Tom Schlichter

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to get back on the water and paddle,” says David Jones. “It’s taken a lot of experimenting over the years, but we finally have something that works really well.”

Jones, president of the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association (FDOA; www.fdoa.org), is a 63-year old hemiplegic who cannot use his left arm. He loves to be on the water and, up until this summer, had greatly missed being able to fully participate in paddling situations. With the help of fellow FDOA member and friend, Thomas Weldon, however, Jones is thrilled to be back in the game.

“I’d made several unsuccessful attempts to kayak using different types of paddles and adaptive strap-on devices,” explains Jones. “None of them worked out very well so I basically gave up on paddle sports. With help from Thomas, however, we finally figured out something that works – and it’s opened a whole new world of things I can do, places I can go and groups I can join to have fun on the water. Just recently, for example, I took a trip with Thomas on the Withlacoochee River in northern Florida. It’s such a beautiful place – one I couldn’t have fully enjoyed until now.”

With the help of Tom’s invention and SportsAbility, this young man is able to feel comfortable and stable enough to paddle the Sea Eagle NeedleNose solo. Photo courtesy of FDOA.org

In addition to the awkwardness of most adaptive paddle devices Jones tried out, he found that simply getting in and out of a sit-in style kayak presented plenty of problems, especially during the course of activities. Still, after outfitting yet another sit-in kayak with new adaptive gear, Weldon convinced his buddy to try again. That’s when he came up with a radical idea. While following Jones on a Sea Eagle NeedleNose™ 14 (NN14) inflatable stand-up paddleboard (SUP), Weldon thought of switching the setups to put the adaptive gear on the inflatable SUP. That, he suspected, would be easier for Jones to maneuver, balance, and mount or dismount.

“Worked like a charm,” said Jones. “Thomas went home and built an adaptive apparatus to mount onto the Sea Eagle SUP and it turned out to be great as a sit-down device. He started by securing a sit-down kayak-type seat on the board that enabled me to sit and brace myself so I could paddle with one hand. For the paddle, we used an Angle Oar (www.angleoar.com). It’s an adjustable, double-bladed oar attached to a pedestal that sits between your knees and rises about 18 inches from the floor. The oar pivots on the center of the pedestal. As you lift it with one hand it puts the paddle in the water on the opposite side. So, you actually use a rowing motion to dip the blades with a kayak paddling rhythm.”

Getting ready to hit the water! Tom’s making sure everything is set for Sunil Patel. Photo courtesy of FDOA.org

To make the SUP extra-stable, Weldon added small outriggers which also responded to foot pressure for improved steering. Attaching everything to the paddle board proved easy since the NN14 had plenty of D-Rings conveniently positioned around its perimeter for securing accessories.

“The seat configuration, along with the Angle Oar, proved a perfect matchup for the Sea Eagle SUP,” continued Jones. “We used it very successively on a river run and plan to use it now on a regular basis with a paddling program we are about to start. Because the NN14 is an inflatable that weighs just 27 pounds we can load several in a truck at once. That makes the logistics of getting them all to the launch site relatively easy. Once there, each SUP takes less than 10 minutes to inflate.”

Tom and Sunil loving the great outdoors! Photo courtesy of FDOA.org

Of course, helping the physically challenged enjoy the great outdoors is what the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association is all about. According to Jones, the program has a mailing database of roughly 16,000 members and offers a series of outdoor adventure trips throughout the year. The program includes paddling sports, water sports and a variety of other outdoor activities. Twice a year the group hosts a major SportsAbility event, drawing between 1,000 and 1,500 participants to each gathering. Their year-round Miracle Sports Program has about 200 active participants, an ALLOUT adventure series offers a variety of outdoors opportunities including hunting, and a program designed to provide resource information for those with brain and spinal cord injuries serves several thousand more.

In addition to paddling, Jones loves to fish. That has led him and Weldon to consider exploring the possibilities of building an adaptive paddle device for Sea Eagle’s inflatable FishSUP™ 126. That paddleboard is wider and even more stable than the NN14, and it is easily tricked-out to be an angling machine.

“We definitely have to look into that one,” says Jones. “Who knows, being wider and super-stable, it might even eliminate the need for outriggers. Wouldn’t that be great?”