Monday, April 4, 2011

Take a seat

When I talk to new paddlers, or paddlers contemplating their first kayak purchase, one of the most common comments about kayaks that I hear is this. "I liked this kayak because it had a really comfortable seat"

New paddlers are drawn to kayaks with seats like lazy boy recliners. I can see the appeal, but like so many things for new kayakers this will lead them down a path of poor kayak control, poor posture in their kayak, and a lack of connectedness - if that is a word - to their kayak.

Kayak seats have two parts, a seat bottom and a seat back. In general I am less concerned with the seat bottom. It can be padded, or gelled. It should certainly be contoured to your shape. It is where the vast majority of your weight is going to be impacting the kayak, so a bit of padding of some sort is okay. It is seat backs that concern me, and it is large seat backs that attract the attention of many novice kayakers. Yes, they look very inviting. Yes they are comfortable. Yes, they will get in the way of every skill we strive to have.

Take a look at the seat of any high end touring kayak and you will see a thin molded fiberglass seat base - probably with no padding - and a very thin lightly padded back band. Not even an actual seat back. But take a look at a kayak like the Wilderness Systems Tsunami 145 and its beautiful phase 3 seating, with its large articulated sections, and high back. One is designed for high performance, and the other for high comfort. The problem is the high level of comfort gets in the way of high performance.

The high seat back impedes our ability to rotate at our core, which is the key to power in our kayaks. It also allows us to lean into the seat back, ruining our posture and removing weight from the seat bottom and loading it onto the seat back and decreasing our overall connection with the kayak. It can also get in the way of our PFD making us uncomfortable. It can get in the way when rolling, or doing any kind of re-entry - particularly from the stern - and it makes greenland rolls impossible as you can't get your back close enough to the back deck.

My Delta splits the difference it is neither a high and heavily padded seat back, nor a tiny back band - though I have been told it will accept the immersion research back band. I have compromised by reclining the seat back as far as it will go. The top of it is now even with the top of the cockpit coaming. It barely touches the bottom of my back. It forces me to have good posture. My back is straight. I am ready to rotate.

This lesson was driven home to me working at the school I teach for in Alaska. I got into a very old kayak with a simple back band. The first time I pressed on the foot pegs the webbing in the back band ripped, leaving the back band dangling. At the end of the day - 27 nautical miles later - I felt ready to continue paddling. I was in fact eager to keep paddling. Our students felt otherwise and we made camp in a marshy cove.

Yes, it forces you to have strong back and core muscles, is that a bad thing? Yes, it may be difficult in the beginning. But like so many things that are difficult in the beginning it will pay huge dividends in the end.

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