Crutches, A Wheelchair and Kayaking


Gail E. Ferris


Ah ha! now it is time for invention as I found myself confined to a wheelchair but I happen to live just a short distance from Long Island Sound.

So little is thought about the realities involved when one finds that they happen to be physically disabled whether it happens unexpectedly or can be anticipated.  The most unpleasant aspect of finding that one can no longer do things in the usual manner is the feeling of boredom resulting from lack of enjoyment of the old challenges no longer possible to enjoy.


I encountered this situation while recovering from orthopedic surgery, which required a six months of no walking.  Stoically I thought I could tolerate this period of inactivity but as time passed I began to realize that I had to do some serious thinking as to how I could get on the water all by myself. 

Between me and the launch site are continuous cement sidewalks.

I had a wheelchair and a pair of crutches as my means of travel.  My right leg could not tolerate for any protracted period of weight bearing which was why I was using the wheelchair. 

As I evaluated my options I knew that I wanted to be able to travel down to the town dock and restaurant where I could visit some of my friends with complete self sufficiency and with the most minimal risk to my healing leg.  The last thing I wanted to experience is the ordeal of a repeat operation and neither did my orthopedist.



A formidable obstacle was a rather steep but short hill which had to be negotiated.  As I found through experimentation on a less steep part of the hill it is much easier to ascend a hill in a wheelchair by going backward propelling myself by pulling instead of pushing the wheels and combining the pulling with pushing from my right leg.  Indeed I found that I could go amazingly fast but that I had to be careful not to hit something and dump the wheelchair over backward, which is very easy to actually do. 


Now that I had figured out how to go up hill by going backward.

Now I had to find a way of descending the hill without burning the skin off my hands, which is the only means I knew of for slowing the wheelchair down.  I may be daring but I am not going to zoom down any hills without checking the speed in a wheelchair.  I recalled that I had some tough bicycling gloves, which I realized would be excellent for preventing any blisters from forming on my hands and were pigskin thickly padded enough to work well for braking.  I tried the bicycling gloves and they worked well being very comfortable.



I made numerous trips once I had created by sewing on my sewing machine a quiver to hold my crutches on the back of my wheel chair in a vertical easy to reach position.  I could not consider any walking and would be almost completely helpless without crutches.  The quiver was attached to my wheelchair by being tied on with sewn on ties.  But as I wandered around town on it's sidewalks, which were a great help for this type of travel because the sidewalks separated me from the cars, and were flat and smooth.



I began to use a backpack bag on the back of the wheelchair to hold items I bought and found that the bag worked very well for things like eggs and milk.  But there was the water out there every day beckoning me, Long Island Sound with blue sunny skies overhead, but how was I to enjoy the water. 

I went swimming a few times, but that was too easy and the tide had to be accounted for which I have no patience with.  I had experimented with swimming without using my legs and found that there are several methods available but that the easiest method of swimming was by clamping a life jacket between my legs and swimming the breaststroke with my arms.  With this technique I could swim long distances with minimal expenditure of energy.  This I realized I could rely on should I have a boating emergency.  But how was I going to be possibly able to take a boat to the water from my house a half a mile away with that steep hill to first decent and on my return ascend. 


Now really, the idea of towing some sort of kayak on a trailer behind my wheelchair seemed suicidal at the least.  Just the sheer weight of the kayak on wheels would really push me down the hill, let alone steering it and staying on the sidewalk. Now that would be a really good trick!

But how about using an inflatable boat, one that folds up small, just small enough to fit on my wheelchair? 

I just happened to own an inflatable kayak which weighed about twenty five pounds but the next question was did the boat fold small enough to fit on the back of the wheelchair and was it's weight and position on the wheelchair going to ruin the stability of the wheelchair causing it to fall over backward and be difficult to steer.



After extracting my trusty old inflatable kayak from it's lair in the cellar which was a good cool dark very suitable place to store this PVC kayak.

I found that my rough estimate of size was ranged closely enough to just fit onto the back of my wheelchair. 

I just needed to sew a strong bag, which would hold the boat and hang on the handles in the back.  I knew I was really going to carry out this experiment because not only the width but the length of the kayak folded would fit onto the back without binding on the wheels or hanging down too low.  Some simple loop handles on the bag were all that was necessary to hang the bag.  The bag was made large enough not only to accommodate the kayak but also the pump and life jacket as well.

The take-apart paddles fit without any problem into the quiver for holding the crutches.



Wow what a scene, I could imagine that when I traveled down the sidewalk with all this paraphernalia on my wheelchair and I in it, I must have looked like someone from an outer space scene in which is said “Beam me up Scotty."  Oh well, I was going boating regardless of circumstances.



My first excursion and indeed it was just that started with precariously positioning the kayak in its bag on the back of the wheelchair which turned out to be a balancing act in the truest sense of the word.  I found that I had to hold the front of the chair down by quickly hanging the bag on the handles in the back while keeping myself upright on crutches and wedging my body against the back of the chair.  Next while keeping my hand on the armrest to keep the chair from falling over backward, as they do pivot nicely on those wheels, to become seated just in the nick of time leaning forward using my body weight to counterbalance the weight of the boat so that the front wheels would be on the ground not only to stabilize but also to steer the wheelchair.  Just a little bit of juggling to not crash and burn in my wheelchair.


Now as I proceeded out of my yard you can just imagine me as I just pulled on my wheels to start off I nearly lurched over backward under the awkward weight of my cargo, the kayak.  Then I lurched forward.  To continue going forward I had to consciously counterbalance myself forward to keep my wheelchair from pitching backward.

Luckily from past excursions down the sidewalk and steep hill I knew enough to wear leather palmed bicycle gloves. So, armed with my trusty bicycling gloves, which I wore to protect my palms while breaking the wheel chair, I proceeded down the hill.

I progressed down the steep hill without any problems and headed for the next less steep stretch. 

Then suddenly inexplicably the wheels started binding on the boat and oddly enough the chair started squeezing me.  Progress halted as I put on the mechanical brakes and got out to inspect the strange situation. 

Nothing feels funnier than the sensation of a collapsible wheelchair folding up on you when you are going down hill.  The whole problem was caused by the weight of the boat on the back pulling not just downward but laterally on the handles in the back. 

The chair has a scissors structure, which is normally closed by being pushed together and then can be easily be transported as a compressed rectangle.  The bag had done this for me.  The wheel chair was scissoring shut and I can tell you that was quite a strange feeling.  I got out and reopened the wheelchair.  Then I found some cord which I used to tie the chair open with some strong cord.  Whew that was a trick!


So now once again I wheeled along on this my maiden voyage down the side walk to the town beach. 

And wow! the chair stayed open most of the rest of the trip.  I just had to stop once and retie the chair open with the cords.


Once I was at the beach and I hit the sand all progress in my wheelchair.  The wheels as could be expected just sank deeply in the sand.  I got out retrieved my crutches took my boat bag off it and parked it.

I knew from numerous experiments that my crutches would dig into the sand but they would keep me upright because the sand had much more resistance than mud.

From earlier experiments during the winter I found that mud unless it is frozen can easily render crutches instantly invisible among other things.


I laid my boat bag on the sand, tied a line about twenty feet long to it and walked to its end, stopped and pulled to bag to me.

I knew that without much effort I could drag the kayak in its bag over the sand because I had made the bag of slippery nylon. 

I repeated this operation until I got the boat bag a comfortable place to take out, unfold and proceed with a foot operated pump inflate the three chambers of the kayak. 

Inflating the kayak was a slow procedure but the sacrifice was worth the escape from the monotony escaping of the wheelchair.  The kayak was thirteen feet long with three chambers and a separate seat,

Once the kayak was inflated, I dragged it into the water just to the point at which it could float but that I could still support myself on crutches. 

At this point I did not want to bother with putting them back up the beach with the wheelchair.  I just couldn’t be bothered with hopping on one leg that was just a silly idea.


Now the moment of how to get in, how do I do this? There I was with this little problem that the muscles in my recovering leg were not able to contract enough to elevate the leg or bend my leg at the knee.  In other words my leg was just a stiff heavy and unmovable.

So how do I get my body into the kayak?  Use gravity! Just sort of flop in and drag the rest of myself in.  Or maybe sort of get down onto the gunwale and roll in.

I knew that I can crawl, I can get up and I can always get down some how, and I can roll over.

Rolling into the cockpit over the inflated tubular gunwale worked out just fine. 

I decided now is launch time so I put my hands on the gunwales supporting myself on one leg relying on my hands for balance and put the crutches on the floor of the kayak, position the seat over them and proceeded to more or less roll into the cockpit. 


And there I was in my kayak slightly afloat.

To get off the beach I used my two-piece paddles as push poles to push me out into the water.

There I was off once again on the water in my kayak.

So there I was out there on the water where I immediately discovered that sitting on my crutches made my inflatable kayak paddled much faster and I wished I had thought of that idea sooner.

While swimming for exercise I devised a stroke I could use should I have no use of my legs and no lifejacket.  The stroke was essentially undulating using just my back through the water coming up for air between undulations.

Once again at last I could enjoy this wonderful element water with its marshes and waves and I was free from the problems of travel on land.


Gail Ferris is launching by pulling her kayak backward over the ice from Stony Creek beach.

Lars Jensen has an artificial hip he is launching his kayak in Kullorsuaq Greenland.

9/20/90 Gail E. Ferris gaileferris@hotmail.com www.nkhorizons.com www.nkhorizons.com/Wheelchairboating.htm