Canoeing and Kayaking

“Paddling is freedom from my wheelchair and a sense of being equal on the water that. A body that is uncooperative on land becomes part of a sleek craft gliding through the water. There are no barriers to stop me.” Janet Zeller, quadriplegic paddler.

“In a kayak I can get to areas that I could never access in a wheelchair. My wife and I have finally found something that we can do together, at the same pace. It’s also a great social outlet and we have already met some great people through kayaking.” John Creagh.

Although “Disabled Canoeing” is not recognized as a formal sport in South Africa, there are many people with disabilities who participate, either on a competitive basis or just for the pleasure of being out on the water.

Paddling is therapy

There are many different forms of padding, and so many different types of boats that it is possible to find something to suit everybody. There is the adrenalin rush of shooting a rapid or riding down a wave on a paddle ski. Perhaps you prefer the quiet solitude of drifting down a river, or the busy teamwork of canoe polo, or paddling a kayak through a spectacular seascape. However you do it, paddling is therapy for body and soul.

The action of paddling is the ideal exercise for wheelchair users as it works shoulder muscles not normally used in propelling a wheelchair. The constant repetitive action of forward flexion can lead to an imbalance in shoulder muscles resulting in tears to the rotator cuff. Paddling provides the ideal pulling action to counteract this imbalance.

Christine Maria Burger and Andries Hough are both paraplegic paddlers. Andries found balancing difficult but soon learned the correct technique using his paddles and not his body. He loved the freedom he found in paddling and the physical workout that it gave him. When he started racing, he entered races without portage. But on one event, the river was low, causing a forced portage. The other competitors simply picked him up in his canoe and carried him round the obstacle!

Dedication and discipline

South African national coach Nandor Almasi lost his leg as a young boy. He never let this stop him from snow skiing, water skiing, playing ice hockey and canoeing. He started competing as a youngster and participated in the ‘able body’ World Championships in 1977 in a K4, taking 5th place. He was also the Hungarian doubles champion in 1980 as a junior paddler. He has been involved with coaching Olympic and World Champion teams for many years. He believes that the dedication and discipline required for paddling gives people a confidence in themselves which carries over to all aspects of their lives.

Neal Stephenson was a professional body boarder, until he lost a leg in a shark attack in 1998. Two years later he came 3rd in the Paddle Skiing World Championships. He now competes in surf skiing, paddle skiing and canoeing. He needs no mods to his canoe as long as he wears his prosthetic leg to steer. On a portage, he needs a specialised prosthesis designed for running and wet conditions. He recently finished 89th in the Berg River canoe marathon out of a record field of 950 paddlers.

Cliffy Andrews is another passionate paddler who lost his leg after complications following a motorbike accident. He participates in any sport that takes his fancy, mountain biking, squash, adventure racing and paddling. He has completed all the major river races in SA, including eight Duzi marathons, and has represented South Africa at the last four Canoe Polo World Championships. Canoe Polo is a fun team sport similar to water polo played in short, stable and manoeuvrable boats called polo bats, in a swimming pool or dam.

Gordon Cousins has a degenerative eye disease, which has left him with about 5% of his vision. He has maintained his zest for life through his involvement in sport and taking on new challenges. He has completed 12 Comrades Marathons and did the Duzi in 2005. He paddles in a K2 with his son, Ryan, who steers. Ryan has to constantly tell his father what is coming up on the river. He also has to compensate with balance in tricky situations.

Comfortable in water

For each disability there may be some adaptations required, either to the boat, the paddle or to the person’s paddling technique. All beginners should be comfortable in water, and should wear a suitable life jacket. Safety is of major importance and all novices should attend the development programmes offered by most canoe clubs around the country. Here they can learn correct paddling techniques and water safety principles.

Paraplegics and quadriplegics who have no balance normally start in a more stable canoe until they learn the correct techniques. The canoe seat should be as low as possible to lower the centre of gravity, and should have a backrest to provide some trunk support.

Robbie Herreveld from Canoe and Kayak World is willing to assist disabled paddlers to find a suitable boat and the ideal adaptations. He is working with Bernie Goosen, a Cerebral Palsy quad known for his climbs up Kilimanjaro. Bernie has set his sights on paddling across Lake Malawi, and Robbie is helping to adapt his boat. Robbie can be contacted on 011 807 8111 or or

Bill van der Walt is the development officer at the Dabulamanzi Canoeing club at Emmarentia dam, and will assist disabled paddlers. He can be contacted on 0832667750. Detailed information on paddling techniques and suggested adaptations are available in “Canoeing and Kayaking for Persons with Physical Disabilities” by Anne Wortham Weber and Janet Zeller – available from

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