Advances in boat design

Today, a short review of how the Olympic canoe slalom boat designs have changed through the history of the sport.

Bill Endicott’s iconic 1983 book ‘The Ultimate Run’

First, I have been asked about the significance of the name of last night’s post, my Ultimate Run. The Ultimate Run – Canoe Slalom at the Highest Levels’ is the name of Bill Endicott’s iconic book, written back in 1983. The phrase ‘Ultimate Run’ has become adopted by paddlers worldwide seeking that performance excellence and perfect negotiation of the course. As an aside, the Ultimate Run eBook has been created by with the permission of original author William T. Endicott.

Boats for this elite Olympic level competition are made of either carbon or a mix of carbon and aramid (often recognised by the name Kevlar), mixed with an epoxy polymer resin. The vacuum construction means a higher percentage of fibres and less resin and so less weight and greater strength. These fibres have a very high tensile strength to weight ratio. Foam sandwich construction in between layers of carbon or aramid fibres is used to further increase the stiffness of the boats. Each new Olympics tends to drive the advancement of the boats to meet the nuances of the newly constructed artificial course.

The ICF rules of canoe slalom define the specification of the boats, and the length of the kayak and canoe classes has reduced. The kayak length has reduced from 4 metres to 350cm and this has caused the sport to evolve with an increase in the difficulty of the courses that can be set and accomplished. As described yesterday, the boat can be pivoted around by sinking the stern under the water even easier than in the older 4 metre length kayaks and as you will see it is possible to do an upstream red and white gate on just one stroke, which looks sensational. For the paddlers and the manufactures the shorter lengths have meant that the boats are a bit less vulnerable to damage, use slightly less material (less weight) and it is easier to put the inside seams in. With modern carbon construction it is quite feasible to manufacture the kayak less than 9kg. The boat is made up to the 9kg minimum weight by adding extra under the seat. This causes the boat to spin faster than it would do than if the weight were evenly distributed along its length. The boats will be weighed at the end of each run at the Olympic Games, to ensure that emptied of water they meet the required minimum weight. The C1s are 350cm in length, 65cm wide and minimum 10kg, while the C2 is 410cm long, 75cm wide and minimum 15kg.

Mark Proctor, on the Lee Valley Whitewater course, sinking the back of his C1 (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

There have been key individual athletes that have contributed to the advancement of boat and paddle design like Richard Fox or Michal Martikan. Michal paddles a C1 with a very high rocker design called the Martikan 07, which many other C1 paddlers find insufficiently stable, however, this suits Michal’s paddling style. A key component to defining the best boat (kayak or canoe) is the weight of the paddler. A 80kg paddler will need a different volume boat than a 55kg paddler to provide the same forward paddler speed and responsiveness in turning.

In respect of paddle design and in a similar way Michal has evolved a specific paddle design called C1 Martikan! Some kayak paddlers use a cranked or Double Torque shaft which is not straight and is believed to reduce the strain on the wrist and allow greater pull. The paddles are all made of carbon which is stiff, very light and transfers the power to pull the boat towards the blade.

This is a far cry from the boats of the Munich Olympic in 1972, when canoe slalom made a single appearance on the Eiskanal in Augsburg. Not until La Seu d’Urgell in the Spanish Pyrenees did canoe slalom reappear as part of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. At one time boats were folding until 1963 when boats constructed of chop strand mat fibreglass or nylon, before the introduction of woven polyester fibres such as Diolen. Boats were heavy, usually over 65 pounds (30 kilos). With the advent of aramid and carbon fibres from the 1970s, the ICF reduced the width of the boats which could now pass underneath the gate poles.

Tomorrow we will preview what is to come at the spectacular Lee Valley Whitewater Centre starting on Sunday.

Comments @gregiej on Twitter

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