Kayak research could boost Britain's Olympic performance

1 min read

Research into the design of elite-level kayaks could help Team GB in this summer’s Olympic Games in London.

Stuart Morris, Nottingham University PhD student and Olympic slalom boat designer, told The Engineer his new approach to kayak design could enhance an athlete’s performance and help inform a new blueprint for the ultimate kayak.

The changes that Morris suggests relate to hull curvature, kayak width, seat position, and the volume of the kayak. However, UK Sport is preventing Morris from revealing specific details on the modifications and how much time they could allow athletes to save.

Morris was, however, able to say that a successful tailor-made slalom kayak has to be a finely balanced compromise of design attributes that maximise forward speed, manoeuvrability and stability.

‘All three elements play against each other,’ said Morris. ‘It’s about trying to find the best selection for each athlete based on the performance they require, their skill level, and the environment in which they compete.

‘Obviously if you’re doing a slalom course your forward speed has to give way to a bit of manoeuvrability and a lot of stability.’

To date, slalom kayaks have evolved slowly through trial and error with the best design features being carried forward from one to the next. However, this process has no set methodology for comparative testing of different kayaks and for assessing their effect on performance.

Morris claims that his PhD has established the first methodology for comparative testing of different kayaks.

Two differently weighted former Team GB kayakers helped Morris devise his methodology.

Each kayaker tested four (once-identical) carbon-fibre slalom kayaks that had been individually modified at two levels, giving eight different kayak forms to compare and analyse.

‘The athletes paddle the kayaks on set tasks and the performance times and athlete perceptions are captured,’ said Morris. The tasks included a flat water sprint, a figure-eight turning task to test manoeuvrability and a white-water task over 10 gates on a competition course.

A digital laser scanner was used to record and compare the modifications and their individual effect on how the kayak performs in the water.

'The results are compared against a control kayak to limit the day-to-day inaccuracies of human performance and environmental factors,' said Morris.

Comments from the testers helped inform the observational analysis of the experiments. The athlete’s subjective feedback and perception generally matched the objective scientific results.

The modified kayaks were tested at the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont, near Nottingham.