Built for Comfort - (sleepy legs) by Jay Babina

Wood kayak builders aren’t the only ones who have to address the problem of making a seat and kayak that fits them well. It’s quite often that new and seasoned kayakers complain that their legs fall asleep, and occasionally get that uncomfortable sore cramping that can occur if the accommodations don’t entirely agree with your body.
   If you have the type of bottom that can sit on a piece of concrete for hours, you’re in luck. But for most of us, sitting in that ergonomically unfriendly position for extended periods requires a few things that need to be developed. One is the seat and foot position, and two is developing your body into that of a kayaker.
Number two first. In most kayakers, the section of the brain that acknowledges discomfort in the bottom and legs becomes numb or desensitized as the years of kayaking go on. And in most cases, other surrounding areas of the brain, such as those that have to do with monetary obligations are similarly affected.
   Seriously, it’s quite noticeable that experienced kayakers can usually paddle a greater variety of boats with less discomfort than any new or non-kayaker. Just as in any sport, our body adapts or gets trained to sit in the extended leg position. Our tendons, and muscles get conditioned for the paddling posture. We can add to this conditioning by regular stretching exercises of the legs and back. Stretching the calves regularly will also help condition us since the entire stressed area runs from our heels to the back of our neck. All good athletes cross-train and with kayaking, some stretching exercises will not only help in our fitness but greatly increase the comfort level in our kayaks for extended periods.
   The number one kayaking comfort mechanism is your seat (as well as the one in the kayak). When I had my first Necky Arluk III, with a flat slab of foam for a seat, I could paddle for about 45 minutes and would have to get out for a stretch. It did not agree with me at all. The discomfort was not in my bottom but in my thighs. When my brother bought a Pintail with the hard plastic molded tractor type seat, I couldn’t believe the comfort. It was lower volume, which meant my legs were in a straighter, more demanding position, yet I could paddle in comfort forever. However, I know people who don’t like that seat at all.
   If I had to design the perfect kayak seat, it would be like a dentist chair. It would cradle your entire body from the mid-back to your heels, giving full support along the entire body. With that concept in mind, you can see that the discomfort lies in the areas that don’t get supported or where the support ends and the body transitions into free space.
   Many times the pinching of nerves is at that point Unfortunately, many kayak seats are tested and accepted by the designer along with a few helpers who value their job, and that’s the seat that goes on every kayak. This person might weigh 260 lbs. with absolutely nothing similar to your anatomy. You’ll have the choice of adapting your body or the seat. In all probability, a bit of both will probably occur.
Generally, the lower a kayak’s volume is, the more of a challenge it will be to maintain comfort unless you’re flexible. Having the legs bent is just more comfortable than being straight legged, especially considering that you have to use your upper torso muscles in unison with the legs while in this position.
   Most boat builders carve their own seats out of closed cell foam. I’ve seen everything from a gentle uphill curve to full tractor-type seats with hip pads and more. Through some experimentation and experience, most builders are able to make something that feels pretty good. I’ve been using a fiberglass seat for my own wood boats that I make from a mold that’s a close copy of the Valley Canoe seat.
   A few things that I learned may be of comfort to you. I find that a seat should have an uphill angle, in my case fairly steep (I learned this from my P & H Serius seat, which is the most comfortable one for me). This slant is the same angle that your thighs travel when in the paddling position. I think that the longer the seat is the better. In other words, the more your body is cradled and supported, the less pressure is on any one area. Many people experience leg discomfort because they are in a seating position that puts a lot of pressure on their lower bottom, which cuts off the blood supply to the legs and possibly pinches the nerves. If you sit on a hardwood floor in a kayaking position, it will be obvious to you from where the discomfort emanates.
Padding a plastic kayak seat so that the legs travel a bit more uphill can sometimes relieve discomfort. I’ve seen those (half-assed) tiny British seats where the owner extended the seat with foam and increased their comfort by adding more supported area for their thighs, thus relieving pressure on their bottom. Sometimes a little padding under the front of a seat to angle it more can add lot of comfort.
People who have larger thighs don’t seem to like the uphill tractor seats as much as me. I think they get pinched at the end of the seat whereas a person with leaner thighs is not bothered by this. Maybe the angle is just too steep for their personal fit.
   Some people just purchase a seat pad and add it to their stock kayak seat to elevate any slight discomfort they are experiencing. Although, if you raise your body height too much, you’ll compromise your initial stability.
   Another often overlooked detail in the paddling comfort acquisition is the seat-to-foot brace length. Generally, the more vertical your foot position is, the more likely you are to get cramping. Once again, flexibility comes into play here. If you’re occasionally experiencing discomfort, push your foot pegs a notch forward and you’ll immediately get relief. I find that I’m a notch forward in the winter, probably because of all the clothing build up. When I started the cold paddling season, I was noticeably tighter in the boat and less comfortable in my legs.
   Some boat builders who make a foam-padded bulkhead for their feet leave an opening in the middle so they can occasionally stretch a foot if they need to. The shape is like a horseshoe with the opening on the bottom. Very often all that’s needed is an occasional few seconds of foot stretch to maintain comfort and keep the blood flowing.
   As they say, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." If your anatomy agrees with your boat and you can paddle for long periods in total comfort, consider yourself lucky or gifted (or maybe that discomfort portion of the brain has finally gone). But if you’re new to paddling or adapting to a newly acquired boat, a little experimenting and some patience will yield results.
   Many paddlers go through this and sometimes with no mechanical intervention we are suddenly paddling in total comfort again. Could it be because our body adapts to the new seating position, or maybe it’s because it’s a warm day, the sun is shinning and there’s no better place to be sitting than in our own kayak.

Outer-Island Kayak