Issue 17.5: October/November 2014

Paddle Enabled

Story by Sonny Ganaden
Photo by Jennifer Emerling

Ocean-lovers have raced, surfed and even practiced yoga on stand up paddleboards, but until two years ago you had to actually be standing to do those things. That’s when Kailua-born-and-raised waterman Kawika Watt, along with partners Lisa Harding, James Rouse and California-based shaper Scott Chandler, manufactured the first OnIt Ability Board.

“The boards work for anybody in a chair: folks that have balance issues, paraplegics, amputees. And we really tried to make them affordable; we can sell the whole system for less than the price of a new wheelchair,” says Watt, now a San Diego resident. Most days you’ll find him in the water assisting paddlers off Newport Beach; other times he’s fixing equipment or meeting with customers and rehabilitation centers.

OnIt Ability Boards feature an all-terrain wheelchair locked to the deck; paddlers roll on and off via a custom access ramp. For stability Watt looked to traditional outrigger canoes popular throughout the Pacific; with their ‘iako (booms) and ama (outriggers), OnIt boards are all but impossible to huli (capsize). “Of course safety is our number one thing, but we don’t want to limit people,” says Watt. “Some guys want to take the outriggers off first thing to show off. I have to pretend I don’t hear them a little to get them used to it.”

Part of the impetus behind the global stand up paddleboard craze is its fitness benefit; it develops the muscles needed to balance on and propel a moving platform. “It’s a core-driven sport, and for a lot of people with disabilities, that’s what they’re missing in their physicality,” says Watt. “They’re working around injuries the way that those of us without disabilities don’t have to. One guy couldn’t paddle half a minute without stopping when he first tried it, but last summer he competed in the Battle of the Paddle race at Dana Point.” Disabled kayaker and canoe paddler Shad Eischen has trained with an OnIt board to become a Paralympic hopeful.

“There’s nothing like being out on the water, man. And these people got abilities,” Watt says. “This isn’t just rehabilitation anymore for some of them. It’s changed their lives.”