PaddleWise Discussion on Paddling with epileptic paddlers

From: "PeterO"
Subject: [Paddlewise] epilepsy and kayaking
Date: Sat, 15 May 2004


Thanks to everyone who provided their thoughts and especially for the
excellent advice I received off line.

In particular there was one kayaker who had experienced epilepsy and gave
advice off line on the basis of first hand experience. It was much

Another email I received was from Nancy Uschold,  who has some experience of
helping in this area. I've included her post below with her permission as
she doesn't yet subscribe to Paddlewise.

Peter -

SNIP  I am not
on the email list, but am an avid kayaker and have
some experience with people with seizures. SNIP

Just so you know where my experience lies, I have
worked as a kayak instructor at a camp for children
and adults with disabilities for the past 10 years.
Several of these people do have seizure disorders.  I
am also an Adaptive Paddling Workshop Instructor for
the American Canoe Association (ACA) and teach other
instructors / interested people about working with
people with disabilities in  paddling.

As a resource, Geoff Smedley's book "Canoeing For
Disabled People" has some good information regarding
working with people with seizures.  This is put out by
the British Canoe Union (BCU).

As you seem aware, it is all about managing risks.  I
have a friend with epilepsy who has been seizure free
and paddling for years - her seizures are well
controlled with medications and her risk may not be
any more than mine of having a seizure.  Therefore,
there are no extra precautions that she takes.  She
uses a decked sea kayak with a spray skirt.  In
Michigan, where we live, someone who has been seizure
free for 1 year is able to get a driver's license.  We
use the same guidelines at camp - if someone is
seizure free for 1 year and eligible for a driver's
license, we don't take extra precautions.

Most important is the individuals knowledge of his/her
seizures, how frequently they occur, what triggers
them, if there is an "aura" or a premonition before
the seizure and therefore some ability to predict and
prepare for a seizure, what the symptoms of their
seizures are and how long they typically last.  Your
friend who has been seizure free for 3 years would fit
into what I would consider a "low risk" category, and
I wouldn't take any extra precautions.  Every paddler
needs to know the risks involved, and agree to these
risks.  I would consider this person a higher risk if
they have been on meds for many years, and have a
seizure once every 3 to 4 years, regardless.

For people who are not in this low risk category, we
use tandem boats with open cockpits, no spray skirts
and a Type 1 lifevest.  This is bulky and more
difficult to paddle with, but provides increased
floatation and will turn many unconscious individuals
face up automatically.  The person in the tandem
accompanying the person with a seizure disorder has a
whistle to immediatly signal if anything is amiss.  In
addition, there is a "safety boat" shadowing this
boat, ready to raft up immediately in the event of a
seizure.  There have been a few people in a "high
risk" category that we also use sponsons on the boat
for increased stability to minimize any possiblity of
a capsize.  We have used this method successfully with
someone who had a grand mal seizure while paddling.
Sit on tops, as you mentioned, would also be a good

You inquired about rescues for someone having a grand
mal seizure.  I have not had to rescue someone who has
capsized when having a seizure.  Most important, of
course, if to keep the person breathing air and not
water!  There is a rescue which goes by various names
"the unconscious paddler rescue" or "the hand of god"
rescue are a couple names.  It was described in a Sea
Kayaker Magazine in the last couple of years.
Basically, the rescueing boat comes up parallel to the
capsized boat, reaches across the boat and by grabbing
the cockpit and the person's life vest brings them
upright.  Depending on what a person's symptoms are
during a seizure, how long the seizure lasts etc.
this could be more difficult.  The next option would
be to reach under, undo the spray skirt and try to
pull the person out of the boat.

Hope this helps.  Let me know if you have additional


I got a much clearer picture by the time I had read the emails.

Thank you again, and All the best, PeterO