Since I can remember I’ve been a critic of whitewater kayakers wearing elbow pads on the river. I held myself upon a pedestal above other paddlers who were clumsy enough on the water to require use of such protective equipment. “I don’t need those things,” I thought, “I won’t let my elbows hit any rocks.”
I bet you can guess how this story goes: My arrogance got the best of me, and after years of boycotting the use of elbow pads I had injured both my elbows—my right one is even missing a chunk of bone.
What was I thinking? I had let my stubborn attitude—for what? Aesthetics? Bad-assery?—against a crucial piece of safety gear lead to injury, potentially threatening the part of my body most essential for paddling.
I opened my eyes and noticed that some of the most talented kayakers I paddle with (Evan Garcia, Rafa Ortiz, Rush Sturges, Pat Keller, to name a few) regularly wore elbow pads when they were paddling. Some of these guys would wear them anytime they were on the water, while others reserved their use for days on especially low-volume, rocky, unknown or technical rivers and creeks. I came to the revelation that I needed to start paddling with elbow pads.
Soon after making this realization I hijacked a pair of my brother’s old mountain biking elbow pads and took off for a paddling trip to the creeks of California’s High Sierra (ultimate elbow-bashing territory).
Unfortunately, after my first roll the open-cell foam padding in the bike pads filled with water. A few pounds heavier, they slid down to my wrists. Afraid of another chipped bone in my elbow, I used some duct tape to tighten the pads around my arms and continued downstream. The thick duct tape constrained my movement and made paddling difficult. After my next roll I threw a tantrum, ripped off the elbow pads and stuffed them into the back of my kayak. To hell with these things!
Witnessing my fit, my friend Galen Volckhausen laughed, shook his head and paddled away. Somehow his elbow pads were still up around his elbows. What was he doing that I wasn’t? He had rolled a couple times as well, yet his elbow pads didn’t seem to be hindering his paddling what-so-ever.
That night at camp, reminiscing in the day’s events, Galen let me try on his WRSI S-Turn Elbow Pads. Right away, I realized why he had been paddling at such ease while I struggled with each stroke. The neoprene padding of the S-Turn pads repelled away water, while the mesh sleeve and elastic straps kept the pads in place right where they were supposed to be.
As I followed Galen down the rest of the run, I watched how he paddled with the elbow pads. And I realized that he used them to enhance his paddling technique. When boat-scouting rapids he would rest his elbows on hard granite rocks to gain a higher perspective and peer downstream. On another occasion, I watched Galen get pushed against a low-angle rock on the right side of the river. Instead of extending the fragile tip of his carbon paddle out onto the rock for a low-brace (as I would have), he let go of the paddle with his right hand and rested his padded forearm onto the rock. Galen had grown so comfortable with his elbow pads, they had become an integral piece of his paddling equipment, just like his boat and paddle.
After watching the ease in which Galen paddled with his S-Turn elbow pads and noticing how they didn’t hinder his paddling, I knew I needed a pair for myself. I bought a set at my local paddling shop and strapped them on for a low-water lap down the Green Truss Section of the White Salmon River. Before even sitting in my kayak I was glad to have on my new elbow pads. A slip in the thick, late-summer dust sent me to the ground, but my S-Turns were there protecting my forearm from what would have been a gnarly blow and a bruised limb. (In full disclosure: it did nothing for my ego.)
On the water the pads proved beyond useful. There were a couple instances where my elbow would brush against exposed rocks or tap the grab loops on my kayak, but now I would hardly notice the impact. By the end of the run I had become so comfortable with my new elbow pads, I barely knew they were there. Even when I plugged into BZ Falls deep beneath the surface, flipped over and rolled back up, the elbow pads were comfortably in place just as I had put them on at the top of the run. No longer did waterlogged open cell foam pull the pads down to my wrists. These pads proved themselves solid and I knew I would be using them again and again for more low-water runs.
Now I use my S-Turn elbow pads every time that I paddle a technical, rocky or unknown section of river and I recommend them to all my friends.