paddle-articles

An inspiring first - A visually impaired paddler raced OC1 with remote controlled guidance

October 15, 2018 Cali Paddler

Blind OC1 Racer

Imagine back to the energy and courage needed when you did your first race. You were nervous, pumped up and probably had butterflies in your stomach. Now imagine if you were listening for the starting horn to begin but relying on someone with a remote control to steer your craft. Why? Because you were totally blind! This just happened. And we are so completely inspired by this and can't wait to share below exactly what took place this past weekend in Newport, Ca. We interviewed RJ De Rama, the Executive Director at Makapo Aquatics Project and got the scoop. Enjoy!

Hi there RJ, first off wow, what a neat story, thank you for the time with us to share it with everyone. First off, please give us a little background on Makapo.

The Makapo Aquatics Project is a charity whose mission is to help the blind and visually impaired live active lives.  We use outrigger paddling as the main activity because it’s the perfect sport for those people who don’t have sight. You can just hand a paddle to a blind person, guide them safely to the canoe, and off they go. And because they can’t see, paddling is all done by feel. The NAC Makapo program has been around since 2007.

Blind OC1 Makapo

Can you share a little background on the Paddler?
Andrew Skvarla has been paddling with Makapo since he was 16. He’s totally blind, a really good athlete, and started with our keiki program. He was such a natural, we asked him to race the 2014 Liberty Challenge in New York when we teamed up with the NAC that year.

So who’s idea and ingenuity was enlisted here?
The idea of controlling an OC1 via remote control floated around in my head a couple of years ago.  Being a techy, nerdy guy, I always thought it was possible and could greatly help our blind paddlers improve - just like other paddlers do when they paddle an OC1 regularly.  The main problem is how does a person who can’t see safely navigate an OC1?  Luckily, at the beginning of this year, I was introduced to Mark Baldwin, who is working on his PhD at UC Irvine and shared my idea.  Mark is researching ways to make things more accessible to the blind community, especially technology.  He was game. And so we started to develop a solution.
Blind OC1 Makapo
What exactly, and how, did this get rigged up?

The system has three major components - a modified tiller cap, the servo module, and the transmitter.

The key to the system is a 3D printed tiller cap that’s modified to add a star shape to its top surface.  This acts as the interface between the rudder and the servo,, battery, and wiring inside a removable, waterproof module.  The module is attached to the canoe by a single GoPro style suction cup.  Steering is performed using a standard RC car pistol-style transmitter, and we use a support boat to follow the paddler.  We also use two way radios to communicate with the paddler from the support boat.

Mark has done a spectacular job in designing this system.  It’s transferable from one canoe to another, so long as each canoe has a modified tiller cap. And it preserves the ability of the paddler to steer the canoe via the foot peddles in case power is lost or they need to override the system.  Currently, we’ve modified the tiller caps of all 3 OC1s currently available from Puakea Designs.  We’re working on other solutions for other canoe designs.

Blind OC1 Makapo

How did the race go?

Andrew paddled a great race!  He hasn’t had much time on an OC1, but he settled in nicely and paddled the 4 mile short course well.  It probably helped that he had us following him in a support boat cheering him along while he was being steered.  The steering system, just like Andrew, performed well too.  When he crossed the finish line, there wasn’t a person around who didn’t have a big smile on their face.  We were just so stoked that it went so well and that we helped Andrew become the first totally blind person to complete a race on a remote controlled OC1.  I also feel pretty proud that he used my canoe to accomplish this.

Blind OC1 Makapo

What did Andrew think of it? What were some of the challenges?

Andrew said it was a freeing experience to be able to paddle an OC1.  It’s just him out there; and while someone still needs to be steering him, there’s no one else to move that canoe. He was also very proud to be the first one to use the system in a race. There were, as always, a couple of challenges during the race.  The first was the amount of debris on the course since it had rained heavily the night before. Secondly, because of Andrew’s limited experience, he did huli.  He recovered quickly, though, and was on his way.

Will it be likely this will happen again?

For sure!  We hope to enter Andrew and other blind paddlers into the various races in the SoCal winter series.  Having 3 canoes available to use, we only need to make more steering modules.  The system also opens the option for relay type races where we can partner one of our blind paddlers with a sighted paddler, and they can use the same canoe.

Blind OC1 Makapo


As a blind Paddler, we imagine a connection to the water is pretty special. Can you describe this for us?

I know that many of my fellow visually impaired paddlers consider the feeling of freedom as the best part about our sport.  When we’re on the water, we’re not worried about running into things or hurting ourselves, so we can go all out and give it every ounce of effort we have.  It’s such a unique opportunity to be part of a team that’s inclusive, with my sighted teammates relying on me, a visually impaired person.  It doesn’t happen very often for a blind person.  And now we have another option to paddle with the remote control OC1, Makapo hopes that it’ll expose our paddlers to more paddling experiences.


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Thanks so much! This truly helps our community Be E.P.I.C. (Every Paddler In California). Can you share your website so paddlers can support and learn more about this in the future?

Sure! Our website is www.makapo.org


Here’s the youtube video chronicling our initial testing

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