Olympic kayak designer's quest for gold

02 May 2012 00:01:00.000

PA /2012

Great Britain’s Olympic canoe slalom team is hoping to reap the rewards this summer of pioneering new research into kayak design by a University of Nottingham PhD student and former canoe champion.

For the past four years, doctoral researcher in the Faculty of Engineering, Stuart Morris, has been working on a ground-breaking project to develop a scientific methodology for the ultimate kayak design to maximise athletes’ performance in the sport.

Stuart is the Olympic Boat Designer for the GB canoe slalom team and a former Gold Medal winner in the European Freestyle Cup Championships. With the difference between gold and silver medals in competitions a matter of split seconds, his research could be vital to the current GB team’s success in the forthcoming 2012 London Olympics.

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Taming the white water

A successful slalom kayak has to be a finely balanced compromise of design attributes to maximise forward speed, manoeuvrability and stability allowing the athlete to maintain control of the boat in a race. To date, slalom kayaks have evolved slowly through trial and error with the best design features being carried forward from one to the next. But this process has no set methodology for the comparative testing of different kayaks and for assessing their effect on performance.

Stuart Morris is being supported by UK Sport Research & Innovation team and The British Canoe Union, with help from Dr Alex Stedmon and Professor Nick Warrior in the University’s Department of Mechanical, Materials & Manufacturing. Stuart said:

“The main aim of this research is to develop robust design and testing protocols for kayak design. There are complex relationships between the athlete, kayak and white water environment which all contribute to the resulting performance in competition. The athlete is constantly processing sensory inputs from both the kayak and the environment. He or she reacts to these messages and executes the necessary actions to negotiate the fastest route down a course.

“Our formalising of the design process aims to provide the GB Slalom Team with tailor-made equipment which will help them produce their best performances on race day. It will be fascinating to see how they fare in the London Olympics this summer and their medal tally could be an interesting measurement of this original research.”

Experimental canoe design 

For his PhD, Stuart designed an experimental protocol to be tested by two differently weighted GB team athletes using four identical carbon fibre slalom kayaks. Each kayak was individually modified at two levels giving eight different kayak forms to compare and analyse against a control. A digital laser scanner was used to record and compare the modifications and their individual effect on how the kayak performs in the water.

The modified kayaks were tested over three different tasks in two different environments at the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont near Nottingham. The tasks were a flat water sprint, a Figure 8 turning task to test manoeuvrability and a white water task over ten gates on a competition course. Comments from the testers helped to inform the observational analysis of the experiments and, interestingly, the athletes’ subjective feedback and perception generally matched the objective scientific results.

These results revealed several criteria which have helped inform the new blueprint for the ultimate kayak design. The specific changes involved are obviously subject to secrecy in this competitive sport but concern the curvature of the hull, kayak width, seat position and volume of the kayak.

Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Nick Warrior said: “We are very proud of this original research which we believe will help athletes achieve real performance gains and carry on pushing the boundaries of human achievement in this exciting sport. The research method used and the results recorded have given us significantly greater knowledge of the relationship between kayak form and performance. It will allow athletes and designers to build more advanced kayaks much more efficiently and quickly, boosting their performance in the field and medal-winning potential.”

Thanks to his work, Stuart has been invited to attend an evening reception on Wednesday 2 May at The Houses of Parliament for the launch, during Universities Week 2012, of a major new report, University Research, Sport Development and the Olympics. This includes his research as a case study.

The report by British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS), Research Councils UK, and Universities UK, details some of the world-class university research and sport development programmes which help underpin the success of Team GB, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the UK sports industry. For more about Universities Week 2012, visit www.universitiesweek.org.uk

Story credits

More information is available from Stuart Morris, University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)7960060422 ,  emxsm3@nottingham.ac.uk 

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