Mechanical Engineering Students Create Modified Kayak for Disabled Veterans

June 1, 2023

Two EWU senior mechanical engineering students, Michael Hopkins and Dustin Santora, recently unveiled a unique modified kayak they designed and built for disabled veterans. The kayak features a swivel chair that can be adjusted to the user’s comfort level, making it suitable to accommodate a wide range of disabilities.

Hopkins and Santora, under the guidance of Robert Gerlick, associate professor mechanical engineering and mechanical engineering technology, worked with the Spokane Chapter of Team River Runner on their project of designing, fabricating and testing the kayak as a directed studies assignment.

Team River Runner is an organization that provides active duty, veterans and their families with opportunities “to find health, healing, community purpose and new challenges through adventure and adaptive paddle sports.” The goal for the project was to alleviate the issues veterans and Team River Runner’s assistants were having when trying to transport disabled veterans from their wheelchairs into the kayaks.

“I’d never done anything like this before and it seemed like a really cool project,” says Hopkins. “I’m a helpful person so I jumped at the opportunity.”

The students presented their invention and were able to demo it to Team River Runner, in the EWU pool this spring. The implementation of adaptive features increases safety and enhances user experiences, says Hopkins, who adds that the project was a great success. “Team River Runner came out to see it and they all loved it.”

Hopkins’ and Santora’s  “exceptionally innovative design facilitates the progression of our wounded warriors onwards upon the river to recovery,” says Stan Mrzygod, chapter coordinator at Team River Runner Spokane, in a letter of thanks sent to the department.

This wasn’t the first time Eastern has worked with Team River Runner. “I highly value the strong relationship between EWU and TRR’s adaptive paddling program and the mutual benefits derived from this partnership,” Mrzygod adds.

Hopkins and Santora had been working on the project since the beginning of fall quarter 2022 and finished up at the end of winter quarter 2023.

The students were tasked with designing a seat bracket that could go into a regular kayak without modifying the kayak itself. “We needed to mount the seat on top and have it be able to swivel at least 90 degrees,” Hopkins says. Their kayak chair can swivel a full 360 degrees.

“We over-engineered it to be really sturdy and foolproof so nothing could go wrong,” he says.

The Easterners were told the kayak seat needed to be able to hold up to 300 pounds. And just to be safe, the students made sure it could hold up to 600 pounds. They added braces to the base of the kayak and the chair was made from aluminum, in order to be corrosion and water resistant.

“It was like a mini capstone project, so it was a good experience,” Hopkins says, “Plus, we were going to get hands-on experience with learning how to TIG weld aluminum, which is a useful skill to have.”