The genius of Vaaka

Canoe Racing New Zealand recently signed a sponsorship agreement with Dunedin-based company Vaaka Limited. Steve Landells finds out more about their cadence sensors and the performance benefits to paddlers of all levels. 

When Dunedin-based Brendan O’Neill took up kayak coaching 15 years ago he quickly discovered a glaring hole he was eager to plug.

Fully aware that the principles of coaching centre around volume, intensity and recovery he noticed kayaking struggled to have any adequate measure for intensity of effort.

“It was a big issue,” explains Brendan, a former Great Britain sprint and marathon international. “My coach used to say ‘I want you to paddle at 80 per cent or at 80 strokes per minute’ but we had nothing to tell us we were paddling at 80 per cent or 80 strokes a minute.”

Brendan scoured the planet but had no reliable means of measuring real time stroke rate feedback. For some time the medical doctor unsuccessfully worked on finding a solution until a chance dinner with University of Otago Professor of Zoology, Mike Paulin, provided the vital breakthrough the Otago Canoe and Kayak Club coach craved.

“I had been trying to make the concept work for about 18 months when Mike explained to me how he uses animal movement as a model for robotics,” recalls Brendan. “By the next weekend we had a working model (for the cadence sensors) the size of a lunchbox, which we later refined. From there, transforming the movement (of a paddle stroke) into a digital output was reasonably straight forward.”

With Canoe Racing NZ coach Gordon Walker acting as Brendan’s mentor at the time, the pair both “clicked” through their shared vision of coaching analytically.

Impressed by the cadence sensors – which back then were little more than a homemade piece of kit – Gordon took one to be used by Lisa Carrington in late-2010.

The following year, Lisa won the first of her ten world titles and in 2012, the kayak phenomenon claimed gold in the women’s K1 200m at the London Olympics.

“During that 18-month period from Gordy first taking the sensor and the interest and enthusiasm he showed we decided to commercialise the product,” explains Brendan, who says the name ‘Vaaka’ came about as a combination of merging the New Zealand term Waka, the Tahitian Va’a and the Cook Islands Vaka canoe.

“We got an electronics company here in Dunedin involved called Kamahi, they shrunk the product down, improved the software and made it into a commercial product. So by the time Lisa had won her London Olympic gold medal we were ready to market the Vaaka Cadence Senor to the world.”

The lightweight device (30g) – which can be used on an outrigger canoe, stand up paddle board, kayak or dragon boat – is an accelerometer which measures movement. The software team then convert that digital output into a paddle stroke. Wireless technology then sends the information to a GPS display.

The device is clipped to the paddle shaft and is designed as an everyday training tool for the paddler.

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“The two things that really make a difference in a kayak – is the number of strokes per minute and how far you move the boat with every stroke ,” explains Brendan, the Vaaka Chief Operating Officer.

“What we want is athletes to have instant feedback about whether they are training at the right intensity. The wireless connection as they paddle gives them a real time number of strokes a minute, which we are able to sync with your GPS watch.”

Today the vast majority of elite New Zealand paddlers use the Vaaka product with many of the country’s leading clubs and coaches also using the sensors.

Internationally Vaaka has expanded to dealerships in 12 different countries with North America and Australia the Kiwi company’s main market.

So why would Brendan advise any paddler to use the Vaaka Cadence Sensor?

“It is all about improving performance and smart training,” he adds. “If you train in the right way you will improve and the sensor will allow you to better monitor your pace and effort. At Lisa Carrington’s level there is not a lot more training you can do, so you have to get smart and make sure each session is properly targeted. At club level time for training is more limited. Vaaka is a tool that gives intensity feedback, so this will enable you to see improvements without putting in hours and hours of training.”

To find out more about Vaaka visit

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