The river wild

23 July 2012
Tom Brady, GB canoeing athlete

Keri Allan caught up with Olympic boat designer Stuart Morris, whose research is helping to inform a new blueprint for the ultimate kayak design.

For the past four years IET member Stuart Morris, 34, has been a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering, working on a ground-breaking project to develop a scientific methodology for the ultimate kayak design to maximise athletes’ performance in the sport.

The Olympic boat designer for the GB canoe slalom team his designs were used at the Beijing Olympics Games and Campbell Walsh won the 2008 European Championships at Krakow, Poland in a boat he’d designed with Morris.

A former Gold Medal winner in the European Freestyle Cup Championships himself, Morris also runs his own company designing and making kayak paddles.

Member News: So, when did you first get involved in the world of canoeing and how did it move from hobby to career?

Stuart Morris: My family were always into boats. I had my own little rubber dingy as a kid and I used to pretend I was a big boat man. When I was nine years old we went to an Army open day and part of this was to go canoeing. I loved it. From there I joined a club and slowly got into competitions.

My career has partly been in the sporting world as I spent 13 years on the British slalom and freestyle canoeing team and I was European champion for freestyle canoeing in 2006.

From then on, I was making stuff: I used to make helmets, paddles and build rowing boats working in the composite industry. When I was 24 I went to university and studied computer-aided product design (CAD). I then started my own business doing design consultancy, mainly for composites and sport. Then I became the Olympic boat designer for the British slalom team. After that I went on to do a PhD at Nottingham University, sponsored by UK Sport.

MN: Why did you decide to head to university at the age of 24, was that part of a bigger career plan?

Morris: I just wasn’t getting anywhere in my career at that point so I wanted to add to my abilities. I was quite interested in design, 3D modelling and CNC, I wanted to go into that a bit more and it seemed like a good way forward.

MN: And becoming an Olympic boat designer – a pretty impressive title! How did you get this role?

Morris: It came about through one of the athletes, Campbell Walsh [issue 30 cover image] who was a silver medallist at the 2004 Athens games. He’s a small lad: only weighs about 63kg, so the average designed boats didn’t really suit him. He had a tendency to chop stuff up and stick it back together in his kitchen, which was a bit dangerous. He should have been canoeing, not sticking boats together and was getting stressed, so asked if I could help out. It all started from there really.

MN: So essentially you became the man who cut up canoes and put them back together then?

Morris: To a certain extent, yes. It was mostly hands-on. I was talking to the athletes, watching them paddle and their performance. I discussed their needs and wants from the kayak and would then find ways of changing the design of the form to get the performance they wanted.

MN: How did the move from boat designer to PhD researcher come about?

Morris: It was through a graduate innovation programme sponsored by UK Sport. About 16 academics have been sponsored to do research into different areas of sport. The job went out to interview, [and I fitted] the requirements needed.

MN: Your own experiences of competing must inform your research. Are you able to take a lot from your own experience?

Morris: Totally. I have full understanding of what the kayak is, what it needs to do and the environment in which it needs to perform. I know a lot of the athletes on a personal level as well. I’ve been paddling and training with them for years so it helps with the communication and understanding of what they want from a kayak.

MN: So what did your research entail?

Morris: The goal was to improve performance within the sport. Boats slowly evolve over time, there’s no methodology for designing them and no method for capturing the resulting performance. There’s a lot of guesswork involved, the focus was more art than science.

I looked to put some structure and science into the whole process. I came up with a protocol of how to define the geometries of the boats, look at their hydrostatic properties so I could compare and rank them on form.

Then I did a series of field tests [including] flat-water sprints and manoeuvrability tests then a white water racecourse.

Two elite athletes did a series of runs on each task, in four different shaped boats, against a control. I looked at four different form attributes: depth, width, longitudinal curvature and seat position. Each of these forms was set at two levels plus a control. Performance times, athlete perception and IMU data were collected and analysed to rank the kayaks in terms of performance. The performance data could then be compared to the form data to build up a data base of how how kayak form affected performance. A secondary experiment was carried out in Strathclyde University’s tow tank. Each of the kayak forms were towed at multiple velocities and there drag-measured for comparison. This data provided steady state drag information which was compared to the dynamic sprint data in the hope that associations could be made leading to more virtual testing in the future, freeing up the athletes to train.

Two elite athletes did a series of runs in four different shaped boats, basically they each had three levels of shape: a narrow boat, a really narrow boat, and a control boat. I was concerned with the depth of the kayak as well and wanted to look at the longitudinal curvature of the hull, how banana-ed it was and the seat position: they were all compared against the control.

MN: How important do you believe engineering and technology is to the sport, how much of a difference does it make?

Morris: I did design quite a few boats on the computer using CAD and analysed them with computer-related software such as Orca and Rhino 3D. It’s made a really big difference. Having an understanding of how technology can help you with design engineering, solving problems and coming up with solutions. It’s really useful, although it’s the interpretation and application that  are important.

It’s like any industrial sector, it’s very important to have science, engineering and maths involved in analysing and looking at performance. In sport, it’s only in the last ten years that it’s really been coming through in the sporting sector. Before that, sport was a pastime, a bit of fun. For people now, it’s a full-time job, an industry. It’s a big market, [and engineering and technology] makes a big difference.

MN: What have you managed to create off the back of your research?

Morris: It’s a structured protocol where you can accurately compare two boats, or multiple boat designs. The application of this is you can basically take a boat, capture its form and performance and change it over time and look at the effects on performance.

On top of that, I have a greater understanding of how different forms do affect performance so you can be more accurate on your design process in the future, cutting down time.

MN: How has your research benefited team GB this year?

Morris: Some of the manufacturers that I’ve worked with have integrated the work that I’ve done with the athletes into their current designs. They’ve learned my process of listening to the athletes and designing the boats to suit them, rather than giving them a generic one off the shelf.

The 2016 Games is what my current research is aimed at. It’s between now and then that’ll make the difference, based on funding.

The other involvement I have in this Olympic Games is to assess the athletes’ fitness. We hire swimming pools, they do 20m sprints, we take the times. We’ve been doing that for the last ten years so we can monitor progress, how their training is affecting them, the gym, their diet, injuries, equipment. We monitor them and adjust their training programmes [accordingly].

MN: Now that your research is almost complete do you plan to go back to getting your hands dirty and building boats or would you prefer to carry on in the research arena?

Morris: I like a mix of both really. I like to come up with ideas and ways of solving problems and putting them into an applied output. Especially something people can use, like the kayaks.

It all depends on funding. If the canoe slalom athletes win a lot of medals at the Games then there’ll be a lot of money in the sport and hopefully the government might increase the employment and funding within the sport. At the moment I’ve got my own business making kayak paddles plus I still do the sports analysis for the British team. That will pay the bills for a bit!

MN: Out of all the things you’ve achieved already, at just 34 years old what are you most proud of – would it be when you won a championship yourself?

Morris: No. Just meeting people I guess, having a good time and doing something that you enjoy and sharing that experience with other people. It’s been a whole journey rather than a one-off hit.

Any job is a chore after a while, but it makes it nice when you do something that you can appreciate, enjoy and see the results of.

[Image: AE Photos courtesy of GB Canoeing]

Experimental design

For his PhD, Stuart Morris designed an experimental protocol to be tested by two differently weighted former 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, UK. 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.

“We believe [this research] 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,” says Nick Warrior, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nottingham.

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