Rotator cuff surgery is the reason Jeff Gilman had to give up kayaking a few years ago. But it’s also the reason he has developed an ergonomic oar grip that is making waves among rafting and angling enthusiasts.
The Gilman Grip oar handle created and patented by Gilman, a longtime Whitefish woodworker, already has caught the attention of outdoor publications such as Field and Stream and Angling Trade.
The one-of-a-kind grip is designed for fishing guides and anglers, rafters and those who use drift boats. The design keeps the blade of the oar near the surface of the water and eliminates unwanted oar spins, Gilman explained. If offers intuitive feathering and powerful strokes with less shoulder and wrist fatigue.
Gilman was an avid kayaker who sought whitewater the world over for more than three decades before the shoulder surgery put an end to his kayaking days.
“I hung up the kayak, but I didn’t want to give up the lifestyle,” he said.
Gilman switched to rafting — catarafting in particular. A cataraft is a long raft with two pontoons, capable of carrying more than one person. While kayaking requires a lot of arm motion above the shoulder, raft oars are handled at chest level.
Though it was an acceptable means of staying on the river, Gilman said he didn’t feel the same connection to the water that kayaking provided. Kayak paddles became ergonomically shaped in the mid-’80s, but there was nothing comparable for rafters, he said, adding, “so I brought that connection into rafting.”
Developing his prototype didn’t happen overnight.
“I’ve been working on grips for three years,” Gilman said.
He developed a number of prototypes, starting first with a grip for each hand before switching to an ambidextrous design. Gilman used plaster of paris and then silicone to hone his designs. He even carved a set out of wood at one point.
Gilman got support and expertise from Dan Leatzow, a specialist in advanced manufacturing who teaches at Flathead Valley Community College. Leatzow made a three-dimensional scan of the oar grip, and a 3-D print was made from that.
“From that we could make the mold and at that point we could mirror it,” he said.
There were more revisions. Gilman spent a full year fine-tuning the design to make it more universal so it could fit a wide range of men’s and women’s hands. Children also can use the grips.
“With these grips it’s intuitive right away; there’s no learning curve,” he said. “This is poised to change the industry because it makes it so intuitive. It gives confidence to do more difficult water.”
Many rafters use oar rights because they lock the oar blades into a vertical position, but Gilman said his grips eliminate the need for oar rights.
Specifically, the Gilman Grip oar handle offers a naturally form-fitting design that leads to less fatigue and eliminates unwanted oar spin. Dual thumb placement options provide maximum comfort, control and responsiveness, he said. And increased surface area in contact with a rower’s hands enables more powerful strokes and intuitive feathering.
Once Gilman perfected his design, he made about 60 sets of the grips and started getting them into the hands of river guides and others who could offer a critique.
“I strategically placed them because I want the feedback,” he said.
River enthusiasts have by and large given Gilman Grips oar handles two thumbs up, so now it’s time to get set up for commercial production. Gilman opted for a Kickstarter funding campaign that launches Tuesday, Sept. 19.
“Kickstarter is like taking pre-orders,” he said. “It’s pre-marketing” the product. His goal is to raise $48,900.
Gilman said an online funding campaign also will help him create buzz about his innovative oar grips.
“It’s really just a passion,” he said. “The confidence I had kayaking, I want to bring that to everyone.”
Hence the motto for his invention: “Never miss a stroke.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.