By Eric Jackson
Rock Island, TN
The Jackson Kayak story starts with the disappointing news by my then boss appointed by an investment capital firm to run Confluence, that “sorry, EJ, there isn’t a market for the Ace 2.1” (a little kayak designed for Dane when he was 44 pounds) I had to let Dane know that the beater prototype he was paddling (and learned to flatwater cartwheel and had been running some easy class 5 in) was a dead end street and the last he would see. The writing was on the wall that I would not be leading the market in the directions I imagined staying where I was at. I was time for me to quit Wavesport and design another boat with David Knight for Dane; a boat I would name the “Fun 1”. While this new boat was higher volume than the Ace 2.1, it would be a better river runner and a great all around boat for kids. At the same time, I had my sights set on the “Pre-World Championships” that winter in Australia and needed to up the game with a new playboat for myself as well. David and I also started work on the 2004 All-Star. At the time, my blogspot, www.jacksonkayak.com was a store to sell my DVDs and a place for people to read about my kayaking and get tips. Kristine and I decided within a month of being unemployed and while working with David on two new designs, that we would start our own kayak company. We incorporated it, opened bank accounts, I wrote a business plan, and started getting advice from Dave Olson (who I hired as CFO). Jessie Stone introduced me to Tony Lunt, my partner, who gave me the seed money to get started and I turned the CAD designs David made into 2 composite boats, with the help of Paul Schreiner of PS Composites.
David Knight on Left, Tony Lunt on Right
It was the fall of 2003 and a hurricane had passed through the east coast when Paul got both my composite All-Star and Dane’s Fun 1 prototypes completed. We stopped at our then gear sponsor, IR, and said hi to John and Kara before getting the boats, and hitting the Lower Yough at super flood. Dane was 44 pounds and 10 years old (super small for his age) and I was 165 pounds and 39 years old. The boats were outfitted with 100% foam, other than the IR Backbands we put in them. Dane and I were both a little scared at the put-in, me for taking Dane out in flood (trees going by, and it was way over the banks, big water, no eddies, etc..) We quickly forgot anything but the fact that we were now surfing big waves and holes and running quickly around the “Loop” in our brand new boats that had big Jackson Kayak stickers on it. Yes, that first flooded run of the Yough in 2003 with Dane was the first time I truly felt like the days of having others determine our kayaking future are over. From now on, we can lead the market as we see fit, assuring that not only little kids would have boats, but big people, women, etc.. We would do things differently, for better or for worse.
Dane in his Fun 1 Prototype
I had 4 things that I want every Jackson Kayak whitewater boat to possess for as long as we are making them: “Lightweight, Comfortable, Durable, and Dry” Each design had its own goals for performance, but they all would be light, comfortable, durable, and dry.
2004- the beginning: The Jackson Kayak “Fun Series”- At the time, the only available river running/playboats were 35-41 pounds, but manufacturers literally put 34 pounds as the weight on all medium sized boats. I sent out fishing scales to dealers to weigh their inventory and hopefully get them to realize that the manufacturers were straight up doing false advertising in a big way. It was an epidemic, not occasional. Marketing departments at the kayak companies were looking at what their competitors wrote in catalogs and then simply dropping the weight by 1 pound, for example, and advertising that weight. We called them out. The Jackson Kayak 2 Fun was coming in at 26 pounds and the Fun at 29 pounds. We were 10 pounds lighter than some and at least 5 pounds lighter than anyone. This, combined with our cockpit areas having your legs deigned right into the deck of the boat without a bolt on thigh brace, created a new level of comfort in a boat like this. We also spent a great deal of effort working on a way to have zero holes in the kayak where the average whitewater boat had 11 drill holes in it to attach outfitting. Some had as many as 15. Each hole drilled into the deck, or side of the boat WILL leak 100% of the time. How much they leak depends on how big of a hole the screw augers into the plastic over time, and how tight the screws are. My line to illustrate just how dry our boats were was, and still is: “If you want to know how dry your gear is, paddle a Jackson” This simply means that there is only one place for water to get in on the Fun, through the cockpit rim. If you have a good skirt/dry top, you will paddle bone dry all day.
Sizes: We started pumping out more sizes of the Fun series right away- Fun 1, 2 Fun, Fun, 4 Fun, Super Fun, and eventually, the Fun 1.5. 6 sizes of one design, where nobody ever did more than 3 before and 2 was the norm. My analogy was shoe sizes. Sure you can make a shoe company with only 2 or 3 sizes and get lots of people squeezing into shoes too small, or too big, or you can make the right size for the spectrum of people. Even at 6 sizes, however, there are no 1/2 sizes, and extra wide, or extra narrow, etc. etc. But, Jackson Kayak has and always will do our best to make boats for everyone, not just the “sweet spot” in the market.
Emily rocking the first pink 2 Fun
The Fun series took off for us. A big factor, was our lightweight, comfortable, durable (cross-linked), and dry construction, but the sizing was also huge. Kids kayaking was born in 2004 and many of those kids, today, are the top boaters in the world. A second generation of Fun 1 paddlers are already becoming leaders in the boating world as the Fun 1 is now in its 13 straight season of production.
All-Star- Our next series was our full on playboat- the Star series- Star, All-Star, and Super Star. I won the Pre-World Championships in the All-Star prototype in January of 2004 and then the World Championships in January of 2005 in the new All-Star. At that time, the big thing was “Big Wave Boating”. The World Championships were in a hole in Australia at an artificial whitewater park. Those who were not Jackson fans had rhetoric like “EJ get out of the holes and on a wave- holes are lame”, and “Don’t get a Jackson, they are only good for holes”,etc.. Of course we were also playing the big waves, Buseater, “Braver Wave”, Brave Wave, and on the Zambezi and Nile Rivers as well which was all becoming the new rage at the time for the top boaters. I had been going to the Zambezi since 1999, but most people thought of me, and therefore of Jackson Kayak as a company that designed boats for holes not waves. The Star series sold well for us, but not as good as the Wavesport ZG, which was a great boat, but also had the reputation for a wave boat. However, the Fun series, was the new rage for paddlers of all skill levels and, even today, people love these boats because they are the lightest weight river running friendly, playable, kayaks on the market, that you can learn to roll in, or run big water, etc..
Rocker and Hero: We designed our first creekboat, the Rocker, and our first river running/race boat, the Hero. The Rocker got us out of competitors creek boats and into our own design. Our outfitting in 2004 and 2005 was great for our playboats, but we needed to beef it up for creekboats. 2004/5 we basically had “light creeking” creek boats that worked great in most circumstances, but the seat design didn’t insulate you from big hits on the butt and big bouncy slides hurt. The Hero/Super Hero was designed to be the fastest 8’6” boat on the water. Extreme races and Boatercrosses were being won all season long in this boat, and for a few more years to come. The Green Race, the only one I have ever done (that is another story), we just came out with the Super Hero and I won the short boat class, with Clay in second, and Chris Stafford in third, creating a sweep of that class in our debut to that race. Due to other circumstances, I have not returned to the Green myself, and many on our team has been avoiding it. However, the boat, that our competitors liked to call the “Death dart”, was making waves on the racing scene and it was the most sought after boat on tour. The original Hero series was narrow, and didn’t have a ton of rocker (fast), so it was not our most user friendly boat, and therefore was not a great selling model. It was retro at the time, but retro wasn’t popular back then.
2006- Boat Armor Outfitting: In 2006 David Knight took my direction, and then ran with it and created the most innovative outfitting/“roll cage” concept for a kayak ever made to this day. With Zero holes in the kayak, he created a seat bracket system that triangulated against the sidewall of the boat, the deck, and the seat itself to create an amazing system that could be used in any Jackson Kayak. Our boats were different in that we use a 3 part mold that has a separate cockpit mold, allowing us to mold the cockpit rim into the boat in a way to attach outfitting to it. With our composite floor support beam (the only ones in the industry using one- which was .92 pounds but WAY stiffer/stronger/lighter than any plastic support others were using) and our new seat/seat bracket system, we now had a beefy, strong, adjustable, light weight system for our playboats but most importantly for our creekboats. We also created the “Sweet Cheeks” and “Happy Seat Happy Thruster Combo” to go along with our “Happy Feet” this year.
The sweet cheeks has been such a big part of the Jackson Kayak secret to success, even if a large percentage of kayakers still don’t know how they work, and therefore don’t see the value. It is an instantly form fitting seating system that when you blow air into them, and then let the air out, the tiny foam beans flow around your butt and create a perfect bucket seat. When you suck the remaining air out of it, it locks the beans in place creating a solid block of foam that holds you secure in the seat and eliminates all high and low spots that are uncomfortable in normal seats. The various options for thickness allows you to sit up higher or lower in the boat for best reach, leverage, and balance. We make it in 100 (thinnest version, doesn’t create that much of a bucket, but doesn’t lift you up either), the 200 (best combo of a buckseat shape, and a little lift upwards), and the 300-400 for those wanting to be raised way up, like Stephen Wright or I.
The Happy Seat/Happy Thruster combo- I created the first prototype for this for the 2005 World Championships after seeing how much air Anonthy Yap (much was due to his skill and his super light weight body in a big boat) was getting in his Bliss Stick RAD during the 2004 Pre-worlds with a Beach Ball in his lap. This was the common method to add volume to your skirt area for loops by many. I also did it from time to time, but it is quite dangerous as you can’t get your legs out of the boat with the ball in there. I also thought that, like a bicycle enthusiast doesn’t like to ride without toe clips (or clip on shoes), a good kayaker won’t want to paddle without a Happy Seat under your legs. My initial prototype didn’t allow you to inflate them separately, so you either had a very inflated happy Thruster, or you had loose legs. In 2005 I finally designed a two piece system with a Seat that goes under your legs and allows you to control your boat by pushing down on it as well as lifting on a knee, and a separate happy thruster that gives you volume for big loops, macho moves, etc..
Here is the 2006 Jackson Kayak promo video, showing the Fun 1, Fun, original Rocker, Hero, Super Hero, and All-Star.
Below are some more random images from the period, plus a couple of photos showing Pre-Jackson kayak, little Emily, Little Dane, EJ in wavesport, and the first kayak I ever made (fiberglass one).
check out a young Jackson Team and Family in 2006!