Freestyle Kayaking is the most dynamic sport in kayaking in terms of both the type of acrobatic moves being thrown and the rate in which new kayaks and outfitting is developed for them. There are new models being designed annually, and for companies like Jackson Kayak, we are seeing a new model every 18 months or so.
Unlike slalom kayaking, where the boats are over 3.5 meters long (11’), freestyle kayaks are very short. Being so short means that the weight isn’t spread out as much and weight is less of a factor in how fast you can rotate the kayak. Like a figure skater or gymnast doing spins, pulling their arms in increases the rotational speed a lot. If you had 10 pounds to a slalom boat the boat really does not perform well, but a freestyle kayak is less weight sensitive. With that said, weight does matter, and finding ways to lower the weight of the boats is something that the athletes in this world championships are focused on. There are two different ways we are seeing boats get lighter.
The first is lowering the outfitting weights. At Jackson Kayak we recently created what we are calling the “Competition” version of our new Rock Star. We redesigned the seat, u-channels to be lighter, as well as the plastic hull support and replaced it with a carbon/foam core/glass hull support. The hull itself is lighter, too by 1 pound, making the entire boat only 27 pounds.
A standard kayak you find at your local dealer for a normal medium sized freestyle boat is in between 29.8 pounds and 34 pounds depending on the brand. Jackson Kayak’s medium sized Rock Star was reduced in 2013 from 30.5 pounds to 29.8 pounds. The challenge all kayak companies face when making a freestyle kayak lightweight is the outfitting expected from both customers and athletes are fairly elaborate and it makes it difficult to keep the weight down. Most Carbon kayaks tend to come bare bones, with only a foam seat, or a carbon seat with no padding, etc.. They rarely have much for walls, have no foot blocks, hip pads, or backband. The paddlers are required to outfit the boat themselves.
The second way to lower weights of boats is to replace the plastic hull , which typically weighs around 20 pounds, with a carbon/composite hull which could weigh as low as 13-15 pounds, depending on how durable they are made. There is typically about 5-7 pounds of savings in the hull and another 5-7 pounds of savings in the outfitting. The outfitting savings is usually due to “lack of” outfitting, not lighter outfitting.
The obvious challenges with carbon kayaks are cost, durability, and lack of outfitting that people are used to with a top of the line plastic boat. Cost is a big step up with $2,200 USD or 1700 Euro being a typical price, plus shipping to your address which if purchased in Europe and getting sent to the USA could be $300-$500 more on top of the 1700 Euros ($2270 USD), making the cost to anyone wanting one made in Europe sent to them in North America between $2500-$2800. Jackson Kayak is making our new Rock Star and All-Star at Murkey Waters (known mostly for squirt boats and surf boats) for $2200 retail as well, plus shipping to your address which could be from $50-$150 depending on where it is.
The benefits of a carbon boat, assuming the design is one you like, is weight and stiffness. The weight is the only important part for freestyle in a hole, and the stiffness is important on a wave as well. The Jackson Kayak Rock Star medium is coming in at 17 pounds ready to paddle with backband, foam seat, footblock, thigh pads, and hip pads. This is exactly 10 pounds lighter than the competition version we are making with the carbon track. The outfitting is still quite a bit less involved and takes some adjusting to, and self outfitting to get it to where it provides a similar feeling and function as the factory installed outfitting package in our plastic boats. Gui Gui, Dagger, Pyranha, Vajada, Wavesport, and Galasport are also making carbon kayaks and the weights vary from 18-23 pounds. Each company has their own outfitting and designs. Like plastic boats, all carbon boats are not made alike.
Another downside of carbon boats is the lack of availability of the different designs in different sizes. While most companies will cut down or build up a boat some, they usually only offer one size of a design, medium. Dagger, Wavesport, Pyranha, Vajada, and Gui Gui boats are all one size and while they can cut the height down, or build up, they width of the boat is the same. Jackson Kayak’s Rock Star comes in S, M, and Large like the plastic version, and Star, All-Star for the Star series, but not Super Star, due to lack of demand for that size.
While we are seeing more and more composite kayaks in freestyle competitions, both of existing and new designs; composite kayaks are far from new. Before there were plastic boats, all boats were composite. In the 1993 World Championships I competed in a Composite Dagger Transition prototype along with Scott Shipley, Mark Lyle, and Chris Spelius. However we are seeing lots of new designs popping up from Europe, and also seeing copies of existing designs. Several companies have actually layed up their hulls using existing plastic boats to make their molds from. The Black Sheep in Canada is actually the 2010 All-Star hull and deck that was molded, and they added some footbumps and call it the Black Sheep. This is the boat you see Ben Marr and Pat Camblin paddling. Unfortunately, fighting this legally for a kayak company isn’t feasible, so simply offering a better option is the way to go.
In this upcoming world championships the mix is about 50% Jackson Kayak “competition” version plastic boats, 25% carbon kayaks, and 25% other plastic boats. In the last world championships it was about 50% Jackson Kayak plastic boats, 20% carbon boats, and 30% other plastic boats. In 2009 the mix was 50% Jackson Kayak plastic boats, 35% other plastic boats, and 15% carbon boats.
Who is using what? Peter Csonka is using his own design in carbon, the Beast. Dane is in a plastic competition Rock Star, but is also getting a carbon one to and will decide before the competition. Nick, Clay, and myself are all in competition version Rock Stars but are getting carbon ones and will decide before the comp. Bryan Kirk is in a Carbon Mobius. Mike Patterson on Team USA is in a Carbon Jed. Claire Ohara from England, the current world champion, is in a competition Plastic Rock Star. Nina Csonka, from Slovakia, is in a carbon Beast that is cut down. Elaine Cambell and Haley Mills are waiting for their plastic Mobius in the small size and plan on competing in those.
In my experience so far using both carbon Rock Star (Stephen’s 17 pounder) and my plastic “competition” Rock Star (27 pounds) I feel about the same in both. Moves I missed I missed due to poor technique, moves I got I got in either boat. However, I did feel the snap that was faster in the air that is more impressive to watch and takes less energy to do. Sometimes the judges are thrown off by a really fast rotation and assume the move was good if it goes that fast. This is an advantage that a paddler could get during the competition if they are a little off but throw hard and fast in the lighter boat. Hitting the bottom, which happens regularly in the NOC hole, is a much harder, less comfortable hit in a carbon boat, not to mentioned that it can break your boat. When you watch people train in a carbon boat they tend to not go for as big of air and not plug as hard for loop moves out of fear of hitting bottom. I have seen many rodeos be lost that way. I suggest that if you are going to paddle carbon, be ready to fix it, and don’t stress, just throw as hard as you normally do and if you break it, you can always fix it later.
There is no question that weight is a factor in freestyle. It will be interesting to see what the results show in this world championships. In 2009 it was dubbed the “Jackson Kayak versus Carbon Worlds”. The Jackson Kayak boats swept most classes. In 2011 the Carbon boats beat the Jackson Kayak and other plastic boats in the men’s class with 1st and 2nd being in carbon boats. Women’s class was swept in plastic, however, with Claire, Emily, and Ruth.
2013???? Carbon or plastic?? Who will win? Europeans, Japan, North America, Australia, New Zealand, South America? This will be the best showdown we have seen in a hole, with the highest scores in any world championships in a hole to date! Just watching the training is amazing. Linking moves, getting huge moves, etc. is becoming the norm!