I forget, sometimes, just how “new” many of the kayakers today are to the scene and what seems like common knowledge to myself and peers, is often quite vague or even unknown historical information to most people. With an influx of new paddlers each year (40% of new kayaks are sold to people who just started that season) and paddlers who fade away and take their knowledge and information with them, history becomes blurred. If you talk to anyone under 40 years old they were not around during the evolution of the kayak, which started around 1992 and didn’t slow down for 15 years, but much happened that seems lost to many.
It is not unlike history that repeats itself, once the past is forgotten, doing what was done in the past seems like new again to those who missed the past.
Here is a piece I wrote up 11 years ago on Boatertalk. It takes us to the pinnacle of River Running/Playboats- the Fun Series for Jackson Kayak… I will add the past 11 years below that..
————————————————————- Below was written in 2003 or 2004 Photos 2001—————————————————————————-
The Evolution of the Whitewater Kayak
Conception to Present
In the beginning, there were no whitewater kayaks. All kayaks were made for the ocean and bay and were used by the Eskimos. Those unsinkable, rollable craft were discovered and used in Europe, North America and eventually everywhere. Eventually, somebody got the bright idea that they could run rapids in them. Of course, it was more of a necessity of transportation than recreation at the time. These ocean-going kayaks found themselves landlocked in many parts of the world. As with any species, it began to evolve to better survive in its new environment. The first evolution of the landlocked kayak (whitewater kayak) was to lose much of its keel to make it turn easier. Then it began to get shorter. In getting shorter it became both easier to maneuver and run rivers. Another interesting phenomenon occurred, it became primarily used for recreation. Recreation means fun. Racing is fun, and the drivers of the kayaking revolution became slalom and downriver racers. In fact the first slalom World Championships was in 1949 (compared to the first rodeo worlds in 1991) Kayaks again got shorter for slalom racing. Rules for racing kayaks were set in the early days, which mandated a minimum length, which was 4 meters long (13�-2�). Slalom racing became very popular. Almost all advancements in the sport came from the racers and coaches. In fact, all recreational kayaks were now slalom kayaks. They were all 4 meters long and very similar to slalom kayaks if not actually slalom kayaks. Where were the playboaters? That is like asking the Wooly Mammoth where the African Elephant is. They don�t exist yet. Most of the skilled kayakers were, in fact, slalom racers. They were the best kayakers of any continent. If a slalom racer couldn�t do it, it couldn�t be done. Then in the late seventies out of a need to evolve again, kayakers began pushing the limits of the sport by running harder rivers. They discovered that by making the boats shorter they were easier to control and easier to get down the river. The evolution was on again. Kayakers began to design boats that were too short to slalom race in. A crazy thing happened. These boaters discovered that the new shorter boats not only ran the river better, but surfed waves, endered, even cartwheeled easier. Fun, fun, fun. In 1984, a man named Jan Kelner, from Augsburg, Germany approached me in Germany about playboating. He had heard of it and new that I was in fact more of a playboater than a slalom racer. I got in his kayak at the big hole there and did enders, pirouettes, hand surfing, etc.. He was very impressed and decided this was the kind of kayaking for him. 13 years later he won the first world rodeo championships in England. By the late eighties, the term playboat became a reality. Certainly, slalom was still a dominant force, and �rodeo boaters� were a thing of the future. However, the powers to be who were designing boats had the idea that fun can be improved by making a boat that played better and river ran better, instead of being faster on a slalom course. Most of the playboating evolution took place in one decade. The 1990�s saw boats drop to nearly half the length. By getting shorter, of course, they ran rivers much better, and played better. Rodeo kayaking overtook slalom kayaking on the rivers of North America by 1995, and Europe by 1997. In 1998, the X was put on the market. This boat was the Pinnacle of the river running, playboating evolution. The X and Z represented the last step in 80 year long revolution of whitewater kayaks that improved the river running and playing qualities of a kayak. The next generation of kayaks took a detour. They became better playboats, but not as good for river running. They were specialty boats. The momentum of kayakers was to keep improving their playboating so these new �slicey boats� were the most popular. People were willing to give up some river running ability for the play ability. This kind of kayak, the �slicey boats�, is still the most popular today. However, a new kind of kayak is bringing the river running back to the best playboats. We call them �bobby� boats for lack of a better term. A short bulbous kayak that is the best choice for either getting down a river on line and right side up, or tearing up a local playspot. Why paddle a boat that is not as good for getting down a river, or playing? Every step of the way, the evolution of the kayak has increased the fun factor, and except for the short period between 1999-2000 increased the river running factors as well.
We now have the Fun family. The boats on the market in 2004 that are designed to be the best river running and best overall play boats. This is the future, today. The next step in the evolution. Everyone should be in a boat that gives them the maximum potential for enjoyment. Your boat should also allow you to paddle at your potential and enjoy the steepest possible learning curve. That is the second part of this story.
What specific design qualities determine your potential for fun, your ability to learn more quickly, and to get down rivers with ease?
This is not as complicated as it might seem at first glance. However, when asked, most kayakers, and kayak designers will tell you it is a very personal thing and that there is no right answer. That belief is what keeps kayaks from advancing more quickly than they are now, and more importantly, it keeps kayakers everywhere from enjoying each outing to its fullest.
Looking to play on the river? Of course you are. Are you just a river runner? No way, no such thing.
Myth- There are people out there who just enjoy river running, they aren�t playboaters.
Reality- Front surfing a wave is playboating. Know anybody who doesn�t try to front surf? No. How does front surfing qualify somebody as a playboater? Generally, the kayakers who are only front surfing are in displacement-hulled kayaks or longer creeky style boats. What other playboating tricks can these boaters do with their boats? Enders, surf holes, maybe squirts. So basically, when you see somebody front surfing a wave in a displacement hulled kayak, they are maxxing out the playboating capabilities of that kayak. Would somebody who front surfs like backsurfing? Of course. Will they ever backsurf? No, not until they buy a boat that spins so they can turn around on the wave and back surf.
What about cartwheels? Well, big boats need big holes to cartwheel. Most people don�t find big holes on their river, and when they do, they avoid them. So getting vertical is something that is only usually enjoyed by people in smaller rodeo boats.
Why doesn�t everyone own the best playboat today? Simply because of lack of information. Just about everyone owns a rodeo boat. Paddle an RPM? That boat was the cutting edge rodeo boat for the bigger paddler in 1996. It was never our river runner. It is just an outdated rodeo boat.
Specific design criteria that translates to fun, learning, and instant success:
#1 Vertical Ability- Your boat must be able to go vertical easily in flatwater at your weight. The easier the better. This is the first most important criterion when choosing a kayak. If you can�t get it vertical easily, than you won�t be getting it vertical very often. The more often you get vertical the more experience you have and skill comes from experience. Have you never done a flatwater cartwheel? That means experience is zero and your skill is nil. How can you expect to know what to do when you get backendered during a river run if you are never in that position? Certainly, if you have never done a flatwater cartwheel or vertical squirts, you will flop upside down and roll back up. With a little experience you will begin to bring your boat down from vertical right side up. Can�t cartwheel in a hole? If you can�t flatwater cartwheel you can expect a long slow learning curve for cartwheeling in a hole. In short, if your boat allows you to get vertical in flatwater easily, you will be able to get vertical anywhere, any time, and your learning curve will be much steeper.
#2 Spin Ability- How loose is your boat? The looser a boat is the less skill it requires and the less ideal wave you need to spin it. Why spin? A boat that doesn�t spin is stuck in a front surf. A boat that spins easily will allow you to turn backwards easily and back surf. Of course from there you have blunts, grinds, and much more enjoyable front surfs available too. Hole surfing is much easier with a planning hulled kayak. The foam pile holds the boat out in front of the hole better creating a much smoother and easier to control ride.
#3 River Running ability- it is not difficult to make a boat that river runs well. As long as the boat is not edgy, doesn�t pearl when paddling forward, is stable and easy to roll, short and maneuverable, than you have a great river runner. The old myth is that forward speed and tracking is a good quality in a river runner. Well, that is like saying a dragster makes for a good road vehicle, or long skis are easier to ride than short ones. It makes zero sense and has never been true. Slalom racers spend their lives in quest for speed. They feel inept in a shorter slower boat and they generally prefer to paddle their composite 4-meter kayaks. Since slalom racers have had such an impact on the market for so long, it makes sense that this myth came from that influence.
#4 Comfort- The comfort levels of kayaks took a dive for a period after 1998 and had been getting worse each year. Lower volume bows took much of the foot room out of boats causing even the smaller kayakers to begin growing weird bumps on their feet and eliminating proper footwear from even fitting in the kayaks. Boats like the Fun improves access in and out as well as comfort.
—————————————————————– OK- Fast Forward to 2014- below was written today- November 2014———————————–
In the past 11 years- from 2004 when this was written, until 2007, The Fun series was the best selling type of kayak people purchased- River Running playboats. In 2007 is started to segment between River Running Creek boats, and full on Playboats. The LL remix was the first departure to the shorter is easier mantra and it was longer a little harder, but faster category that started to evolve and become quite popular. Jackson Kayak made the 2008 “Hero” series and it was a favorite among many, but the trend had already begun towards longer river running kayaks and longer creek boats.
Uber popular Rivers like the Ocoee River, American River, Nantahala River, and Arkansas River started looking quite different. In 2007 when you went on any of those rivers it was the Fun Series, EZG, CR, and other river running playboats, or full on playboats. Fast forward to today and those same rivers are filled with creek boats and long boats. It was a visible change, each year during that time. Kayaks got longer again, people were buying longer kayaks, and started floating straight downstream, caught less eddies, surfed and played less. I was not racing a ton during that time as my kids were not into racing, as they were too young and not motivated to paddle hard. Our kayak designs reflected that as we focused on easy to paddle kayaks, versus fast kayaks. Many other brands started adding fast kayaks, that were a challenge to paddle in comparison, but fit the new kayaker’s style better.
There was another factor that affected what people paddled, primarily in the SE USA, but it did spread around to the NE and a little bit out west, too… the “Green Factor” The Green race is a very high profile event in the USA as we don’t have many extreme races here and this one gets a lot of press. It also has a strong personality related to racing in “long boats”. The Green Race was the instigator of many paddler’s around the SE to start digging up old kayaks anywhere they could find them. Tornado by Prijon was the favorite, along with Corsica S, etc.. You saw people showing up to your local rivers paddling Dancers, Lazers, Pirouettes, etc. etc.. What was old, became new again. It was an underground type of movement that just happened and it became cool to have a boat that nobody wanted any more. Dagger saw it as an opportunity and created the “Green Boat” a retro style, round hull, narrow boat for racing on the Green, with the Toronado as the basis for it. Another stepping stone in the evolution of the kayak began. A racing kayak, for unlimited length, and for sale. Liquid Logic was next with the Stinger, and then Jackson Kayak created our own “long boat” with the Karma Unlimited, solidifying this “category” once again, the long boat. Jackson Kayak took a different approach and fashioned our boat after the Karma, our current creek boat, versus the retro style kayaks of past days.
Creek boats are now 8’6″-9″ long, while they were around 8’3″ on average before. Creek boats that sell well are fast and race well, too. From 1995-2005 this wasn’t the case. Creek boats that sold well, were sold for the creeking aspect with little regard to the speed of the boat. This was primarily due to the fact that everyone’s boat in year’s past was faster, but harder to paddle, that all boats were getting shorter and slower, but much easier to get from the put-in to the take out.
What has changed now, is that we are able to add the speed into the boat, again, but also increase the ease of getting to the take out at the same time. This is another step in kayak evolution. Currently there are designs that are being made that are going to go fast, but are a real challenge to paddle. They won’t find a place in the market, most likely, as nobody likes to feel out of control and scared because their boat is hard to paddle. I certainly don’t and watching top team members leave new boats on the car racks to use their old ones is an indicator of what the general kayaking public will do as well.
Playboats: The playboat evolution has continued from 2004 to now. Boats have gotten much better for getting big loops, faster on waves, and easier to go big on all kinds of water. The evolution isn’t as dramatic as from 1993-2004, of course when boats went from 10′ to 6′, but the evolution is apparent to almost anyone who tries the newest kayak compared to the older ones. In the spirit of keeping the evolution going, we have added lighter weight, more rigid outfitting to our top end “competition” models, and have found that we “need” a new boat every 2 years. That need is more of a “Want” of course, but having the new designs has kept our interest up as well as our ability to win events. I hate to think of going to a world championships without a new design! That would make life much harder if you want to win the event. That alone, is proof that the evolution is on-going and I can’t see it ending…
There have been other factors that affect the evolution of the kayak in the past 10 years. Boat designers have a big effect on it. Pyranha, Liquid Logic, Dagger, Wavesport, Jackson Kayak leading the way, with other brands like Bliss Stick, Fluid, Dragorossi, Riot, Zet, Lettman, Prijon all contributing to the new idea mix. We’ll see where the boat designs go, as there are so many old niches being looked after… Dynamic Duo to replace the Topo Duo, Cross-over boats redefine what is a whitewater kayak, and adding the long boat with hatches, like the Karma RG or the Stinger XP provides both whitewater kayakers and ocean paddlers with a new model to play with. Sit-On-Top whitewater kayaks are not new, with the Perception “torrent” leading the way back in the 90’s. However, we are seeing some new ones and it will be interesting to see if they change the face of whitewater again, or not.
So- wrapping this all up, besides hoping to help give a better perspective on where we were, where we are, and where we might go, I’ll leave you with the concept that is important to not consider what you know to be fact, as what you know is based on a snapshot in time, most likely, and without the entire picture, that snapshot isn’t accurate. I never suggest that I know everything, or what I am telling you is fact. It is fact only based on my very limited knowledge and from my own point of view. Be careful thinking of boaters, or boat designs with facts as your basis. Those facts are very fluid and will be completely different in a few years, and were likely very different in past years. What kayak schools and instructors are telling you today as “this is the easiest way to learn to kayak” is not true. It is their preferred way of teaching the current trend, or past trend and they truly do believe it is the easiest way, but for every way they are teaching, another way can be used that could be as easy or easier in a completely different kayak type with equal or better results in most cases. What your club, friends, the magazines, media, Facebook, Team paddlers, etc.. are feeding you as fact, are not facts, they are snap shots in time of current trends and beliefs. It will change, they will have a new mantra soon, as this has been the way of our time, of our industry, and of history in general. I prefer to think with an open mind, and think of your kayaking as your own invention, with your own set of rules. What do you like about kayaking the most? What kind of kayak does that best for you? Do you enjoy being like an otter and going all over the river, eddy to eddy, surfing, and zipping around? Or do you prefer to float in the middle of the current, just taking strokes as needed and soaking in the scenery and social scene? Do you like to get fit, racing down the river, paddling hard, including the flatwater sections? Do you like the never ending challenge of trying to make your kayak do new things. Surfing, spinning, flatwater cartwheels, or even loops? Does that intrigue you, knowing there is no such thing as learning it all, that you can always improve? All of these are valid ways to approach your kayaking and you can have all of them, on demand, by realizing that it is only a matter of selecting what you want to do that day on the water and taking the boat that will make it possible, or even easiest/most fun.
Have Fun out there and remember- this is a game, a sport, a recreational activity, and while some of us make a living in this game, it is not to be taken too seriously. Fun is the name of the game, and learning how to have more fun every day you play with kayaking, is the best way to approach it. Variety and constantly trying to progress are two factors that greatly improve the fun factor! So try something new, and learning something new in the process!
See you on the river!