The Evolution of the Whitewater Kayak - 08-Nov-00
by Eric "EJ" Jackson
The Evolution of the Whitewater Kayak Conception to Present
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.
Every company is somewhere on the evolution scale as well. Wavesport is an industry leader. We brought you the X, bringing vertical and wave spinning moves to anyone. We brought you the XXX, the lowest volume playboat, still competitive today. We now have the EZ and Big EZ. The only boats on the market today that are the best river running and best rodeo 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. 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 a Godzilla? That boat was our cutting edge rodeo boat for the bigger paddler in 1997. It was never our river runner. It is just an outdated rodeo boat. Do you know what kind of boat the person who bought a Godzilla in 2000 is likely to buy in 2003? One of our 2000 rodeo boats. Why, because they are three years behind. The logic is simple. New technology is to be enjoyed today, not tomorrow. Because tomorrow it will be old technology. You are a better boater instantly in our 2001 lineup than our 2000 lineup. Why? Because the boats do everything last years boats did, plus more, and with more ease.
Source: Boater Talk

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