Review: All Play, No Work

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, April 1999

Review: All Play, No Work
The latest whitewater kayaks put the emphasis where it belongs

By Bob Woodward


Not long ago, a typical day of whitewater kayaking went something like this: Drive two vehicles downriver, leave one there, drive the kayaks upriver, put in, paddle, take out, load up, and return for the other vehicle. The shuttling often took longer than the boating, which is all well and good if you're self- (or un-) employed, but not so great for the rest of us. Thankfully, working stiffs now have a more manageable way to enjoy the water ù destination playboating. You simply head to one location with a big hole or wave or deep eddy line, and then spend hours performing tricks such as spins, splats, cartwheels, enders, squirts, and wavewheels.

While playboating may seem like an experts-only endeavor, the latest kayak designs have dramatically shortened the paddler's learning curve, making the sport far more accessible to beginners. The most noticeable change is that these so-called rodeo boats are much shorter than the classic 13-foot downriver rigs that once dominated the market. The bow and stern decks are flatter and thus have less volume, making it easier to submerge them for enders and squirts. The most proletarian innovation, however, is the shift from rounded hulls to flatter, planing hulls, which allow novices to surf waves and experts to spin like a pinwheel. And where the flat bottom and sides meet, the result is edges, or "chines," that act much like those of a ski, letting you carve turns across the face of a wave.

Of course, there are nuances to all these features, and it would be misleading to suggest that playboats can't be taken downriver. Indeed, many of the new designs combine seemingly contradictory features. Still, if you're in it strictly for play, look for a kayak that's no longer than about eight feet and that has a relatively low volume. If you're more apt to do traditional point-to-point river running with some playboating mixed in, look for a boat closer to nine feet with a more rounded hull and larger volume. The eight boats we tested range from nine-foot-three to seven-foot-nine, all short by old standards but plenty long on capabilities.

Perception Arc
Length: nine feet, three inches.
Width: 24.5 inches.
Volume: 56 gallons.
Weight: 42 pounds.
The Arc is the ideal vehicle for any paddler with a proverbial learner's permit. It's big, buoyant, roomy, and designed to track fast downstream with confidence-inspiring stability on anything up to Class III. The Arc ($900) owes its steadiness to fairly rounded chines, a feature that, combined with its narrow width, means you'll have no trouble rolling back upright if you do go over. Yet this boat is also amenable to letting you stop along the way at eddies or standing waves to practice a few moves. You won't have much luck turning it end-over-end because the high-volume bow doesn't like to be submerged, but a concave rear deck means that you should be able to pull off a stern squirt.

Dagger RPM
Length: nine feet.
Width: 24.5 inches.
Volume: 60 gallons.
Weight: 41 pounds.
When the RPM was introduced three years ago, it was hailed as the ultimate playboat for its short length and nontraditional shape. While it's not the least bit outdated, by today's standards it suddenly seems notably long and thus is being employed more as an all-around boat. A broad hull that has a hint of a flat spot on the bottom and soft chines make it exceedingly forgiving. Lean over to the point where you think you're about to roll and the RPM ($899) stays on edge, steady as a tug. It's so good at so many things that expert paddlers who move up to more exotic boats hang on to their RPMs for general river running. It should come as no surprise, then, that the RPM is the best-selling whitewater kayak ever.

Prijon Samurai
Length: eight feet, five inches.
Width: 25 inches.
Volume: 60 gallons.
Weight: 37 pounds.
The Samurai might better be named the Sumo for its voluminous midsection. Unlike others we tested, this boat has a cavernous cockpit that's easy for big folks to slip into. Thanks to its girth the Samurai ($869) is rock-solid in turbulent holes as well as on the open river ù unlike some Prijon models, which have been criticized for their tendency to roll without notice. Still, you won't have any trouble maneuvering it. Beveled chines let you set it on edge and carve, and the thin bow and stern cut easily through the water. So, improbable as it may seem, you can actually throw a cartwheel in this boat.

Necky Jive
Length: eight feet, four inches.
Width: 24.5 inches.
Volume: 61 gallons.
Weight: 40 pounds.
The Necky is a comforting combination of styles, a classic design in a rodeo package. Consequently, it's a great option for beginners who want to go straight from no paddling experience to playboating. Its chines are somewhat curved, and these smoother edges make the boat less grabby and thus less demanding. Yet the Jive ($895) has a low-volume bow and stern and a flat planing hull for practicing stunts. And should you master a host of rodeo moves and decide for a change of scenery, you'll find the Jive perfectly suitable for the occasional trip downriver.

Riot Glide
Length: eight feet, three inches.
Width: 25.5 inches.
Volume: 59 gallons.
Weight: 39 pounds.
You might assume that the Glide ($989) is a tetch long for a pure rodeo boat, but don't be fooled by its dimensions. The bow and stern are as flat as the bill of a platypus, and the lack of volume means it takes only a slight tilt of the hips to initiate a move. As for the hull, the underside of the bow and stern are slightly concave, which directs water toward the belly of the boat ù a flat section that's grooved with a crosshatch pattern to make it skim across the water. The chines create an angle of almost 90 degrees, making it too aggressive for intermediate paddlers but ideal for experts.

Wave Sport X
Length: eight feet.
Width: 24.5 inches.
Volume: 55 gallons.
Weight: 37 pounds.
The X is perhaps the most innovative rodeo boat available. There's a pattern of concave scoops below the chines on the bow and stern that are designed to trap air between the boat and the water. The idea is for the bubbles to provide lift and make it easier for the flat hull to break free from the water to spin, squirt, cartwheel, or...who knows? And the bow and stern are symmetrical, making it even more maneuverable. The X ($1,015) has slightly rounded chines, but forget it on the open river ù it's still too squirrelly. As for the accommodations, it has enough room for you to bend your knees at a greater angle than usual, allowing for a more powerful (and comfortable) position.

Pyranha Storm
Length: seven feet, nine inches.
Width: 26.25 inches.
Volume: 57 gallons.

Weight: 40 pounds.
Hopping into the Storm for the first time is like trying to drive a sports car with an unfamiliar clutch: It's extremely twitchy at first, but once you get the hang of it you'll appreciate the precision. While it's plenty of fun in a Class II hole, the Storm ($1,068) comes alive in bigger, more powerful hydraulics because its sharp edges let you make quick transitions between moves. It also has an extra-wide planing hull. Thoughtfully, the wide, cushy backband can be adjusted while you're in the boat, so you can sit back and relax on easy water or tighten it up to put yourself in a more aggressive position for whitewater. Novices need not apply.

Savage V Maniac
Length: seven feet, nine inches.
Width: 24.25 inches.
Volume: 51 gallons.
Weight: 38 pounds.
The V Maniac is the Tilt-A-Whirl of the bunch. As a low-volume boat, it will only fit paddlers of small stature, but if you can squeeze into it you'll find yourself dizzy with amusement. A convex oval in the middle of the hull ù a spin disk ù lifts the bow and stern slightly to make twirling a breeze. If you end up swimming you'll appreciate that, unlike most playboats, the V Maniac ($895) has a drain plug so you don't have to wrestle the boat to purge it of water. The contoured seat proved the most comfortable perch among the kayaks we tested ù very important, given that the V Maniac is one of those rides that you'll want to do again and again.

Where To Find It
Dagger, 423-882-0404; Necky, 800-350-1206; Perception, 800-445-3763; Prijon, 303-444-2336; Pyranha,516-286-1988; Riot, 514-931-0366; Savage, 864-269-9333; Wave Sport, 970-736-0080

Bob Woodward paddles on the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon, where he recently completed his first term as mayor.

Ready for a Test Squirt?
The beauty of destination playboating is that you can often find that destination close to home. All you need is a river feature ù natural or altered ù that forms a wave, a hole, or a combination of the two. Below are some of the more established play spots throughout the country. For information on starting from scratch, call the National Organization of Whitewater Rodeos at 828-645-5299, or visit its Web site,
  • Asheville, North Carolina: The Leges Park, French Broad River. Call 828-684-5107.
  • Atlanta, Georgia: The Metro Hooch, Chattahoochee River. Call 770-992-3200.
  • Bend, Oregon: First Street Rapid, Deschutes River. Call 541-309-0976.
  • Boise, Idaho: Warm Spring Weir, Boise River. Call 208-336-4844.
  • Durango, Colorado: Santa Rita Hole, Animas River. Call 970-259-3893.
  • Missoula, Montana: The Ledge, Blackfoot river. Call 406-721-7774.
  • Montgomery, Alabama: Teh Gap, Coosa River. Call 334-272-0952.
  • Richmond, Virginia: Pipeline, James River. Call 804-231-1175.
  • South Bend, Indiana: East Race Waterway, St. Joseph River. Call 219-233-6121.
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma: Tulsa Wave, Arkansas River. Call 918-299-8513.
  • Washington, D.C.: Great Falls-Mather Gorge, Potomac River. Call 301-320-1544.
  • Wausau, Wisconsin: Whitewater Park, Wisconsin River. Call 715-845-8200.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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