The River Intimate

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1996

The River Intimate

Kayaks to float the entry-level boater safely from gentle flows to roiling rapids
By Gordon Grant

If you've ever been whitewater rafting, you felt a little jealous--admit it!--of the kayakers who shared the river. With a seemingly easy command of their sleek little boats, they deftly sliced in and out of eddies, joyously surfed holes, and generally reveled in an intimacy with the river. And there you were, riding an inflatable school bus.

You can get off that bus. Every technical sport has an entry level, where expert instruction and gear tuned for beginners are ready to get you going. In whitewater kayaking, innovations in design and safety features have made the sport more accessible than ever before. There's a new breed of boats that are stable enough for novices and yet fast and maneuverable enough to keep you stimulated as your skills improve. Even the new sit-on-top models, a boon for claustrophobes, though still a bit bulkier than traditional kayaks, are surprisingly nimble.

When choosing a boat, the question of hull material can be answered in one word: plastic. Rotomolded polyethylene has become the industry standard in kayaks for everyone from rank beginners to waterfall-going experts. It's affordable, almost indestructible on the river, and easy to care for. Just store your kayak in the shade--prolonged exposure to sunlight breaks down polyethylene.

A major factor in kayak performance is size--yours and the boat's. Simply put, the lower a boat sits in the water, the more difficult it is to control, so whitewater kayaks are tagged with a suggested paddler body weight range. As a novice, you'll want your body weight to be near the middle of the range for the boat you choose. From there, size is a matter of comfort, starting with your legs, which are key to kayak control. When the balls of your feet are pushing against the foot braces, your knees should be about shoulder-width apart and the thigh braces should be snug against the insides of your thighs--not your knees. Make sure that the cockpit is big enough for you to exit easily; if it seems a bit snug in the store, it will be panic-inducingly tight when you're upside-down on the river. Don't worry as much about the width of the seat--it can be padded to fit.

Stability and maneuverability are influenced mostly by two factors: the sharpness of the edges and the shape of the rocker, or how much the bottom of the boat is curved from end to end. The more exaggerated the rocker, the easier it is to spin the kayak and the harder it is to keep it tracking, or moving in a straight line. Sharper edges make for quicker, more exact turns, but at the price of stability. Both speed and stability are affected by the hull's dimensions: a wider boat is more stable; a longer boat is faster and tracks better. If you'll be paddling mostly on whitewater, err on the side of maneuverability; if you expect to encounter extended stretches of flatwater, choose a boat that emphasizes tracking and speed. The most important thing you can do to sort these factors out is to test-paddle the kayaks you're interested in. Many manufacturers and dealers around the country host demo days.

The following are seven proven beginner kayaks that stand out for their combination of forgiving predictability and high-performance lines. You won't go wrong with any of them.

Prijon Canyon
This big battle cruiser has been around for years--a tribute to its absolute trustworthiness. Its high volume and symmetrical hull shape make it stable and comfortable for larger paddlers, and with plenty of storage space it's well suited for long days or even extended trips. Its length--an inch shy of 11 feet--means it tracks well, and it's fast enough to get through large waves, yet it has enough rocker to spin handily on smaller rivers. The cockpit outfitting is a bit spartan, but padding can easily be added around the seat and thigh braces. Paddler weight range: 110 to 220 pounds. $839.

Perception Overflow
The newest member of Perception's entry-level Corsica series shares the stable tendencies of its predecessors but incorporates more performance-oriented edges at stern and bow. An exaggerated rocker makes the ten-foot Overflow a bit hard to handle in big water but increases control on lower-volume rivers. High performance comes at the expense of speed, however. Metal rings on the decks are good places to clip in safety gear and help in securing the boat to your roof rack. Paddler weight range: 100 to 200 pounds. $849.

Savage Designs Gravity
Don't be put off by the in-your-face posturing of the promotional literature--this is a stable and forgiving boat. A narrow bow gives the ten-foot, two-inch Gravity a higher tracking speed than the Perception Overflow, so it's better on flat stretches and able to punch through bigger waves. The wide, flat stern deck sits high enough in the water so currents don't push its large surface area around, and when you're ready to start surfing, its sharp edges will help you carve your way to increased control on waves. Long-legged boaters may have trouble exiting the tapered cockpit; smaller paddlers may find it a perfect fit. Paddler weight range: 120 to 200 pounds. $849.

Dagger Blast
Dagger designer Steve Scarborough originally created this nine-foot, five-inch boat for his own children, and it stands out as one of the best boats for small-framed paddlers of all ages. Sharp edges make it nimble in whitewater, and a slightly V-shaped hull gives it an extremely respectable tracking speed. The bow tapers quickly but has enough volume at the waterline to provide plenty of buoyancy in big water. That narrow bow, by the way, can be dangerous on steep, narrow creeks, where it has a tendency to dive after going over a drop, but that shouldn't be an issue for beginner or intermediate paddlers. Stiffened "Easy-Grip" loops at bow and stern are a big help at the take-out. Paddler weight range: 50 to 135 pounds. $815.

Wave Sport Frankenstein
Short (nine feet, nine inches) and with a low-volume stern, the Frankenstein looks fairly radical, but a wide hull and fuller volume around the cockpit make it surprisingly stable. The short length means that it turns easily and quickly, and a less pronounced rocker helps the Frankenstein track as well as longer boats. The stern sits low in the water, but soft edges keep it from being tossed too violently by currents. Aggressive beginners will quickly adjust to the up-and-down motion caused by water piling up on the stern and will eventually appreciate how it provides better control while surfing waves. Paddler weight range: 120 to 170 pounds. $835.

Perception Torrent
You have to work at flipping this wide, ultrastable sit-on-top boat. Pronounced rocker makes the ten-foot, three-inch Torrent spin remarkably well--better, in fact, than many conventional kayaks. It tracks well, thanks to grooves on the bottom of the hull, but it's on the slow side. The buoyant, upturned bow helps it surf waves that might cause narrower boats to nose dive. The track-mounted foot braces are easy to adjust (just make sure to rinse sand out). Webbing leg harnesses enhance control. And although the deep, curved seat is comfortable on the behind, it provides little in the way of back support; fix that with a back brace from PD Designs (423-354-4944). Paddler weight range: 125 to 250 pounds. $589.

Dagger Pegasus
Although slightly narrower than the Torrent, the sit-on-top Pegasus is still rock solid compared to conventional kayaks. A narrower bow makes paddling easier, and the greater length (ten feet, six inches) makes it faster. The benefit: greater control when winding through rapids. The downside: It can dive on waves that the Torrent would surf endlessly. The foot brace system is an adjustable modified bulkhead that provides room to reposition your feet as you like. A harness system similar to the Torrent's secures your legs. The molded plastic seat is comfortable but provides little back support; again, retrofit the PD Designs back brace. Paddler weight range: 90 to 220 pounds. $589.

Gordon Grant is a former head of whitewater instruction at North Carolina's Nantahala Outdoor Center.

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