Pushing the Limits of the 9-foot Kayak

In the past few years, a new generation of nine-foot boats have taken extreme whitewater racing by storm. With nearly every kayak manufacturer bringing designs to market, there is no lack of options out there for everyday boaters with the need for speed. Yet with the release of each new speed demon, one question remains: Is there a limit to the speed that can be squeezed out of a nine-foot design?

The first design to push the limits was the . By narrowing the boat and giving the bow some serious kick rocker, the 9R instantly became the fastest production boat on the water. Then Waka Kayaks decided to throw its hat in the ring by making some late-night adjustments to the design of their flagship Tuna 2 to create the Gangsta. With its massive volume and superior straight-line speed, the Gangsta became the new gold standard, dominating the podium the last two years at the Adidas Sickline World Championships.

A beautiful spring day in Washington’s Tumwater Canyon testing out the Waka Gangsta Photo: David Spiegel. Image Courtesy of Eddie Bauer

This year, Jackson Kayak took a completely different approach with its new high-performance machine, the Nirvana. Unlike other designs in this category, Jackson decided to focus on creating a long boat that prioritizes maneuverability over top-end speed. The Nirvana gains momentum by skipping over waves and holes; the idea is that in a race, less time is lost to mistakes when you can quickly make corrections.

In this quest for speed, most kayak manufacturers spend countless hours testing and going through multiple prototypes to fine-tune the design before putting it on the market. With the Nirvana, for example, Jackson incorporated feedback on the prototype from all of its athletes and did speed testing before settling on its final design (which Dane Jackson used to win this summer’s North Fork Championship). That’s unlike competitor Waka Kayaks, who, in the words of co-owner Sam Sutton “doesn’t do prototypes, bruh,” did zero testing before introducing the Gangsta last year for Sickline (which he won this year in the boat, highlighted below).

According to Jochen Lettmann, 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist for Germany and owner of Lettmann Kayaks, the shift toward more maneuverability is the way of the future for this genre of boat. “There is honestly not much room left for speed with these boats, unless you make them super narrow, which hurts in big water,” says Lettmann. “With our new design that will come out in 2018, the Manta, we created something that is slightly slower in the flat than the Waka or 9R but is about the same and much easier to paddle in whitewater. This, in my opinion, is the future because they’re good for racing while still appealing to the average whitewater kayaker.”

For athletes like Dutch paddler Martina Wegman, who regularly chooses to compete in a Dagger Mamba instead of the company’s latest Phantom racing design (showcased below), boat selection all comes down to paddling style. “Sure, you can make a boat that goes really fast in a straight line, but what you gain in straight-line speed you lose in forgiveness,” notes Wegman. “Comfort with your boat is key. In the end, it is a question of whether you think it is faster to have a boat that can crush it in the flat or something that is easy to correct and minimizes time lost to small errors.”

Two-time New Zealand Olympian and extreme kayaker Mike Dawson also believes it is more about the paddler than the boat; “Newer boats like the Gangsta are fast without a doubt,” he says, “but I think if you’re fast you’ll be good in just about anything. As an older paddler once said to me: ‘Give a good paddler a log and they’ll be able to paddle it.’”

In the end, the question when deciding on which boat is the best for racing seems to be less about speed and more about what is fast. There’s a big difference: While speed testing may statistically show a boat’s capabilities, whether or not it’s fast still comes down to the paddler. Nonetheless, as boat manufacturers continue to innovate and designs continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see what the next direction is for the nine-foot creek racer.

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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