By Sam Bass

I first saw a squirt boat in 1989, on a stretch of tidal whitewater on Maine’s Sheepscot River. I was 14 and kayaking with my Dad. A pointy bow shot straight up from an eddy just downstream of us, its turquoise sparkles gleaming through saltwater foam flecks in the May sun. The bow fell and disappeared and the stern sliced up—then the bow again. The paddler was playing, but not in a way I had ever seen any paddler play before.

Right there I began coveting that boat in such a burning, adolescent way that surfing my plastic Dancer XT suddenly wasn’t very exciting. The paddler, a soft-spoken, red-bearded guy named Dave Gatz, would pirouette around on a vertical bow or stern and then fall into a propeller-like flourish of flying ends. Where I was lucky to catch a few seconds of surf, he’d ferry out with one masterfully placed stroke and carve for minutes. What’s more, his boat seemed to be sinking. If he sat still, most of it was underwater; only the knee- and foot-bumps on his deck broke the surface. At times, he’d even glide up to the top of the eddyline and disappear entirely, coming up 20 or 30 feet downcurrent, foam in his beard and seaweed draped over his shoulders like some ancient god of the deep. What the hell was he doing under there? I resolved to find out what this Gatz character was up to—and make it my aesthetic, too.

Gatz, it turns out, was a squirt boater. Squirt boats are generally between 8 and 11 feet long and made of fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon. Like bass-fishing boats and custom hot rods, squirt boat graphics almost invariably use colored sparkles called metalflake. Most notably, squirt boats are much thinner than other kayaks, only about four to six inches from deck to hull just behind the cockpit. The low volume allows a paddler to slice the slender stern or bow underneath the water’s surface to perform vertical tricks, and even to submerge the entire boat and travel underwater for a short distance—a trick known as the mystery move, considered by most squirt boaters to be the holy grail of squirting technique.

By age 32, I’d been a squirt boater for 17 years. As one of a handful of Maine squirters, I felt progressive and unapologetically cool. But in 2004 I moved to Colorado, which felt almost like exile. Rivers were shallow and unfriendly to composite hulls. Plastic boaters—”floaters”in squirt-boating vernacular—caught up in their own subsport’s golden age regarded me like a strange archaeological riddle. Then I ran into Oliver from Denver through an online squirt boaters’ support group called the Angst Message Board.

Soon, it seemed, squirt freaks started surfacing everywhere. Ten of us from Colorado. Kelly from Wyoming, Ian from Montana, and Hafte and Augie from Utah. We had a critical mass, a clan. We organized a gathering in August 2006, the Rincon Rendezvous, at a recently rediscovered mystery-move arena on the Arkansas River. The Rocky Mountain squirt scene was buzzing. Sitting near the campfire at Rincon Rendezvous ‘07, swigging Ian’s scotch and blasting Lenny’s potato gun, I even dared to believe my favorite sport was flourishing again. Retro was in and playboating had started to feel, well, played. Traffic on the Angst Board had increased. Could squirt boating be undergoing a resurgence? It seemed so in our Western enclave, but there was only one way to find out: journey to the heartland of the sport, West Virginia.

As a squirt-obsessed, daydreamy teenager, I’d inscribed a fake autograph inside my copy of The Squirt Book by legendary paddler and author Jim Snyder. “To the best young squirtist I know,”it read. “You’ll rule the world, kid.”I’d forgotten it was there when, in 2002 at age 26, I met Jim at the Ottawa JimiCup, an annual squirt gathering in Canada named in his honor, and asked him to autograph the book. To my horror, he opened to the already signed page. I was mortified, but I don’t think he even noticed.

In the last 30 years Jim has designed more than 70 kayaks and built around 2,000 Jimistyx, his highly sought-after wooden paddles. The squirt boat designs used today are overwhelmingly Jim’s, including the still-popular 20-year-old Shred. He’s the star of squirt boating’s two seminal films, Fun Forever (1986) and The Great White Charc (1996). In 2006, Jim was inducted to the International Whitewater Hall of Fame.

And now, late on a sunny September afternoon, I’m shifting from foot to foot on Jim’s front porch in Albright, West Virginia, with a sixer of Mountaineer pale ale in my left hand. I’m about to knock when I notice a twinkle in the doorframe. Jim has varnished a subtle sprinkle of gold metalflake onto his doorframe. Perfect. I knock. The door opens and there stands a freshly showered, well-preserved 54-year-old man of medium height and build. He’s wearing denim shorts and a maize-colored T-shirt. “Come on in,”he says.

Every horizontal surface is covered with stuff—books, papers, framed pictures, and empty water glasses. His computer is an old bulky desk unit. The Angst Board is on the screen. Frequent forum visitors like me relish Jim’s musings, and here I am at the place where he writes them. I feel as if I’m touring Jefferson’s Monticello—with Jefferson. We talk about his recent trip to Japan to squirt and about his newest boat design, the KOR. On the way in I had spied his own KOR hanging in the entry of his workshop. “We snipped about 4 inches off that one so it fits in the back of my truck better,”he says. “I like to have my boat down in the bed, ‘cause then I’m not a boater to the cops.”

In 1987, Jim compiled what he’d learned in the half-instructional, half-philosophical Squirt Book. He explains that squirt boating had its origins in slalom racing around 1970. When entering and leaving eddies and negotiating offset gates, racers striving for ever-faster times began leaning their boats to the outside of turns, rather than employing the traditional method of carving on inside edges. This caused the stern to slice beneath the surface, and the trapped buoyancy then boosted the acceleratory efforts of racers struggling to paddle toward the next gate, “squirting”them forward like, as early practitioner Phil Coleman imagined, a bar of soap from wet hands.

Eventually, a distinct new move was born: the stern squirt. To stern squirt is to slice one of your stern-hull edges laterally and down into the water, moving the boat from horizontal to vertical. This was no insignificant moment in the history of paddling; whitewater kayaking had become unshackled from the horizontal plane and entered an era of three-dimensionality. The stern squirt began a flowering of innovations—moves like rock-splatting, blasting, and bow screwing—that eventually bore modern plastic playboating.

Later, back at his shop, Jim will don dusty dark blue coveralls and sand the shaft of a rafting paddle he’s building for a Colorado guide. I’ll poke around looking at artifacts—a “Jet Pro”sticker from the helmet Jim wore in Squirt Book photos, old pictures of him paddling with the same beard and long ponytail he wore in Fun Forever. The place is literally stuffed with rolls of fiberglass, jugs of chemicals, stacks of lumber, old boat plugs, paddles, half-finished projects from decades back. He’ll pause to show me, rather excitedly, his “miracle,”a shard of scrap wood he’d kicked across the room a few weeks before. It flew down a stairwell and landed vertically, pointy end perfectly stuck into a hairline crack on a stair tread.

But before all that, Jim drives me in his white minivan—he and his wife have two kids, ages 17 and 19—to a Chinese buffet just down the road in Kingswood. Between forkfuls of General Gao’s chicken, I ask if he’s seen evidence of growth in the sport. “Yeah,”he says. “There’s been more people at the competitions in last couple years, which is one way to measure. But not everyone shows up at the competitions. Mystery culture stays pretty much to itself. The mystery boaters—the realmhogs—that’s what they do.”

Jim performed the first deliberate mystery move on West Virginia’s Upper Gauley River in 1981. A “realmhog”is a mystery-move specialist who spends long periods of time in the underwater realm—hogging it and making people wait. It’s a sort of compliment.

To demystify the mystery-move, click here:

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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