They carve, they surf, they shred — meet the wonder boats of whitewater
Getting hooked on whitewater entails all sorts of challenges, such as explaining to significant others why home improvements should be deferred in lieu of spending a lot of money on a frothworthy piece of plastic — or heck, maybe a surf boat, too, and a rodeo boat, plus another for steep creeks…
Stop right there. For now, anyway. If you’re ready to plunge into whitewater but not ready to shell out for a flotilla of boats, the one you should buy is a sport-slalom kayak: the all-around star of the river, a boat you’ll never outgrow, one you’ll always be glad to own, even if you do (and you will) get seduced by paddling’s many exotic subdisciplines.
Narrowing the field
Sport-slalom boats are designed to be fast and stable, virtues many specialized kayaks lack. They maneuver efficiently, ferry currents smoothly, and surf waves with ease. Slalom boats also turn crisply, slicing precisely in and out of the smallest eddies.
Versatility is the key. Add it up and it means you can have a lot of fun on most any river, but your boat will still be versatile enough to take on longer, even self-contained, expeditions. With its fast hull speed and clean-turning traits, a sport-slalom boat is also well suited to radical whitewater and paddling big Western water, such as the Grand Canyon, Salmon, and Selway.
The boats reviewed here were tested for hull speed, ability to carve a clean turn, and stability, characteristics coveted by the beginner and Class V expert alike. Although their personalities vary, one similarity among these craft is price. They’re all in the same neighborhood, ranging from $842 to $925, so your decision will boil down to what combination of speed, turning, and stability best suits your style: Some are better for trips, others for doing cartwheels. Understanding how a boat gains its pedigree can help your decision, so stay tuned for a primer on kayak-design basics.
You can be tempted by more exotic (and expensive) hull materials, but none is as affordable or durable as polyethylene plastic. Indeed, the ruggedness of plastic boats has revolutionized the sport, making it possible to do things like ski-jump off rocks that would mangle a fiberglass craft.
There’s more than one way to skin a plastic boat. Plastic kayaks use three different types of polyethylene: linear, cross-linked, and HTP. All are plenty durable and maintenance-free, but there are subtle differences. Linear polyethylene is repairable and recyclable — a virtue, considering how much petrochemical goes into a kayak. Cross-linked polyethylene is more durable than linear but not repairable or recyclable. HTP, used by Eskimo/Prijon, is repairable, recyclable, and noticeably stiffer than linear or cross-linked polyethylene. It’s less prone to develop speed-reducing softness (especially under the seat area) after abuse and pounding. On the other hand, it’s heavier, and you’ll feel it when you carry your boat.
In case you’re wondering, most championship-class rodeo boats, as well as the craft you see plying the foam in the Olympics, are not built of heavy polyethylene but of super-light space-age fiberglass composites. Yes, they’re more responsive, but they’re awfully expensive ($1,400 and up), especially for something that can break like an eggshell. Only polyethylene boats are included here.
Fit and finish
You can tell a lot about a boat even before your first river test. The key is to look below waterline at the wetted surface of the boat — i.e., its footprint.
Longer is faster, but it’s not that simple. The two footprint extremes are long-and-narrow and short-and-oval. (In boatspeak, the footprint is also called rocker: the more rocker, the shorter and more rounded the footprint.) A kayak with a long footprint will be fast — in fact, speed went absolutely hand in hand with boat length in all but one of our tests. But there’s more to the speed story: Long boats may be fast, but they’re also slower to change direction. Translation: They’re less responsive. This is why slalom boats have gotten so much shorter in recent years: Thirteen feet, two inches has long been the Olympic standard, but for the rest of us, anything over 11 feet, six inches is now considered titanic. On the other hand, a boat with a super-short oval footprint (a lot of rocker) will pivot with every paddle stroke and waddle its way down the river.
Now let’s look above the waterline, where two other important factors come into play: edge and volume, which determine a boat’s handling characteristics.
Sharp edges slice better. As in skiing, there are two kinds of turns: pivot (determined by the rocker) and carved. To carve a turn in a kayak the paddler must lean the boat and dip the inside edge into the water. The sharper the edge, the more water it will grab and the faster the boat will slice through the turn. A boat with sharp edges will sometimes seem tippy to a novice, because if the boat isn’t leaned enough, or if leaned accidentally, it will trip over the outside edge: plop. A rounded cross-section hull (no edge), is comfortable for beginners but will sideslip uncontrollably around turns. Most experienced paddlers like the precision of carved turns and simply adjust to the feel and edge-control necessary to stay upright.
Volume: a tricky subject. The boat’s volume influences its ability to do tricks. If the design has extremely low-volume ends, with all the volume concentrated in the middle (this is called a rodeo design), it will be much easier to perform advanced hole-riding tricks like forward and backward end-over-end cartwheels. A boat with some volume in the nose, and less in the tail, will tend to straight-ahead surf very well — although too little volume in the stern will have you doing tail-stands in the eddy lines. Boats with ample, evenly distributed volume will float better through big whitewater and have the capacity for overnights.
In the store, pay attention to how cleanly the boat is finished: whether the screws are countersunk and the plastic is cleanly trimmed. Bonus features include loops behind the seat to secure a dry bag, a back support, and integral security loops for locking the boat to a rack or tree. Because the response of the boat and the ability to snap a roll are related to secure fit, the bracing system should be easily adjustable, though a perfect fit off the rack is rare. Be sure it’s close; then, once you buy, you’ll customize the seat, hip, and thigh braces — typically, by gluing in blocks of foam — so the boat gently hugs your lower body. When you get it just right, you feel like part of the boat.
Take it for a test-drive. Demo several kayaks before buying — most shops have boats that can be rented and they’ll apply the fee toward purchase. First sit in the boat and notice how high the edges ride above the water. If the edges are at the waterline, they will trip on the slightest ripple; an advanced boater can compensate, but a beginner will want less edge, or higher edges. When paddled, the boat should pick up and accelerate on demand, and carved eddy turns should leave you with borderline whiplash and a broad smile. Now let’s surf some waves in our selection of the half-dozen best sport-slalom boats on the market.
What to look for
- Long hulls are fast, but the trend is toward the responsiveness of sub-11-foot boats.
- Sharp edges allow experienced paddlers to grab water and slice a turn.
- The strength of polyethylene allows lots of margin for error — not to mention some deliberate rock-hopping.
- Check the details: Are the seat and thigh braces easily adjusted? How comfortable is the back support?
Canoeing carries about the same expense as kayaking — around $2,000 to get fully outfitted. With authoritative input from Gordon Black, head of instruction at Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina (not the erstwhile Outside Buyer’s Guide gear-reviewer of the same name), and Keith Miller, president of California Canoe and Kayak, here are some top picks for whitewater canoes that also serve well when the going gets placid.
The Mad River Synergy is “the most fun tandem whitewater boat I’ve ever been in,” says Miller. A larger or more experienced paddler can handle this Royalex plastic 15-footer solo, too. The Synergy’s sister ship, the Mad River Explorer is a tried and true Royalex plastic canoe that Miller rates most at home on Class II, but capable of Class IV. It tracks exceptionally well on lakes and can carry enough gear for an extended trip. Another 16-foot workhorse canoe that comes at a bargain price is the Old Town Discovery Scout The plastic canoe is durable enough that it’s the one used by many canoe liveries for flatwater and gentle whitewater.