I started paddling white water in 2009 and even in that short amount of time, I’ve seen big changes in paddling trends. Back when I started, everybody had playboats and we paddled them everywhere. Long flatwater river trips, big white water, scrapey little ditch runs… everything. The idea was “play the river” – surf every wave, play in every hole and get vertical on all the eddy lines. Grade two had never been so much fun. “Slicey” was the fashion at the time – the boats had very little volume at the bow and stern, to make them easier to get vertical. This is is the time when I learnt to stern squirt, a move where you drop your edge and transfer your weight back to throw your bow into the air and pirouette about the stern. Amazing – I could do that move all day…and we did.
However, slicey often meant painful. Aching hips, blistered and bruised feet and pain if you hit a rock with the bow, as there was little room for a footblock. The argument at the time was that it was good to learn to paddle in a playboat, as there is little room for error in technique. Catching a stern edge when breaking out meant being flipped over and not leaning forwards enough when punching holes ended in spectacular backloops. The problem was our fascination with flat water playboating. We quite often crammed ourselves in to the smallest boats that we could fit in to in the hope that it would help us learn the double-pump, whilst sacrificing most of the boat’s river-running capabilities. But, we had fun! I can’t say that learning in a playboat taught me a huge amount about river running, but all those mistakes taught me how to roll fast. If I look back to the start of my paddling, it could be summed up as “terrible technique, held together with a good roll.” I got nailed on most rapids, but rolled up at the bottom, happy.
And then the event that had the biggest effect on my paddling… I passed my driving test. Being able to drive meant being able to paddle further afield and to join the more experienced guys on days out river – running. Paddling on bigger water made a playboat less appealing – and anyway, where would an aspirant four star leader carry their kitchen sink? At this time, river running boats where everywhere. The Dagger GT, the Mamba and the Pyranha Burn were ten a penny. And rightly so, they were forgiving boats, with more volume and speed to make them better suited to the grade of water that I now found myself on. I started to roll less and it became easier to make lines in a boat that was designed for that job. My weapon of choice was the Dagger Mamba 8.0 – a really good all-rounder that taught me how to boof. My only gripe was that it needed more stern volume (something that was addressed when the 2012 Mamba was introduced)
Enter the Burn. They’d always been around, but it took me a long time to demo one. From the moment I got in one, I knew that I had to buy one. It just seemed very…intuitive? It went where I wanted to put it – and what more can you ask for from a boat? But around the time I bought my Burn, something new was happening. Boats were getting supersized… Previously, there were river-runners and then “big boats” for those off doing crazy things in distant places, or falling from a height. There were always Dagger Nomads, Liquid Logic Jefes, Pyranha Everests and the like around, but they weren’t often seen on easier water. Now, the so called “big boats” were cropping up all over the place and becoming quite common.
The Zet Raptor (303L) and then the Pyranha Shiva (305L) paved the way towards bigger volume creekers becoming the fashion and started to make an appearance on decidedly “un-creeky” rivers.* Now, it’s natural that somebody that paddles a Raptor or a Shiva on the hard stuff would want to train in it on easier rivers. However, when I saw a young novice come back from a kayak store with a Dagger Nomad, I did start to wonder – are big boats becoming the norm? And I think for now at least, we might be moving that way.
*For comparison, the Mamba 8.0 = 234L and the Pyranha Burn M = 279L
Firstly, a bigger volume boat can often be quite forgiving for a beginner. I’ve seen people descend rapids with little to no paddle strokes and come out fine at the bottom. Whether that’s successful application of “key stroke concept” and timing of strokes…or floating, hoping and getting away with it, I wouldn’t like to say. But it is more likely that a bigger volume boat will improve your chances a little bit, in my opinion. Which is why people need to be taught to paddle proactively – one day, the boat alone won’t be enough to drag them through.
Secondly, there’s the trend for “going big.” It was going on before the “Dream Result” film came out – of course it was. But now, with the popularity of helmet cameras and home editing of films, we’re exposed to more and more footage of people pushing the limits. And lets face it, there isn’t much that looks cooler than people running big waterfalls. In my mind, what Dream Result brought us was the realisation that waterfalls are part of the fun and can be used as ramps to throw tricks off. Paddle throws, freewheels, Hail Marys, back deck rolls… people love messing around on big drops now. Whether there’s more people out there running big drops than before, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a case that bigger drops are being run with more success. I would suspect so and boat designers are making boats now to suit that end of the sport – big volume and often displacement hulls.
Meanwhile, back in the freestyle world… Big air tricks became the must do moves. If you look at the 2010 Jackson Star series and then the Rockstar, these were boats with optimised volume, made for a massive “pop.” As was the Pyranha Molan (the boat that taught me to loop) and the Wavesport Project X. Yes, they cartwheeled and stern squirted, but with a bit more grunt and technique needed than their slicey predecessors. Which is, in part why we’ve arrived at where we are now – the Pyranha Jed and the Jackson 2013 series – pop, with a hint of slice. These boats will do all the modern moves, but not at the cost of the older ones.
So where is paddling going?
I think more people will step up to running bigger drops. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed a technical rapid more than the thought of a scary drop, but I can see the appeal. Our knowledge of running drops and the improvements in boat design mean that more people than before will be attempting the bigger waterfalls. Whether we’ll see the record for biggest drop broken or not, is of little interest to me. What Tyler Bradt did at Palouse was nothing short of impressive, but surely must be somewhere near the limit of what the human body can take? Any error at that height is going to end badly. I’m not saying that every club paddler will start taking on massive drops, but we’re going to see more second descents of the harder ones.
Also, in future I think we’re going to see more tricks being done in creek boats. For years we’ve seen people playing in their river-runners and “big-boats” – pop outs, rock spins, kick-flips and flat spins on grade 3/4. But now it’s becoming more popular to start doing tricks off waterfalls. Looking at the entries for this years Rider Of The Year Awards, most of the down river freestyle moves are freewheels and switch freewheels off drops. People are taking the same down river tricks to harder environments, in bigger boats. Before, it was about running rapids – now it’s about “styling” them. Interestingly, Pyranha have picked up on this with their new “Nano” creeking-play(ish) boat. We’ll see how the paddling world feels about the concept soon no doubt.
What about freestyle?
I’m wary about making big statements like “we’ve come as far as possible” with freestyle – surely they thought that when the cartwheel and the front loop were introduced? But that’s how I felt, until I saw this:
Bren Orton (Team GB and the reason I have a Molan and a Varun in the garage) linking a backloop to a front loop and linking some insane combos. Really impressive stuff.
But what would I like to see?
Now this is pure pipe-dreaming, but I’d love to see “down river freestyle” as a category. Maybe 200m of river with waves, holes, places to boof, spin, wave -wheel, splat… and a time limit. Points for creativity and down river moves scored higher than static hole or wave moves. Exactly what the river-play crossover boats like the Varun and the Loki were made for. Maybe one day…