Whitewater Kayak Review: Zet Chili

Paddling Buyer’s Guide

Boatercross, or extreme slalom as it is referred to by the International Canoe Federation (ICF), is taking the international race scene by force. The crowd-favorite head-to-head discipline is even making its way to the Olympic Games in 2024. Which means rotomolded plastic boats will finally be sharing the stage with their high-end composite siblings that have held the torch for decades.

The boom of boatercross is happening alongside the resurgence of slalom-inspired kayaks, dubbed half-slice boats. At each ICF extreme slalom cross event, high-volume boats proven in steep creek races are lined up on the starting platform alongside half-slice slalom look-alikes, known for their deft maneuverability.

And at these competitions, the Zet Chili is a regular on the podium.

How has the Chili performed? At the 2021 ICF World Championships, Australian slalom star, Jessica Fox, made the Chiliher boat of choice and won gold. In the men’s final, three out of the four kayaks were Chilis. This kayak is a race car, and it’s no surprise many slalom athletes choose it as their boatercross vehicle.

Zet Kayaks’ Chili turns up the heat

Zet Chili Specs
Length: 9’0”
Width: 24.5”
Volume: 62 U.S. gal
Weight: 40.5 lbs
Weight Range: 120-190 lbs
MSRP: $1,349 USD
www.zet-kayaks.com

Zet is known for making aggressive, high-performance river runners and creek boats. The Czech Republic manufacturer released their first kayak, the Raptor, around eight years ago and has since produced a string of kayaks aimed at paddling technical rivers and big water. The Chili was released in 2021 and is Zet’s only kayak currently deviating from a full-on creek boat or river runner design. Instead, it’s tailored to playing the river and the slalom-cross scene.

Design and outfitting

Our loaner model is a size medium, the only current size, weighing just 40 pounds. That’s around four pounds lighter than similar models from competitor brands. The sleek profile features no drain plug. The cockpit rim where you attach your skirt over the kayak is slim. It’s as if Zet looked for every place they could shave an ounce and took it.

When you look inside, the outfitting is minimalist. A frame connecting the front and rear bulkhead is the only significant hard plastic you’ll find in the cockpit. A shaped block of closed-cell foam forms a nicely scooped seat. Simple and comfortable. It’s another classic take meeting the evolved design of today. The backband adjusts by cord and jam cleat, like a Jackson freestyle kayak, and provides unrestricted access to the rear of the boat.

overhead photo of the Zet Chili kayak's cockpit
The Chili’s simple outfitting design is utilitarian but comfortable. A sturdy, closed-cell foam seat helps protect from impacts and provides considerable warmth. | Photo: Paul Robert Wolf Wilson

Zet Kayaks Chili on the water

Eddy hopping some class III seemed like the perfect way to test the Chili, and so I took it for some spring highwater runs on the upper tributaries of the Willamette River in Oregon. On the river, the Chili is a filet knife. An efficient tool capable of creating beautiful work. Or you might cut your finger off. It’s a boat demanding an active and engaged paddler.

man sits in the Zet Chili whitewater kayak at river's edge
The torpedo-shaped bow of the Chili is narrow and the deck has a low profile. | Photo: Paul Robert Wolf Wilson

On my first lap in the Chili, I was lax. I soon felt the edge want to flip me as I went for a technical move between two rocks. A moment later, the stern started to load when I didn’t ask for it. Right, I’m in a race boat. I learn very quickly, a more assertive mindset made all the difference.

The long hull is where the Chili gets its pep. At nine feet long, the Chili has a large, flat, planing surface stretching out under the paddler. The kayak’s minimal bow rocker doesn’t kick up until past the knees. The elongated waterline, combined with an overall narrow design—just 24.5 inches—provides the Chili with an optimal ratio of length to width for speed.

When it comes to edges, the transition from the hull under the cockpit area to the sidewall is nearly at a right angle. There is no multi-staged transition here. This gives the Chili a solid edge to dig in for a carve, but also an unforgiving one to catch should you not be minding your tilt.

The Chili front surfs waves well. The planing hull and hard edges allowed me to carve up small green waves I would struggle to catch in a playboat, and where a creek boat would be cumbersome to make tight carves.

The bow of the Chili is narrow and the deck has a low profile. This contrasts with many of the half slice kayaks on the market today featuring a modern creek-boat-inspired bow. Rather than a voluminous nose and significant rocker, the Chili’s bow is a torpedo. Those who have paddled river runners from the early 2000s will remember the feeling of having your legs straight rather than out wide—if you don’t remember, it’ll come back to you when you jump in the Chili.

man paddles the Zet Chili whitewater kayak beside a mossy riverbank
The speedy love child of a modern slalom boat and a playful river runner. | Feature photo: Paul Robert Wolf Wilson

The lack of rocker on the Chili means boofing and blasting over features requires some more technique. To clear the bow, it helps to drive down on the rear of the seat and use features like the crest of a wave to lift the bow or spin a turn.

man paddles the Zet Chili in whitewater
Sporty and agile, the Chili’s flirty, flat stern will spice up your eddy turns and add zest to your squirts and splats. | Photo: Paul Robert Wolf Wilson

The stern of the Chili features a flat tapering deck, synonymous with a half-slice or slalom kayak. There is a fair bit of volume on the stern directly behind the paddler, and the deck profile tapers toward the stern gradually and consistently. There is only the slightest concave scoop right in the last eight inches of the stern. The grab handle on the stern also has a fairly deep divot taking some volume off the rear deck.

When it comes to stern squirting and pivoting, this stern allows for some fun verticality and deft maneuvering. The gradual slope and volume toward the paddler mean sinking the stern is less about out-of-control verticality and more a controlled utilitarian maneuver. This volume and shape allowed me to quickly disengage from a squirt, shed water from the deck and carry on downstream. A desirable trait for racing and river running alike.

The combination of the low-volume stern, flat hull and hard edge give the Chili multiple options for maneuvering and catching eddies: Utilizing the hard edge and initiating a carve, the Chili can engage and snap explosively into an eddy. The first time I was not expecting the explosive feedback, and happily recalibrated for this.

I could also keep the boat flat and allow the Chili to spin and slide. This easily transitions into using the spin momentum to sink the stern and pivot a turn or enjoy some time spinning with the bow toward the sky.

Fan your half slice flames with the Zet Chili

The Chili will spice up your paddling even if you never intend to race. It’ll take your class III and IV rivers and turn up the dial. However, for those seeking a half-slice capable of paddling class V, the Chili’s low bow rocker and aggressive edges leave little margin for error, and it may feel like you’ve taken a bite of ghost pepper in the crux of the rapid.

The ticket with the Zet Chili is this kayak demands to be driven. And when it makes your local run more exciting, perhaps it’ll even fan the flames of your Olympic aspirations or get you to the starting line at your local boatercross.

Where to buy Zet Chili

Chilli-SIDE-product_rotator_boats.jpg
ZET Kayaks

Chili

Created to combine the elegance and speed of a modern slalom boat with the playfulness of a river runner, the ZET Chili has the right ingredients for all levels of paddlers to enjoy. ZET's interpretation of the 1/2 slice boat will make surfing waves and gliding through holes a breeze. Sporty and nimble, it’s flirty, and flat stern is guaranteed to spice up your eddy turns and add zest to your squirts and splats.

The speedy love child of a modern slalom boat and a playful river runner. | Feature photo: Paul Robert Wolf Wilson

 

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