The local shop showed up at our annual spring whitewater paddling festival with these white capital letters screened across the chest of their red T-shirts: YOUR BOAT SUCKS.
Bold. But it was the early 2000s and the heyday of whitewater kayaking. Designers were chopping, squishing and sharpening boats at an alarming rate, racing to get pivotal improvements to market.
Most of the whitewater kayak brands were still independently owned and operated. Nobody was concerned about maximizing profits for shareholders. It was all about who could shape the best performing boat for the newest trick just invented. And if your boat couldn’t do it? Well, your boat sucked. Or so said the T-shirts.
Your boat sucks
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and five-time New York Times bestselling author. He wrote The Tipping Point, Blink, David and Goliath and Outliers. He’s the thoughtful guy we can thank for making the 10,000-hour rule the reason we’re not all on cereal boxes.
What drives Gladwell crazy is bad book reviewers.
Bad book reviewers, he believes, are ones who try to answer the question, if I had written this book how would I have done it? And if how the author wrote it deviates from the way the reviewer would have written it him- or herself, the reviewer gives the book a bad review. YOUR NOVEL SUCKS.
“That’s being a bad reader,” believes Gladwell. “The good reader is the one who says, ‘What did the author intend when he or she was writing this book?’”
Criticism can come cheap
Does it really? Some of the bestselling boats in the last 25 years have sucked, or so read the first impressions from our boat testers.
“Being critical is the easiest thing in the world,” says Gladwell. “If you asked me to do a hit job on War and Peace, I could do it. If you’ve never read War and Peace, and the only thing you’ve read is Malcolm’s book review of the greatest novel ever told, I could make it sound like the worst piece of trash.”
What’s hard, says Gladwell, is telling the interesting things; telling why the novel is great. Or in our case, why the boat or board is great. And, for whom it will be great.
“The problem with writing criticism is that it’s called criticism,” says Gladwell. “The implicit assumption driven by that word is that the job of the critic is to criticize.”
We don’t call boat reviewers critics, but hang out long enough in any paddling shop or Facebook group and you’ll get your fill of subjective preferences and personal biases. Seldom do you hear, “Well mate, it holds up to the designer’s intention. That’s a bloody success of a boat, if you ask me.”
To understand the intended purpose of any piece of paddling gear you only need to turn the pages in this year’s Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Still not sure what the designer was thinking? Visit the online Paddling Buyer’s Guide or Google it.
“The job of a critic is to appreciate,” says Gladwell. “Sometimes in appreciation we point out things that are not worthy of our appreciation. But the real job is to point out all the things that are worthy.”
Digging into the designer’s intent
No designer anywhere ever sets out to develop a product that sucks. Why would they?
This paddleboard doesn’t suck because it’s slow. It’s wide and fantastically stable.
This canoe isn’t too heavy. No, it’s indestructible and inexpensive.
Sure, the Wave Sport XXX doesn’t loop. But it won the Freestyle World Championships and is one of the best cartwheeling boats of all time.
If someone can show you things to appreciate and produce in you a sense of wonder, that’s what will make you investigate it more on your own. “Interesting… I’d like to try that boat,” you think to yourself.
And that, my friends, is how we end up with more boats than T-shirts.
Scott MacGregor is the founder and publisher of Paddling Magazine. If you have his 20-year-old C1 XXX pictured above, he’ll buy it back from you.
“Intention is everything. Nothing happens on this planet without it.” —Jim Carrey | Feature photo: Rick Matthews