This article originally appeared in Rapid’s late summer 2011 issue.
The recent rash of carbon fiber playboats from mainstream kayak companies—think Wave Sport, Jackson and Fluid with Pyranha poised to folow—and specialized manufacturers like freestyle sector upstarts Black Sheep, Titan, ZET and Vajda, has some kayakers wondering: who needs carbon, anyway? Can it really make the average playboater that much better or is this just a new toy to keep the pro paddlers happy?
Black Sheep Kayaks designer and builder Dave Nieuwenhuis says, “The upper echelon of freestyle paddlers are the ones buying or expressing interest in carbon boats. The majority of kayakers couldn’t justify owning a carbon boat simply because of where they paddle.”
Why does it matter where you paddle? Rocks.
Nieuwenhuis compares a carbon boat to a high-end sports car, “Your Ferrari might soak up a few bumps and your carbon boat should handle a few rocks, but do you really want to test that out?”
This means you need to avoid shallow features, sliding down the banks into the water and throwing it in the back of your truck to rattle around. And you really ought to tuck it into a soft, cozy boat bag to prevent scratches and sun damage.
The other disadvantage for the average boater is the hefty price tag— about two grand more than a plastic counterpart. For some serious riders, however, the siren song of carbon is simply irresistible. Canadian Freestyle Team member Keegan Grady worked all winter to save up enough money to buy a carbon boat, “It’s the best investment I’ve made in my riding to date.”
So what makes carbon such a good investment? More stiffness and less weight. Nieuwenhuis explains, “Although a plastic boat may appear to be stiff on the water, the upward deflection of the plastic hull is unavoidable. It’s simply the nature of the material. Carbon boats with foam cores have zero hull deformation and the result is an incredibly stiff surf that gives the truest sensation of floating. They surf like nothing else.”
The feathery weight of carbon is equally important. “Carbon boats are extremely responsive and seemingly effortless in comparison to similar plastic boats,” Nieuwenhuis continues. Which is why more and more pro freestyle paddlers are converting to composite.
Level Six Capital Cup 2011 champion and carbon advocate Adam Chappell says, “It took awhile to dial in tricks because the boat was so reactive on a wave. Now I don’t think I could ever go back to paddling plastic.”
At the 2009 Freestyle World Championships in Thun, Switzerland, plastic boats dominated a smattering of then just-emerging composite rides. Still, when this magazine went to press, carbon ruled the quivers of top paddlers competing at this summer’s Worlds.
So, despite their disadvantages for the average paddler, carbon boats clearly have their place on the water. But do they make you a better boater? Not according to Grady, “Carbon boats are an undeniable advantage, but I think the best rider will win regardless. The 2009 Worlds were a testament to that.”