Design rapidly changing kayaking

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2000

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- For centuries, Eskimos have paddled Arctic waterways to hunt and fish in kayaks, a type of canoe built from skins stretched over a frame.

Today's high-tech versions of the kayak, made from plastic, Kevlar and fiberglass, still are decked with a cockpit for the rider, who propels the boat with a double-bladed paddle. But the resemblance between the old and the new pretty much ends there, especially in the rapidly evolving whitewater arena.

Manufacturers' representatives hauled out their wares last month for the Weber Paddle Festival, an annual event that serves as one of the best introductions to kayaking in Utah. Paddlers tested new sea kayaks and open canoes at Echo Reservoir, but the real action was a few miles downstream on the Weber River at the Henefer put in, where a dizzying array of the latest whitewater kayaks were demonstrated.

Salt Lake City boaters were proclaiming their kayaks ''the sweetest boats'' available for riding whitewater.

A few years ago, however, these guys would not even have recognized the vessels they are hawking today. Around 1997, river boat hull designs experienced a full-scale revolution, all for the sake of playing on the river as opposed to merely running the current. Boats are shorter, displacements are much smaller, and the bottoms are flatter.

''Kayaks are going berserk,'' said Perception's Clark Burbidge. ''They are making leaps and bounds in design. It's way more than the shaped ski. That pales in comparison with what's going on here.''

Some say whitewater kayaking is second only to snowboarding in growth. Driving that growth is a recent revolution in hull design that has made doing tricks, such as wave surfing, squirts and spins, much easier, according to industry representatives.

''Whitewater sport is exploding,'' said Rich Bowers, executive director of American Whitewater, a Maryland-based advocacy group. ''It's one of the hottest human-powered sports out there.''

There are 1.3 million whitewater kayakers in the United States, 400,000 of whom can be considered ''enthusiasts,'' he estimated.

''You have solitude and wilderness on the one hand and excitement on the other,'' Bowers said. ''It can be enjoyed by anyone at any level. As boating grows, it's going to have more impact on the resource. If it's done right, it doesn't even leave footprints.''

Kayak builders followed innovations in surfboards to come up with boats that ''plane,'' riding on top of the water instead of in it, according to Rob Carlson of Dagger, one of about a half-dozen manufacturers leading the hull revolution.

''The idea is your boat will lift and plane. It has very little friction,'' said Carlson, who operates Gravity Paddle Sports, a kayaking guiding and instruction business. ''It allows you to do more three-dimensional moves.''

Just like the invention of the telephone and e-mail have forever changed the way we communicate by making it easier and more convenient, so too have recent technical innovations in boating and climbing wrought changes in those sports.

Traditionalists, meanwhile, may lament the erosion of skills such as letter writing, reading a river and setting climbing protection.

Many of today's rodeo boats are too small and sharply angled to be used for anything other than tricks.

''A lot of the play boats aren't much fun for river running,'' said Rob Heineman, a Salt Lake City defense attorney who is president of the Utah Whitewater Club. ''They are too slow and don't track. The down-river skills are disappearing. Park and play is a growing phenomenon.''

This trend in the sport is akin to snowboarders watching each other running tricks down a halfpipe or off a kicker.

It marks a radical departure from the roots of these sports, which were born from the need to get from one place to another. In other words, playboating and halfpipes cross the great divide that separates sport from utility.

Innovation, meanwhile, is allowing more people to get into kayaking and to do different things on a river.

''People can progress faster than they could in the past,'' Carlson said. ''It started four years ago. Back then, manufacturers would release one new kayak a year. Now they're releasing six a year, just for whitewater. It's insane.''

Serious kayakers now need a ''quiver'' of boats to stay on top of the sport.

Park City photographer Tom Mills, strictly a whitewater boater, uses five kayaks: a creek boat, a large, round-hulled vessel for running tough rapids; a squirt boat, which is wafer thin, or ''slicey,'' at the bow and stern so the boat gets vertical in the current; a fiberglass racing boat; a new rodeo boat; and an old rodeo boat, which serves as a good all-around kayak these days.

''These boats change the way thing are done. They are more user-friendly,'' Mills said.

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