By Eric Adsit
The Dagger RPM might very well be the epitome of “Classic.” Introduced for production in 1995, the RPM took the whitewater world by storm as a playboater’s dream and became so popular that 18 years later, Dagger reopened the mold to produce a limited run of newly outfitted boats for paddlers seeking the old-school style of surf, splat, and downriver play lost in the evolution of planning hulled spud boats.
It was 1993, the second-ever Freestyle World Championships on Tennessee’s Ocoee River, and everyone was looking for an edge. Marc Lyle and Chris Spelius told boat designer Steve Scarborough what they were looking for, and he delivered. “At least one other manufacturer was there and appeared to be upset at the design, claiming it was a squirt-boat and not a rodeo boat after Marc dropped into Hell Hole and linked a half-dozen ends in the first 60 seconds he’d ever paddled the design,” Scarborough recalls. “We made some subtle changes in volume distributions and turned that [wood-]stripper into the plug for the two composite kayaks that EJ and Scott Shipley paddled to first and second place respectively… That was EJ’s first championship as I recall.”
While the success of the design was undeniable, then Dagger Kayaks CEO Joe Pulliam recalls rejecting mass-production proposals, saying “No, this is too radical, the market’s not ready for this.” He believed the boat was too edgy and didn’t have enough volume, specifically in the stern, to be accepted in the industry at the time. The Dagger Transition emerged as a “de-tuned” version of the Worlds boat, with softer edges and more volume. Team Dagger Paddlers had other plans though. “The Team D paddlers were the elite leading-edge kayakers in the country at that time and were leading the charge into new boats. They wanted a boat closer to the original championship prototype,” Scarborough says. “At times it was like learning a new language, but the process worked fairly well, with Joe Pulliam always keeping us in line with what the market could accept. The RPM came out in ‘95.”
What’s In a Name?
When Dagger released the RPM, they never made any official claims to the actual meaning of the acronym. While many people believe it stands for “Revolutions Per Minute” — a flashy reference to its ability to link high-speed ends, and some contemporary paddlers jokingly refer to it as the “Rapid Pinning Machine,” Pulliam says he and the designers always referred to it as the “Radical Play Machine.”
The RPM debuted right at the cusp of the transition from displacement to planing-hulled playboats. It was clear to the designers that the planing hull was the way of the future, but the RPM was selling great anyways. Scarborough suggests, “There’s a very strong case for it being the most popular whitewater kayak in history and the numbers keep growing. It’s great to see the work of our design team still being appreciated.” Pulliam remembers making roughly 8,000 boats per year in the U.S. alone, as well as opening production in England and Australia. “It’s pretty easy for me to call the RPM my all-time favorite boat,” says Pulliam. “Not necessarily because of how great it paddles, but because it’s the boat that put my kids through college.”
Maintaining the Reign
In 2013 Dagger produced a limited run of newly outfitted RPMs. There’s only one reason an 18-year-old design would be reintroduced: overwhelming popularity and demand. Pulliam notes that “the boat paddles really well even by today’s standards, so I’m not surprised by its longevity.” Dagger’s new contour outfitting reduces the discomfort of the outdated outfitting in the originals, but larger paddlers may still feel cramped. Either way, the RPM changed the way we play on whitewater, and has been the inspiration for many new, old-school style designs.