A beautiful spring day in Tumwater Canyon.
By David Spiegel and Eli Spiegel
Waka Kayaks sprang into the U.S. when Evan Garcia began importing the wildly popular Tuna and Tutea creekboats from Europe to White Salmon, Wash., a few years ago. The boats were an instant hit, especially among paddlers who lived in the Pacific Northwest. In my review of the original Tuna on C&K, I described the Tuna as "the most fun creekboat I have ever paddled."
Waka has now updated the Tuna with the release of the still-popular Tuna 2, which is a good fit for medium-sized paddlers. But that still left larger paddlers without a real option in Waka's lineup.
Last October, at the Adidas Sickline Extreme Kayak World Championships in Austria, Waka finally released a boat for bigger people, announcing the new Gangsta. The Gangsta is a 9-foot-long, ~90-gallon beast built for expeditions, larger paddlers, and racing. When I cracked my original Tuna this winter, I took the leap and bought a Gangsta, despite the fact that I am not, by any means, a large-sized paddler.
To provide a different perspective for larger paddlers, my larger-but-younger brother, Eli, is going to weigh in with his own perspective on the boat.
Medium Paddler Performance:
Weight: 165 lbs
Shoe size: US 9
Long torso, short legs, skinny hips.
So, why did a medium-sized boater like me buy the Gangsta instead of the Tuna 2? Well, primarily because I demoed it on a high-water lap on the West Fork of the Hood River and it didn't feel too big to handle. I also wanted a boat that had even more speed and could handle a bit of weight in the stern. Even a relatively small amount of weight like a camera, breakdown paddle, and pin kit, makes a noticeable impact in the Tuna's performance for me.
After a few days, I could tell that the boat definitely does carry more speed out of drops and across eddylines, and its performance remains consistent when I put a bit of weight in the stern. The Gangsta has less "skip" and more "skim" than the original Tuna or the Tuna 2. It's a different feeling — not necessarily better or worse, but definitely faster when you land a boof or enter an eddy. While the bow still stays on top, it does not rise up as high, which creates less drag and maintains the boat's speed. That momentum provides the fast feeling of the 9R medium, but with a whole lot more volume. The volume keeps it floating high and feeling stable through boil-ey big water and swirling eddylines, which is an extremely fun feeling.
The primary downside for me is that it is harder to turn than it's smaller cousin, the Tuna, especially at high speeds, which makes it less forgiving. Compared to other boats of the same size, however, like the Pyranha 9R Large or the big JK Zen, the Gangsta is a more forgiving ride. So it's all relative.
If I had to go back several weeks and make my purchase again, I would likely buy the Tuna 2 instead. For me, the benefits of the Gangsta don't outweigh the fact that it is a little tougher to handle for a paddler of my weight and skill level. For a boat that I will use primarily on day stretches, the extra room for expedition gear isn't enough of a factor. And while the extra speed is super fun at times, the Tuna is still fast and I am not focused enough on racing to justify the less forgiving nature of the Gangsta.
That being said, the Gangsta is still a good choice for medium-sized paddlers. It paddles smaller than its 90-gallon spec would suggest, and will be a great tool for over night missions, big water, or races.
Big Paddler Performance:
Weight: 210 lbs
Shoe size: US 11
Long torso, short legs, skinny hips (we're related, after all)
As a bigger paddler (210 lbs) I feel like our options for boats are always a little bit behind the curve, but the Gangsta seems to finally bring things closer to parity. For about a year now, my boat of choice has been the 9R Large because, compared to less sporty options like the large Dagger ‘Newmad’ or the JK Karma, it was the most fast and fun boat that actually fit me. Looking at the 9RL next to the Gangsta, I saw a lot of similarity and thought these boats would paddle almost identically.
I was wrong.
The Gangsta takes everything that made the 9R Large the most fun big boat out there and improves upon it. The Gangsta skips and stays on top of the water, helping to maintain speed and choose your line with precision when exiting drops. The 9RL, on the other hand, has a tendency of slicing through features, which often turns the bow and makes the boat a little less predictable when exiting features.
The outfitting of the Gangsta fit me comfortably without doing much adjustment. The only differentiating feature over most other boats is the aggressive, built in thigh braces. I liked them. Some people don't, so it seems to be just a matter of personal preference.
The Gangsta feels extremely stable when paddling straight ahead, but also while aggressively edging. This stability makes entering eddies fun and snappy. The Gangsta's edges are fun but I don't get spun out making ferries into strong currents.
Just like last year, fast is still fun. This year, with the Gangsta on the market, big boaters just get more control over that speed, and a drier head as they skip out of each drop. — Eli Spiegel
Eagle Falls, WA, during a spring flood. (photo by Eli Spiegel)
How to get one:
If you're reading this from Europe then congratulations, there are plenty of dealers around, tons of Waka boats, and it's relatively easy to get one!
In the U.S. and Canada, Waka boats are only imported into White Salmon, Wash., and are sold directly to the consumer by Evan Garcia. That makes it a bit tricky to get a Gangsta because, unless you live within driving distance, you have to organize shipping, which is somewhat expensive (approximately $100-$200, depending on where you live). The added expense could be worth it, however, to get one of the hottest boats on the market.
On the bright side, you'll organize your purchase directly with Garcia, who'll likely give you better advice than I can in review about which particular Waka boat fits your needs.
Durability and Warranty
My first Tuna from Waka lasted me two years of consistent use on the cheese-grater lava rocks of Little White Salmon before I finally put a small crack in the stern. That's a pretty good track record and, although it's too early tell about long-term durability with the Gangsta, my previous Waka experience gives me hope for the future. Waka recently moved their factory production to Italy, so we'll see if that is an improvement or not.
I couldn't find any warranty info on Waka USA's website, so I checked in with Garcia himself. Apparently, Waka USA will replace manufacturer defects and boats that crack unreasonably early under normal use for up to one year. If you swim and your boat goes kayaking for a mile without you, you're likely on your own. Garcia says, "I have replaced every boat that has cracked to date. The warranty I offer to my customers is 1 year from purchase for manufacturer defects like hull cracks or other things that are obviously not pilot error. I've had to turn a few people away for swims and small things." After a year, you'll have to deal directly with Waka in Europe.
For the medium paddler, there are pros and cons to the Gangsta and I would probably opt for a smaller boat if I could do it over again. But if you need a big volume boat for a specific reason, then this is the the best bigger boat that I've tried. The size is manageable and the speed is fun. It’s a tough call. —David
If you're a big guy who’s looking for speed in a creek boat, then the Gangsta is one of the best available options. Definitely go for it if you can get your hands on one. —Eli