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Twenty-two-year-old Quinn Connell has been designing the ultimate whitewater kayak in his mind for as long as he can remember. So to finish up his engineering degree at Dartmouth College, Connell pitched an independent study in kayak design, focusing on fluid dynamics: physics-speak for the study of moving water. He was quick to gain support (and crucial lab space) from a professor, and struck a deal with Rhode Island-based marine products retailer Jamestown Distributors for supplies.

Connell completed the project last spring and took his carbon-fiber playboat on an inaugural run down the Grand Canyon this summer. Now, Connell is teaching physics and math to the next generation of kayak scholars at the World Class Academy, a traveling high school for boating teens. Connell himself is a graduate of the program, having completed a semester in China in 2009. We caught up with Connell from a river in Quebec.

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CANOE & KAYAK: How long have you been paddling for?
Quinn Connell: I went out in an inflatable with my aunt and uncle at age 8 and was immediately hooked. I got in a hardshell for the first time and learned to roll at 10 and from there never looked back. My paddling really accelerated when I had the opportunity to attend World Class Academy as a high school senior. I couldn’t be more stoked to be back with the program as a teacher and coach.

And now as a designer, I’m sure you know how subtle hull tweaks have profound impacts on performance. In crunching the numbers and analyzing the different variables, what are the key features that change the way a freestyle boat performs?
When working with fluids, minor changes can have huge effects! I’ve spent the last few spring/summers working for McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group designing whitewater parks, and it’s incredible how sensitive the effects of a minor change to a critical area can be. That’s something that this project reaffirmed. For the performance of a freestyle kayak, it’s really about controlling how the jet of water encounters and leaves the hull. The interesting part is how dynamic this can be: Between front-surfing, back-surfing, carving and engaging an edge for a bounce (not to mention plugs, cartwheels, pirouettes or any of the other interesting positions we find ourselves in as playboaters), there are a huge variety of conditions to consider.

Tweaking dimensions for one aspect of performance inevitably affects another so it’s a bit of a balancing act. This is why the design phase took so long. Starting with a blank slate, I ran through dozens of iterations until I was pleased with my model. Ideally I’d have been able to prototype a number of these iterations, but due to time and money I only had one shot at producing a boat so I had to trust my intuition from experience as a boater combined with the fundamentals of fluid-body interactions that I’d spent the last few months delving into. I’d say the areas that I focused most of my energy on are the rocker profile and chines, followed by front and rear edge chamfers, sidewall angle and the stern edge. Balancing the boat around the paddler also has a huge effect on performance and how natural a boat can feel.

What’s the shape and dimensions you came up with?
The shape is something that’s been evolving in my head for the last eight years or so. I started the design process by freehanding what I wanted the overall shape to look like with smooth contours and aggressive, high-performance edges. Then I went back in to re-evaluate and refine the more critical areas and exact dimensions. I definitely imitated bits and pieces of boats that I felt performed well. The [stern] transom was inspired by the [Wave Sport] Mobius and [Dagger] Jitsu, the front edge chamfers modeled after original [Wave Sport] Project 52. I also adapted technology from other applications, from surf boards to jet boats to really tune to the performance I was looking for. I designed the boat specifically for a paddler of my size and weight [5-foot-11, 180 pounds] and all of the design decisions were made with ergonomics and performance in mind rather than having target numbers I was trying to hit.

Ultimately it came in at just under six feet long with a volume of 59 gallons, so similar to the most recent generation of medium freestyle boats on the market if not slightly larger.

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How hard is it to work with composites to build a prototype kayak?
Incredibly hard. I’d done a little work with composites before, but this was by far the largest, most complex project I’d ever attempted. I owe a huge debt of thanks to Jamestown Distributors for great tutorials, materials and guidance, to Thayer School of Engineering for facilities and instruction, and to great friends who sacrificed their own time and sanity to help me out with the process. Once I had the design finalized I built a styrofoam plug which was a sacrificial, life-size mock-up of the boat. Thayer’s ShopBot (a 3-D CNC router) was essential for creating an accurate form here. I sealed this up and used it as a mold to form the carbon fiber around.

Laying up the composite was an intensive process. I spent the better part of a month working on it virtually nonstop. By the end of the process my body and most of my clothes were covered head-to-toe in foam dust, carbon and Kevlar splinters and epoxy. Vacuum bagging the layups gave great definition to the more intricate features and kept the weight down by removing excess epoxy from the kayak. As I was working on a tight deadline, every setback meant another sleepless night; for the last week before completion I worked on it without pause, catching a few hours of sleep here and there while I waited for epoxy coats to cure.

Although it was an incredibly challenging experience, it was equally rewarding. Having put in the work to make it a reality and having felt the effort that went into every fiber makes the boat that much more special for me.

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So, how does it paddle?
I took her for her maiden voyage down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Another highlight for me was definitely a trip up to the Lunch Counter wave outside of Jackson, Wyo. this summer. It’s a six-foot-tall wave with a solid foam pile and a huge, steep green face on one shoulder—exactly the kind of wave I designed the boat for. I wanted an uncompromising, high-performance wave boat, which means, among other things, that it has hard, unforgiving edges. In a hole, this can cause some humbling window-shades, but on a wave it absolutely rips! It’s incredibly fast and responsive; when you engage an edge it tears across the face of a wave with the hands-free ease of driving with your knees. It goes big with the snappiness that only composites can provide, and gives huge pop for loops and other hole moves as well. If I were to do a second iteration there are definitely a few minor tweaks I’d make, but honestly I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.

Has anything about this process made you a better paddler?
Absolutely. I’ve become much more aware of the differences between boats that I’m paddling and try to adjust my paddling style to take advantage of certain things that each boat does well. It’s not often that you get to design a boat to your paddling style and not the other way around.

Is this something you want to keep doing?
I’d love to, but there are a number of challenges in the way. The market for composite freestyle boats is small at best at this point in time. If there were sufficient demand to make the venture worthwhile I would jump at the opportunity to make more. That said, I think it’ll be a while before the memory of the build process has faded enough for me to want to attempt another boat for myself … next time I’ll definitely invest in a good respirator and around 100 Tyvek suits beforehand.

— Read more recent stories about paddlers’ attempts to design and create personalized ultimate rides, from wood-canvas works of boreal art, to custom-shaped SUPs, to sea kayaks made in a 3D printer and made of duct tape, to intricate wood-strip designs.