-- A version of this story appears in 2010 issue of C&K's Whitewater, available on newsstands everywhere now
Advanced composites like Kevlar and carbon fiber have made their mark in everything from Tour de France race bikes to backcountry avalanche probes to tent poles. We've been using composite paddles for years, but only recently have playboaters used kayaks crafted from these ultralight and strong materials to elevate their game.
Slalom boaters have certainly utilized composite boats, but manufacturers have been reluctant to try them in playboats, or any boat for that matter, since Kernville, California's Tom Johnson introduced polyethylene kayaks in the early 1970s. You see, composites are expensive, and they break far more easily than plastic. Market research shows that your average boater won't drop two grand on a fragile boat that he's going to huck onto the rocks. But pro freestylers are another story. They spend plenty of days on big, deep features, where rocks aren't a problem and a lighter boat pays dividends in bigger airs and crisper tricks.
"The main advantage is I only expend half the energy that I would in my plastic playboat," says Wave Sport athlete Bryan Kirk, who won the U.S. Freestyle Team Trials in Glenwood Springs last year in the brand's carbon-Kevlar Project 54 Cx. "It allows me to have more energy for later rounds of competition, plus you can rack up points with big bonuses in a lighter composite boat."
Composite boats just handle better on the water. Beyond being light, composites are also stiff, translating to effortless forward strokes and responsiveness.
"Plastic kayaks, whether we realize it or not actually flex and warp a certain amount," explains Australian pro freestyler Anthony Yap, whose new company Titan Kayaks is working on developing cheaper composite boats. "This small amount of flexing and warping, while not so dramatic, is still a small amount of energy lost when the paddler is trying to project his or her own power through the kayak."
Yet for all the benefits, production seems destined to remain in the hands of the small-batch garage builder in the tradition of other high-end, high-performing custom boats like surf or squirt kayaks. Wave Sport produced only 50 carbon Projects, and promptly sold out. Meanwhile, other larger kayak manufacturers are still testing the waters. South Africa's Fluid Kayaks has started producing carbon/Kevlar versions of its Nemesis and Element, while Riot has been developing carbon/Kevlar versions of Astro playboats. They're not in production yet, but designers are practically drooling over the potential.
"The lighter overall weight translates to lighter swing weight, making directional changes easier and quicker. This is especially advantageous for aerial moves, but the difference can even be felt when carving around on a wave. Another benefit of the lighter weight is that is easier to carry. The higher stiffness results in a much more responsive boat," says Celliers Kruger, the founder of Fluid as well as a competitive freestyle paddler and mechanical engineer. "This can be felt even on flatwater, although the real benefit comes when surfing waves. Moves are crisper, bounces are higher, and it simply feels more precise when doing any move. And don’t forget, composite boats look cool too."
"If you do an aerial move you start surfing right upon landing instead of sticking to the water. You are in the moment you hit the wave," Riot research and design manager Simon Martin says. "That was the biggest surprise."
While North American manufacturers are dabbling with composite designs, the trend has caught fire on other parts of the globe, especially in Europe, where composites like the 16.5-pound, carbon Stealth prototype from Slovakia's Vajda Group are, ahem, popping up, while the French-built Gui Gui Prod Easy Mix has become a cult favorite of French boaters pushing boundaries on the high-volume White Nile and Hawaii Sur Rhone in downtown Lyon. See a video of a Prod in action on the Rhone HERE:
"We came out with a boat which offers not just the best by drivability, but had the best overall construction, " explains Slovakian pro Peter Csonka who helped Vadja design the Stealth. Watch a video from of Stealh test flights HERE:
Since the performance quality of composites is so high, Csonka sees no reason why composites won't be used on general whitewater boats as well.
"Thanks to new materials we can push the limits in whitewater. If there is an option to be quicker, faster and stronger, why not build whitewater boats from better materials such as composite?" Csonka says. "There is only one disadvantage. The kayaker needs to care about the boat more than with the plastic. The boat is more fragile so you can't slide down the rocks. You definitely need to limit hitting sharp rocks."
The big impediment when it comes to a whitewater composite, of course, is cost.
"It is possible to produce composite boats that can equal plastic boats in durability by using different (more expensive) resins and fibers, but it will increase the cost so much that very few paddlers will be able to afford it," Kruger says. "However, the development cost is a lot lower for composite boats than for plastic boats, which allows more players to enter this niche market. Unfortunately, not everybody who can make composite boats are good boat designers. I think we will see more composite boats hitting the water in the next year or two from various companies and private enterprises, but I believe many of these boats won’t really be good designs. Having said that, a decent composite boat will perform better than a good plastic boat on some waves and for some moves, simply because of the weight and stiffness advantage. A well designed composite boat is a different story though, it’s pretty awesome."
Will all this excitement when it comes to composites ever cross over to North America?
One thing to keep in mind is that composite materials don't magically make kayaking easier. As Yap observes: "The greatest misconception is that jumping in a composite kayak will instantly let you do anything, that everything is easier. This is only partly true. Since composite boats react so quickly and directly to your own actions they work best for paddlers who have the fundamentals of freestyle down. If you are just learning to surf and are only just learning where your edges are, then when you would normally catch an edge in a plastic boat, in a composite boat you would catch your edge harder and faster. However the other side to that is that once you learn and know your edges then the boat moves so precisely to your own movements that you can really control whether you will ever catch your edge at all."
For now, these uber-light designs may only remain popular with the high-flying freestyle set. But imagine a world where us regular kayakers-especially the ladies-are no longer hampered by weight and paddlers have to learn to repair their boats the old fashioned way again: with resin and fiberglass patches. "It's a cycle," Martin says. "We go back and forth between extremes."
-- Doug Schnitzspahn