This summer I picked up a plastic 2016 Rockstar to test and compare against other popular freestyle designs like the Pyranha Jed. With the 2015 ICF Freestyle World Championships in mind, Jackson designed the 2016 Rockstar to be more focused on wave performance than the previous version, the 2014. This meant a slightly narrower hull, slightly less volume, and slightly harder edges. To be honest, most of the spec changes are so slight that I can barely see them by looking at the hull. The feeling on the water, however, is noticeably different than the 2014 Rockstar.
Outfitting and Comfort
Overall I give the Rockstar an “A” grade for comfort. I’m not a huge fan of the inflatable foot bag but that is easily replaced with a piece of carved foam. The back band is broad and tall, which keeps my back supported and helps me maintain a good posture when paddling. Personally, the rope/cleat tightening system does not bug me. Ropes will wear down but ratchet systems with moving parts will eventually break as well. Six of one, half-dozen of the other — pick your poison.
I also love that the seat pad keeps me sitting high in the boat. This gives me a ton of leverage to get the boat inverted in holes and waves. I instantly notice a difference when I sit in the Pyranha Jed, which does not come with such a high seat. Of course you can add a foam pad to the Jed, but it’s nice the Jackson just includes the pad from the get-go.
Finally, Jackson’s knee/thigh braces are superior to other playboats on the market. Not only do Pyranha’s braces feel loose and non-ergonomic to me, my knees rub uncomfortably against the hull of the boat and I usually end up with bruised knees. The Jackson knee braces are far more comfortable and make me feel more in-touch with the boat.
Sizing: At 5’10”, 165, and a size 9.5 foot, I am just about perfectly sized for the medium Rockstar. I can even wear my Astral Brewers in the relatively spacious bow. If I were 10 lbs heavier I would upsize to the large. Paddlers down to 150 lbs will likely find that the medium size is still a good fit.
Down River Performance
Let’s face it, modern playboats really just aren’t meant to be super fun when paddled downstream. They’re designed to excel while surfing waves and holes. Sure it’s fun to throw some “macho moves” or other down river tricks, but they really aren’t that great just for paddling downstream. In this department, the 2016 Rockstar is largely the same as its predecessor and perhaps marginally better than the Jed. Paddling this boat downstream requires careful attention to your body position and posture — you have to make sure you’re not too far forward or too far back. You’ll also need a bombproof roll. Because the stern so short and your center of gravity is so high, it’s easy to sink your stern and carp your rolls if you don’t have precise rolling technique. Basically, I don’t recommend paddling this boat as your day-to-day river runner unless you’re excited about the extra challenges it will present or unless you are an expert paddler focusing on down river freestyle.
The 2016 Rockstar felt only moderately better than its predecessor in the small rodeo holes at the whitewater park in Buena Vista, CO. The ends felt slightly more “slicey” for cartwheels and more stable for McNasties/Phonics Monkies, but not majorly improved. Loops felt about that same but with slightly less pop, likely due to the wave-focused volume distribution. I highly recommend purchasing the Jackson Happy Thruster air bag for hole boating. It will make the boat more buoyant, more poppy, and better overall.
Although it’s only a minor improvement over its predecessor, the 2016 Rockstar still outshines the Jed and other freestyle boats when it comes to hole boating performance. I accredit this to the shape of the top deck of the kayak, which creates a stable feeling when plugging for loops or initiating cartwheels.
This is what we’ve been waiting for. I spent two weeks surfing the wave in Glenwood Springs, CO, to get a feel for the boat’s wave performance. This is the place where I truly noticed that the 2016 Rockstar is an upgrade. The boat feels faster and more responsive than the 2014 version while remaining loose and forgiving. Easy to spin but still aggressive enough to lay down a big edge to initiate snappy aerial tricks.
The latest Rockstar still feels less aggressive than the Pyranha Jed. If you’re focused only on wave performance for aggressive carving and aerial maneuvers then the Jed, with its super-hard-carving edges, might have the Rockstar beat. But the 2016 Rockstar took major steps forward in its wave performance and is, I think, a better all-around boat when you take into account its excellent down river performance, hole performance, and comfort.
Overall, the 2016 Rockstar is an improvement over the 2014 Rockstar and is, in my opinion, a better overall freestyle boat than other competing designs. For paddlers who want an aggressive freestyle boat for any feature, large or small, this is the boat I recommend. That being said… don’t take my word for it. Go demo one at your local kayak shop!
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