This story featured in the 2013 Buyer’s Guide issue.
By Joe Jackson
Team: Steve Fisher, Tyler Bradt, Rush Sturges and Ben Marr
Mission: The first descent of the planet's biggest rapids
Tyler Bradt specializes in running whitewater most rational people think no human being could survive. While much of his success (meaning he's still alive) is owing to his extraordinary skill and confidence, another big factor is his innovation. While most elite kayakers could only hope that their sprayskirts wouldn't implode after landing big waterfalls, Bradt made certain of it. Before sticking what he calls "that big waterfall"—189-foot Palouse Falls—in 2009, Bradt and fabricator Tom Brunner created a locking "chastity belt," to secure his skirt. When Steve Fisher assembled an all-star team to attempt the highest-volume whitewater on the planet, he put Bradt in charge of customizing the crew's gear.
The First Line of Defense: "All of our equipment was equally important. Every piece had to work in conjunction with the others to be an operable system," Bradt says. "But our first line of defense was preventing skirt implosion." Enter the chastity belt, a half-round of rubberized spa tubing ratcheted to the front and back of the cockpit with a quick release system. The men trusted their lives to this innovation, and despite the repeated pounding of 35-foot plus waves crashing on their decks, none of the paddlers blew a skirt. "It was absolutely a 100-percent no-swim zone," Bradt says. When he determined that the pull handle on his Immersion Research spraydeck was compromising the fit of his chastity belt, Bradt cut it off. "That is a testament to our commitment," he says.
To minimize the possibility of losing their paddles, the team used modified NRS paddle leashes, replacing the stock bungee with 10,000-pound-test prussic cord. "We were literally shackled to our paddles," Bradt says, but if the leash were to fail or the paddle break, they had a backup option—hand paddles secured to their front decks with Velcro and plastic zip-ties.
Buoyancy, a dear friend: The team stuffed every open space with foam. Bradt cut open his Astral Greenjacket PFD, packed it tight with foam and sewed it back up. "I was stuffing foam in my pockets!" he says. To further increase buoyancy, the team used NRS bow and stern floatbags, then injected spray foam into every available open space in their kayaks. The used a variety of different boats—Fisher paddled Liquidlogic Remix ’79, and Marr a Zet Raptor. Sturges and Bradt paddled a prototype of the new Dagger Mamba 8.6, which has a hollow roto-molded seat. He filled it with foam.
The worst-case scenario: If the unthinkable happened—a swim in the Congo's relentless and chaotic 1.6 million cfs flow—the team was prepared to execute "Plan B." This consisted of secondary inflatable PFDs, like those found under the seat on an airplane, and Spare Air compressed oxygen systems tucked into each paddler's life vest. The Rapid Air would provide seven to 10 breaths to a swimmer held under water for an extended period of time. Team leader Steve Fisher gave the system its only true test while training on the Congo's Kinsuka Rapid, which carries just half the volume of the main event 150 miles downstream. A whirlpool pulled Fisher under and held him there for more than a minute. "It was the only time I ever thought I was going to die," says Fisher, who took two breaths from the system and credits it for his survival.