Kayaks Whitewater

Whitewater River Kayak Group Test

Here at Paddler we have a love-hate thing going on with a doing a river running kayak test. Every few years when new models have hit the water and it’s time to run a test again we get really excited, as it is always one of the most fun group tests that we do. The reason for that is that river runners come in all shapes and sizes and most of them are a real hoot to paddle. But that’s also where the hate comes in. Once the paddling is over we have to write the damned thing up and being a test give a ‘best in test’ award, and when all the boats are so different and usually so good in different ways that can be a real headache…

The problem is that the name river runner is a fairly ambiguous one these days. Back when kayaks were longer than your car the term meant the same kayak, as you’d use to play in, to go surfing, coach from and have a crack at the steep stuff in. But things have moved on and we now have a dizzying choice of whitewater speciality designs to choose from. Freestyle boats, small enough to wear as shoes! Creek boats with all manner of nifty safety features and huge volume, to keep you on top and to help you stay safe as you push it hard. You name it and there’s a boat specially designed for it, but what about those of us who don’t want to drive around with a trailer full of different boats for all occasions, and more importantly in these difficult economic times, shell out for a fleet of specialists. Well, the good news is that there’s also an impressive display of ‘jack of all trades’ lining the walls of your nearest canoe shop. And as we’ve just said they come in all shapes, sizes and styles. We’ve taken a selection of boats that are often referred to as ‘all-round river runners’ and put them through their paces to give you a head start in finding the right river runner for you.

To clarify things a little we’ve split them into two categories. River Play, and River Running. River Play means kayaks that are primary design purpose is to get the maximum fun out of the river’s play features and cope with any rapids along the way. River Running covers the boats that have been designed to get you down the river as easily and as safely as possible, but can still surf the odd wave or spin in a hole on the way down. This type of boat also tends to be more capable if you want to step it up a bit in terms of grade and gradient.

River Running

LiquidLogic Remix

RRP: £799.95 (47 – £649.95)
Info: www.liquidlogickayaks.com

Specs 47 59 69 79
Length: 221cm 257cm 267cm 272cm
Width: 53cm 64cm 65cm 69cm
Weight: 12kg 18kg 20kg 21kg
Volume: 178ltrs 223ltrs 261ltrs 299ltrs

The Remix is a modern design but with more than a nod to the features that made river boats popular in the past. The Remix is fast into and out of the eddies and provides a nimble boat for those whitewater paddlers with a slalom background, as it’s ever so slightly rounded disposition creates an easy roll from edge to edge. It’s developed a bit of a cult following amongst coaches and paddlers who like their water a little pushier as the Remix delivers a safe, predictable ride. It’s been designed to be fast though and it certainly delivers on that front. The overall package is a boat that is very forgiving and fast that can be driven hard across the features of the river and provides no unwelcome wobbles or nasty surprises. It did feel a little sluggish into eddies, as we’re more accustomed to boats with a harder edge, but it stays on the surface well and was easy to boof.

The ‘Bad-Ass’ outfitting is brilliantly comfy, with the whole seat, hip pad and back rest area covered in a quick-drying, supportive pad designed to eliminate hot spots and act as a kind of airbag on landings. The backrest operates on a ratchet system, so you can adjust accordingly to your level of support. Extra pads can be fitted inside the cover to get a snug fit on your hips too.

If it’s a kayak for playing the river’s features that you’re after however, then this is not the boat for you. If, however, you want a safe, confidence inspiring boat for improving your river running skills, a solid, fast platform for instructing or guiding from or a boat to challenge big technical whitewater then it could be just what you’re looking for. We had the largest version on a test but there’s a range of sizes, including a really small one ideal for junior river runners.

Wave Sport D-Series (D75)

RRP: £599
More info: 
www.wavesport.com

Specs D65 D75
Length: 229cm 244cm
Width: 64cm 65cm
Weight: 17kg 18kg
Volume: 246ltrs 284ltrs

The original Diesel was imported from the US and a popular boat, but its design has been refreshed, it’s now being manufactured in the UK and it’s been relaunched under the moniker of the D series – the D65 and the boat we had on the test the D75. The fact that it is now made in Britain means that it has a lower carbon footprint, as it no longer has to be shipped from the States, and helps to keep the retail price down.

It’s kept all the original hull and deck shape and features of its predecessor, but with new cockpit fittings and a new lower price. The original Diesels were an instant success when they were first launched. With a great planing hull, hard, but forgiving, rails and enough hull length to make it a fast, stable and easy to paddle kayak. It also has enough deck volume to comfortably run whitewater up to the pushier grades.

The re-birth of the Diesels is a good move for the Wavesport gang as this boat sells itself perfectly for the river runner who wants a bit of everything. It’s flat hull is loose for surfing and spinning, which it does with ease, and it has enough length and volume for slightly steeper and more technical rivers, such as we here in the UK. The Diesel runs the river well and it’s forgiving on the edging leaving room for paddlers to get to grips with whitewater techniques, but can still provide performance when driven hard by an experienced paddler.
The new simpler outfitting was comfortable and provided a no nonsense set up, great for jumping in and getting on the water without too much fuss. It’s a good solid all-around boat that will handle most UK whitewater conditions and plays surprisingly well when you want it too. It was very close between this and the Pyranha Karnali but the D75’s slightly more playful nature just edged for us.

Riot Thunder

RRP: £699
More info: 
www.riotkayaks.com

Specs 65 76
Length: 234cm 244cm
Width: 65cm 66cm
Weight: 18.6kg 19.5kg
Volume: 246ltrs 288ltrs

We liked the Thunder and it is a good boat, but only for really good paddlers. Riot has always had a reputation for being no compromise on performance and being hard on the edges and the Thunder is no exception. It’s flat hull allows the boat to play any wave of any size and its sharp rails require the paddler to really commit on the eddy lines. If you can really perform on the river then the Thunder will certainly help you do that. But id you need a helping hand and a boat to look after you when you make a mistake or are trying to learn new moves then it’s not interested and will have you over in a jiffy. Hit a hole, on your way down river, under-speed, off-line or in a lazy-boy leaning back position then you’re probably going to find yourself looking at the bow and sky as you back loop instead of punching through.

On steeper stuff, the Thunder’s rocker allows a quick re-surfacing time from drops, but don’t be mistaken the Thunder is by no means forgiving and it demands concentration and performance paddling skills from you at all times. It’s a quirky boat and the more we paddled it the more we liked it. It surfs waves and holes well and can really carve and spin for a bigger boat. It rails in and out of eddies and is pretty fast too.

If you’re new to whitewater or you’re looking for a boat to learn and improve in then this isn’t for you; but if you want a boat that will give out what you put in and provide dynamic performance orientated river paddling if you’ve got the skills to match it then it’ll probably put a smile on your face.

Big Dog Flux

RRP: £665
More info: www.bigdogkayaks.com

Specs 7.3 7.7
Length: 221cm 231cm
Width: 64cm 65cm
Weight: 15.5kg 16.5kg
Volume: 202ltrs 227ltrs

The Flux is Big Dog’s all-around river running boat and first impressions of the shape were that it had the promise for a good river runner. That theme continued on the water and its edge transition was smooth and the speed was OK. For a river boat, it played really well in holes and one of our testers even had it racking up a few cartwheels!
On the downside all of our testers felt that the outfitting was a bit on the basic side, it just wasn’t very comfortable considering the price of a boat. Yes, you could remedy this with a session with the contact adhesive and foam padding, but why should you have to. Compared to some of the other boats on the test, it just felt like Big Dog just need to up their game a bit in this area.

Outfitting aside though it’s a tidy performer on the river, it slices across eddy lines, boofs well and punches sticky holes with ease. Unless of course, you want to stop and play in it for a while and then it’s fun and forgiving.

Pyranha Karnali

RRP: £649
More info: www.pyranha.com

Specs Med Lrg
Length: 257cm 260cm
Width: 65cm 66.5cm
Weight: 21kgs 22kgs
Volume: 280ltrs 303ltrs

We liked the Karnali a lot and it has already become a favourite of club paddlers, coaches and expedition paddlers alike. If you’re the kind of paddler that wants to enjoy running rivers in a boat that are maybe not going to be the best at screaming into that micro-eddy at the top of a heinous rapid or hit the latest trick in the hole, but is going to look after you when the going gets tough and provides a comfortable confidence inspiring ride, then we’d highly recommend that you take a Pyranha Karnali out for a test ride.

The Karnali can cater for an impressive range of paddlers, from total beginners all the way to a seasoned Norway ‘gnarl’ paddler. When you paddle it you soon realise why. The big pod of volume directly behind the paddler acts like a stabiliser, in fact, it is actually quite hard to get it to capsize even when you want to! On the way down the river, the Karnali is fast, it holds it’s line well and the directional speed is impressive. It is very easy going on the river and it gives a feeling of confidence in the paddler with its excellent initial and secondary stability and its dependable nature. It has a semi-displacement hull, a soft, round edge profile and generous rocker, which means that you can be assured that it won’t throw up any nasty surprises, or trip you up when the going gets a bit swirly, which means that you can relax and concentrate on what’s coming up downstream rather than what the boat is doing underneath you. It really is one of the most forgiving boats that we’ve paddled in a long time. Its speed makes ferry gliding nice and easy and the flat bits in between rapids a little less painless. It’s fun to play in too, but don’t expect miracles. It’ll happily spin in a hole and it’s OK on a wave too but its goal in life is to deliver you to the take out safe, sound and happy after a great day on the river.

River Play

Wave Sport Fuse

RRP: £850
More info: www.wavesport.com

Specs 35 48 56 64
Length: 178cm 193cm 198cm 213cm
Width: 58cm 62cm 64cm 66cm
Weight: 12kgs 14kgs 15kg 16kg
Volume: 132ltrs 182ltrs 212ltrs 246ltrs

First impressions of the Fuse were that with its bulbous bow it wasn’t the prettiest boat we’ve ever tested, but the Paddler Testers know that the proof is always in the paddling. As a river play boat it’s very, very wide and stable, which is OK for the beginners, but if you want to chop and change those edges for dynamic paddling, perhaps for a stern squirt or two then it’s not ideal. It is very stable when front and back surfing and the edges are smooth and forgiving but that bow has a large helping of rocker so it’s slow for catching waves on the fly, punching holes and cutting through eddy-lines. Although the outfitting is excellent and the Fuse’s stability will appeal to wobbly, nervous paddlers and it’s forgiving for learning basic playboating moves, more experienced paddlers are going to find it sluggish. On the plus side, it comes in a range of different sizes that will fit paddlers from juniors in the 35 right up to those the wrong side of hefty in the 64. But we couldn’t help feel that the Fuse was confused and doesn’t really know what it wants to be, which means that, unfortunately, it falls between the two classes and misses the target. It’s not a great river runner, and even though the hull is very loose on a wave, it’s really not a particularly good playboat either.

Big Dog Havoc

RRP: £665
More info: 
www.bigdogkayaks.com

Specs 6.5 6.9
Length: 196cm 206cm
Width: 64cm 65cm
Weight: 14kg 14.5kg
Volume: 192ltrs 218ltrs

Big Dog describes the Havoc as the Jekyll and Hyde of their range and we can see why. It plays really well and was the only boat that could really come close to hitting a few of the new school moves like loops. It surfed very nicely and it can really throw it down in the hole. It suffers from the same outfitting as the flux and our comments on this are the same, but that aside the Havoc does deliver on the playboating front. When running the river it’s relatively fast for its length and it’s forgiving too. It needs to be driven hard to punch through holes and eddy-lines, but when done so, it copes well. Its design is pretty heavily influenced by its little freestyling brother in the Big Dog range the Kaos, so when you find that sweet wave or hole with a nice big eddy next to it you’re going to smiling. It’s capable nature on the river combined with its excellent playboating performance.

Dagger Axiom

RRP: £669
More info: 
www.daggereurope.com

Specs 6.9 8.0 8.5 9.0
Length: 205cm 244cm 257cm 274cm
Width: 57cm 61cm 63cm 65cm
Weight: 12kg 13kg 15kg 16kg
Volume: 148ltrs 193ltrs 238ltrs 295lts

The Axiom is quite different from most of the other boats on the test and it was a struggle to decide what class to put it into, as it comes the closest to really blending the attributes of a play boat with the speed and stability of a stable river runner. It comes from a long line of successful Dagger boats starting with the iconic RPM and on through the GT series and it certainly takes an acknowledging bow to its distinguished predecessors with its long sleek lines. On the water, it split the testers down the middle and it was interesting that although they all liked it and enjoyed paddling it. The younger testers all thought it was a river runner first and foremost and struggled to play in it (it’s not going to loop) the slightly older guys really loved it and enjoyed its play potential on waves, holes and eddy lines.

It catches and surfs a wave really well and, once you’ve got used to slowing things down a bit, cartwheels in a stable, controllable manner. Break out of the eddy into a rapid and it’s the same. It looks like it will be OK, but its river running performance is right up there. It accelerates well, and the surprisingly dry bow lifts and punches through waves, holes and radials with ease.

Basically for paddlers who’ve grown up paddling in the modern world of specialist kayaks – a super-short freestyle boat for playing, a big volume creek boat for river running and the like. Then paddling a boat like the Axiom is going to take a bit of getting used to. Designing kayaks to be good at playing and river running is about getting the compromises right and they will never be as good at playing as an out and out freestyle kayak or as capable on the really hard stuff as a full-on creek boat, but it can, if the designers get it right, is do everything well to a fairly high standard and make it a whole lot of fun. And that’s the Axiom.

If what you want to do is to cruise down the river safely, push your limits occasionally, stop for a play at a sweet wave or hole and have a great time doing all of it then the Axiom is probably the boat for you! The impressive range of sizes gives you options too. If you mainly like to run river and want a boat that’s quick, nimble and good at surfing waves go up a size. If you want to play a bit harder then go down a size. There’s even a really small one for mini-river pups too. The Axiom doesn’t pack enough performance to win the best River Play class, but its successful blend of playboating and river running features meant that as an all-round river kayak we reckon it’s a worthy winner of the Overall Best In Test Award.

Pyranha Z-One

RRP: £649
More Info: 
www.pyranha.com

Specs S M L
Length: 245cm 255cm 265cm
Width: 62cm 65cm 67cm
Weight: 16.1kg 17.1kg 17.9kg
Volume: 180ltrs 210ltrs 245ltrs

The Guys at Pyranha have a track record of designing brilliant ‘play the river’ kayaks with the most successful and famous of these being their Inazone range. It’s a concept that they’ve continued into the Z-One, so it had some pretty big river boots to fill.

On the river, it had a really ‘nippy’ feeling on the water and a good turn of speed compared to many river/play boats. It almost felt kind of slalom-like, which we really liked. Despite its narrow width, which allows you to really crank those edge-to-edge transfers for crisp breakouts and dynamic, carving wave surfing, it’s a very stable ride. Its width also makes it very easy to roll. The raised knee position makes for good positive, efficient paddling. It really responded to being driven hard on the river and just busting some slalom style breakouts and break-ins had us grinning. When things get a little steeper or bigger the Z.One was surprisingly forgiving considering its low volume stern, but you need to be dynamic and decisive when punching bigger holes. On the play front it surf waves with style and can hit nice big blunts. Playing in holes was fun and it’s a stable platform for setting up cartwheel style tricks, but it does need a reasonably deep feature, due to its length. The long, low volume tail means that you can tail squirt and splat every eddy-line and suitable rock on the way down. It’s stable on its tail too and doesn’t tumble over like a short boat. This means that you can start to really crank up the style on tail squirts. It was close between this and the Axiom for the overall, but this nudges just a bit more towards the play end of things.

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