It’s hard to imagine describing paddling a Class III rapid as boring. But for Adam Masters, son of the founder of Perception Kayaks, Bill Masters, that’s what it had become. So he started duct-taping his skirt shut, lying on top of his kayak and paddling with his hands.
“It made my back yard Class III run exciting again,” said Masters.
But lying on top of his kayak created too high of a center of gravity, which made it less stable. That’s where Masters’ idea for the Bellyak (pronounced “belly-ak”) was born. Around 2004, he started cannibalizing whitewater kayaks by cutting the tops off and using foam to create molds to better suit lying down on a kayak. The designs added stability and brought him closer to the water.
Initially he just designed the boats for himself, not intending to market them.
“I built it for me to have fun,” he said.
He eventually put the idea aside for a few years to focus on other things, then in 2011 he started to think about manufacturing his designs.
His first official model was produced last year and he debuted his company at the annual Outdoor Retailer exhibition in Salt Lake City, Utah, in July. Now he’s on a marketing campaign that made it’s way to the FIBArk Festival in Salida last week.
Who’s it for?
Masters believes his Bellyak has the potential to cater to a wide market that spans from the seasoned kayaker looking for something new to someone new to kayaking looking for an alternate to being confined inside a hardshell kayak.
“The Achilles heel of kayaking is the spray skirt,” he said.
His Bellyak is essentially part playboat kayak, part surfboard/bodyboard and part kneeboard. A skilled paddler can run a rapid head first or surf a wave on your knees.
“There are so many ways to ride it,” he said, and, “for the avid kayaker, it increases the thrill but not the risk,” Masters said.
There are three primary ways to ride the craft, generally all by paddling with webbed gloves rather than a paddle. A paddler can lay flat in a superman position, sit on their knees in a position that could concievably incoporate a kayak paddle, or sitting upright with legs forward like straddling a surfboard.
Wether his product has the potential to explode in popularity similar to stand-up paddleboarding is yet to be seen. This is its first full season on the market.
He sees it as a versatile and safe way to experience whitewater, because unlike a kayak, it doesn’t take a high skill level to recover from a flip.
He has said he’s received a lot of positive feedback thus far, both at Outdoor Retailer and FIB Ark, and has already sold 240 boats.
An unexpected market: Adaptive paddlers, veterans and Team River Runner
Masters designed his boat for himself and then with a broader market in mind, but he never expected to be contacted by a representative from a veterans organization for adaptive sports. But for Bob Alexander, a volunteer for Team River Runner, a program that introduces paddle sports to veterans as a means of exercise and adjustment therapy, the Bellyak was a new tool to incorporate with their programs.
“They’re a boat load of fun,” said Joe Mornini, executive director of Team River Runner. “If you’re mobility impaired, you just jump on them and paddle.”
Mornini said that the boat’s design makes it conducive to veterans who are amputees or paraplegics. At Walter Reed National Military Medical center they’ve even used them in pools for kayak football.
Erich Bell, a veteran of both the Army and Marine Corps found out about Bellyak online and took advantage of the opportunity to demo one on a Class III section of river in North Carolina, at a Team River Runner event.
“I was sold before I got there, that was just the cherry on top,” he said. “I love it.”
Masters said that his Bellyak design has also been well received by coastal paddlers who’ve used it to wave surf, and recently he had some interest from fire fighters looking to incorporate it in swift water rescue.
The next big thing, big fad, or paddling niche?
Will the Bellyak become a fixture of whitewater sports? It’s not without its skeptics. Matti Wade of Ten Mile Creek Kayaks in Frisco sees it as something new and kind of fun, but questions wether or not it is more of a novelty.
“It’s interesting,” he said with some hesitation. But between colder water temperatures and more difficult whitewater he’s not so sure it’s appropriate for a beginner paddler in Colorado.
You still need to be able to read whitewater, and one of his concerns is that it’s more difficult to see potentially hazardous river features if your laying down. He does however concede potential in warmer lower class rapids, or on the coast.
For serious rapids, Wade still sees inflatible or sit-on-top kayaks as a more viable alternative.
Former raft guide Jeremy Fritts has a different take.
“It looks like a sweet evolution in whitewater,” he said after watching some video footage.
But like Wade, he stresses the importance of having experience in rapids, and he would be concerned that it could still be dangerous to an over eager beginner.
“It’s important to do that with someone who knows the river,” said Fritts. Appropriate advice for any whitewater endeavour.
Masters’ Bellyak concept, may have steep competition in a highly competitive whitewater market that has recently adopted paddleboarding as the latest craze. Time will tell wether his idea is the next big thing, or if whitewater kayakers will shun it as a more of novelty.
Of the possibility of a negative response to a Bellyak, Fritts said, “Skiers didn’t like snowboarders either in the beginning. Why not? Those things look like fun”